Some chess players like to play certain openings.
Others really love them.
We are keeping to this week’s love theme as we head towards Valentine’s Day. Today we look at one of the most popular of all openings – the Sicilian Defense, which starts with 1.e4 c5.
What is it about the Sicilian Defense that makes it so popular at all levels of play?
According to Lev Polugaevsky in his book The Sicilian Labyrinth Volume 1 (Pergamon, 1991):
‘The Sicilian Defence attracts players of various styles. In some games there is a sharp struggle, concluding with spectacular attacks and combinations, while others take the form of subtle positional manoeuvring, where the outcome is often decided in the endgame.’
Another major aspects is the influence of various chess heroes.
Of the World Champions, Bobby Fischer and Garry Kasparov stand out thanks to their career-long devotion to 1.e4 c5. The Sicilian suited their desire to play for a win as Black.
The current World Champion, Magnus Carlsen, has settled on the Sicilian as his main defense to 1.e4 since his 2018 title match with Fabiano Caruana. Champions always set trends and it is quite natural for chess players to want to play the same openings as the strongest player in the world.
The Sicilian enjoyed only fluctuations fortunes until the 1940s and 1950s, when several players, including Miguel Najdorf and Isaac Boleslavsky, infused the defense with new ideas. It is no accident that both players have variations named after them.
Mark Taimanov and Lev Polugaevsky really loved the defense and their names are also linked to specific variations.
Polugaevsky’s book, Grandmaster Preparation (Pergamon, 1981) includes copious amounts of his analysis on the Polugaevsky Variation. He, of course, just called it ‘The Variation.’
It starts with a Najdorf Sicilian, which is reached by 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6.
This was the firm favourite of Bobby Fischer and he had many imitators.
Here it is: The Polugaevsky Variation. At first glance, 7…b5 appears to be a mistake, because White can now enforce the pin on the knight – but Black has an unusual resource on the ninth move.
8.e5 dxe5 9 fxe5 Qc7 10.exf6 Qe5+
Black wins back the piece.
In his book, Polugaevsky confesses that ‘…every day for roughly six months(!) I spent hours at the board studying positions from the variation, and even went to sleep and dreamed about it.’ So much so, in fact, that ‘To put it picturesquely, for a certain time the variation became my alter ego.’
That really is deep and represents the closest to a true-love confession between a player and a chess opening one is likely to see. For Polugaevsky, it really was a case of Sicilian love.
Even the great Bobby Fischer avoided 1.e4 in his only game against Polugaevsky. This was in the 1970 Interzonal Tournament and it was a major surprise when Fischer played 1.c4.
The story is told in Grandmaster Preparation how Polugaevsky ‘…arrived at the tournament hall some 30 seconds late, and sat down at the board. What’s this?! There’s no Fischer, but on the board the white ‘c’ pawn stands at c4. I thought I must have gone to the wrong table.’
Polugaevsky was confident enough to use The Variation twice against Mikhail Tal in their 1980 Candidates Match. Tal was especially strong against the Sicilian Defense but he scored just one draw from the two games.
There was even a themed tournament held in Buenos Aires, 1994, to celebrate Polugaevsky’s 60th birthday, in which all of the games featured the Sicilian Defense. New in Chess published a book of the tournament, with the title…Sicilian Love.
Well, this is where we came in!
Can you find someone who looks at you as earnestly as Polugaevsky looked at The Variation?