Review: The Sicilian Defence

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Review: The Sicilian DefenceWould GM Lubomir Ftacnik like to play an opposite-bishop ending with a pawn down against me straight from the opening? I was left with this question after enjoying his latest work on the Sicilian Defence, published in the Grandmaster Repertoire series.

It's no surprise Ftacnik, who is a life-time expert on the Sicilian Najdorf, was selected for the task to write the part on the Sicilian in the excellent series published by Quality Chess. The Sicilian Defence offers a complete repertoire against 1.e4 for the serious chess player. Its original approach (all chapters are named after famous movies!) and Ftacnik's enthusiastic style of writing add to the general picture that this is an excellent guide for anyone who wants to start playing the Sicilian. However, some of the author's choices are a bit hard to understand. More about this later on.

An important element in any opening book is its treatment of sidelines. If sidelines are treated sloppily, you can be pretty sure it's a bad opening book in general. Therefore, it's extremely pleasant to note Ftacnik gives moves like 2.Na3!? and 2.b3 the serious attention they deserve. Of the dreaded Morra Gambit, he says that, despite it's "cheap appearances" it's nevertheless "nearly correct" - which sounds like a great compliment to me. Let's have a look at his recommendation against this strange gambit, of which he writes:

After considering several different defensive set-ups, I finally found an answer that satisfied me. The set-up I am recommending avoids most of White's early attacking ideas and leads to a solid position in which Black will have decent chances to retain his extra pawn.

After this, I was a bit surprised to see that Ftacnik's solution, after 1.e4 c5 2.d4 cxd4 3.c3 dxc3 4.Nxc3 Nc6 5.Nf3 is simply to play 5...d6 which, although indeed not the most popular, is also the line preferred by the strongest players, at least according to my database. Moreover, this very same line is also recommended by John Watson in his latest book Mastering the Chess Openings, recently reviewed on this site as well. (It is also suggested by Gallagher in his 2003 book Beating the Anti-Sicilians.)

The critical position arises after 6.Bc4 a6 7.0-0 Nf6 after which 8.b4!? certainly seems to be White's most principled option.

Now Black can't take on b4 due to 9.e5! but both Watson and Ftacnik think 8...e6!? is a logical reply to White's agressions. Ftacnik now looks at 9.Qe2, 9.b5, 9.a4 and 9.Qb3 (his main line), concluding Black is fine in all lines, but he doesn't mention Watson's own suggestion 9.a3 which in fact seems the best move in this position. Indeed, Watson's book is not mentioned in the bibliography, but apparently Ftactnik also didn't have a look at this critical position with an engine: Rybka instantly suggests 9.a3 as White's first option as sticks with this opinion even after prolonged thinking. A missed opportunity.

It's always risky for a reviewer to concludes things from a single example. In this case, isn't it tempting to simply assume the author has probably paid little ideas to White's side of the Sicilian because he's written a book for Black? This would certainly be quite typical for some type of authors, but fortunately, Ftacnik is not one of them. Although, clearly, most improvements and suggestions are indeed from Black's perspective, the book contains many examples where new ideas for White have been found by Ftacnik. In the following (heavily abbreviated) fragment, the author presents an important nuance for White, reviving an entire variation.

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6 6.Rg1!? e5 7.Nb3 Be6 8.g4 d5! 9.g5 Nxe4 10.Nxe4 dxe4 11.Qxd8+ Kxd8

White's slight lead in development should enable him to regain his pawn, but not to claim any advantage.

12.Be3 Kc7 13.Bg2 h6! 14.gxh6 g6 Obviously Black prefers to recapture on h6 with a piece rather than a pawn. Now the rook on g1 will be largely ineffective, and the h2-pawn might become a serious weakness later in the game.

15.Bxe4 Nd7 16.0-0-0 Bxh6 17.Bxh6 Rxh6 18.Rg3 Rc8 19.Bd5 Bf5!? 20.Bxf7 Kb8 21.c3 Nf6

Here I found an improvement for White:

22.Nd2!N In the following game White soon found himself in trouble: 22.Rdg1? Nh5 22.Re3 Nf4 23.Rd1 Rxh2 -/+ Fontaine-Relange, Clichy 1998.

22...Rf8 23.Bb3 Rxh2 The position should be equal, although Black's pieces are slightly more active.

In many lines, Ftacnik knows exactly what's going on, which are the key positions and where attention should be focused on. A good example is the 6.g3 line against the Najdorf (titled Sideways, after Alexander Payne's great film). I've played this line myself many times so trust me, what Ftacnik recommends here is truly irritating for White:

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6 6.g3 e5 7.Nb3 Be7 8.Bg2 b5 9.0-0 Nbd7 10.Bd2!?

This funny little move, introduced in the early 2000s by Sergei Movsesian, is White's big hope in this variation. The clever idea is to prepare a2-a4 and then after b5-b4 to follow up with c2-c3, targeting the b4 and a5 squares. Ftacnik realizes this is indeed a dangerous line for Black, but he rightly suggests Boris Gelfand's absolutely annoying 10...0-0 11.Re1 Nb6! after which 12.a4 Bg4! is already in Black's favour. This is exactly the sort of thing you want from a serious book on the Najdorf titled 'Grandmaster Repertoire': selecting the most relevant antidote to White's sly plans and presenting it in a logical and ordered way.

