Chess for Zebras is split into three main parts: 'Improving our capacity to improve' (thoughts on why so many players struggle to get better, even when they spend so much time on chess) 'A Mental Toolkit for the Exponential Jungle' (My favourite games and positions from the last few years, organised and annotated thematically) and 'Thinking Colorfully about Black and White'. The following section comes towards the end of the third part of the book, where I am considering 'Black's Advantage' in chess, and whether playing Black is simply a tough chore, or whether Black has any compensating 'advantages' to combat White's undeniable initiative, and alleged advantage:
«What's So Special About The Sicilian?
The previous game suggested that the initiative can't really get anywhere if you keep sufficient 'potential' in your position. However, optimizing potential is not so easy, and depends a lot on playing good openings. Regardless of the opening you play, you should keep the idea of potential in mind, but the Sicilian provides a particularly clear example of how to maximize potential, and to make White 'pay' for his initiative.
1 e4 c5
We tend to take The Sicilian for granted these days, rattle off a well-worn sequence of moves in our favourite sharp main line or trusted sideline and then 'look up' around move 10 or 15 and start to think about what's going on. 1...c5 is so familiar and respected now that we rarely ask why it is played so often, and with such success. Indeed, most statistical surveys suggest that 1d4 is the most successful first move for White, but only because 1...c5! scores so highly against 1.e4.
But what's the big deal? Far from being obviously compelling, the move actually looks a bit pointless. I mean, look at it: no pieces are developed with this move, and the pawn on c5 only controls d4 and b4. So far it's not particularly impressive, so why is it so hard for White to gain an advantage after this move?
To my mind there is quite a straightforward explanation. In order to profit from the initiative granted by the first move, white has to make use of his opportunity to do something before Black has an equal number of opportunities of his own. However, to do this, he has to make 'contact' with the Black position. This first point of contact usually comes in the form of a pawn exchange, which leads to the opening of the position. If Black declines such an offer to open the position, White will usually gain a lot of space.
So the thought behind 1...c5 is this: "OK, I'll let you open the position, and develop your pieces aggressively, but at a price- you have to give me one of your centre pawns."2 Nf3 d6
The great Dane, Bent Larsen, is often misquoted as calling the Sicilian a 'cheap trap'. In fact he felt that White was the one trying to catch Black in a cheap trap, but at a large price- that of an extra center pawn. Here is the original statement taken from How to Open a Chess Game:
"Almost everyone plays 3 d4. But isn't that a positional error? I am not joking. I like my centre pawns, and I like a QP better than a QBP! I know that sometimes White sacrifices a knight on d5 or e6 and smashes Black before he can castle, but in those games where this has been done, haven't improvements always been found for Black afterward? Well then, isn't 3 d4 something like a cheap trap? I know it can be combined with purely strategical ideas, but I find it easier to discuss strategy when I have an extra centre pawn!"
I love this statement, especially the last line, which resonates with my own feelings about open Sicilians, which I have been playing with both colours for over ten years. As Black, I feel like I lag in development and have to be very careful for ten moves or so, but as White I feel a deeper sense of pressure, as if somehow my position is not fully sound. Indeed, it is largely because I stopped looking forward to playing against Sicilians that I have recently switched from 1.e4 to 1.d4.»
Hopefully this snippet of Chess for Zebras sheds light on what makes Anti-Sicilians so appealing. Some players play Anti-Sicilians because they have never thought of doing anything else, some (e.g. Tiviakov) because they genuinely believe that White has better ways to combat the Sicilian than quickly exchanging d-pawn for c-pawn, but most, I believe, simply don't want to get embroiled in the theoretical fog that surrounds the main line Sicilians.
I am not sure which of these categories, if any, you fall into, but keep in mind that the effort to understand anti-Sicilians has some wider relevance to chess. 1e4 is considered white's most dangerous first move. 1...c5 is considered Black's most combative and (statistically) effective reply. The anti-Sicilians are therefore white's attempt to have his proverbial cake and eat it- he wants the advantage of the first move without the strategic risk and theoretical burden of the open Sicilians. If he can achieve this, then I guess it really is an advantage to be White, and playing 1e4 is likely to be the best way to make use of this advantage. But if the Anti-Sicilians don't get anywhere, then the whole first move issue is much less clear.
C3 Sicilian [B22]
Anyway, returning to recent games, and following from the notes to Tiviakov-Gormally from last month's update, IM Wisnewski wrote to inform me of analysis by Rozentalis and Harley. White's best try for an advantage in the line in question is probably: 1 e4 c5 2 c3 Nf6 3 e5 Nd5 4 Bc4!? Nb6 5 Bb3 Nc6 6 Nf3 d6 7 ed Qxd6 8 Na3!? a6 9 0-0 Bf5 and now 10 d4 cd 11 Nxd4! Nxd4 12 cd e6 13 Qf3!:
and then quickly following up with the pawn sacrifice, d5, after both 13...Qd7 and 13...Qc6. This does seem quite promising for White, but we can return to this line to make sure, if subscribers are interested.
Ledger - Ward saw the popular line with 4...Nc6 and 5...Bg4 and the attempted refutation 6 dc!?:
This game seems to be important theoretically and although it looked like a clean win from White, I suggest two possible improvements for Black, at least one of which should be playable.
Black's play was ambitious in Sowray - Gormally but although he held on to the pawn he grabbed, his position remained cramped, and he didn't time his break-out very well.
Howell - Wells was curious if only because last month's update also featured a game in which David eschewed a threefold repetition and then went on to lose. This particular game featured one of the main lines of the c3 Sicilian, but one that is no longer thought to be dangerous for Black.
Stevic - Kozul is important simply because Kozul has probably played against the C3 Sicilian more than any other GM on the planet, and therefore should know what he is doing. In this case he seemed to equalise comfortably, but I don't think White was ever in much danger of being worse.
Ni Hua-Morozevich saw a classy performance from the Russian heavyweight, and was a great example of how to beat a player who is clearly trying to force a draw with White.
Tiviakov - Berkes Featured 2...e6 and therefore transposed into French-like territory quite quickly:
Black's opening play seems a bit ambitious to me, but for once Tiviakov didn't manage to put the 'ball in the back of the net'.
Closed Sicilian [B20 & B25]
I have included Stripunksy - Charbonneau because I was quite intrigued by Black's novel play in the opening:
The closed Sicilian is ripe for this kind of adventurism, and given that White's set-up is not immediately threatening, Black often has some time to play with. However, while such an approach is suitable against mild-manner players who want to play the first ten moves without thinking, I would be wary of playing this way against somebody a bit more bloodthirsty.
Morra Gambit [B21]
I decided to incorporate the game Kobernat - Wojtkewicz (in which White is outrated by around 500 elo points!) because it shows that Black should treat the Morra with respect, even when he seems to have emerged from the opening in relative safety. It just took one slack move and one bad one for the position to become difficult, but Black didn't adjust in time and a losing blunder soon followed.
Finally, Grischuk - Zhang was an impressively controlled display from Grischuk in a must-win situation versus 5...Qc7:
Black didn't seem to do much wrong, but quickly found himself under pressure and then his sensible-looking pawn sacrifice somehow fell short.
That's all for this month. Next month I am planning to look at 3.Bb5+ Nd7!? And some of the c3 Sicilian lines where White takes on d4 with the queen. Jonathan