October 26, 2009 19:32

Review: Dismantling the Sicilian

Dismantling the SicilianAs soon as I finished the first paragraph of the introduction to Jesus de la Villa's new book Dismantling the Sicilian, published by New in Chess - one of the most amazing first paragraphs I've ever read in a chess book - I thought: this book is either total crap, or it is absolutely brilliant. Let's see what's so amazing about this introduction right away.

Here's the first sentence of the book

This book deals with the study of the Sicilian Defence; however, the theoretical development has been so significant in recent years, that trying to cover all the variations of such a popular defence is somehow a utopian dream.

Oh no! I thought, is this going to be another 'repertoire book' recommending dubious sidelines against the Sicilian to avoid having to 'cover all the variations' of the opening? One of those crappy books that are guaranteed to make some easy money but especially some very shaky opening play? How I've always hated this kind of books - they're so misleading. Promising innocent chess lovers point after point with the dulling 2.c3, or the hyper-aggressive Grand Prix Attack without telling you Black actually has a fine game in those lines, provided he knows just a little bit of theory. And in my head I was already going to write a crushing review, not sparing the author and the editor for publishing such a book - until I read the second sentence:  

Therefore, this book is content to offer a repertoire for White based on 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 followed by 3.d4.

Now I couldn't help laughing out loud - out of sheer astonishment. Was the author joking? Playing 2.Nf3 and 3.d4 implies that we will actually see some Sicilian main lines - a difficult task for any author, no matter how many pages his publisher allows him to fill (Alexander Khalifman dedicates several volumes to it in his Opening Repertoire according to Anand series), let alone for someone who has just over 300 pages. But since this book's subtitle is 'A complete repertoire for White', does it mean Jesus de la Villa is really going to recommend all main lines against the Sicilian?! 

Yes, that's precisely what he's going to do, as he confirms in the next few paragraphs:

My general philosophy for developing an opening repertoire is based on the following approach: against main lines, play main lines; against secondary lines, play secondary lines; against unsound lines, play the refutation. (...) Our playing style must have its influence as well when it comes to building our repertoire. However, if our style does not involve an open game against the Sicilian, then we should consider whether 1.e4 is right as our first move after all.

Well, I think that's just splendid. Let me say that I agree with everything Jesus de la Villa writes here, especially the bit about considering 1.e4 at all! Here, finally, is someone who confirms what ChessVibes co-editor Merijn van Delft has been arguing for years - namely, that if you're going to play 1.e4, you've got to be prepared to go all the way. Otherwise, you might as well play 1.b3 (another great opening with another great advocate) or anything else for that matter. Jesus de la Villa is a man of principles and his book, consequently, is an total knockout.

Even within the enormous task the author has set for himself, Jesus de la Villa shows ambition, choosing as his 'basic setup' for White systems involving Be3, f3, Qd2 and 0-0-0. This means that he's recommending 'hardcore' main lines with 6.Be3 for the Najdorf, the Dragon and the Scheveningen. Against the Rauzer and the Sveshnikov, too, he analyzes all main lines (it's great to see a good overview of the sharp 9.Bxf6! in the Sveshnikov once again), as well as against the Paulsen and the Taimanov. After each chapter, he gives an extremely useful, up-to-date and objective overview of the discussed lines and his recommendations and evaluations. Here's his overview of the Dragon:

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 g6 6.Be3 Bg7 7.f3 and now:

  • 7...a6: a modern treatment, reasonably sound, which opens a new field for research +=
  • 7....0-0 8.Qd2 a6: with kingside castling included, Black's set-up is too risky +/-
  • 7...Nc6 8.Qd2 Bd7: postponing castling may be useful, but it doesn't work against correct preparation +/-

7....Nc6 8.Qd2 0-0 9.Bc4 and now:

  • 9....Nd7?!: speculative and risky +/-
  • 9...Na5!?: a quite unknown line and not so easy to refute +=
  • 9...Nxd4 10.Bxd4 Be6: solid, but eventually passive +=

9...Bd7 10.0-0-0 and now:

  • 10...Qc7: one of many attempts to get counterplay. Interesting but insufficient +=
  • 10...Qb8: has given some results, but it is quite risky +=
  • 10...Rb8: perhaps the most solid line at this moment +=/=
  • 10...Na5: as at move 9, little used and not that bad +=
  • 10...Rc8 11.Bb3 Nxd4: a modern line, dangerous for both players +=

10...Rc8 11.Bb3 Ne5 Main line years ago, but in serious trouble due to 12.Kb1, and now:

