Today is the 65th birthday of the man who taught me how to play chess — my dad.
One Saturday night when I was eight years old, my dad was cleaning out the hallway closet of our family’s apartment. I noticed a folded chess board, similar to this one. I knew it was a chess set — I don’t remember where I was first learned what chess was — and asked my dad to teach me how to play.
That night and the next day, he did. I understood the basic rules plus castling and pawn promotion — later I realized that he didn’t quite understand en passant! We began to play.
Well … I am no Morphy or Capablanca! My attempts to win our early games went nowhere.
My parents, sister and I soon went to the now-defunct Coliseum Books near Columbus Circle. I was looking through the chess books and other things, and my dad saw this cool-looking book that had lots of colored arrows and diagrams! This was apparently not a common thing back then. The book was also written by a Grandmaster! It was …
My parents bought me the book and I read it over and over and over.
I learned basic strategy and solved my first tactical puzzles.
I learned about a bit about four openings explored in the book: the Spanish Game, King’s Indian Defence (sic), Modern Benoni, and King’s Gambit.
And the cherry on top? Brief, fascinating bios of great players past and present: Paul Morphy, Wilhelm Steinitz, Jose Raul Capablanca, Mir Sultan Khan, Bobby Fischer, Garry Kasparov, and Judit Polgar. I loved this book so much!
In it, I also found my first master game played by the author which I tried to make some sense of with the help of the annotations.
Today, it’s time for me to annotate this memorable game.
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?
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.
In Part 1, we looked at French Defense lines where black exchanges pawns on e4.
Now we’ll start looking at the most common center type in the French: white plays e4-e5. In this post we’ll look at the Winawer and Classical Variations.
The next post will feature the MacCutcheon and the Tarrasch.
White locks the center with e4-e5; Winawer and Classical
There are several important lines where this can happen. In all of them, the main idea is the same: Black wants to attack white’s d4-pawn, starting with the pawn advance …c7-c5!
(a) Winawer Variation 3.Nc3 Bb4
The Winawer is the most dynamic system in the French Defense. It starts as follows:
Now black tries to break down the white center, while white accepts weak queenside pawns in order to get black’s strong bishop. Typically, white attacks on the kingside, and black goes for counterplay in the center and on the queenside. An important example:
This is the Winawer Poisoned Pawn Variation. Both sides face danger! In other versions of the Winawer, black castles kingside while he still can and creates counterplay on the queenside and in the center, while white goes for mate.
A classic example of Winawer chaos comes from the first game of the 1960 World Championship match:
Or the famous duel between Fischer and Tal later that year:
I have never played the Winawer as black in a tournament game…too crazy for me! The next possibilities occurred in plenty of my games, however.
(b) Classical Variation with 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.e5 Nfd7
This is another double-edged variation, but play is not as “fast” as in the Winawer. Still, attacks can appear suddenly:
Games in this line often become positional struggles where black’s “problem” bishop on the light squares is a long-term factor: