The Sicilian Defence can go horribly wrong, but this lifelong adherent argues that its variations offer rich rewards if you find the lines that suit you and learn from the occasional disaster
Part 1: Alarms and excursions
“Alarms and excursions” is an archaic expression meaning confused activity and uproar. I cannot think of a better description of the Dragon and Najdorf variations in the 1970s and 1980s.
Ulysses’s odyssey only lasted 10 years, while my journey with the Sicilian Defence has lasted more than 50. I first played it in 1965 at the age of 14 and lost in 19 hectic moves. To be honest it was barely recognisable as a Sicilian. I could have safely been two rooks up, but instead I ended up resigning when about to be mated on the next move. My opponent that day subsequently became one of the world’s best bridge players.
I decided that I needed to learn a proper Sicilian variation, and opted for the then fashionable Dragon. I played my first Dragon the following year and lost. This time I accepted an unsound queen sacrifice and then resigned, thinking mate was inevitable (it wasn’t and I should have drawn). Otherwise, I had five fairly happy years playing the Dragon before giving it up when keeping up with theory seemed too demanding.
Game 1 illustrates a number of the common Dragon themes, especially black sacrifices on f3, c3 or sometimes e4. The game was played in a qualifying tournament for a place in the Scottish students’ team. There were four players and we played each other twice. Both of my games with David Watt were Dragons (I did say it was fashionable) and in the first I lost, falling into a Nxe4 sacrifice. In the second it was my turn to sacrifice.
Enter the Najdorf variation – theory-wise this was frying pan to fire – which I played throughout the 1970s, despite losing my first game with it. As if the normal mainline Najdorf wasn’t exciting enough for me, I chose the Polugaevsky variation, which could lead to a position where White first sacrificed a piece on e6, followed by another on b5 for a ferocious-looking attack. I had the position after move 13 three times, losing the first, winning the second and drawing the third. Game 2 shows my victory.
If this has been too exciting for you, in part 2 I will show you my experience with more solid (for the Sicilian) variations.
Part 2: Looking for a safe harbour
Spoiler alert: there isn’t one in the Sicilian (but don’t let me stop you looking).
In the 1980s I moved to the more solid Scheveningen variation, and yes I lost my first game with it. This is the variation that I have played over a longer period and with most games. Statistically, I have done better with the Dragon and the Najdorf than the Scheveningen and the Taimanov, although I do have a plus score in all of them. I estimate that overall, I have played against stronger opposition with the latter two variations.
Game 3 gives a good example of Black’s counter-chances on the queenside, illustrating an unusual potential mating pattern.
“That is no country for old men” – W B Yeats.
So, in my old age, I started looking for a more sedate variation, hopefully where I would not be mated in under 25 moves (if only – I have actually achieved this in all four variations). This led me to the Taimanov, often called the flexible Sicilian, even The Safest Sicilian (Delchev and Semkov, 2006).
Finally, I did not lose my first game with this variation – it was a draw. The Taimanov is flexible for Black, but it also leaves White with many options. Game 4 shows how Black may succeed against one of the more ambitious attempts.
Part 3: Epilogue
I mentioned earlier that in the 1960s and 1970s I played fashionable Sicilian variations. Game 5 was also in vogue at the time, with theory developing quickly. Just how quickly I found out the hard way.
The main reason for including this game is that, to the best of my knowledge, it is the only one of my games to feature in two books – Chess Olympiad Nice 1974 (Keene and Levy, 1975) and The Najdorf Variation (Geller, Gligoric, Kavalek and Spassky, 1976). OK, I admit it – it does allow me to do some heavy namedropping.
It is also a game of which I am proud – it was played in round 1 of the Scottish Championship of 1974 against my old schoolmate and eventual Scottish winner that year (and several others), Roddy McKay. Roddy had recently played in the Nice Olympiad and had seen at first hand the Levy-Garcia game, with its Nd5 sacrifice on move 18. The sacrifice had been played before, but Levy found an improvement at the board. I cannot recall how many minutes (maybe 40 or 50) I took over move 18, but it was just as well that we played 40 moves in two and a half hours in those days. I also discovered later that my 21st move improved upon previous theory.