  • 12...Nc4: White's atttack runs smoothly +/-
  • 12...Re8: relatively best, with room for research +=

10...Qa5 11.Bb3 Rfc8 Used to be a main line as well, but is in trouble too: 12.Kb1 Ne5 13.h4, and now:

  • 13...Nc4: White's attack comes really easy +/-
  • 13...b5: gives some counterplay, but not enough to equalize +=

Impressive, huh? Although the intended audience of this book seems to be players above the average club level, I bet this overview is even useful to grandmasters. And these are just the general conclusions. The book is also full of great details, relevant updates of current theory and references to other contemporary sources. An quite random example from the always tricky Pin variation:

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 e6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 Bb4 6.e5 Nd5 7.Bd2! Nxc3 8.bxc3 Be7 9.Qg4
Dismantling the Sicilian

9...0-0 Black insists on his thematic exchange offer, and White does better not to accept it. The alternatives to defend the g7-pawn aren't appealing either:

  • 9...g6!? is a quite sensible alternative still lacking respect at top-level. Black can hope to castle queenside. 10.Nb5!? Recommended by Khalifman and Desmontando la Siciliana [the original Spanish edition of this book - AWM], is strategically logical, but wastes time and allows Black counterplay: 10.Bd3! Nc6 11.Nxc6 dxc6 12.0-0 Qa5 13.Rfe1 is by far the soundest option and my main suggestion. 10...0-0 10...Nc6!? 11.Nd6+ Bxd6 12.exd6 += with good attacking chances, though White has burned his bridges and is forced to take concrete action; 10...a6?! 11.Nd6+ Bxd6 12.exd6 Qb6 13.Qb4 +/- according to Khalifman. 11.h4! Nc6 12.Qg3 a6 13.Nd6 Qc7 14.Bf4 f6?! 15.h5! +/- (....)

10.Bh6 g6 11.h4!
Dismantling the Sicilian
White utterly disdains the exchange offer and launches a brutal attack. Up to this day, and despite Black having tried almost everything, White's strategy has been a total success.

What I like about this fragment, apart from its theoretical relevance, is that Jesus de la Villa's style combines nuanced observations ('good attacking chances, though White has burned his bridges') with bold statements ('White's strategy has been a total success'). It makes the book a pleasure to read, even if you don't particularly care for the variations themselves.

Somehow, Jesus de la Villa succeeds in explaining opening systems which have always seemed completely random to me, in a straightforward and simple way, so that I can really imagine myself actually playing these lines with some confidence. Take this explanation of one of the most tricky lines in the Najdorf main line:

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6 6.f3 e5 7.Nb3 Be6 8.Be3 Nbd7 9.Qd2 h5!?
Dismantling the Sicilian

This move has the simple idea of preventing (or at least hindering) g2-g4 and its popularity is growing more and more. This is not so strange, as the same move, with the same goal, has a achieved a prominent position in the Saemisch Variation of the King's Indian defence, or the Rauzer Attack in the Dragon. White has tried very different plans, but so far we can't say that there is a clear path to an advantage for the first player. For those familiar with Geller's or Karpov's games in the 6.Be2 variation, the plan involving 0-0 seems to have devastating logic. Let's see for instance this game: 6.Be2 e5 7.Nb3 Be6 8.0-0 Nbd7 9.a4 Be7 10.a5 0-0 11.Be3 Rc8 12.f3 Qc7 13.Qd2 Rfd8 14.Rfd1 (...) Geller-Ivkov, Palma de Mallorca 1970. What would have been Geller's face if his opponent had played ... h5 around the 12th or 13th move? And yet it would have simply led to the positions we are going to study. So I recommend the plan with 0-0: White will get at most a small positional edge, but I think it is the most logical approach to exploit the drawbacks of Black's move.

10.a4! If White is going to switch to 0-0, it is best to start with this move, which restricts Black's queenside play. (...)

In this quote, the author achieves several important things: he explains the very basics of Black's idea and why it is so topical; he connects the idea to other openings and shows that games from the past (even from different lines) can have relevancy also today; he gives a very objective general evaluation of the line; and he half-jokingly draws our attention to the fact that h7-h5 can also be regarded as a rather strange move when you think of it in a different context. And this Jesus de la Villa manages to do in just one paragraph. No wonder he easily succeeds in explaining all Sicilian main lines in just over 300 pages.

