Having fun with the Anti-Sicilians

| 0 | Chess Event Coverage

Why do most Sicilian players dislike all the "Anti-Sicilian" variations? Is it because they can't rely on their preparation and have to think for themselves right from the start? Is it because their opponents refuse to go for the 'principled' battles? Or is it because they simply don't know what they're missing? Two new books on the Anti-Sicilian lines don't try to answer these psychological questions, but they offer plenty of fun for both White and Black, providing new evidence that the 'dreaded' Anti-Sicilians are, quite possibly, much more fun than all those lengthy main lines. Take Peter Heine Nielsen's chapter on 1.e4 c5 2.b3 g6!? in Experts on the Anti-Sicilian, edited by Quality Chess-publishers Jacob Aagaard and John Shaw. A sequel to Experts vs. the Sicilian, published in 2004, Experts on the Anti-Sicilian, according to the editors, "includes articles from many writers, all of them grandmasters and all of them experienced in their field." After 3.Bb2 Nf6 4.Qf3!? Diagram 1 Nielsen suggests the novelty 4...Bg7!? which after 5.e5 Ng8 6.e6 Nf6 7.exf7+ Kxf7 Diagram 2 leads to a position that surely no chess lover should object to playing as either White or Black! Nielsen writes:

The evaluation of 4...Bg7 depends on this position, and I think Black should be fine. He has a firm grip on the centre and easy development for his pieces. White might have the better pawn structure and some attacking chances against Black's king, but the only realistic chance of fighting for the initiative seems to be the engines' suggestion of: 8.g4!? h6 With a messy position (...)

Or what about Boris Avrukh's suggestion on how to treat the Grand Prix Attack, possibly the most hated of all anti-Sicilians? 1.e4 c5 2.Nc3 Nc6 3.f4 e6 4.Nf3 d5 5.Bb5 Nge7 6.exd5 exd5 7.Qe2 Diagram 3 7...f6!

This move is clearly underestimated by theory and is Black's sixth most popular option, according to my database. 7...f6 is not mentioned in Palliser's Fighting the Anti-Sicilians or in Starting Out: Sicilian Grand Prix Attack by GM Gawain Jones, even though Jones mentions four moves for Black in this position. Thus it is a move that will surprise many White players. And indeed it looks a bit strange, since Black's idea is to run away with his king from two pins to the f7-square and then to free his e7-knight. (...)

Great fun, isn't it, and Avrukh backs up his assertions with solid evidence, comes up with many improvements for both White and Black and makes a convincing case for the odd-looking king-shuffle to f7. The book is full of such inspired and well-explained lines and ideas, though not all of the chapters are equally entertaining and fresh. For instance, Jacob Aagaard's chapter on the Alapin Variation (1.e4 c5 2.c3) looks very solid and well-researched, and Aagaard clearly strives to give correct lines rather than funny ones. Likewise, Christian Bauer's chapters on various 2.Nf3, 3.c3 systems make a reliable impression. Arguably the most critical Anti-Sicilian lines are the ones in which White plays 3.Bf1-b5 (either against 2...d6 or 2...Nc6), which in this book are taken on by the creative Swedish GM Tiger Hillarp Persson. I was especially interested in these two chapters because it makes for an interesting comparion with Victor Bologan's new book entitled The Rossolimo Sicilian, published by New in Chess. The Rossolimo Variation is characterized by the moves 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5, often followed by a quick Bb5xc6. In the introduction, Bologan quotes Garry Kasparov himself, writing in The Opening Revolution of the 1970s:

"When I saw the move [3...g6] 4.Bxc6 at a session of our school, I was severely critical of it: "How can one play chess like that?!" I had always had respect for bishops, ever since my childhood, and here White loses a whole tempo as well! I continued to be negative towards this exchange for a long time afterwards, sharing Sveshnikov's opinion [who said "only a madman answers 3...g6 with 4.Bxc6" - AWM]. However, at the startof the 90's, whilst working with Makarychev, I reassessed my attitude to 4.Bxc6, began to analyse the system seriously and even play it myself."

I think many players will recognize Kasparov's initial feelings towards this line, and also his change of mind later on. In my own youth, I used to detest all the Bb5 lines, dismissing them as 'shallow' compared to, say, the Polugaevsky Variation or the Velimirovic Attack - until one day I decided to give it a go myself as White (without having studied a single line of theory) and not only managed to beat a very strong player with it, but also became truly fascinated by the richness of the ensuing positions. It's always easy to have strong opinions about things you don't know much about - it's often only when you dare to delve a little deeper into the matter that you discover your true attitude. (Zadie Smith, in a review of George Clooney's movie Good Night, and Good Luck, begins her essay with the following disclaimer: "I watched it and liked it. Then I spent two hours on the Internet and changed my mind.") Viktor Bologan admits in the book that as he analysed more and more, he often changed his mind about the value of certain lines:

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 d6 4.Bxc6+ I have played this many times and achieved very good practical results. Then I started to lose faith in the line, as it seemed to me that Black has very good play here. Maybe this was the psychological effect of a few games which did not go well for me. But when I began to collect material for this book, I again became convinced that Black faces very difficult problems, and it is hard for him to achieve equality.

The interesting thing is that it is this very line that Bologan and Hillarp Persson seem to disagree on most crucially. Let's have a look at the critical position according to both authors: 4...bxc6 5.0-0 Bg4 6.h3 Bh5 7.e5!? dxe5 8.g4 e4 9.gxh5 exf3 10.Nc3 Nf6 11.Qxf3 Diagram 4 Hillarp Persson writes the following about this tabiya:

I find it hard to believe that Black is worse here, but GMs come back to this position again and again, trying for a little something. There is still no win in sight for White though.

