Tag Archives: Sicilian Defense

Should I Play 1…e5 Against 1.e4?

If you are rated under 1000, YES! Without a doubt. Start with the Double King Pawn.

It’s important to learn how to fight for and maintain control of the central squares before trying to counterattack your opponent’s center.

After my first few rated tournaments, I began playing the Pirc (1.e4 d6):

And had no idea what I was doing. I simply chose the opening because I saw it in MCO-13 and it had a lot less pages to “study” than most other defenses to 1.e4. By study, I meant “memorize,” because that’s what I thought opening learning was about in those days.

When I was around 1000, I switched to the French (1.e4 e6):

About which I did have a decent idea thanks to the books Mastering the French with the Read and Play Method by Neil McDonald and Andrew Harley; and French Classical by Byron Jacobs.

My play was passive and one-dimensional. I didn’t learn how to attack, instead sitting back and waiting to spring a counterattack. I played other dodgy openings like the St. George Defense (1.e4 a6) sometimes, scoring over 50% with it.

You can get away with this against the Under 1800 crowd, but I wouldn’t recommend it!

I dabbled with other openings over the years, too: the Caro-Kann (1.e4 c6):

The Scandinavian (1.e4 d5 2.exd5 Nf6):

Even, for one or two tournaments, Alekhine’s Defense (1.e4 Nf6):

I deliberately avoided 1…e5 and the Sicilian (1.e4 c5)

Because they were “too complicated.”

Yes, there are many choices available to white after 1.e4 e5, but not a lot of different ideas. That is the key.

You want your pieces to become active and to not allow white to get (or maintain) a pawn duo on d4 and e4.

After the common sequence 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6:

Black’s control of d4 does not allow white to push the d2-pawn there without it being exchanged. If that exchange happens black will have decent control over the center.

Black is fine in the Italian game as long as he or she doesn’t fall into a trap, so let’s look at a common line in the Scotch Game:

Black has nothing to worry about here, with good development and a solid position.

This begs the question: why not play an early c2-c3 in order to play d2-d4 and replace a captured d4-pawn with the c3-pawn? Well, that’s what the Ponziani Opening tries but fails to achieve:

Black has other good tries on move 3. The point is, white can’t keep the entire center intact.

That brings us to white’s best attempt, and the main one black traditionally worries about when deciding to play 1..e5: the Ruy Lopez.

This is perhaps white’s strongest attempt to trouble black after 1.e4 e5. Black can also choose the solid Petrov Defense (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6):

Which is arguably even more solid.

I recommend all new players get considerable practice in the Double King Pawn before trying something else. At 1400-1600 a player can branch out if they feel they must.

Chess Tactics: Gusev — Auerbach, 1946

This has to rank as one of the greatest queen sacrifices ever, and it is of the rare positional variety! The move is stunning, but once you see the idea everything becomes crystal clear.

Enjoy!

White to play. How did Gusev earn a slice of immortality?

24.?

Cornered!

Chess Tactics: Chiburdanidze — Dvoirys, 1980

Maia Chiburdanidze wearing the World Champion wreath

Maia Chiburdanidze wearing the World Champion’s laurel wreath, apparently from her 1984 title defense. Photo: Georgia Today

Maia Chiburdanidze (born 1961) became Women’s World Champion in 1978 on her first attempt at just 17 years old. Only Hou Yifan has since bested this record, winning the title at 16 in 2010.

Maia defeated Nona Gaprindashvili, the Champion since 1962. The young Georgian title-holder defended her title on four occasions in the 1980s before losing to Xie Jun in 1991.

Here is a game I first remember seeing in Attack with Mikhail Tal from the Tbilisi semi-final of the 1980 USSR Championship. It is spectacular!

White to play. Can you spot Chiburdanidze’s concept?

12.?

Connected vs. Unconnected Rooks

The Smith-Morra Gambit, and How to Beat It

A Controversial Anti-Sicilian

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!

Traps

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?

The Recipe

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.

Early Games

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

Ken Smith attempted the Smith-Morra Gambit several times in 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.

Chess Tactics: Shirov — Polgar, 1994

Polgar turns the tables on Shirov’s aggression

It was the perfect setting for a showdown between two of the most combative players of the 1990s and 2000s: a thematic tournament stipulating every game begin with an Open Sicilian (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 and, after 2…Nc6, 2…d6, or 2…e6, 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4).

Polgar chose a Paulsen Sicilian, where black places pawns on a6, d6, and e6, and develops the queen knight to c6. Shirov, not surprisingly, decided to tackle it with an early g4 and f4.

This was risky, because it exposed the white king, who had not castled to safety. Decisions like these can create brilliancies — for the player or their opponent!

The Hungarian prodigy was up to the task. One of the first females to earn the Grandmaster title (1991), Judit Polgar broke Bobby Fischer’s record (from 1958!) as youngest GM ever. She is universally recognized as the greatest female player in chess history.

Black’s 10th move sets the stage for everything to follow, How would you deal with white’s coming pawn storm while gaining activity for your pieces?

