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Kostya On Chess: Learning to Love the Open Sicilian Print E-mail
By Kostya Kavutskiy   
April 16, 2015
kavutskiy.jpgI'd like to provide a backstory in order to fully express my relationship with the Sicilian Defense. Back when I had been approaching Expert level I used to play 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 with White, and respond to anything Black played with 3.Bc4, followed by d3, 0-0, and maybe Nc3 or c3 depending on what setup my opponent would choose. Not knowing any theory, I decided to treat the Sicilian like the Italian Game and "just play chess". I wasn't averse to studying openings, I knew that the Open Sicilian was the most ambitious try for an advantage, but I was inherently a bit scared of playing 3.d4 and opening up the center so early on in the game. I was worried that my opponents would be much better versed in the ideas and tactics of their favorite Sicilian and that I would often miss common traps and Rxc3+ Nxe4 combos and the like.

A serious coach then showed me 1.d4, which I started employing in early 2009 and have remained loyal to ever since. In a way this kind of buried my real issue under the rug-I didn't have an opening problem, I was lacking confidence in my tactical skill, probably due to a lack thereof. As a result I also started to play more positionally, focusing on having a good pawn structure, doubling my rooks on open files and exchanging the right minor pieces. I became a master this way, but continued to neglect my ability to calculate and thus felt uncertain during sharp encounters. This was detrimental to my overall progress and I wrote earnestly about what I did to overcome this problem a couple of years ago.

Fast-forwarding a bit, in the Spring of 2012 I agreed to write an opening book for Metropolitan Chess Publishing, a brand new publishing imprint at the time. My co-author was my good friend IM Zhanibek Amanov, who I'd met through the series of tournaments known as the Metropolitan Chess FIDE Invitationals. Zhanibek and I were already working part-time for Metro Chess and knew Ankit Gupta, the president and founder, quite well. Ankit wanted Metro Chess to become the premier chess publisher within the U.S. and we were quite excited at the idea of becoming authors and sharing our thoughts on chess with the rest of the world.

After some deliberation Zhanibek convinced me that we should write on the highly ambitious topic of the Open Sicilian (!), an opening he had lots of experience and success with for both sides. Naturally the prospect of writing a book about the Open Sicilian, the very opening that drove me into the safe clutches of 1.d4 was an ironic choice. Fortunately, I had an excellent partner in Zhanibek, who showed me all the common traps and tricks I had so naively feared earlier on. Of course, he also showed me countless of plans and ideas and nuances and motifs, many of which ended up in the book itself.

Zhanibek.jpgWe certainly had our work cut out for us. This was a repertoire for White, which meant that the onus was on us to prove something in every line we recommended. We realized quickly that proving an advantage in each line was certainly out of the question. The main line of every major Sicilian (and most mainstream openings in general) should lead to dynamic equality if Black is well-prepared. Our goal instead was to find lines that were playable, lines that if studied could prove extremely reliable for many games.

The driving philosophy for the book was that In modern play, gaining an advantage in the opening has less to do with a computer evaluation of ‘+0.3' but rather reaching a type of middlegame that one can understand, where one can feel comfortable with the plans for both sides and pose real problems to their opponent. Anand's words back in 2012 really put it in perspective for me, when discussing opening preparation he said, "It's much better to be deluded and confident than to have the right information and not know what to do. Because in the end what you're looking for is clarity at the board, or clarity in action." What this meant to me is that the modern approach to openings is not trying to memorize lines and lines of computer analysis, but rather finding positions where one can play well on their own.

We bounced around for a bit while deciding on which lines to recommend for the repertoire. The lines had to be relevant, make positional sense, and contain thematic motifs. 6.h3 against the Najdorf was a fantastic find; not only was this innocuous little advance trendy at the GM level, it was also fascinatingly complex but not based on mind-bogglingly complicated computer analysis. It was a line you could understand and feel good about your chances at the board. We rejected a lot of lines for being too theoretically dense, most notably the Richter-Rauzer Attack against the Classical Sicilian (6.Bg5). Instead we chose the Fischer-Sozin Attack (6.Bc4), which seems to be a much more practical choice, as it (in our opinion) poses many challenges for Black and is filled with instructive positional and tactical motifs.

Eventually we decided on the following repertoire:

Najdorf: 6.h3
Kan/Taimanov: 6.g3
Classical: 6.Bc4
Dragon: Yugoslav Attack w/ 9.0-0-0
Accelerated Dragon: 5.c4 (Maroczy Bind)
Sveshnikov: 9.Nd5 followed by 11.c4
Kalashnikov: 6.c4

We also covered the Lowenthal, Four Knights, Grivas, Nimzowitsch, Katalimov, and O'Kelly variations as well, usually sticking to the main tries for White and indeed giving the reader a complete repertoire. The format for the book was to use an instructive game as the main line for each variation, while covering all sub-variations through other theoretical games, instructive language, and of course computer analysis. We ended up with a total of 43 games and a very large book on our hands!

Although we completed the first draft in May of 2013, the material wasn't ready to be edited until May of 2014, which is quite a long time for an opening book to just sit. So after an extended break we dove right back in and spent the rest of the year updating each chapter, trying to include as many games from 2014 as were relevant (spoiler alert: there were a lot) and re-writing almost all of the annotations as our understanding of the material had certainly progressed. As a result I felt like we finished with a very current treatise of the Open Sicilian.


All in all I was really glad with how the book turned out, and huge credit goes to our editor, Larry Stevens, who was immaculate in editing and formatting the 563 page mammoth. Modernized: The Open Sicilian is meant to be comprehensive and encourage retention of the material, meaning if a reader forgot their analysis during a game (as it so often happens, to everyone!), they could still rely on their understanding of the structure and awareness of familiar motifs to drive their play.

To bring it full circle in essence I wrote the book for my 16-year-old self, a one-volume "everything you need to know to play (and understand) the Open Sicilian" kind of thing. I wanted the book to be accessible to someone who had little or no prior knowledge of the Sicilian Defense whatsoever.

And so here are two games to demonstrate what I gleaned from actually writing the book:

For those wondering, everything up until 19.h4 was familiar to me, as it took place in the game Nepomniachtchi - Zabotin 2006, one of the main instructive games in the book!

Astute readers will realize that while the opening wasn't a Sicilian, the eventual structure we got was a Maroczy Bind, my understanding of which helped me win a good game. So will I be switching back to 1.e4 anytime soon? Yeah, probably!

Modernized: The Open Sicilian is available for sale here, while World Champion Perspective: Volume I, a new DVD series featuring Viswanathan Anand can be purchased here. For more info on Metropolitan Chess, please visit www.metrochessla.com, and be sure to follow  Metro Chess on Facebook and Twitter.