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My criteria for good "club-player" openings are:

  1. objectively good
  2. as little memorization is needed as possible
  3. forgetting theory / messing up move orders / playing mediocre moves won't kill you immediately
  4. easy to play and understand, clear plans/ideas/pawn breaks

A nice to have would be if the opponent needs to be precise in order to keep an edge and if one could avoid passive positions (like the Maroczy bind).

I'm aware of the fact that it will be challenging to have everything at once and that every Sicilian player should be willing to learn some concrete theory.

My three candidates fulfilling as many of these criteria as possible that I have found so far are

  • The Hyper Accelerated Dragon
  • The Taimanov Sicilian
  • Shankland's Classical Sicilian (i.e., aiming for the Dragon setup while avoiding the Yugoslav attack and discouraging all anti-Sicilians. However, against the (critical) 6.Bg5 there will be no Dragon setup.). [Here is a free summary of the lines Shankland recommends]

What would be your recommendation(s) for club-player-friendly (1600-2000 Elo) Sicilians (for Black)?

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    My recommendation would be Kan/Taimanov, because they are idea-driven and safe. The Classical is more on the sharper side. In the HAD I think there is a huge strategical risk of getting a hopeless position if you do not play the opening correctly.
    – B.Swan
    Jul 27 at 19:12
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    @B.Swan thanks for your answer! Regarding the HAD, do you mean being strangulated in a Maroczy bind?
    – Hauptideal
    Jul 27 at 19:55
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    I assume you're looking for an open Sicilian. When I reply ...c5 , about 75% of the time White plays an anti-Sicilian. My peak ELO was 1300 & most opponents < 1600. I suspect at these levels players want to avoid the complexities of an open Sicilian.
    – dlemper
    Jul 27 at 21:35
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    I have followed the Shankland link, but I find the claim that the classical Sicilian "avoids weaknesses" superficial at best. The issue is that you'll almost always have to answer Bxf6 (which will come) by gxf6. And then your pawns are vulnerable, not so much to capture as to blockade (and consequent restriction of your Bishops). The Hyper dragon isn't useful to avoid mainline theory, because White can just play c4 before d4 and then transpose to the Bind. So I'd pick the Taimanov/Kan from your list.
    – q.undertow
    Jul 29 at 20:20
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    My recommendation though not about the Sicilian is that for the level of player you describe you forget about the Sicilian if you are going to play Black and study the The Petroff Defense (also known as the Russian Defense) is a full positional sound opening. hidden bite. It is one of the most reliable openings in chess, popular at all levels, from beginners to strong grandmasters.
    – ypg
    Jul 31 at 17:10

1 Answer 1

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Methodology

I went through all Sicilian variations of GM Moulthun Ly's Sicilian Defense Tier List, where he ranks the Sicilian variations by quality and amount of theory/difficulty of play.

  1. Quality: I discarded every variation that he regarded worse than 3rd class / mediocre quality in his final ranking (even though I briefly considered the Nimzovich Sicilian)(i.e. I excluded the Nimzo, Godiva, Pin variation, O'Kelly (which he has a video on as a simple Sicilian), Paulsen-Basman, Katalimov).

  2. Difficulty/Theory: I discarded every variation he considers highly difficult (i.e. Sveshnikov, Classical, Scheveningen, Dragon, Najdorf). All remaining openings are already interesting for a club player.

  3. I removed variations that allow major alternatives to the open Sicilian, such as the Rossolimo variation (and therefore more theory to know, e.g. the Kalashnikov variation) and variations where Black is passive (e.g. Kan variation, Hedgehog, HAD).

Only two openings remained (Taimanov Sicilian and Sicilian 4 knights), which I investigated with the help of books/chessable openings courses, video lectures the lichess opening statistics and an engine. Because I wasn't proceeding systematically from the start, I also analysed/read books/courses on the Classical Sicilian, Sveshnikov Sicilian, (Hyper-) Accelerated Dragon and played all of these openings in at least a few Blitz / Rapid games each to get a feeling for how fun, intuitive and understandable the positions are.

In the end, I chose the Four knights Sicilian for practical reasons (and will probably later switch to the Taimanov, if required at any point).

  1. There is even less theory (there are only two good options for White, and White has to play very precisely).
  2. Black has a very simple plan of pressurizing the center with Bb4 or quickly breaking with d5 if allowed. At the same time, most of White's typical ideas against the Sicilian that work in other variations are too slow.
  3. Black develops quickly and actively. No time "wasted" on moves like a6. If White doesn't react immediately, Black is at least fine or even better.
  4. The opening scores exceptionally well (more points for Black than White!) in amateur statistics (lichess database). Nobody seems to be prepared for this line.

The one big drawback of the Four Knights Sicilian is its objective value. In some lines, Black never equalizes (this is also acknowledged in FM Plichta's Chessable course on this opening). When following a well-scoring sideline suggested by FM Hacker, one can even end up by force (playing the best engine moves acc. to SF15 depth 23-30) in a position that is +1.2 for White. In Molton's Tier list, the quality was ranked the same as variations that went into the excluded tier ("just tricks").

However, these positions have never been reached in amateur games on lichess and only extremely rarely in master games. Also, the position is complex, with the potential for both sides to go wrong. There is potential counterplay and complication. It is highly unlikely, that 2000-rated players will find the best way to punish this opening choice (unless they prepare it at home). And even if they reach a position that is better for them, they would still need to play precisely and convert the advantage (far from easy with our counterplay).

Therefore, I concluded, that it is better for an amateur player to spend time to learn tactics/strategy/endgames rather than to learn more opening theory by playing the Taimanov instead of the Four Knights.

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