Luke McShane(born 1984) is an English Grandmaster who won the World Under-10 Championship in 1993 and Wijk aan Zee B in 2011. He reached a peak FIDE rating of 2713 in July 2012, and his peak world rank of 29 in November of that year.
He has scored victories over Michael Adams, Levon Aronian, Etienne Bacrot, Magnus Carlsen, Sergey Karjakin, Vladimir Kramnik, Alexander Morozevich, Hikaru Nakamura, Ruslan Ponomariov, Nigel Short, Wesley So, and Radoslaw Wojtaszek …
…in classical chess.
McShane added another notch to his belt when he took down Ivan Cheparinov in just 20 moves during the 2009 European Team Championship.
Longtime readers of the Chess Essentials blog know I’m not fan of sidelines, espeically with White. Many are playable, some even good. But I think players sometimes get into trouble overthinking how they should play these lines. If your line calls for an all-in attack, go for it!
I don’t know how Cheparinov felt, but I would be taken aback by such shameless aggression! I don’t recommend this approach every game against strong players, but I’ve long said that simple, direct plans executed well are easier to play and very effective. Luke McShane provides a great example with this Closed Sicilian/Grand Prix Attack hybrid.
I don’t believe that the Sicilian is necessarily the “best” opening, or that everyone should play it. I do believe, however, that any player who wants to answer 1.e4 with 1…c5 can find a system to their liking.
I’m talking about how to answer the Open Sicilian (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3):
As you probably know, there is a huge array of options. Traditionally, they are grouped by black’s reply from the diagram: does s/he play 2…Nc6, 2…d6, or 2…e6?
Instead I’ll consider popular variations based on my opinions about they rank on two scales:
Aggressive — Neutral — Solid
Tactical — Neutral — Positional.
Of course, white has a hand in which line is played also, so these won’t be 100% accurate, but I’ll characterize some popular lines.
If you want an excellent overview of the Sicilian mainlines and Anti-Sicilian setups, get Mastering the Sicilian Defense by the late Danny Kopec (1954-2016). It is probably the best book I have seen on the subject: good prose, good examples, and sensible recommendations.
Kopec always shined as an author when discussing structural play in the opening and middlegame.
Okay, here we go:
Aggressive and Tactical
High risk, high reward! Probably the most aggressive line in the entire Sicilian universe is the Dragon Variation (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 g6):
The “Dragon bishop” plans to breathe fire on the long a1-h8 diagonal. White’s most critical try, the Yugoslav Attack (6.Be3 Bg7 7.f3 Nc6 8.Qd2 0-0):
When the first player will castle into an attack on the queenside, while starting one of their own on the kingside.
Despite this, I have never considered the Dragon super-tactical, because many of the sacrifices are standard and repeat themselves over and over again. Still, compared to other options, I will place it in this bucket.
This may surprise some people, but I consider the Najdorf a blend of Tactical and Positional. Black doesn’t necessarily aim to attack the king, and often uses a “whole board” strategy. It is not as aggressive as the Dragon in a “kill the king” sense, but a positionally aggressive opening where black willingly takes on some risk. I learned how to play this opening from the first edition of The Sharpest Sicilian, one of the finest opening books I have ever read.
Black seeks aggressive counterplay in this line, but the risks are more structural than anything else, with the potential outpost on d5. A knight ensconced here can be paralyzing. Still, neither side is too likely to get mated during a Sveshnikov battle, and the tactical play is relatively tame.
This is a dynamic, combative system with a large array of possible setups for both sides. Not only do both players need to be well-prepared and alert, some of the tactical motifs are strange. There are more solid lines a player can choose than the Taimanov, but more aggressive ones as well.
When I play 1.e4, it is my least favorite Sicilian to face because of its chameleon-like qualities. I should probably take a look at Emms’ book!
I’ve given a traditional move order, but this exact position is now infrequent because of the strong Keres Attack (6.g4). Nowadays the Scheveningen is more often reached through the Najdorf: 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6 6.Be2 e6.
These positions are among the most balanced in the Sicilian, with something for everyone.
For more than a crash course on the Scheveningen, get Dynamics of Chess Strategy (2003) by Czech Grandmaster Vlastimil Jansa. His most notable pupil is David Navara.
Jansa’s comments on the Scheveningen, Ruy Lopez, and other lines will help you understand these rich, maneuvering openings. Garry Kasparov, devoted Scheveningen player during his career, might also agree with Jansa’s recommendation against the Pirc as a “turkey shoot!”
This is one of the most underrated strategy books in many, many years. Get it if you can find it.
Neutral and Positional
Kan Variation (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 e6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 a6):
This branch of the Sicilian is much tamer than, for example, the Sveshnikov or Taimanov. There are more solid or positional alternatives, however. Black’s play is restrained, but not plodding. White has very different ways of answering this opening, from the space-eating Maroczy Bind (5.c4) to the solid 5.Nc3 to the more aggressive 5.Bd3 followed by Qg4.
