The Sicilian Defence (A brief history)

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The Sicilian Defence was analyzed by Giulio Polerio in his 1594 manuscript on chess,[8] though he did not use the term "Sicilian Defence."[9] It was later the subject of analyses by leading players of the day Alessandro Salvio (1604), Don Pietro Carrera (c. 1617), and Gioachino Greco (1623), and later Comte Carlo Francesco Cozio (c. 1740). The great French player and theoretician André Danican Philidor opined of the Sicilian in 1777, "This way of opening the game ... is absolutely defensive, and very far from being the best ... but it is a very good one to try the strength of an adversary with whose skill you are unacquainted."[10]

In 1813, the English master Jacob Henry Sarratt effectively standardized his English translation of the name of this opening as "the Sicilian Defence," referring to an old Italian manuscript that used the phrase, "il giocho siciliano", ("The Sicilian Game").[11] The Sicilian was fairly popular for much of the nineteenth century; Louis-Charles Mahé de La Bourdonnais, Adolf Anderssen, Howard Staunton, Louis Paulsen, and Carl Jaenisch all played it with some consistency. In the ninth edition of Modern Chess Openings, Walter Korn noted that the Sicilian "received three of its earliest practical tests, and a big boost in popularity, in the 1834 MacDonnell [sic]-La Bourdonnais match, 1843 Staunton-St. Amant match, and the 1851 London Tournament."[12] Staunton wrote of the Sicilian, "In the opinion of Jaenisch and the German 'Handbuch,' with which I coincide, this is the best possible reply to 1.P-K4, 'as it renders the formation of a centre impracticable for White and prevents every attack.' "[13]

The opening fell out of favor in the latter part of the nineteenth century, when some of the world's leading players rejected it.[14]Paul Morphy, the world's best player in the late 1850s, decried "that pernicious fondness for the Sicilian Defense ... extending from about 1843 to some time after 1851".[15]Wilhelm Steinitz, the first World Champion, also disliked the Sicilian and rejected it in favor of 1...e5.[16][17] The death of the opening's two greatest exponents, Staunton and Anderssen, in 1874 and 1879 respectively, also contributed to its decline. It has been said that "[t]hese losses almost dealt a knock-out blow to the Sicilian because it took a long time to find such important figures to carry the Sicilian's standard."[18]George H. D. Gossip, in The Chess Player's Manual, first published in 1874, wrote, "Of late years . . . discoveries have been made which have the effect of considerably strengthening White's attack, and the 'Sicilian' is now considered by most modern authorities to be a comparatively weak mode of play."[19]Freeborough and Ranken, in their treatise Chess Openings: Ancient and Modern (1889, 1896), wrote that the Sicilian "had at one time the reputation of being the best reply to 1 P-K4, but this has not been confirmed by popular practice. Several eminent players have, however, held to the opinion that it is quite trustworthy."[20][21]

The Sicilian continued to be disfavored by most leading players in the early twentieth century. Capablanca, World Champion from 1921 to 1927, famously denounced it as an opening where "Black’s game is full of holes".[22] Similarly, James Mason wrote, "Fairly tried and found wanting, the Sicilian has now scarcely any standing as a first-class defence. . . . [It] is too defensive. There are too many holes created in the Pawn line. Command of the field, especially in the centre, is too readily given over to the invading force."[23]Siegbert Tarrasch wrote that 1...c5 "is certainly not strictly correct, for it does nothing toward development and merely attempts to render difficult the building up of a centre by the first player. . . . [T]he Sicilian Defence is excellent for a strong player who is prepared to take risks to force a win against an inferior opponent. Against best play, however, it is bound to fail."[24] The Sicilian was not seen even once in the 75 games played at the great St. Petersburg 1914 tournament.[25]

Nonetheless, some leading players, such as Emanuel Lasker (World Champion from 1894 to 1921), Frank Marshall, Savielly Tartakower, and Aron Nimzowitsch, and later Max Euwe (World Champion from 1935-37) played the Sicilian.[26] Even Capablanca[27][28] and Tarrasch,[29] despite their critical comments, did so occasionally. It was played six times (out of 110 games) at New York 1924.[30] The following year, the authors of Modern Chess Openings (4th edition) wrote, "The Sicilian has claims to be considered as the best of the irregular defences to 1 P-K4 at Black's disposal, and has been practised with satisfactory results by the leading players of the day."[31] In this period Black's approach was usually slow and positional, and the all-out attacks by White that became common after World War II had not yet been developed.[32]

The fortunes of the Sicilian Defence were further revived in the 1940s and 1950s by players such as Isaac Boleslavsky, Alexander Kotov and Miguel Najdorf. Reuben Fine, one of the world's leading players during this time period, wrote of the Sicilian in 1948, "Black gives up control of the center, neglects his development, and often submits to horribly cramped positions. How can it be good? Yet, the brilliant wins by White are matched by equally brilliant wins by Black; time and again the Black structure has been able to take everything and come back for more."[33]

Later, Bent Larsen, Ljubomir Ljubojevic, Lev Polugaevsky, Leonid Stein, Mark Taimanov, and Mikhail Tal all made extensive contributions to the theory of the defence. Through the efforts of world champions Bobby Fischer and Garry Kasparov, the Sicilian Defence became recognized as the defence that offered Black the most winning chances against 1.e4. Both players favoured sharp, aggressive play and employed the Sicilian almost exclusively throughout their careers, giving the defence its present reputation. Today, most leading grandmasters include the Sicilian in their opening repertoire. Some of the current top-level players who regularly use it include Viswanathan Anand, Boris Gelfand, Vassily Ivanchuk, Alexei Shirov, Peter Svidler and Veselin Topalov. In 1990, the authors of Modern Chess Openings (13th edition) noted that "in the twentieth century the Sicilian has become the most played and most analyzed opening at both the club and master levels."[34] In 1965, in the tenth edition of that book, grandmaster Larry Evans observed that, "The Sicilian is Black's most dynamic, asymmetrical reply to 1. P-K4. It produces the psychological and tension factors which denote the best in modern play and gives notice of a fierce fight on the very first move."[35] In Fischer's famous chess biography My 60 Memorable Games, 22 (37%) of the games are Sicilians.[36]