The Wrath of Too Many Kans

  • IM Silman
  • | Jun 28, 2010

Consul89 asked:

I have been trying to build an opening repertoire, and the Dragon is getting me killed when I run into the Yugoslav. So I have been thinking of switching to the Kan Variation of the Sicilian. I’m having trouble finding good books on it. Do you know of any? I have CHESS OPENING ESSENTIALS VOL.1 but it does not go into much detail.

Dear Consul89:

After 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 the move 2…e6 is an excellent choice for Black since it:

* Avoids most cases of monster theory (aka the Dragon, Najdorf, or Sveshnikov).

* Creates deep positional battles that you (as Black) will be conversant with – this means that your opponent (White) will usually be at a disadvantage.

* Isn’t as susceptible to the black-King-getting-mated disease as the Dragon and Najdorf are.

* Playing 2…e6 instead of 2…Nc6 also avoids the annoying Rossolimo Variation (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5).

The pure Kan involves …e6, …a6, and (if White plays the typical Nc3) …Qc7. Thus 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 e6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 a6 5.Nc3 Qc7 is the starting position to this opening (The author also gives extensive coverage to 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 e6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 a6 5.Bd3 Bc5). Black is very flexible, can develop his K-Knight to f6 or e7, can move his dark-squared Bishop to e7, d6, c5, or b4, and can even hold off on kingside development and continue with …b5 followed by …Bb7. Black can also toss in …Nc6 and transpose to the popular Taimanov Variation.

I always love studying the origins of opening names. The Dragon Sicilian was created when a visiting Yakuza (Japanese mafia) visited a Mafia Don in Italy in 1892. The Yakuza played the sequence 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 g6, and the Don, noticing that the Yakuza sported a huge dragon tattoo on his back, named this new opening accordingly. The Accelerated Dragon was created and named when the same Yakuza was offered snuff (very popular at that time), but was secretly slipped cocaine. He became overly aggressive, rushed around foaming at the mouth, and was shot. It’s quite a sad tale.

The Kan got its name from an old Star Trek villain. The tale goes that a chess loving studio exec who was working on Star Trek the Wrath of Kan noted that Kirke hid inside a terraformed planet, allowing him the time to come up with a counter plan to Kan’s attack. This led the exec to create the Kan sequence - 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 e6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 a6 5.Nc3 Qc7 – a system where white’s attacking pieces have a hard time coming in, while black’s pieces stay inside their position (planet) until the right time to strike back becomes apparent.

Of course, not all opening names have such colorful roots, and many openings are simply named after the players that popularized them, or the cities where they were first played.

Anyway, back to reality!

In my early years I played 1.e4 and had a couple of setbacks vs. this opening:

Silman - V.Smyslov, Lone Pine 1976: 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 e6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 a6 5.Bd3 g6 6.Nc3 Bg7 7.Be3 Nc6 8.Nb3 d5 9.exd5 exd5 10.Bc5 b6 11.Ba3 Nge7 12.0-0 0-0 13.Ne2 Qc7 14.c3 Ne5 15.Nbd4 Nc4 16.Bxc4 dxc4 17.Qa4 Bd7 18.Qb4 Rfe8 19.Qd6 Qb7 20.Rfe1 Nd5 21.Nf4 Nf6 22.f3 g5 23.Nfe2 Nd5 24.Qg3 h6 25.Qf2 b5 26.Ng3 b4 27.cxb4 Nxb4 28.Rxe8+ Rxe8 29.Ndf5 Nd3 30.Qd2 Qb6+ 31.Kf1 c3 32.bxc3 Bb5, 0-1.

Silman - J.Watson, San Francisco 1977: 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 e6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 a6 5.Bd3 Nf6 6.0-0 Qc7 7.Qe2 d6 8.f4 g6 9.c4 Bg7 10.Nf3 0-0 11.Nc3 Nbd7 12.Kh1 b6 13.Bd2 Bb7 14.Rac1 Rae8 15.Ng5 h6 16.Nh3 Qb8 17.b4 Qa8 18.Bb1 Nh5 19.Qd3 Rd8 20.Rf2 Kh7 21.Qe2 f5 22.exf5 exf5 23.Qd3 Ndf6 24.Be3 Ng4 25.Rd2 Nxe3 26.Qxe3 Rfe8 27.Qd3 Re6 28.Nd5 Rde8 29.Qf1 Bxd5 30.cxd5 Re3 31.Ng1 Nf6 32.Qc4 Ne4 33.Bxe4 R8xe4 34.Qc6 Qd8 35.Qb7 Re1 36.Rc7 Qf6 37.Rdc2 Rxg1+ 38.Kxg1 Qd4+ 39.Kf1 Qd3+, 0-1.

