Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The Road to the Sicilian Defense

Write It Down
Following the advice of my friend I finally wrote down my opening repertoire. As white, my repertoire is fairly compact and thematic, with an emphasis on reaching Isolated d-pawn positions.

I want to include as many IQP positions as possible, because I understand the play and know the plans for both sides, making it much easier to remember my openings. Instead of memorizing long variations, I can often just stop when I reach the IQP and say "OK, I know how to play this, I don't have to remember the rest."

As black, I play the Sicilian and Queen's Gambit Accepted. Again I hope the IQP where possible (either playing against it, or with it). I could have chosen the Tarrasch, but that's another tale of woe. The QGA results in many IQP positions and that is good enough.

The Sicilian, however, is a completely different animal.

There aren't many IQP positions (with the exception of the c3 lines, and the Sicilian Four Knights). Also, there are so many ways to play a Sicilian, and you'd better know what you are doing. You can't expect to just sit down and play chess against a well-prepared opponent and not have your ass handed to you.

Far Too Many
First of all, what kind of Sicilian do I want to play?

There are about 26 plausible black setups, most notably being the Scheveningen, Taimanov, Kan, Dragon, Accelerated Dragon, Najdorf, Sveshnikov, Kalishnikov, Four Knights, and the Classical.

I have always been a fan of the Scheveningen setup: two center pawns and a solid defense. However, there are too many nutzos out there waiting to battle axe you with the English Attack or the Keres Attack. That is way too much preparation for something you will hardly ever see. But you cannot wing it. The same applies to the Dragon and Najdorf.

I absolutely hate the Sveshnikov (there are too many empty-heads using it and winning), and I refuse to be another clone.

By process of elimination, I decided on the Classical Sicilian:
  • Direct attempts to attack with Be3 and O-O-O can be mitigated
  • It is not often seen at the amateur level
  • In some cases it allows happy tranpositions to Schevenigen and Dragon positions
  • Most bad players think you are playing a Najdorf
  • Who studies the Richter-Rauzer below 2200?
This line of reasoning is fine and dandy, assuming white plays the Open Sicilian like a good dog.

Black can reach the Classical via 2. ...Nc6 or 2. ...d6. I have tried both, and know that I reach the Open far more often using the 2. ...d6 move order. Bb5 packs less punch when there is not a knight on c6 to exchange, and most white players will play Bb5 to eliminate the Kalishnikov/Sveshnikov/Accelerated Dragon complex risk free. Against d6, they just play d4 and go into an Open Sicilian, typically aiming for English/Yugoslav Attack Be3 + O-O-O setup. Or some ridiculous Keres attack.

That's good news. By utilizing the d6 move order, I will reach the Open Sicilian more often than if I were to use the Nc6 move order, and therefore reach the Classical Sicilian more often. I won't be memorizing critical main lines in the Classical Sicilian which I only get to play in 1 out of 30 games. I will be memorizing critical main lines which I will get to play 1 out of 15 games.

Disease-Ridden Bums
However, I still have to address the disease-ridden lot of Anti-Sicilian-playing bums.

Since failing to plan is planning to fail, I wrote down as many Anti-Sicilian variations as I could think of, and then I was going to write my response to each. Easy enough, right? Let's get started.

1. e4 c5
Plausible Anti-Sicilians on move 2:
2. a3
2. b3
2. b4
2. c3
2. c4
2. d3
2. d4
2. f4
2. g3
2. Nc3
2. Ne2
2. Bc4
2. Bd3

Good grief. To make my life simpler, I am going to respond to all of these with a quick e6-d5. The ideas are pretty easy to remember, and e6-d5 has the benefit of not having to learn a different setup against the Closed, the Grand Prix, the Rossolimo, etc. This means less memorization.

Against 2. Nf3, using a Nc6 move order would result in a bunch of main-line Rossolimo's and Grand Prix Attacks, where the e6-d5 idea slower than I'd like. It also allows white more options. Against 2. ...Nc6 3. Bb5 e6, they have the option of Bxc6, entering the Rossolimo player's world. Against 2. ...Nc6 3.Bb5, 3.Bc4 or 3.f4, the e6-d5 plan is still pretty good, but has less punch.
I want to play my openings, not theirs.

When white plays 2. Nf3 like a good dog, I will play d6.

Go fetch.

1. e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6
Plausible Anti-Sicilians on move 3:

3. a3
3. b3
3. b4
3. c3
3. c4
3. g3

The usual suspects. It should be noted that since c3 can be played at move 2 or 3, I should not rely on 2. ...d5 as my response, since after 1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 d6 3. c3 I cannot play that defense any more. If I want to include the IQP setup and play 2. ... d6, then I will have to learn 2 defenses to c3. So it looks like I'll be playing the Nf6 lines.

3. Be2
3. Bd3
3. Bc4
3. Bb5+

Bb5+ being the most dangerous of the lot. Bd3 leads to Lopez-like middlegames, while Bc4+d3+a3 can be a dangerous setup against indifferent play.

The Crux of the Problem
3. Nc3

Against 2. Nc3, I had planned a quick e6-d5. However, having already committed to d6, this is not a good plan any more. White may now elect to play a Closed Sicilian. Despite this being objectively less dangerous since he has blocked the f-pawn, I would have 2 setups to learn against the Closed Sicilian. Ok, let's just buckle down and learn 2 setups. But what about...

