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Let's say there is a player who knows nothing about Sicilian Defense. If they always start the game with 1. d4 or 1. c4 as white and play the Caro-Kann as black against 1. e4, it seems to me that they can theoretically be a player at the top level without knowing anything about Sicilian. Of course, they will have a problem coaching others, but I do not see why zero knowledge of the Sicilian can prevent them from being a top-level player.

Wilhelm Steinitz: I have never in my life played the French Defence, which is the dullest of all openings.

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  • 2
    I think that would be impossible because you can't make your way to top-level play without ever encountering a Sicilian in some book or played by someone else. It would be way too inconvenient to force yourself to leave the room every time someone mentions the Sicilian. Steinitz never played the French Defense, but that doesn't mean he knew nothing about it.
    – David
    May 7 at 13:41
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    Yesterday GM Hikaru Nakamura said he felt if you didn't learn to play the pawn structures, ideas, and plans associated with different openings, he felt that it would limit your ability to play at some point. Since many of us aren't aiming to become super GMs, this may not be much of a hindrance. May 7 at 14:10
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    What do you mean by "top level"? Master? Grandmaster? Competing in the candidates tournament? May 7 at 18:13
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    Maybe Steinitz never played the French Defence as Black but he must have played against it as White because he played 1.e4 many times and has variations in the French Defence named after him.
    – bof
    May 8 at 2:49
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It would be difficult.

So you go into your first top-level tournament and get Black in the first round. No problem, you'll just play your Caro-Kann. Play goes 1. e4 c6 2. c4 d5 3. cxd5 cxd5 4. exd5 Qxd5 5. d4. You've just transposed into a line of the Alapin Variation of the Sicilian.

In the second round you're White and play 1.c4. Your opponent plays 1...e5 to go into a reversed Sicilian, and suddenly you're really wishing you knew something about that opening.

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  • What if you play 1...e5 in response to 1.e4, and never play 1.c4?
    – Allure
    May 8 at 0:24
  • @Allure By the time you avoid all possible transpositions (like 1.d4 e6 2.e4 c5) it feels like it would be less effort to just learn the Sicilian.
    – D M
    May 8 at 1:13
  • I'm not saying I know the answer to OP's question, but I'm not sure this answer provides a good argument for learning the entire Sicilian and all it's variations (and every other opening in existence) - you can after all just limit your study to those few transpositions from your opening repertoire.
    – firtydank
    May 10 at 11:00
  • @firtydank Well, how many people know all the variations of every opening anyway?
    – D M
    May 11 at 2:05
  • @DM - exactly :)
    – firtydank
    May 11 at 8:21
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No player knows "all" the popular openings. Players have repetoires that include the range of openings that they want to play. Even with fairly complete repetoires it is possible to have to play ad hoc anyway. For example, moves like 1. b4 and 1. g4 (the "Spike") can throw a player out of book right away. Bent Larsen frequently played 1. b3 to avoid book openings.

Some players have very narrow repetoires. This is most often seen with the English opening. Players will learn the English with a King's Indian attack for White side and then the Dutch Defense (1. d4 f5) and Modern Defense (1. e4 d6/g6) as Black and that will cover 95%+ of the possibilities. If someone plays the English against them, then they play the symmetrical variation (1. c4 c5). Since all four of these systems have similar strategies and themes, the player essentially needs to learn only one pattern of play.

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