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Friday, September 21, 2012

Combating Anti-Sicilians with ..e5: Introduction

To paraphrase Vizzini, one of the villains from the Princess Bride, most people think twice about going against the Open Sicilian (as White) when death is on the line. This is true in the ranks of amateurs and when playing games in blitz or online; often, this will leave Black facing various Anti-Sicilian setups, such as the Rossolimo and Moscow variations, the Alapin Siclian, the Closed Sicilian, the Grand Prix, and a variety of gambits (Morra, Wing).

Fortunately, there are a number of ways Black can successfully combat these openings, and usually can chose a setup that is similar to their favorite line in the Open Sicilian (Dragon players can fianchetto, Taimanov players can play ..e6 and ..d5, etc). Players who employ the Sveshnikov variation (A group of which I am an occasional member) are often at a loss to achieve similar play versus the Anti-Sicilians as they do when playing the Open Sicilian. 

Move Order-ing the Sveshnikov players

One drastic example of this is a well known method by White to prevent transpositions to the Sveshnikov, while preserving possibility for transpositions other Open Sicilians. This is accomplished by the line 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Nc3, where the response Nf6 does not ensure a transposition to the Open, since White can switch to a Rossolimo Siclian (or for that matter, simply play 4.e5, embrassing the Black Knight).

A radical way to prevent these transpositions is to answer 3.Nc3 with ..e5 , which results in a closed structure and a very different game from what White might have been intending. This highlights the drawback of White's third move; he/she has missed their chance to open the game with 3.d4

This method of playing 3..e5 is in tune with recommendations in Rogozenko's very useful book, 'Fighting the Anti-Sicilians' (In particular if you are a fan of the Sveshnikov). In fact, in some of the lines he recommends against the other Anti-Sicilians (for example, against the Rossolimo, in the line 1.e4…), Black eventually adopts a structure with a pawn on e5. However, this book (and other sources) only recommend this push after a few more moves for White. They rightly suggest Black remain flexible, only committing to ...e5 once it is highly favorable (for example, after White played 5.Re1 in the left side of the above diagram. Closing the e-file makes a lot of sense, since it makes the Rook on e1 less useful.)

No second chances; Stopping d4 from White

So, the question becomes, can Black successfully stop a delayed d4 push if White deviates from playing 2.Nf3 and 3.d4? I think the answer to this question is a yes in a surprising number of cases, although probably not all. It is unlikely this is Black's best approach, and the lines recommended by theory and in chess books are most likely the best chance against strong opposition. In spite of this, there are also some advantages to playing ..e5 as Black at an early stage. You will be dictating the play more than your opponent, and achieving positions much different from many other lines in the Sicilian. It's a sort of Anti-Anti-Sicilian, worthy of a battle of wits with Vizzini!

Let's break down the position after an early ...e5 (the themes are similar for this response in several different Anti-Sicilians)

What does Black need to watch out for in these lines? (What are the direct negative consequences of the ...e5)
  1. Black has left a hole on d5, which White can fill with a Knight. Black should try to undermine d5 (by attacking e4 and playing the d5 break himself) or at least devote a piece to surveillance of that square.
  2. The pawn on e5 can act as a target or a lever for pawn breaks. Although having pawns on e5 and c5 appear to prevent White from achieving the push d2-d4, this is not always the case. With support from a pawn on c3, White can play d4 (In some positions f4 is a possible break as well) In most circumstances, I think it is a bad idea for Black to trade on d4 twice. He might temporarily win a pawn, but the damage to his pawn structure and probable lack of development is likely to be more important in a position that is becoming opened. Instead, I recommend preserving the tension if possible. Of course, to do this, there needs to be a defense to dxe5, dxc5 or d5 on the next move from White.
  3. Black lacks immediate counterplay. The closed and inflexible nature of the positions that arise after ...e5 will usually make generating sharp play difficult (for both sides). Although there will still be opportunities for Black to outplay their opponent in the middlegame, it will probably require plans different than a typical Sicilian counterattack.

What sort of trumps does ...e5 provide Black, other than the possible psychological edge mentioned above?

  1. White will have trouble gaining space. In several Anti-Sicilian lines (particularly ones in which Black has misstepped), White achieves a space advantage on the Kingside by pushing e5. Indeed, this is also a theme throughout several Open Sicilian variations as well. Here, however, this space gaining tactic from White is prevented for a long time.
  2. A clear strategy for containment. Whereas in other Anti-Sicilian lines Black relys on dynamic play to counter White's aggression, here the plans for containing White are likely to be much more simple: cover d5, strongpoint the defense of e5. 
  3. The irrelevance of White's extra tempo. By closing the position, Black helps to make White's extra tempo (by virtue of going first) less relevant.

A few books for further study on the Anti-Sicilians
From Black's Perspective

Reviewed by Jens Madsen
Reviewed by Carsten Hansen
Reviewed by Jeremy Silman
Reviewed by Sotiris Logothetis

Reviewed by Michael Goeller
Reviewed by Bill McGeary
Reviewed by Carsten Hansen
Reviewed by Jeremy Silman

Stay Tuned! Much more (including analysis and games) is on it's way.

This will be the first post in a much larger series devoted to some unusual looking variations in the Sicilian Defense. Some may be unsound, others might almost be mainstream. The goal is to provide some analysis on variations which seem not to be touched by most other sources. I am starting with the early ..e5 based counters to the Anti-Sicilians, and eventually will include lines in the Dragon, the Sveshnikov, the Grivas Siclian, and the Halaz Gambit, among others.

Stay tuned for more articles in this part of the series, covering ..e5 responses to the Rossolimo, the Bc4 Sicilians, the Closed Sicilian, the Grand Prix, and the Alapin!

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