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2.c3 Sicilian [B22]
"I have Palliser's "Fighting the Anti-Sicilians" which recommends 2....d5 3.exd5 Qxd5 4.Nf3 e6 line. It looks solid to me but I'm not sure that it gives enough winning chances. Secondly I looked at 2...e6 3.d4 d5 with transpositions to French-like positions. 4.e5 Advance is comfortable for me but again the lines after 4.exd5 exd5 seem to lead to solid and relatively equal positions. Last but not least I've started exploring the common 2...Nf6 and they seem to be deeply analyzed but may ultimately give the most chances for Black.
Can you give me any advice on where to focus my studies emphasizing preserving better winning chances for Black than the French Exchange?"
This is a very good question, and one that I get surprisingly often. The best advice I can give is this:
Don't change your repertoire; instead, change your attitude!
I've been playing the 2.c3 Sicilian for over 20 years now, and it's not because I think it gives White an objective advantage. Nor is it because I'm too lazy to learn the Open Sicilians, which I do play on occasion. Rather, the reason is that I really appreciate the fact that in the Alapin, I can choose in most lines whether to play for a win or a draw, and this flexibility is often very handy. The disadvantage of this, of course, is that there are several solid lines for Black that achieve easy equality out of the opening, and realistically that is not something for the second player to complain about. In fact, if you search for black wins from 2.c3 grandmaster games, you'll see that most of them come from main lines where Black achieves exactly this sort of stale equality the reader mentions.
Sure, there are less winning chances than in a razor-sharp Najdorf, but on the other hand, equality should be Black's primary aim from the opening. Against players of equal or greater strength, this is of course a perfectly acceptable result. Moreover, it's my opinion that there's no such thing as 'completely stale equality'; often the stronger player wins the completely equal middlegames simply by confidence, a positive attitude and above all a more focussed approach to the position. And don't just take my word for it; ask World Champion Magnus Carlsen...
As far as specifics go, I've always thought that 2...e6 is one of Black's best choices against the 2.c3 Sicilian, so long as you're not worried about playing the French Advance. Certainly the Exchange Variation is no reason to stop playing the French; with a bit of study and a fresh attitude, you'll find that this opening is rich in possibilities for both players. Myself, I love seeing 3.exd5 appear on the board; I've faced the Exchange Variation from the Black side on 11 occasions, resulting in 6 wins, 4 draws and 1 loss. As for the main lines of the 2.c3 Sicilian, both 2...Qxd5 with ...Bf5, and the main lines after 2...Nf6 with ...d6/Nc6, are holding up well these days. If Black knows what he's doing, equality is practically guaranteed. On the other hand, if you truly are in a must-win situation, you might consider one of the sidelines on move 2 such as 2...g6 or 2...d6. These variations lead to rich positions that are less explored than the main lines. However, I have to stress that they are called sidelines for a reason; as opposed to the main moves, these variations should be better for White with best play. That's the risk you take!
2.c3 Sicilian 2...Nf6, 5...d6 [B22]
In saying all of this, we'll specifically focus on the 2.c3 Sicilian for the most part this issue. I've tried to cover a diverse range of options from the black side. We start with Istratescu - Greenfeld in which Black decides to deviate from the main paths with the sideline 7...dxe5:
This has always seemed practically illogical in my opinion as it gives White the choice of whether to engage in sharp tactics or a pleasant endgame. Here we see White choose the latter, giving us a master class in how to play these sorts of endgames in the process.
Nisipeanu - Radjabov features the same line, but this time the talented Romanian grandmaster shows us that White has a third option: heading straight for a draw! Indeed, after 8.Nxe5 Black probably has nothing better than heading for a drawn endgame - this time, immune to the power of positive thinking! Attempts by Black to avoid this end badly, as one of my games in the notes demonstrates.
2.c3 Sicilian 2...d5, 5...Bf5 [B22]
It's always nice to see what a top 2.c3 Sicilian player chooses to employ on the other side of the table, and in Krauss - Nisipeanu we see the 2...d5/Bf5 system appear once more:
For some reason, white players still seem to be caught off-guard by this system, continuing to play 7.Na3 in the diagram rather than the safer 7.Be2. To be fair, I show in the notes that White should be able to hold a wild, tactical draw with best play, but it's a tightrope. In the game, Black records a quick 21 move win.
Tiviakov - Ruiz Sanchez sees the same line, but this time with the Dutch Antis expert trying out 7.Nbd2?!. If Super Tivvy struggles against this system, then it must be worth a look!
In the diagram position Black uncorked the stupendous 8...dxe3!! after which White is practically lost.
2.c3 Sicilian 2...Nf6, delayed d2-d4 [B22]
Vachier Lagrave-Sutovsky features 2...Nf6 with the delayed d2-d4 push. This is White's best choice at the moment, and MVL shows why Black should really stick to the main lines here as well.
Early ...Bf5 moves are quite common, particularly at club level, though usually the c-pawns have been exchanged by now. In the notes I show why this omission makes a big difference, and indeed Black, a very experienced and strong grandmaster, is already in huge trouble after just ten moves. I'll say it again: The main lines are the main lines for a reason!
Rossolimo Variation 3...e6 4 Bxc6, 6 h4!? [B30]
Of course, I can't completely ignore the other Antis. S.Zhigalko-Shirov features the very interesting 6.h4!? idea in the diagram:
I really like this somewhat narrow-minded idea, not least because it actually is rooted in fundamental logic. The game is a wild tactical melee that eventually ends in a draw, but there are several places where White might look to improve, such as some promising alternatives on move 10. We'll take more of a look at this line next month.
Rossolimo 3...g6 4 Bxc6 dxc6, 6...b6 [B31]
Almasi - Saric investigates 6...b6, quite a nifty little move that has been covered before a couple of times:
White uncorks a spectacular sacrificial novelty in the game, but despite some over-the-board venom, it shouldn't hang around too long in the theoretical manuals. An exciting draw results.
Moscow Variation 3...Nd7 4 d4 [B51]
Finally, it would be remiss of me to leave out the final game of the recent World Championship match. While Carlsen - Anand isn't really anything special from a theoretical perspective, it is of course of immense historical importance, and particularly the move that came in the diagrammed position, in which Carlsen ensured he would finally claim the crown.
It seems somehow fitting to end with a game by the world's strongest player, who has well and truly made his motto "There's no such thing as a dead draw"!
Til next month, Dave
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