I have really tried to find something to complain about in Dismantling the Sicilian, but in the end I just couldn't. Well okay, two things are worth mentioning. First, as many readers will have noted, the concept of this book is not really original. The same was done for the first time in Beating the Sicilian 1, 2 and 3 which were published between 1984 and 1995 and authored by John Nunn, the third edition together with Joe Gallagher. And there's of course the more recent Experts vs. the Sicilian (2004) by various authors, all experts of a certain Sicilian variation, choosing what they think is the most annoying setup for Black.

I do think Jesus de la Villa's book is the best and most principled of the three (for example, against the Dragon, Experts chose for 9.0-0-0 while Nunn & Gallagher bailed out with the 'simple' but slightly off-track 6.f4 against the Najdorf). As said, I think the overviews at the end of each chapter are a great advantage of Dismantling the Sicilian. Finally, I really like the 'thematic' approach of recommending one generic set-up (Be3, f3, Qd2) against as many Black systems as possible. The book is also, of course, simply much more up to date than the other titles: one of the most recent Dragon games is the theoretically important Dominguez-Carlsen, Linares 2009.

The second thing is a general recommendation to the New in Chess editors: add a bibliography to all your books by default! Gambit has been doing so for years, so why not copy this honest and useful tradition, which also adds an extra 'scientific' flavour to the books? Apart from this, I'll finish this review with a cliche, but a very sincere one: if you're going to buy one opening book this fall, make sure it's this one. You won't regret it.


Arne Moll's picture
Author: Arne Moll


Meppie's picture

If you play the London system, and not the Queens gambit (accepted, Orthodox and Tarrasch), Kings Indian, Grunfeld, Benoni, Old Indian, Queen- or Nimzo Indian: is 1.d4 the right move after all?

The variations of this move are endless (like the number of chessgames). It sound logical but doesn't make any sense.

Arne Moll's picture

Well, Ardjan, the fact that people immediately notice this victory by McShane already indicates how rare it is. Imagine people leaving comments every time White beats Black in a main line Sicilian! :-) Even accounting for this, McShane of course knows his main lines perfectly, and so he can 'afford' to play something off-beat once in a while - especially if Cheparinov has a clear off day...

Ardjan's picture

Nice review Arne. And clarifying, as this kind of book(title) can easily be pre-judged as 'just another anti-Sicilian book'. But we should have known better, judging De La Villa's previous effort, the excellent '101 Endgames You Must Know'.
Small, nice irony: McShane beating Cheparinov's Sicilian two days ago with a kind of Grand-Prix Attack in 20 moves!

Castro's picture


Very nice, and very interesting. But that's why so many styles and opinions exixt...
For me, the author's (and your's) idea

"if our style does not involve an open game against the Sicilian, then we should consider whether 1.e4 is right as our first move after all"

asks for a "Of course NOT!!"

and is merely a faith like all the others. That's why there are so many religions in the world! :-)
And so many chess books, crapy or not.
Nothing against open games and sicilians, though! And it realy looks like an overall very nice book, indeed.
As for that idea, some like it, some don't. Chess styles and tastes are all about that. That doesn't make the quality of a book, or it's lack, of course.

Meppie's picture

Little mistake: I meant
The variations of this SENTENCE are endless (like the number of chessgames). It sound logical but doesn’t make any sense.

CAL|Daniel's picture

Hate to burst your bubble but white is fine after 1. e4 c5 2. c3 and if white chooses to play this way it does not indicate 1. e4 is the wrong move.

Arne Moll's picture

Something doesn't have to be literally 100% true to make sense. Remember Tolstoy's famous opening line "All happy families are alike, each unhappy families is unhappy in its own way," - it's obviously literally untrue, but you'd have to be a pretty obnoxious person to refuse to see any truth in it.
The point is it does make sense to argue that playing 1.e4 invites open play (I'm sure we can all agree to this), and then to refuse an open Sicilian on the next move is kind of inconsistent. Again, don't take it too literal, but don't dismiss it so lightly either.

Merijn's picture

Well, the London system is a bad example, since Black is very comfortable there as we explained in CVO 41 (simply follow the recent game Kamsky-Akopian). Of course 1.d4 should be followed by c4. But having said that, White can play in a very natural and easy style, for example by playing with g3 against all the Indian openings. 1.e4 sideliness on the contrary, often make a sterile or even cheap impression, especially against strong opposition. 1.e4 is simple burning more bridges in terms of king's safety.

moonnie's picture

Sounds like a nice book. Does he offer lines vs the acc. dragon too ? Also the order link is broken

Ianis's picture

"The point is it does make sense to argue that playing 1.e4 invites open play (I’m sure we can all agree to this), and then to refuse an open Sicilian on the next move is kind of inconsistent. Again, don’t take it too literal, but don’t dismiss it so lightly either."