His mainline continues with 11...Nd5 ("This move is the most reliable"), quoting the game Rublevsky-Teterev, Khanty-Mansiysk (ol) 2010, where Black was doing OK and which ended in a draw at move 53. He also looks at 11..Qd7 12.d3 g6 13.h6 Nd5 and 11...Rc8 12.Re1 e6, both leading to reasonable play for Black. Bologan, however, only mentions 11...Qd7 as a possibility for Black. This is especially strange since on the previous page he had praised 7.e5 as being "a very interesting idea of Sergey Rublevsky's - White wants to spoil his opponent's pawn structure in the centre." Yet he then seems to ignore the above-mentioned Rublevsky-Teterev game which is critical to the evaluation of this entire variation! My conclusion is that Hillarp Persson has done his homework better, which I found puzzling in the light of Bologan's life-long devotion to the entire variation. It also makes me more inclined to trust Hillarp Persson's judgement of this variation. There are more signs of sloppiness in The Rossolimo Sicilian. In general, the book suffers from a common disease of chess opening books: confusing move orders and just too many alternatives early on in the variation branches. The above-mentioned line is labelled A221, and we're only at move 10. To me, this kind of 'branching' always leads to chaos in my head, and unless I memorize or write these things down on paper, I always mix stuff up during actual games. (So much for Bologan's encouragement "Get away from theory!"...) More importantly, Bologan sometimes treats entire subsystems in a superficial way that doesn't do them justice. To his credit, he often seems aware of this himself - I just don't think it's a credibile approach for such an ambitious and high-level opening book. For instance, after 3.Bb5 Nf6, he writes that "Chebanenko taught his pupils to play 4.Bxc6, and to this day, I am accustomed to considering this the main move. But first we will examine, albeit briefly, the other white continuation." He then goes on to analyze 4.Nc3, spending just two pages on it, concluding White retains a plus in all lines - whereas it was in fact heavily tested by the world's best players (usually via a slightly different move-order) in the early 2000's. Bologan, instead of mentioning games such as Kasparov-Leko, Anand-Kramnik or Topalov-Van Wely, all played in the period 2000-2005, merely quotes the game Naiditsch-Ni Hua, 2009 and some obscure games by unknown players. Perhaps he has a good reason, but someone (like me) who used to consider this to be a rather serious and complex line, will probably be left wondering what to think. That said, there's plenty of things to enjoy in The Rossolimo Sicilian. Here's an example I liked a lot: 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 g6 4.Bxc6 dxc6 5.h3 Bg7 6.d3 e5 7.Nbd2 Ne7 8.Nc4 Qc7 9.0-0 0-0 10.Be3 b6 11.a4 a5 Diagram 5

12.b4! A brilliant idea, which I learned from Chebanenko. These days, this tactical motif has become well-known, of course. But the first one to play it was another Chebanenko pupil, Viorel Iordachescu, in a game against Alexander Lysenko (Bucharest 1993).

This is a great idea, and Bologan is too modest when he says the motif is "of course" well-known. (I, for one, had never seen it before.) Despite such moments, I missed Bologan's genuine, uncomplicated enthusiasm which he displayed in his previous book, The Chebanenko Slav According to Bologan. Instead, after a while I got a bit weary of his constant praising of and focus on Chebanenko and his pupils, which, I suspect, hindered the author from fully showing the richness of this opening. For instance, his emphasis on White's plan (after 3...g6) with d2-d3 and h2-h3 ("invented by Chebanenko in 1977") and, later on, Nb1-c3 ("that is the way Chebanenko taught his pupils to play the position"), makes him forget another very beautiful and instructive plan in this variation, which made a big impression on me when I first saw it: Glek - Lemmers Belgium 1995 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 g6 4.0-0 Bg7 5.Re1 e5 6.Bxc6 dxc6 7.d3 Ne7 Diagram 6 8.a3!? John Watson, in his modern classic Chess Strategy in Action (2003):

This move intending b4 is the key idea (...), one that White here initiates before developing any other pieces. It has been quite successful in practice, and I believe that it is superior to the other plans more frequently employed in these types of positions. 8...0-0 9.b4 cxb4 10.axb4 Diagram 7 So Black has got rid of his only weakness and the game has been opened. Doesn't this favour his bishops? After all, White cannot even be said to have exposed any weaknesses in his opponent's position. But in fact, White has acted quickly before Black can reorganize his pieces and exploit the two-bishops advantage at his leisure. Notice that the e7-knight and g7-bishop are restricted. With 9.b4, White opens up the a-file and can put pressure on the queenside. Just as importantly, the moves Be3 or Bb2 allow him to open the position still further with d4 if Black allows it.

To me it feels like a missed opportunity that Bologan doesn't mention any of this in his book. For me, the above-mentioned line truly shows the deep complexity and even paradoxical nature of the Rossolimo Variation - much more so than the relatively obvious idea of giving Black doubled pawns and restricting his mobility on the queenside. I understand Bologan intended to write a different kind of book - concerning himself more with the legacy of his trainer than exploring all White's possibilities - but I find it disappointing all the same. Victor Bologan is still a gifted and passionate writer and in his latest book he further builds on the Chebanenko legacy, going beyond the personal and showing an almost evangelical drive to convince his readers. If you want to have fun with the Anti-Sicilians, The Rossolimo Variation and Experts on the Anti-Sicilian provide excellent study material. My own preference is for the latter - it seems more objective, more diverse and more up to date. I think both will help dispel the prejudice against anything that's not the mainline Sicilian.


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