After games like these, I began to consider using the Kan myself as an alternative to my beloved Accelerated Dragon (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 g6) and Caro-Kann (1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 dxe4 4.Nxe4 Nf6 5.Nxf6+ gxf6 … I scored countless victories with this old but potent line). Finally, some years later, I began to make use of this system. Though all my scoresheets where I used the pure Kan are missing, I also employed the Taimanov Variation (this occurs after both 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 e6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nc6 and from 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 e6) from time to time, as shown by these two games:

Binkley - Silman, San Francisco 1982: 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 e6 5.Nc3 a6 6.Be2 Nge7 7.0-0 Nxd4 8.Qxd4 Nc6 9.Qd3 b5 10.a3 Bc5 11.Qg3 0-0 12.e5 Bd4 13.Bf4 d6 14.exd6 e5 15.Bg5 Qxd6 16.Ne4 Qg6 17.Bf3 f5 18.Nf6+ Rxf6 19.Bxf6 Qxf6 20.c3 e4 21.Bxe4 fxe4 22.cxd4 Nxd4 23.Qe3 Bf5 24.Rfd1 Rd8 25.Rac1 h6 26.Rd2 Ne6 27.Rxd8+ Nxd8 28.Qd2 Nf7 29.h3 Kh7 30.Rc5 Bg6 31.Rd5 Qe6 32.Qd4 e3 33.fxe3 Be4 34.Rd7 Qg6 35.Qd2 Ne5, 0-1.

Kyrimis - Silman, Berkeley 1982: 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 e6 5.Nc3 a6 6.Be3 Qc7 7.Nxc6 Qxc6 8.Bd3 b5 9.0-0 Bb7 10.Qe2 Nf6 11.f4 b4 12.e5 bxc3 13.exf6 cxb2 14.Rab1 gxf6 15.Bd4 Rg8 16.Rf2 Bc5 17.Bxc5 Qxc5 18.Kf1 Qc3 19.Qh5 Ke7, 0-1.

There’s an old book from 2002 on the Kan (SICILIAN KAN – by John Emms from Everyman Chess). More recently grandmaster Johan Hellsten wrote PLAY THE SICILIAN KAN: A Dynamic and Flexible Repertoire for Black (Everyman, 2008). 

As with all new openings, you need to get used to the plans and ideas, which takes time. Use it in blitz every chance you get, fearlessly play it in your over-the-board games too, and once you generate a healthy dose of experience, you’ll find that it’s sound, fun, and dependable.

Oh, one final thing: As with all Sicilian lines, you need to work out answers to the various Anti-Sicilians. These are:

1.e4 c5 2.c3 – The Alapin Variation is very dangerous! Make sure you are prepared for it!

1.e4 c5 2.Nc3 – The Closed Sicilian isn’t that big a threat, but you do need to work out a good setup against it. 

1.e4 c5 2.d4 cxd4 3.c3 dxc3 4.Nxc3 – The Smith Mora Gambit is tricky. However, there are a few lines that defang it and take away all of white’s fun.

Two good books that offer lines against all the anti-Sicilians are:

FIGHTING THE ANTI-SICILIANS by Richard Palliser (Everyman Chess, 2007) and ANTI-SICILIANS: A Guide for Black (Gambit, 2003).


Many people asked: 

I play the Caro-Kann but can’t find any good book on it. Can you suggest something?

Dear Caro-Kann fans:

Sorry it took me so long to reply, but I held off because there wasn’t any Caro-Kann book that I was really excited about. That’s odd, because the Caro-Kann is extremely popular, easy to learn, very sound, and is also used (with great success) by both Anand and Topalov!

The best in recent years was Jovanka Houska’s PLAY THE CARO-KANN (Everyman Chess, 2007). There’s a lot of very good stuff in it, but it didn’t “wow” me. But all that has changed! I can finally wholeheartedly recommend a Caro-Kann book: GRANDMASTER REPERTOIRE 7: THE CARO-KANN, by Lars Schandorff (Quality Chess, 2010). This is a fantastic piece of work, gives you a complete Caro-Kann repertoire, offers up countless theoretical novelties, and is filled with entertaining/instructive/quirky prose.

If you are a Caro-Kann junkie like I am, and if you’re in the 1400 to grandmaster range, then buy this book immediately!

Oh, one caveat: Lars Schandorff recommends 1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 dxe4 4.Nxe4 Bf5, which is a great system. However, that might upset fans of 4…Nf6 or 4…Nd7. Nevertheless, his coverage of all the other lines is so good that you’ll still want to own this book.