You are correct somewhat , but 1.e4 is also played by guys who are not against facing a closed Ruy Lopez with Bc5 or Zaitsev , a Petroff , a Berlin , a classical Caro Kann etc.. which aren't really open games , probably less open than many answers against 1d4.

Also , when one player goes 1.e4 and then 2.c3 after Black played c5 , it also has some venom (a player like Sveshnikov prefered this move over Nf3 ) cause it avoids lots of theory (and thus , the preparation of Black ) and force Black into a strategical game while he perhaps wanted a very tactical one (like Najdorf etc) , so i kind of understand players who prefer 2.c3 ,although i'm a 1.d4 player myself

Merijn's picture

That's exactly the point: once you start playing stuff like the Alapin, if you fancy a more positional battle, you might as well switch to 1.d4 and keep more life in the position.

blueofnoon's picture

Is there any GM who plays 1.e4 all the time but never goes for open sicilian? Sveshnikov comes to mind, though he has played couple of dragons and kans with white pieces.

Sanne's picture

Tiviakov comes to mind, he plays very conservative lines, always starting with 1. e4
Plays the c3 sicilian, Nd2 vs the french etc.

Sanne's picture

oops, sorry, misread your comment, tiviakov does actually play some open sicilians from time to time, but very solid lines (stuff with g3 as in his game vs Polgar)

CAL|Daniel's picture

well you may have a point there Arne... but you seem to also understand my point. Suffice it to say, I'll leave the debate there. In any event nice review... I forgot to mention in my earlier post I was quite impressed with this writeup in general.

Castro's picture

Sense some sense in playing 1.e4? So, just play 1.e4! See whatever sense you get from the sense you have, NOT what others say you "should"!
That said, Arne, I also appreciate your point, and your Tolstoy analogy.
You could also have gone for Tartakower with his "All rook endgames are draws"! :-)

Arne Moll's picture

Guys, of course it's okay to go for non-main lines with White sometimes, but only after you've studied the main lines and drawn your own conclusions! So I guess you'd still need this book ;-)

David Llada's picture

We, the spanish readers, already know about Jesus de la Villa, his technical articles in magazines and his books. I am very glad he made it into the English market. Give it a try and you will probably end up buying everything he writtes. Not only are they accurate and didactic, but it is also a pleasure to read them.

Meppie's picture

As is wrote, there are plenty ways of writing the sentence:
Torre, Trompowsky, Colle (or even KIA) are systems that fit in it.

Thomas's picture

The book (as well as Arne's review and comments?) seems to be written for "players above the average club level" - not sure if I (current national ELO 1952) fall in this group.

For many years, I used to play 1.e4 c5 2.c3 with reasonable success, probably because I was often more familiar with the resulting positions than my opponent - precisely because they often lead to d4 structures and, in any case, not to a typical open Sicilian. Playing positions which your opponent does not like or understand may be as important as the fact that you like and understand them? And switching to 1.d4 would have implied having to deal with different strategic and tactical issues in the KID, Nimzo-Indian or Dutch. Another advantage may be: your opponent has to take more risks if he wants to play for a win with black.
Eventually I got bored of 2.c3, largely because the variation became more widely known - and even amateurs became familar with equalizing or even outright drawish lines for black.

Another point: the statement that 1.e4 should always lead to open play is a tiny bit general or dogmatic. If it was 100% true:
- Would the Italian, Scotch or King's gambit be a better reply to 1.-e5 than the mostly closed Ruy Lopez?
- Would the exchange variation be best against the French?
- In the Sicilian, what about 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 ? Unlike 2.c3 or the Grand Prix Attack this seems a viable option even at top GM level. Probably for reasons given above: avoiding forced and deepy analyzed lines (of the Sveshnikov) and entering a more strategic battle.

Arne Moll's picture

Thomas, nobody (except you) said 1.e4 always leads to open play. Of course one can always find exceptions but surely even you would agree 1.e4 in general leads to more complicated, sharp play than 1.d4 or 1.c4, even if the Ruy Lopez is in a way less open than the Muzio Gambit. (Only 'in a way' though because I think the Ruy Lopez is infinitely more complex and dynamic than the King's Gambit, provided you're willing to look at other factors than just sacrificing pieces and pawns, and look a bit further ahead than moves 5-10.)

