Sicilian Endgames: The Exchange Down

Sicilian Endgames: The Exchange Down

| 24 | Endgames

I will begin a series of article on various endgames arising from the Open Sicilian. The endgames share certain characteristic features - especially the trade of White's d-pawn for Black's c-pawn, giving Black two center pawns against one. Black has an open c-file, while White has an open d-file.

In principle, Black has a structural advantage in the open Sicilian, and this should make an endgame appetizing since White's chances usually lie more in the attack. However, specific features affect the evaluation of every position. We will be examining certain fundamental endgames which arise from the Sicilian.

To begin with, I will look at a certain kind of unusual and artistic endgame which occurs after an exchange sacrifice by Black, usually on c3, in the Dragon.

To understand how Black is often able to enter the endgame down the exchange, let us look at the typical pawn structure in the Dragon:


Unlike in the Scheveningen structure of the Sicilian (black pawn on e6) or the Boleslavsky (pawn on e5), here Black's d-pawn is securely guarded by the pawn on e7. Thus it is very hard for White to use his one open file. The defect of this structure for Black is the d5-square. It is hard to defend d5 against a knight invasion, since - with the bishop fianchettoed on g7, ...e7-e6 becomes difficult as it will leave d6 even weaker. And indeed, the move N(c3)-d5 is a big weapon for White against the Dragon.

This is why the possibility of an exchange sacrifice ...Rxc3 often comes into consideration for Black, leading to the following kind of structure:


There is no longer a knight which can occupy d5. And despite the semi-open type of structure, White has great difficulty using his excess rooks. The d-file becomes very hard to use, while the newly-opened b-file can also be easily blunted by ...b6, for instance. Compared to most chess positions, White has a scarcity of pawn breaks which could lead to an opening of the position. Thus the advantage of the exchange becomes less valuable than usual, while Black gains other advantages - in particular, the weakness of the doubled pawns on the c-file as well as various outposts for the black knights - e5, c5, c4, a4. Combine together the pressure from a bishop on g7, a rook on c8, and White's lack of a positive plan for himself, and you can probably start to understand how a pure exchange down ending can be promising for Black.

Let us now see some examples. First of all, a general rule is that Black has at least enough compensation for the exchange if he also has captured a pawn on h5 (often White sacrifices this pawn). This understanding altered established theory:

In this theoretical position, Black always played 13...Nxh5. There were theoretical battles after the sharp 14.Bh6, and White also had the option of 14.Nd5, forcing the queens off and going into an ending where White would inevitably win back the pawn on h7 and keep a slight advantage. It was not until the late 90s when the move 13...Rxc3! began to be played - at first by obscure players, and soon after by top Dragon players such as GMs Chris Ward and Mišo Cebalo. Here is a thematic game by the latter:

Now it is generally accepted that this basic Dragon ending - where Black has sacrificed the exchange, doubled the white pawns on the c-file, and also captured the h-pawn - is perfectly acceptable, perhaps even better, for Black. But what if Black is not in position to capture the h5 pawn?

Mišo Cebalo | Image Wikipedia

Let's look at the position which arises after the following moves:

Here, Black has not even got a pawn for the exchange. He is counting purely on positional factors - the unique structure where he can argue that his knight is at least not worse than the rook, and will remain that way for a long time.

In fact this is not a popular position. Few players have wanted to immediately go into the exchange-down ending by 13...Rxc3. White's approach is considered to be one of the best ways to meet the ...Qa5 system, and here Black usually plays 13...Nc4 or 13...b5.

Nevertheless, White's task for using his extra exchange is hardly trivial. Black has some major and long-lasting positional advantages. Let's see the following game, one of the highest-level to reach this position:

It is not uncommon for another exchange to be sacrificed by Black (usually on f8), or even another piece (leaving Black down a rook) on g4 or f3. The following is one of the most beautiful Dragon games I have seen, in terms of pure aesthetics of the positional play.


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