It is established that for CRISPR-Cas9 applications guide RNAs with 17–20 bp long spacer sequences are optimal for accurate target binding and cleavage. In this work we perform cell-free CRISPRa (CRISPR activation) and CRISPRi (CRISPR inhibition) experiments to demonstrate the existence of a complex dependence of CRISPR-Cas9 binding as a function of the spacer length and complementarity. Our results show that significantly truncated or mismatched spacer sequences can form stronger guide–target bonds than the conventional 17–20 bp long spacers. To explain this phenomenon, we take into consideration previous structural and single-molecule CRISPR-Cas9 experiments and develop a novel thermodynamic model of CRISPR-Cas9 target recognition.