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So I have been developing my opening repertoire on ChessBase recently and established that, as a 1.e4 player, I have to properly memorize Open Sicilian main line, Dragon, Hyper Dragon, Taimanov, Löwenthal, Kalashnikov ,Sveshnikov , O'kelly, Najdorf , and surely some others ones which I am missing.

Wouldn't it be better for me to just master one anti-Sicilian line like for instance the Grand Prix Attack ? Indeed, from the Lichess 2000-2200 ELO games database, here are the win rates associated with the opening 1.e4 c5 2.Nc3 d6 3.f4, i.e., the Grand Prix Attack

         

This looks like a pretty good weapon for white if you ask me and avoids having to memorize literally a constellation of lines in the Sicilian.

My question is, are there any benefits for me to carry on playing the normal lines of the Sicilian and undergoing all the required memorization or should I convert to being an anti-Sicilian player ? What are the pros and cons ?


Additional information in light of my question

  • I am not a Sicilian player myself as black
  • I intend on pursuing a mastery title in chess
  • I nevertheless like playing Sicilian lines as white
  • I like memorizing lines but I also want to improve my ELO as fast/high as possible
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    If you are the type of player that needs to ask this question, you're probably also the type of player that doesn't need to waste a lot of hours in studying opening theory – David Dec 26 '20 at 10:10
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The first question that needs answering is the following: what is your current playing level? The Grand Prix, and other anti-sicilians as well, can be a good way to trip up some sicilian players at lower to intermediate levels, but once your level of play gets higher these anti-sicilians will start getting less and less successful; there is a reason why they aren't the main lines after all.

But there is another aspect to this besides the result-oriented one, and that is your observation that many of these anti-sicilians require less memorization from the white player than the main lines in the open sicilian. At lower to intermediate levels this can be a good thing, since it means you can spend more of your time learning to play the middlegame and endgame properly rather than being tempted into thinking that studying more opening theory will bring you great levels of success. Another positive aspect of trying these anti-sicilians out is that you may encounter some nonstandard structures that you enjoy playing; this can prove very useful when trying to get to know oneself as a player. One final positive point in trying these lines out is that they will give you some indications as to why the main lines are what they are.

I would say that since these lines don't require as much study to pick up as the main lines, there is no real harm in trying them out. But you have to remember that they are a far cry from a silver bullet to the sicilian, and you should keep a flexible attitude about your choice of opening lines. Don't lock yourself to one specific set of lines to use for the rest of your career at this point when you haven't even reached master level yet. If you want to reach master level there is a high chance that you will eventually have to strongly consider adding some of the main lines to your repertoire, but this is something that can be done later. (who knows, maybe you end up adopting 1.d4 in the future?)

Although I don't think there is any harm in trying out slightly less common lines, I don't think it's bad to stick with the main lines either. One thing that you have to be very careful with is of course the risk of over-reliance on concrete lines. Don't just memorize the main lines thinking that you've learned them properly; after all, once you're out of the opening there is still an entire game left to be played, and if you don't know how to play these resulting positions you might as well not learn any theory at all. To understand these complex variations properly you need to play them many times, preferably against strong opponents, so that you can gain an appreciation of why the main lines are the way they are. You will also need to be able to find the optimal ways of playing when your opponent deviates from the main lines, and I will say the following: this is way, way harder to do consistently than it seems, so I will once again urge you not to place the memorization of main lines on a pedestal.

It may seem like the things I stated in the previous paragraph suggest that playing the main lines requires far too much work on your part, but this is not something that I wish to convey. While memorizing some lines is important in the open sicilian, I would say that the amount you need to actually memorize is less than you may think. You can get by surprisingly well with a shallow knowledge of concrete lines if you begin your study by going wide rather than deep; learn the basic gist of the lines (i.e., try to learn the main plans in broad strokes), and start playing as much as possible so that you can see how the plans work in action. Naturally you will have to learn your lines deeper and more concretely at some point, but if you have a solid foundation based on experience this will become a lot easier. Also, if you have experience playing without knowing the exact lines, it will be easier to play once you inevitably end up in a position that you haven't studied before.

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  • Thank you for your detailed answer. The main takeaway I get from your post is that I should stick to my current Open Sicilian repertoire, for the anti-Sicilians are less effective whenever one reaches master level. Is this a general established fact within the chess community? Are the Open Sicilian lines more solid at a higher level? Thank you in advance. – hitech physics Dec 25 '20 at 19:25
  • @hitechphysics I agree that the anti-sicilians are less effective when black knows how to handle them, this is why I've switched back to open sicilians as white (although I don't necessarily play the main lines all the time). These lines are not bad per se, but they are not quite enough to gain an edge. In general, the main lines in any opening tend to be the most challenging from a theoretical perspective, but some sidelines can be very tricky to deal with in practical play and sometimes it all comes down to fashion. – Scounged Dec 25 '20 at 20:40
  • @hitechphysics I wouldn't say that the open sicilian lines are generally more solid, they lead to quite unbalanced positions. But it's a principled way of playing, and it really puts pressure on black to play precisely not to end up in trouble. However, if you're talking about "solid" lines as in reliable variations that will serve you well for a long time, then I think the open sicilians are excellent to play as white (assuming that you enjoy playing the resulting positions, that is). – Scounged Dec 25 '20 at 20:45
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I feel that you should not look at win/draw/loss statistics for this sort of thing. There are many problems with them (some openings are employed more often by strong players against weaker players or vice versa, some are skewed because some variation inside is often used as an easy draw, et cetera) but most importantly you are not the same as all those people.

I feel you should play the line that seems most logical to you, where the normal positions around move 10 look the best to you. It's purely a matter of taste. Remember, 2.c3 is theoretically innocuous but Tiviakov made a great career out of it; the Grand Prix was used for many quick wins by grandmasters in the 80s and 90s, Spassky had a huge winning percentage with the Closed Sicilian, and everybody plays the Rossolimo these days.

One of my favourite chess quotes:

As a young International Master, I used to devote much of my time analysing the very sharpest variations, hoping all the time that I would get the chance to engage my opponent in sharp variations that I had prepared at home. After a while, I began to notice something: I was losing lots of games in 'unimportant variations'. My opponents rarely seemed to 'take me on' but instead played quiet variations, just aiming for a typical position. I hadn't looked at these typical positions, hadn't thought about them, and didn't understand very much about them. This meant that even good versions of the theoretical line ended badly for me because I didn't understand why they were good, what exactly made the difference, and what I could aim for in this position that I couldn't in others.

(Matthew Sadler, Queen's Gambit Declined, about exchange variations with Nf3)

It's fine to reach an equal position out of the opening. You want it to be one of a type that you have analyzed twenty times and where you know exactly what your plan is, while the opponent knows that he is supposed to be perfectly safe but nothing else.

The Grand Prix is out of fashion, so it sounds like a perfect choice to me, if you like it. I once got destroyed as black after 1.e4 c5 2.f4 and now I knew "ah, this is the old move order -- I have 2...d5 3.exd5 Nf6 here and that is fine". And then I was playing the Tal Gambit without a clue what it was about...

What matters is that you make these openings yours. And if you pick the Open, pick a variation inside each main variation that you make yours. Form your own opinion, don't play the big main lines but pick the third most played alternative that grandmasters still play now and then but that you like.

And then become the expert on your lines, by figuring out what went wrong when it doesn't work out, and doing better next time. You will then always understand more about the resulting positions than someone who just memorized some "equalizing line" from a book.

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