Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Sicilian Reflections

The Sicilian is an interesting and singular opening within chess, and I've spent a lot of time studying it and thinking about its various branches. One thing that has always interested me is the mindset of open Sicilians versus 'anti' Sicilians. Examples of open Sicilians being the Dragon, Najdorf, etc. 'Anti' Sicilians are the Closed, Grand Prix attack, the Moscow, basically anything where white's second and third move aren't Nf3 and d4. Top 1.e4 players all play open Sicilians the majority of the time, though there are a few 2600+ GMs who consistently employ some of the 'anti' Sicilians. The best example of this is probably Tiviakov, who in fact maintains that the Alapin (charactierized by 2.c3) is a better try for advantage than the open Sicilians. When I used to play 1.e4, I always played the open Sicilians. I thought of it as a point of honor in a way to play what I thought were the 'best' moves, rather than cede equality to black by playing some inferior 'anti' Sicilian system. Now I'm not so sure.

For one thing, I used to play 1...e5 as black in response to 1.e4. Having no experience on the black side of the Sicilian and having never played the white side of any 'anti' Sicilians, I really had no basis for comparison other than what the top guys play. Since I've been playing the Sicilian as black, I've gained a lot of respect for the various systems at white's disposal. I find that I have more trouble against some 'anti' Sicilians that I do against open Sicilians. This is partly because I play the Classical variation of the open Sicilian, against which the Richter-Rauzer is the most testing response. However, nobody at my level plays the Richter-Rauzer because it's very theory intense and not a weapon they're going to use much (the Classical pales in popularity to the Najdorf and the Dragon at amateur level). People who play open Sicilians against me usually get a look of slight confusion on their face when I play 5.d6 and revert to either the English attack or play 6.Be2, neither of which are that scary. The 'anti' Sicilian players on the other hand know exactly what they're doing and often have a lot of practice doing it. After all, they get to play the same system every time an opponent answers 1.e4 with 1...c5. Open Sicilian players on the other hand may only see a given variation once in a blue moon. Think about it. If you as white play 6 Sicilians in a tournament and play 2 Najdorfs, a Dragon, a Sveshnikov, an Accellerated Dragon, and a Kan, you have to know so much more and be comfortable in so many more positions than someone who plays the Closed Sicilian.

Another thing to consider is that you really shouldn't go by what top players play. I don't mean that it's bad to play what they play, because it isn't. What I mean is that you shouldn't automatically play what the best play because their situation is completely different than ours. Two big things jump out when you start assessing the variations of the top guys. The first is that they have a lot of time to learn as many systems as needed. They're professionals who usually have seconds, plus they're so good that they can play any position they're given well. The second consideration, tied closely to the first, is that the top guys have the advantage of knowing what their opponents play. They can look in a database and see 'Hey Kasparov plays the Najdorf, and against the English attack he plays the Ng4 line'. This is a huge advantage because it means they only have to study one or two systems for each opponent. If you read match books (Tal-Botvinnik 1960 for example) you can get a feel for how much of a guessing game it is for top guys to figure out what their opponents are going to play. At that level it's also incredibly important because getting an edge in the opening really matters. Not so much at the class level.

Where I'm going with all this is that I think soon I'm going to start playing 1.e4 again and I think I'm going to play the Grand Prix Attack. Not because I think it's better than the open Sicilians, but because it entails so much less study time and I like the positions I get when I play it online. Here's a 5/0 blitz game I played using it on ICC. The game is of course not perfect, but it gives you an idea of how natural and strong white's play is:

Grand Prix Example.pgn

There are something like 4-5 legitimate answers for black against the Grand Prix, as opposed to hundreds of possible playable lines black can choose in the open Sicilian. It just cuts down on the number of things for white to study, bringing the Sicilian in line with the French or Open Games in terms of preparatory time. Frankly, I have a lot of trouble with the Grand Prix as black and I think it's a good system for white. I've also had my share of trouble against the Closed Sicilian and the Alapin, while the Bb5 variations are almost as main line these days as the open variations. A year ago I might have thought you were a little bit of a bitch if you didn't play the open Sicilians. Now I'm starting to wonder why any non-professional does so at all. Now if I can just find a way to get an attack against that damn Scandinavian, I'll be back to 1.e4 for good...


CHESSX said...

Good game.
Did 3.f4 used to be the keres attack?
I think i will use this against the sicillan next time.
anything that helps to shorten the time spent preping is good very good.
But 3.f4 is a big commiment early in the game.

Caeruleum Canis said...

The Keres attack is actually characterized by an early g4 against the Scheveningen. 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 e6 6.g4 I believe is the main line. I wouldn't worry too much about 3.f4 being a big commitment. It really isn't weakening in any way, it just facilitates development on the kingside.

theRomantic said...

Interesting stuff. I came to many of the same conclusions you did, but I ended up playing the Open Sicilian as White and 1. ... e5 as black. My main thinking was that, yes, playing the Open Sicilian as White is in a sense, walking into a trap because your opponent should be more booked up than you in a sharp opening. Same to some extent with ... e5.

But I decided that, as a student of the game, there's really no better way to learn to attack with a combination of pawns and pieces than play the Open Sicilian. Likewise I think playing the open games and Ruy Lopez as black is a great education that is hard to pass up.

Another consideration that I had was that, while I also disliked playing against the Exchange Lopez (and still do to some extent), I can't imagine playing against the Bb5 or c3 Sicilian would be any more fun, which I figured I'd be facing all the time as black if I played a Sicilian.

Last, from a practical standpoint, now I'm actually not so sure the Open Sicilian is such a bad choice as White. Sure I have gotten massacred in many Najdorf and Dragon games, where I played moves that I'm sure my opponent read in his book "... and of course White won't play xx??? because then blah blah blah blah#" But every time I lose a game like that, I get a little better, and now I'm finding I'm winning a lot of games where it feels like I'm better prepared than my opponents, in lines like the Najdorf PP. And I don't even study the theory much. I think it may be that, while it is Black's "home turf" so to speak, he only gets to play on this field in practical terms maybe 10% of the time, whereas I play the Open Sicilian in maybe 40% of my games as White.

Who knows. Anyway, interesting stuff.

One thing I thought was interesting though was your choice of the Grand Prix, over something like the Bb5 or Alapin.

Caeruleum Canis said...

It's funny you'd say that, because the main reason I stopped playing 1...e5 is because of the exchange Lopez. I found that it was very hard to get counterplay and in addition white has a very straightforward, if dull, plan of exchanging all the pieces and trying to win the ending. The two (!?) games that I got to play in the mainline Open Spanish I drew one against a much higher rated player, and completely rolled someone of my own rating. The 4-5 games I played the black side of the exchange I think I lost almost all of them. I find the anti-Sicilian lines much more interesting for black than the exchange Lopez. As for why I chose the Grand Prix: the Alapin is very dull in many lines, the Bb5 lines are very strong but can't be played against e6 move orders, and the Closed is very similar to the Grand Prix and I would consider playing it as well.

As to your comment on playing the Open Sicilians, I agree that it does a lot for teaching you double edged chess such as how to handle positions with competing flank attacks, and I also agree that not as many Sicilian players know the theory as one might think, but at the same time it is a commitment to learn A LOT of different positions. While that's not a bad thing (I like learning lots of positions), from a practical standpoint is can siphon time away from learning how to play a wide variety of different position types from the various other defenses at black's disposal. I can sympathize with your opinion however, as I felt that way for a long time myself and continue to do so in an idealistic's just not practical for me anymore. Thanks for the long comment.