10…?

Fight for key squares with all your might!

Judit Polgar retired from professional chess after the 2014 Tromso Olympiad, but this will not be the last time we see one of her games on chess-essentials.com!

Chess Tactics: Svidler — Vallejo-Pons, 2004

Svidler and Vallejo’s Rapid Race in the English Attack

We pick up the action after white’s 25th move. White has just moved his king out of check.

Francisco Vallejo-Pons in 2013. Photo: Przemyslaw Jahr/Wikimedia Commons

Peter Svidler has been one of the world’s best players since the 1990s. The 8-time(!) Russian Champion has played many outstanding games and has become one of the most popular chess commentators.

In contrast, this was the only game the young Francisco Vallejo-Pons won in the 2004 Melody Amber rapid, but what a victory it was! White’s king gets caught in a hurricane in a theoretical mainline of the Najdorf English Attack (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6 6.Be3).

With competing opposite-side castling attacks, Svidler decides to fight off black’s attack before launching an offensive of his own.

He never got the chance. How did Vallejo-Pons respond to 25.Ka1?

Pawns are line-opening tools in opposite-side castling attacks

Mainline Chess Openings…Should I Play Them?

What are Mainline Openings?

“Mainline chess openings require lots of study time, which I could use to work on other parts of chess. I’ll choose sidelines instead.”

Definitely a mainline chess opening: the Botvinnik Semi-Slav.

The craziest opening in all of chess? Starting position of the Botvinnik Variation of the Semi-Slav in ChessBase.

It’s a common argument, but a misconception. There’s a difference betwen mainline and cutting-edge. Mainlines are commonly played by grandmasters but can be strategic in nature and not rely on “crazy” lines.  Cutting-edge theory on the other hand can be very sharp and is often based on engine preparation by Stockfish and others.

Mainline Example

True, there’s rarely one mainline per opening. Take the popular Najdorf Sicilian (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6):

The moves 6.Be3 (6.f3 is similar), 6.Bg5, 6.Be2, and 6.Bc4 are definitely mainlines, all of which have different branches. One could argue that 6.h3 and 6.g3 are nearly mainlines as well. Then of course moves like 6.f4, 6.Nb3 and even 6.h4 are not to be ignored. Surely only professionals should wade into these waters?

I’m far from a professional, and I used to play the Najdorf with success. Even this, one of the most infamous mainline chess openings, is very concept-based. That’s because there are only two main structures for black. The d6-e6 center:

And the d6-e5 center:

In these, black’s piece placements don’t change that much. Not only that, a Najdorf player can completely avoid the second structure based on the variations they choose.

At first, you’ll have to memorize variations and play through a bunch of games to understand what’s going on. Yes, more than you would if playing a sideline. But after a little while, there are few surprises. Even enemy “preparation” can’t neutralize your understanding; at best it can give you specific tactical questions to answer.

Choose WIsely

Which brings me to my next point. If you play something wild in the Najdorf like the Poisoned Pawn Variation (6.Bg5 e6 7.f4 and now 7…Qb6)

Expect fireworks and nasty home-cooked surprises!

But as far as I know, the old line beginning with 7…Nbd7 8.Qf3 Qc7 9.0-0-0 b5 is still playable

In my opinion this is the Najdorf line where you need to remember the most specifics, and it’s not so bad. Of course, there’s no requirement to play the Najdorf Variation, or any Sicilian, but I wanted to show an extreme example.

Remember: there’s a difference between mainline and cutting-edge. Just avoid the latter if you don’t have the necessary time, memory, or study habits!

Okay, what’s the alternative?

Players who aim for sidelines in most or all of their games understand that they can expect less out of the opening. On the other hand, their opening repertoires are lower-maintenance.

But are they making their lives more difficult in the middlegame? I say yes.

Let’s take one of the most popular sidelines today, the London System, which traditionally begins 1.d4 d5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.Bf4:

White usually follows up with, in some order, c3, e3, Nbd2, Bd3, and 0-0.

It’s a trap!

White can almost close his or her eyes and play these moves, but what can black do? Actually, a lot. For example:

  • The light-squared bishop can go to f5 or g4 on the kingside, or to b7 or a6 on the queenside.
  • The dark-squared bishop can go to d6, e7, or g7.
  • The Nb8 can go to c6 or d7.
  • The Nf6 can stay where it is, go to h5 to attack white’s Bf4, jump to e4, or even d7 if black aims for an …e5-advance.
  • The queen can go to a5, b6, c7 if safe, d6 after a bishop trade there, or e7. Did I forget any?
  • The b-pawn can stay on b7 or go to b6 for …Bb7 or …Ba6.
  • The c-pawn can go to c6 or c5.
  • The e-pawn can stay on e7, go to e6, and maybe even go to e5.
  • The g-pawn can stay on g7 or go to g6 for a fianchetto.
  • And plenty of these options can be combined!

This seems like a lot more study to me! If you don’t want to study at home, you’ll have to study at the board! My advice: play mainline chess openings!