After discussing the 'old' main moves 6.Bc4, 6.Be2 and 6.f4 in an impressive way, Ftacnik slowly but steadily reaches the most important part the book: the 6.Be3 (English Atttack) and 6.Bg5 (Classical Main Line) complexes of the Najdorf. Let's see what the author has up his sleeve against the second-most popular 6.Be3 before moving on to the core of the book.

Actually, Ftacnik analyses both 6...e6 7.g4 (Perenyi) and the most principled reply 6...e5, leaving Blackwith a (difficult!) personal choice to make (assuming he wants to make one), a big advantage over your average repertoire book. It is a bit surprising, perhaps, that after 6...e5 7.Nb3 Be6 8.f3 his main line continues with the unorthodox-looking 8...h5!? (preventing g2-g4), which however has been played on the highest level - among others, by Veselin Topalov. Ftacnik assures the reader that "8...h5!? leads to rich and dynamic positions in which Black should be able to maintain a fair share of his chances." Sounds good, no?

So here's what happened when I followed Ftacnik's recommendation in a blitz game with black against an (anonymous) GM on ICC. I duly followed his advice and after playing a few strictly logical moves went straight into an endgame: 9.Qd2 Nbd7 10.Nd5 Bxd5 11.exd5 Qc7!? 12.0-0-0 Nb6 13.Qa5 Rc8 14.c3 Nc4 15.Qxc7 Rxc7 16.Bxc4 Rxc4 17.Na5 Rc7

This position is equal according to Ftacnik and I don't want to question his judgement, but I think it may come a bit early given the fact that Black hasn't fully developed yet. Unfortunately, Ftacnik doesn't really elaborate on how to do this, which may leave readers a bit underprepared for White's perspective on things. For instance, in the above-mentioned blitz game, play continued 18.Bb6 (Ftacnik only gives 18.Rhe1) 18...Rc8 19.Rhe1 Nd7 20.Bf2 Rc7 21.Re4 Be7? 22.Rb4! and White was on top.

Obviously Black can and should do better than this, but Ftacnik doesn't say how, and anyway it seems to me White is trying to prove an advantage here, not Black. (For what it's worth, Rybka agrees with this.) Is that something to look forward to when you're thinking of incorporating the Najdorf into your repertoire?

This question is even more relevant when we turn to the classical main line, 6.Bg5. Here, Ftacnik's suggestion is also surprising: after 6...e6 7.f4 he recommends the Browne System with 7...h6!?, saying it is "underrated and possibly due for a resurgence in the near future." (Strangely, Ftacnik doesn't mention the variation's official name.) This is a strong statement given the fact that, apart from the main move 7...Be7, other moves such as 7...Nbd7 (sometimes called the "Gelfand Variation") and 7...Qb6 (the Poisoned Pawn) are decidedly more popular, both on club and professional level, than the little rook pawn's move. But let's see what Ftacnik has up his sleeve in this line.

His treatment of the various highly complex lines is impressive and very much in the spirit of a 'grandmaster repertoire' indeed. For the average, if aspiring, club player, the (wordy) explanations of what's actually going which characterize many popular opening books, on is probably a bit thin in this chapter. However, Ftacnik does present some very spectacular improvements over existing games - including his own! Here's his analysis of a very recent game he played in the Max Euwe Centre in Amsterdam against the Dutch talent Robin van Kampen. I was actually a spectator during this game and I was pleasantly surprised to see it incorporated into this book already.

Van Kampen - Ftacnik Amsterdam 2010

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6 6.Bg5 e6 7.f4 h6 8.Bh4 Be7 9.Qf3 Nbd7 10.0-0-0 Qc7 11.Be2 b5 12.e5 Bb7 13.exf6 Bxf3 14.Bxf3 Ftacnik writes that during his game with Van Kampen, he had forgotten his own home analysis.

14...Bxf6 15.Bxf6 Now he wanted to play 15...Rc8 but "was struggling to remember all the nuances of the more complicated lines", so opted for the safe 15...Nxf6 instead. (Not unimportantly, his overall recommendation for Black in this line is to go for 14...d5 even though that, too, is extremely complicated.)

However, let's see what Ftacnik had analysed after 15...Rc8: 16.Bxg7 Rh7

Here I found a strong new idea for White, which casts a dark shadow over Black's 15th move.

