Meeting 1.e4: Sicilians and Anti-Sicilians

| 12 | Opening Theory


The Sicilian is by far the most popular defence to 1.e4, because it is an ideal weapon for players wishing to go for the full point as Black. It provides resources for active and very tactical play while at the same time avoiding the symmetrical pawn structure which can arise from a number of open games. There is a large number of different systems catering for tacticians loving ultra-sharp play as well as for players of more positional inclinations. The amount of necessary theory varies among these systems, but due to the unbroken popularity of the Sicilian it will always be considerable.

I will give an overview over these systems after dealing with the so-called Anti-Sicilians, which are the bane of the Sicilian afficionado's life. Their main incentive lies in circumventing all the theory of the Open Sicilan, while still developing formidable dangers for Black in some lines.

We start with the two Anti-Sicilain systems which are held to be equal to the open main lines:

1.e4 c5 2.c3

The Alapin. Black's most common responses imply an immediate challenge to the e4 pawn:

2...d5 3.exd5 Qxd5 4.d4 leads to more or less normal IQP situations. Black can try to play Bg4 before resorting to e7-e6, but this tends to give White more options for surprising tactics as well. On the whole the first player seems to enjoy too much fun here.

2...Nf6 3.e5 Nd5 4.d4 cxd4 looks more passive, but when Black knows what he is doing I suppose this is the line he can annoy white players most with.

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5

is the Rossolimo, another dangerous attempt on Black's life. Recently Black has scored well with 3...e6 and 3...Nf6, but the old main line 3...g6 is still a very good option, too.

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.Bb5+

is a similar system, sometimes called the Moscow Variation. Now 3...Bd7 seems a bit easier to play than 3...Nbd7 which has perhaps unjustly been called inferior. Either way Black has to be very patient until achieving an active game, or at leat equality, for that matter.


1.e4 c5 2.Nc3 Nc6 3.g3 g6

is the Closed Sicilian, which had its most blissful era a few decades ago, when Smyslov and Spasski promoted it by way of some striking victories involving some nice kingside attacks with g3-g4 and f4-f5 or a pawn sacrifice on e5. However, the best antidote seems to be worked out pretty well: Black usually goes for Bg7, e6 and Nge7 to be able to play f7-f5 eventually, thus preventing any White attacks from taking up too much steam. Meanwhile Black will play Nc6-d4 when White threatens d3-d4 and Rb8 with b7-b5-b4 coming.

1.e4 c5 2.g3

aims for an improved version of the Closed Sicilian, where White still has the option to play c2-c3. Black has to cut across this plan with rigorous measures: 2...d5! 3.exd5 Qxd5 4.Nf3 Bg4 5.Bg2 Qe6+ 6.Kf1 Nc6. Both sides require some originality to play this unusual position.

1.e4 c5 2.b3,

which can be battled in a number of ways, including a fixed central structure with Nc6, e5 Nge7, g6 and Bg7 or a hedgehog-like manner by playing an early b7-b6.

1.e4 c5 2.f4 d5!

The Grand Prix attack is an immensely dangerous weapon, because if Black doesn't find the exact moves, White can build up a huge attack using a very easy pattern. However, if Black pays attention, White will get no more than equality, if at all. 2...d5 has been hailed as the suitable antidote, as it offers a positional pawn sacrifice which puts the initiative firmly in the second player's hands: 3.exd5 Nf6 4.c4 e6 5.dxe6 Bxe6, when White's central weaknesses compensate Black's small material deficit. Therefore white players have tried the move order 2.Nc3 Nc6 3.f4 g6, after which Black has to react carefully to the various white options like 4.Bc4 or Bb5.

Various gambits like

1.e4 c5 2.b4 (wing gambit) or

1.e4 c5 2.d4 cxd4 3.c3 (Smith-Morra)

are not as challenging as most of the other lines given here. White definitely has better options against the Sicilian than giving up a pawn for nebulous compensation at best.

Nontheless the Smith-Morra is very popular at club level, but if Black fears his opponent's attacking abilities, he can still decline in a number of ways, the best probably including 3...Nf6 or 3...d5 which transpose to the Alapin Sicilian. As play is often slower and more positional here, this might be not to the gambiteer's taste.