Ianis's picture

I understand your point Arne Moll , when you say that one should not avoid playing the main lines as it's true it is important for the learning process and understanding of chess in general . It's true that you miss a lot of chess if you restrict to playing 2.c3 against Sicilians all the time .

Although i humbly think that c3 sicilian or Rossolimo (Bb5) , closed sicilian or with Bg2 fianchetto are also part of the "main lines" , IMO a sicilian player should have answers to them

However when you say that Ruy Lopez or 1.e4 "in general" leads to more complicated games , here i respectfully do not agree , but i understand why you say this basically , i think you mean it leads to games where Black has more aggressive setups choices against 1.e4 , where he can complicate the game earlier than against d4 openings .

Cause If we talk about complications , i'm not sure most Grunfeld positions , many King's Indian , Benoni , even some sharp Slav , not only Botvinnik/Mosocw lines or even some Nimzo positions (tactical players like Polgar use Nimzo a lot ) etc.. are less "complex" than the Ruy Lopez .

However with 1.d4 , the game gets complicated later on IMHO and "in general " is less "tactically sharp" than what you generally meet against 1.e4 . In 1.e4 openings , White fights for the initiative from move 1 but so does Black , so i agree that generally speaking , 1.e4 games are more dynamic

However IMHO With 1.d4 , White puts less pressure on Black than 1.e4 at the start , but on the other hand , he sometimes gets long term slight advantage and has more "strategical control " on the position , or sometimes just a slight space advantage , hoping to bring a slightly better endgame and convert it ,

Ianis's picture

I also wanted to say that complications do not necessarily means more interesting . Perhaps for a spectator watching a GM game in Corus or Linares it is , because it is "optically unusual" and difficult to predict the next moves for most amateurs .

However from the point of view of the player , it requires quite some skills and understanding of chess to play the so called "simple position" at a high level , because unlike complicated positions with so many possibilities , in "simple positions" , you actually need to calculate all the lines "until the end" or at least very far , much farther than in complicated positions and back up all this with a mastery of endgame technique .

So even though some 1d4 replies like the classical queen's gambit or Tarrasch defence leads to what some call "boring" games , for the players , it is often less boring than it seems . I think it's Kasparov recently who criticized Radjabov telling that "Radjabov doesn(t know how to play simple position properly , that's why he prefers complicated position " . I don't know if Gary was right about Radjabov , but i know that it can be true for many players

Thomas's picture

Arne, I mostly agree with you. There may be a misunderstanding or a question of semantics: For me, "open" play is not the same as complicated, sharp or dynamic play. The complexity of the Ruy Lopez is largely because the position tends to remain closed for a long time, but can explode at any moment. And players can choose and even switch between various plans: kingside play, queenside play or playing on both wings (e.g. a white rook on a7 participating in a kingside attack).

By comparison, in an open Sicilian - at least the sharpest lines with opposite castling - the basic plan is often "simple": go straight for the opponent's king. The complexity lies on how to do this, in particular how to combine attack and defense. And it is understandable if "weaker" players (up to the level of Tiviakov!? :) ) want to avoid the sharpest lines - because they don't like complex or even chaotic positions, and/or because they are afraid of the opponent's superior theoretical knowledge. Even if they play mainlines against other responses to 1.e4 ... .
Back on thread: even those players can probably benefit from de la Villa's book, maybe it even changes their attitude towards the open Sicilian.

miguel's picture

Hello Arne, I bought the Spanish version (with a dictionary!) in Calvia 2004. I can recommend the book to everybody because of the very clear systematical and strategical approach of the author. The index of pages and variations -see pdf on NIC- is exactly the same as in 2003 but I noticed some differences for example in the Pin-variation you showed above. And of course Dominguez-Carlsen Linares 2009 is not in the first edition! So I think the NIC-book is also interesting for me, not only for the easier language!

Arne Moll's picture

Good question, miguel. I don't know the Spanish version, but it is mentioned on numerous occasions in the book (also in one of the quotes in my review), so it's been updated heavily I presume.

miguel's picture

is this complete new material,compare the spanish ""Despontanda la Siciliana""(2003)?

Patty43's picture

I'm the translator of the English version (so I'm happy if you like the book and you can freely complain to me about mistakes xD). There's new material in this edition: more recent games have been added and some recommendations have changed (for example, the chapter on the Paulsen is completely new).

The author's approach, the basic structure of the repertoire and the presentation of the contents is the same. The original in Spanish is due to appear soon.

Hope you enjoy the book
Patricia Llaneza

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