17.f5!!N Previous games had seen 17.Bh5 Qc5! Black must be careful, as the white pieces are very mobile and dangerous. (17...Rxg7? 18.Nxe6 Qc4 19.Rhe1 Rxg2 20.Rd4!N (...) 20...Rxh2 21.Nc5+ Kd8 22.Rxc4 Nxc5 23.Rxc5 Rxc5 24.Bxf7 +/-) 18.f5! Rxg7 19.Nxe6 Qe3+ 20.Kb1 This position was reached in Euwe-Tal, corr. 1961, and Black should have played 20...Rg8! 21.Rhe1 Rxc3 22.bxc3 (...) 22...Qxc3 23.Nc7+ Kd8 24.Nd5 Qc5 25.Bxf7 Rf8 26.Be6 White narrowly manages to maintain the balance thanks to his well-coordinated pieces in the centre.

17...Rxg7 Black is not helped by 17...e5 18.f6 exd4 19.Rxd4 Nf8 20.Re1+ Ne6 21.Rd2! +/-

18.fxe6 Ne5 The defender must exercise extreme caution. For instance, 18...Nb6? is swiftly punished after: 19.Rhf1 Qc5 20.exf7+ Rxf7 21.Ne4 Qe5 22.Nxd6+ Qxd6 23.Bh5 +-

19.Be4 Qc5 20.Nd5! This is stronger than 20.Nf5 fxe6 21.Nxg7+ Kf7 22.Nxe6 Kxe6 23.Rhf1 Qe3+ 24.Kb1 Rxc3 25.Bd5+ Kd7 26.bxc3 Qxc3 when Black escapes to equality.

20...fxe6 21.Nxe6 Qa7 22.Nxg7+ Qxg7 23.Rhf1

Black is surviving for the moment, but he is certainly under pressure.

I've chosen this lengthy and frankly overwhelming (in terms of complications) fragment because it is a good illustration of what I generally think of the book. First of all, it's packed with fresh and novel ideas. Secondly, it's very much up-to-date, including the most recent games and analysis. The book is also very concrete, often filled more with variations and moves than with explanations and well-argued assessments.

At times it is also, I felt, a bit inconclusive: even after digesting all that Ftacnik writes, the reader still has a lot of work to do before he can confidently play any of these lines! Another thing this excerpt shows is that Ftacnik sometimes gets a little carried away in his own enthusiasm. After all, let's not forget we're looking at a sideline (15...Rc8) of a sideline (14....d5) here. Though it is surely fascinating to look at all this crazy stuff, it's also important not to lose focus of the main road.

We're now ready to have a look at Ftacnik's main line, which could be regarded as his main recommendation against 6.Bg5 in the Najdorf, and try answer the question I posed at the start of this review.

After 12.Bxf6 (instead of 12.e5 which was discussed in the previous fragment) 12...Nxf6 13.e5 Bb7 14.Qg3 dxe5 15.fxe5 Nd5 16.Nxe6! fxe6 17.Qg6+ Kd7 18.Bg4 Qxe5 19.Nxd5 Qg5+! Ftacnik writes: "This should enable Black to hold the balance, although in certain lines he will have to defend a mildly unpleasant endgame."

He then suggests 20.Ne3+!? as White's best try, but let's instead look at 20.Qxg5 which after 20...Bxg5+ 21.Kb1 Bxd5 22.Rxd5+ Kc7 23.Re5 Rhe8 24.Rhe1 Rad8 25.Rxe6 Rxe6 26.Rxe6 Rd6 leads to the following position:

The presence of rooks on the board can certainly reduce the drawish tendencies of opposite-coloured bishops. Still, with no weaknesses and little material remaining, Black's drawing chances are very high indeed.

Here's the question: would Ftacnik, heartily recommending this system for Black, be prepared to play this position with Black against, say, me? A pawn down in an endgame straight from the opening? Well, asking the question is answering it, of course: I bet he wouldn't! If this is Black's best option with the Najdorf, then I'm pretty sure many players will abandon it straight away. Sure enough, Ftacnik also has a look at the increasingly popular 6...Nbd7, but since the game Giri-Gelfand from this year's Youth vs. Experience tournament in Amsterdam, we know this can lead via a move transposition to the Gelfand Variation (see ChessVibes Openings #86!), which Ftacnik does not analyse.

My conclusion is that Ftacnik, while presenting a stunningly high-level opening book, still doesn't convincingly solve the problem of 6.Bg5 (though possibly that's because the problem simply doesn't have a solution!). His solution of recommending the Browne System is interesting, but if the best Black can get is an opposite endgame with a pawn down, where the verdict is 50%-50% (sometimes you draw, sometimes you lose!), then I'm not sure which readers will be motivated to start studying this complex stuff in the first place. Now, I'm tempted to think Ftacnik made the wrong decision and it would have been better to recommend either the Poisoned Pawn or the Gelfand Variation, which would also fit better with his analysis of 6...Nbd7.

This criticism notwithstanding, The Sicilian Defence is, of course, a wonderful opening book. I've already used it myself to successfully chase away annoying little sidelines and it has helped me understand what's going on in most Najdorf variations. While I don't think it presents an entirely consistent repertoire against the classical main line (6.Bg5), Ftacnik's enthusiasm for 7...h6 is contagious enough to have a closer look at. This is a book all lovers of the Sicilian (both White and Black) will thoroughly enjoy. It provides food for thought for many years to come.


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