After this lengthy treatment on the necessary bywork we will have a look at the various Open Sicilians:

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 (this is played in a number of cases in order to force Nc3, after which c2-c4, clamping down on the d5 square, is no longer possible.) 5.Nc3 d6

is the Classical Sicilian. Depending on White's follow-up, Black will play either e7-e6, e7-e5 or g7-g6. Evidently he needs a good grip on various plans available, play will vary between very sharp after 6.Bg5 e6 or 6.Bc4 e6 and more positional after 6.Be2 e5 or 6.g3 g6.

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 e5 6.Ndb5 d6

is currently the most popular of all variations: the Sveshnikov. Black accepts a very weak square on d5 and a backward pawn in the d-file, but gets wonderful counterplay, including a number of plans like a minority attack on the queenside, kingside play with f5 or blasting open the centre with d6-d5, often implying a pawn sacrifice. Play is very lively, but theory keeps changing fast, as almost every tournament features an improvement for either side.

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 e5,

the Kalashnikov, is similar. The amount of theory is much smaller, but the system doesn't enjoy such a good reputation, yet possibly unjustly so.

There is a number of systems foregoing 4...Nf6 and thereby permitting c2-c4 as well. They include:

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 e6 or

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 e6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 a6

These systems are named after Louis Paulsen who employed them as early as the late 19th century.

Black keeps open several options of developing his dark-squared bishop, preferring to develop his queenside pieces first. These systems are surprisingly resilient to direct assault in many cases, so White often resorts to more positional means by implementing the c2-c4 clamp.

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 g6

is the accelerated Dragon. Black wants to play the typical freeing move d5 without wasting time on d7-d6 beforehand as in lines of the normal Dragon (see below). Again he permits White to play c2-c4, when play turns more positional again.

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 g6

is the Dragon proper. Apart from the classical lines including 0-0 and f2-f4, White often aims for the extremely sharp Yugoslav Attack where after f3, Be3 and Qd2 he castles long and rushes his kingside pawns up the board. Black responds by moves like Qa5, b5 and Rfc8, when he often sacrifices an exchange on c3 to achieve counterplay, in which his long-ranged king's bishop plays a vital part more often than not. Playing this can be fun on both sides, albeit one has to know theory worked out beyond the 30th move.

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6

introduces the Najdorf Variation, which is probably the opening line with the densest theory of all of them. It includes famous sidelines to which entire books have been devoted, as the Polugaevsky or the Poisoned Pawn variation. In general Black aims for e7-e5 once more, which he does play after 6.Be3 , 6.Be2 or 6.f4. After 6.Bc4 or 6.Bg5, which is considered the main line, 6...e6 is usually played. Not having committed himself to Nc6 yet, Black can go for Nbd7-c5 instead, adding pressure to the e4 pawn and contributing to an eventual queenside attack.

The main line goes 6.Bg5 e6 7.f4 Be7 8.Qf3 Qc7 9.0-0-0 Nbd7 10.g4 b5. We can see that a sharp fight lies ahead, with lots of fireworks to be expected. Black's most important decision is when to evacuate his king out of the centre (or if at all) and when to push his counterplay on the queenside.

In the aforementioned side lines he deviates from the main line:

7...Qb6 8.Bxf6 gxf6 9.Be2 Qxb2 is the Poisoned Pawn Variation, where Black cheekily grabs the b2 pawn and has to weather the resulting storm against his king. This variation is fit for strong defensive players who relish in showing off their nerves of steel, while at the same time spending a considerable amount of time with home preparation.

Another variation where again Black seems to lag dangerously in development to achieve other goals is the Polugaevsky variation:

7...b5 8.e5 dxe5 9.fxe5 Qc7 10.exf6 Qe5+ 11.Be2 Qxg5. Once more high tactical skills are required from both sides, and once more the line has not yet been refuted!

The last major system we have not yet covered is the Scheveningen:

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 e6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 d6

Black chooses to play with the so-called "small centre" (d6 and e6), controlling e5 and d5. He is ready for central pawn thrusts while keeping his position compact. White's most popular and dangerous reply is the Keres attack 6.g4, but he has a variety of other moves as well, such as 6.Be3, 6.f4, 6.Be2, 6.Bc4, 6.Bg5, 6.g3 or 6.f3. Again play can become very sharp, similar to the Najdorf, or more positional, similar to the Classical Sicilian. Although Black's position may give a passive impression, it is immensely resilient, and his counter-punches can wreak havoc in the white camp.

Still I haven't come close to describing all possible variations of the Sicilian, but I hope I have been able to present you a glimpse of the richness of the world's most thrilling opening!


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