  • 5 years ago


  • 6 years ago


    I would never give up the Dragon
  • 6 years ago


    Great column. Actually, I think the Dragon name comes from Mr. Dus Khotimirsky, a strong russian player from the early 1900's who also happened to be a passionate astronomer. He somewhat recognized the constellation of the Dragon in black's pawn structure and gave it that name. 

  • 6 years ago


    Good article and (wind up :-)  )on the me going for half a minute.....I'd rather the Kan didn't become too popular to be honest and people remained in ignorance about it all....

    Funny it should be the "wrath of K(h)an"....I called a chess shop up asking for the Kan DVD...."kan" pronounced, well "can", the seller (posh ?) referred to it as the "K(h)an" several times.... :-)


    So what about 1e4 c5 2Nf3 e6 3 Nc3 .....with a view If black plays a6 white elects for g3 and a closed Sicilian that hope to show a6 is a wasted tempo ? (It may be black's best is Nc6 allowing not only Bb5 , which isn't necessarily the best but also transpostion into the Sicilian Four Knights...Yep, I reckon Nc3 might be a good try from white's perspective to muddy the waters....

  • 6 years ago


    IM Silman that doesn't necessarily look like the opening's fault. You were in fact playing a world champion.

  • 6 years ago


    In my opinion the carokann book is to similar high standards of for example 1d4 Avruk book, but more accessible and interesting for club players. (Avruk's recommends mostly rather dull and dry Kramnikish lines, at least to eyes of 1e4 club player like me.)


    The Caro-kann rep is similar to Houska's one in many places, the main difference noticed was against Panov attack the newer book recommends going into the well-known endgame line with e6, instead of Houska's more fun but dubious Nb6. (Don't expect it would be "more fun", if white finds the best line, but you know what I mean?!)

  • 6 years ago


    that'll learn me not to read this stuff at 4 or 5 in the morning, as if my chess rating didn't already scream "go to bed!"  Sealed

  • 6 years ago


    high standards? 

  • 6 years ago


    I have a copy of Schandorff

    book, mailed direct from quality chess. They have been out in Europe for a bit. It's a very nice rep, choosing interesting options when possible.

  • 6 years ago


    Mimchi - before books are published and available to the public they go through a number of "press copies" so the author has the opportunity to get feedback and critiques. Since IM Silman reviews chess books (check out his website!), I find it a reasonable assumption to believe he had access to such a preview copy.

  • 6 years ago


    Silman e-mails = the sbemails of chess.

    Love it.

  • 6 years ago


    Grandmaster Repetoire 7: The Caro-Kann is not for sale yet; it arrives in stores July 1st. So I can only assume (if Mr. Silman saw it before it is published), that Mr. Silman is friends with Lars Schandorff and is marketing his book for sales. Please don't say a book is good just because you want to sell it ...

  • 6 years ago


    im pretty sure that the dragon isnt named after that, but after some astromoner who realised that the star formation draco ( hence the name dragon) had a remarkable resembelance to the dragon pawn structure.

  • 6 years ago


    Interesting example games and good article. Yakuza visiting Italy in the 1890s though?? Really...

  • 6 years ago


    Silman, i think if you stop writing your Monday articles I might slip into a deep depression, stop bathing/shaving/putting on clean clothes,etc..

  • 6 years ago


    Thanks for the elaborate reply. (Im Consul89 but got togheter with Facebook so my name changed)

  • 6 years ago


    i'm surprised Silman would answer a question about the Kan without discussin the hedgehog set-up.  he could even have made up a story about hedgehogs.  a double-miss.  The heart and soul of the Kan is that it allows black to get into a hedgehog position regardless of what white does.  Sure, white can do crazy things that would make a hedgehog formation less than sound, but, in general, whatever white does, black gets his hedgehog and avoids having to learn tons of theory.  the main thing i look for when i'm black is whether white plays 0-0 or 0-0-0.  black can often get away with not castling at all, and his king is safe in the middle.  there's a lot of flexibility to this opening for black.  I think has a lecture on it, though I forget by whom.  He goes into the hedgehog, which is the proper way to understand the Kan.

    as a regular kan player, I can assure you that it appeals to black's aggressive instincts, if you like counter-attacking chess.  Especially if white plays 0-0, black has h5?!

  • 6 years ago


    Louis Paulsen (who's name was original to the variation) and Ilya Kan (maybe a forerunner of Ricardo Montalban) are probably off somewhere in the chess universe consulting on whom to send to revenge the jokes about their variation.Wink


    To Consul89:  If you lack patience, or love to be aggressive quickly, the Kan may not be for you.

  • 6 years ago


    What about the poisoned pawn variation?!?  named after?!? Hilarious, as usual !

  • 6 years ago


    that was freaking hysterical... very nice, Mr. Silman, love the Trek reference...

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