1. e4 c5 2. Nc3 e6 3. Nf3
Now what? If white had played 2.Nf3, I certainly wouldn't have played 2. ...e6. White can now enter the Open and I cannot play my Classical Sicilian. But...

1. e4 c5 2. Nc3 d6 3. Bc4 = Grand Prix Attack, the kind of rubbish opening every Lev Alburt clone plays. Even if I learn 2 setups against the Closed, I have to know 2 setups against the Grand Prix, or learn a second Sicilian involving e6. Are you kidding me? A backup Sicilian?

If I try to avoid the transposition problem by playing Nc6, then I have a Rossolimo every other game, not something I was hoping for although objectively this isn't bad for Black.

3. d3

Here is another problem. When playing the 2. ... d6 move order, white can play a KIA at move 2 or at move 3. If I want to play only one setup against the KIA, then it should be the one with d6, right? Now I'll have to revise my earlier plan and not play e6-d5 against 2. d3 and opt for d6: 1. e4 c5 2. d3 d6

But now 3. Nc3 is a Closed Sicilian, the good kind, where I can't play a quick e6-d5. So I'm stuck with 2 lines against the Closed.

But Wait, There's More
White can play the KIA using 1. Nf3. To stay within my QGA repertoire, I need to play d5 in case white wants to transpose. I need to be able to play dxc4 if white hits me with the c-pawn.

System 1: 1. Nf3 d5 2. g3 Nf6 3. Bg2 Bg4 4. d3 e6 5. Nbd2
System 2: 1. e4 c5 2. d3 e6 3. Nd2 d5
System 3: 1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 d6 3. d3

Now I have 3 different setups agains the KIA!

System 4: 1. g3 d5 2. Bg2 e5 3. d3 Nf6 4. Nf3 Nc6

Now there are 4! It's a disease...

I haven't even entered my main line preparation. There are about 7 alternative to the Richter Rauzer. And 400-page tomes have been written about the Richter-Rauzer alone. What have I signed up for?

The Good News
Learning the Sicilian is a life-long endeavor. Once you have gotten the Anti-Sicilian foundation layed, it is much easier to change from one Sicilian complex to another. The Classical offers a middle-of-the-road approach, with opportunities for me to gain experience in nearly all of the major pawn structures.

I realize it is very ambitious to completely change your opening repertoire from both white and black all at once. But to be honest, I never really had anything against d4 or e4: the Fort Knox French, 1. ... Nc6, bastardized Dutch lines, a poorly played Tarrasch... And nothing whatsoever against c4.

It looks like I won't be able to duck the Anti-Sicilians with a one-size-fits-all e6-d5 response.

Lucky for me, everybody in Louisiana plays 1. f4, 1. b3, or 1. e3...


chessloser said...

lots of great information, and i am not going to argue with your opinions or ideas, i like them. however...

if there are "too many empty heads winning with the shveshnikov, perhaps they aren't so empty headed, and/or perhaps it's a decent set up?

cool blog...

Alex Steger said...

You are right, empty-heads is a bit harsh. It's popular because it's good. Perhaps "Sveshnikov Me-too" is a better name ;)

I dislike the Sveshnikov because
a) it is popular, and I'm sick of seeing it
b) it has long forced variations requiring exact memorization
c) it is good

Preparing the Open Sicilian as white is a tremendous amount of work and there aren't really any "work-savers" for the Sveshnikov.

For example, the book Taming the Sicilian recommends an Open Sicilian repertoire for White involving a kingside fianchetto in the main lines. g3 is played around move 6 or 7 in most variations, but in the Sveshnikov, it is played on move 15 (!), leaving a lot of room for Black to vary.

Bottom line: I don't want to study variations 20 moves deep. I rationalize it by calling Sveshnikov players empty heads.

Plus I like being a chess openings snob ;)

darkhorse said...

This is one of my favorite posts ever. One thing that I noticed is the lack of discussion of the e6 Sicilians. Why did you decide against them?

Alex Steger said...

An e6 Sicilian fits well with my preference for e6-d5 setups against the Nc3 Anti-Sicilians.
You aren't susceptible to tricky knight move transpositions from white: 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 e6 3.Nc3 a6 (or Nc6) 4.d4 and you have the desired Sicilian; 1.e4 c5 2.Nc3 e6 reaches the desired Anti-Sicilian setup.

I should mention an Anti-Sicilian article on Jeremy Silman's website written by Joel Benjamin. It features the moves 1.e4 c5 2.Nc3 e6 3.Nf3 a6 4.g3. It is an independent line, but it doesn't potentially trick you into a main-line Sicilian you are unfamiliar with.

You can even reach Scheveningen setups from an e6 move order, or play a Kan or Taimanov if that is your cup of tea.

I also noticed that I forgot another plausible Anti-Sicilian: Zvjaginsev's 1.e4 c5 2.Na3!?

Why did I decide against an e6 Sicilian? Just taste. After seeing some games, I thought the Classical Sicilian looked really cool. I have played the Kan in the past; I didn't really know what I was doing but I got OK results.

Afaf Bouardi said...

Wow. This was a really fun read. I'm just learning chess and was looking for information on how to deal with 3. Bc4 and I got all this. Please keep updating.

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