Honestly, this is a Sicilian I don’t like for either side! Of course, your mileage may vary.
I’ll say it plainly: I don’t think the Accelerated Dragon is very good if white plays the Maroczy Bind (5.c4!) and doesn’t allow black to make a bunch of exchanges. I’ve never understood why this line is so popular in books/DVDs and with chess coaches. Can someone please explain it to me? Everytime I face it I feel like I’m shooting fish in a barrel.
Black has some tricks in non-Maroczy lines, but if white is prepared this defense will be a most welcome sight.
The polar opposite of the Dragon? I think so. Black hangs back and develops solidly, reacting to white’s ideas. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, if you’re the kind of player who likes to bait the opponent into overextending themselves.
The Classical has some distinct advantages. Like the Dragon, there is only one really challenging line against it, the Richter-Rauzer (6.Bg5). Unlike the Najdorf or Taimanov, in the Classical you pretty much know what’s coming if your opponent doesn’t play an Anti-Sicilian.
An aggressive player might opt for the Sozin Attack (6.Bc4) and a very aggressive opponent will head for the VelimirovicAttack (6.Bc4 e6 7.Be3 Be7 8.Qe2), but the prepared Classical player has nothing to fear in these lines.
Another benefit of the Classical is its flexible move order: black can play 2…d6 and 5…Nc6, or 2…Nc6 and 5…d6. That’s helpful when trying to get your preferred setup against Anti-Sicilians.
I hope this overview helps players considering playing the Sicilian for the first time or, maybe, a player considering a system change! Which Sicilian is best for you?
Faced with the Sicilian Defense (1.e4 c5), many white players avoid the Open Sicilian that comes about after 2.Nf3 and 3.d4. Instead, they choose an Anti-Sicilian like the Smith-Morra Gambit (1.e4 c5 2.d4 cxd4 3.c3)
At club level, an unprepared black player can quickly find themselves in serious danger. White aims for a menacing setup like this:
Of course, black needs to survive long enough to face even this!
The Smith-Morra Gambit player hopes their adversary will fall into a nasty trap, and there are many. For example:
Or this one:
Many black players look to turn the tables on white with the so-called Siberian Trap:
To avoid accidents, many black players decline the gambit or give back the pawn immediately.
I’m not one of them. If I knew all my opponents would play the Smith-Morra, I would always answer 1.e4 with 1…c5. If the line is so great for white, why do top players not use it?
In the traps above, black has problems on e5 and b5, and uncoordinated pieces. Knowing what you’re up against makes it far easier to deal with!
There are many viable setups for black, but I defend the Smith-Morra with the line 2…cxd4 3.c3 dxc3 4.Nxc3 Nc6 5.Nf3 d6 6.Bc4 a6! Don’t rush that …Nf6 move.
Let’s see some examples.
Debut by Transposition
According to the MegaBase, Dutch master Lodewijk Prins first reached the position after 6…a6 against Savielly Tartawkower in 1950, but couldn’t recover after his pieces got tangled early on. The game started as an O’Kelly Sicilian (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 a6).
Battle of Titans
Fischer and Kortschnoj drew in Buenos Aires 1960, also after transposing from an O’Kelly.
San Antonio 1972
The Tournament Announcement for San Antonio 1972. Source: Chess Life and Review, October 1972
The Church’s Fried Chicken International, held in San Antonio, Texas in 1972 remains one of the strongest events ever held in the United States. Lajos Portisch, former World Champion Tigran V. Petrosian, and future World Champion Anatoly Karpov tied for first place with 10.5 points out of 15.
American master Ken Smith (the “Smith” in “Smith-Morra”) tried the gambit several times, but without success against such chess heavyweights.
Let’s take a look at two of those games. Both were played in the second half of the tournament when black could have expected the Smith-Morra Gambit.
Round 9 vs. Evans
We saw this American legend play a model game before. He does again here:
Evans also played in Buenos Aires 1960, so he would have known the Fischer—Kortschnoj game above.
Round 13 vs. Mecking
The future World #3 emulated the Kortschnoj/Evans treatment and then collected material.
The bottom line on facing the Smith-Morra Gambit
If you play the Sicilian you should be happy to face the Smith-Morra, or any Anti-Sicilian for that matter. Playable though they may be, Anti-Sicilians are inferior to the Open Sicilian,
Don’t use the common excuse “white knows their pet line better than I will.” Study! Learn how to deal with the annoying sidelines your opponent can throw at you, and thank them for not challenging you in the most critical way.
I don’t have a perfect record against the Smith-Morra Gambit, but I score better than 50%. Anytime you can say that with one of your black openings, that is a big success.