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Every child learns that piece activity is the most important principle in chess, which is why we should develop quickly in the opening and avoid unnecessary pawn moves (and start with 1.e4 or 1.d4, because we can then develop a bishop and take a share of the center).

The Sicilian violates a number of opening principles and still is not only sound, but one of the most respected replies to 1. e4 - why? What does that tell about the validity of certain opening principles?

Consider the following position where Stockfish thinks that Black has already equalized (0.0 at depth 33)

            [FEN ""]
             1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 d6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 a6 6. Be2 e6 7. O-O

Black is cramped, White has a pawn in the center. Black has only one piece developed, White has developed four pieces and the king is already safe. The own pawns restrict Black's bishops, whereas White has easy development. Black has done 5 pawn moves, none of which meaningfully fostered active development.

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  • I'm wondering if this is a duplicate of chess.stackexchange.com/questions/25100/…
    – D M
    Sep 5 at 14:38
  • "What does that tell about the validity of certain opening principles?" That the only absolute in chess is the lack of absolutes. Sep 6 at 7:46
  • In support of your observation that this is one of Black's most respected replies to 1.e4, the position after 7.O-O has occurred 13 times in games played in World Championship matches, resulting in 11 draws, one win for White, and one win for Black. The Black win was Kasparov's victory in the final game of his 1985 match with Karpov, in which Karpov needed a win to retain his title. Kasparov analyzes this game in detail in his book Garry Kasparov on Modern Chess: Part II. It should be noted that top chess engines currently prefer 6...e5 to 6...e6. Sep 8 at 20:25

5 Answers 5

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Here's a quote from GM Yasser Seirawan's book, Winning Chess Brilliancies, on the related position after 1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 e6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nc6 5. Nc3 Qc7 6. Be2 a6.

This extraordinary move is typical of Open Sicilians. Black spends an entire tempo in the opening to protect his b5 square. This move fits in with the idea of restraining White's pieces. Look at the center: you can see that Black does a good job of protecting his side of the board.

Black simply intends to develop the rest of his pieces while exchanging any enemy pieces that might launch an invasion. He will then try to utilize his extra center pawn. Another rationale behind playing ...a7-a6 is to continue with ...b7-b5 and a quick queenside fianchetto.

The question is, can Black spend a tempo on niceties while White is completing his development for attack?

A few moves later, after 7. O-O Nf6 8. Be3 Be7 9. f4 d6, GM Seirawan writes:

Black parries with a forced and good reaction. Again note how Black's pieces and pawns control a broad array of center squares, nearly all on his side! This means that the attacker will have to work twice as hard, spending extra tempi to move into Black's camp for a confrontation.

White's task will be as difficult as catching a mole that is making a mess in the front lawn. The animal burrows into its hole, making it a challenge for the attacker just to get a grip on it. A battle is fought simply to get the mole out of his hole. By the time that is achieved, the attacker is exhausted, and the mole is angry and ready to fight!

...

Look back at [the position] - it is much more vital to find the advantages and disadvantages of a given position. Black, although cramped, has no obvious weaknesses. The d6-pawn is a potential weakness, but Black can defend this pawn far more times than it can be attacked.

[FEN ""]
1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 e6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nc6 5. Nc3 Qc7 6. Be2 a6 7. O-O Nf6 8. Be3 Be7 9. f4 d6

To summarize: Black's position might be cramped, but he has no weaknesses, and White's pieces have no obvious entry points. Hence Black "gets away" with giving White so many free tempi. It does mean White gets to attack, but Black's position is very defensible, with counterattacking potential. Finally, Black does have a static advantage in the Open Sicilian - he has an extra central pawn. White must do something with his initiative (not easy), or Black will take over.

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The main counterpoint to your argument is that all the advantages you list are temporary, practice has shown that it is difficult for White to exploit them, and White has made important long-term concessions. In particular, Black has the semi-open c file, which is usually more important (easier to exploit / has a stronger effect) than the semi-open d file. In more detail:

Black is cramped

Somewhat true, but temporary. Furthermore, that’s Black’s fate in many lines of the French, Caro-Kahn, Ruy Lopez etc. I would say the Sicilian is the opening where Black fights for space most ferociously among all sound replies against 1.e4. (That is a very broad brush - it depends on the exact line, of course.)

White has a pawn in the center.

True, but temporary. On the other side, White has only one center pawn left, while Black has two center pawns, which means in the long term Black has better chances to control the center. If Black manages to play ...d5 (a thematic move in many Sicilians), she will usually at least equalize.

Black has only one piece developed, White has developed four pieces and the king is already safe.

White does have a significant edge in development (although "four pieces" is an overstatement: realistically, the Rf1 and Be2 are not doing much right now). However, that is only significant if White manages to somehow convert this temporary advantage before Black catches up. Black has no immediate weakness for White to attack.

In that context, White must create such a weakness, which is usually achieved by pushing some pawns (at the expense of development and pawn structure). One of the most common plans to proceed from the line you give is to go f4-f5, forcing a reckoning in the center/kingside. (Also, kingside castling is one of the calmest / least ambitious attempts against the Najdorf; many other tries include queenside castling and a g4-g5 push in some order.)

The own pawns restrict Black's bishops, whereas White has easy development.

If White plays passively, Black’s bishops will go on e7 (which is not great, but not worse than the Be2) and b7 (which is much better than anywhere the Bc1 can hope to go). If White plays aggressively, the position will open up somehow (the details depend on the line), and usually in a way that will give Black further options.

Black has done 5 pawn moves, none of which meaningfully fostered active development.

The number of pawn moves made is irrelevant, the only thing that matters is the end state reached. So that is really a duplicate of the point about White’s development advantage (see above). Also, all of these pawn moves take control of important squares, so they are not for nothing either.

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Chess is hyperconcrete. Black walks in the black sunshine (I probably might even play b5, +0.8) and if he keeps on this way, knights will fly around Blacks ears at b5, d5, f5 or e6. Black won't get away with everything.

But at the moment...

  • King safety is irrelevant, at least one of the named knight sacrifices are needed to get in the vicinity of the king and still won't have the desired effect.
  • The developed pieces of White have no jump-in posts in the Black position. They are developed, but they do nothing concrete!

Some fun experiments:

  • Delete Pe4 Pd6. Still 0.
  • Delete Pe4 Pe6. +1.0, I would have expected more.
  • Delete black castling rights. +1.0. Engine suggests h5.

Suggestion to the OP. There are enough Sicilians where Black overdid it and got annihilated. (Disclaimer: Author has ample personal experience.) Study them.

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I am not nearly a strong enough player to make any authoratative assessment on the position you provided, and for what it's worth, I agree with your evaluation completely. To me that position looks so much better for white.

However, I would like to mention a very fun chess book by Willy Hendriks called "Move first, think later", where he argues against the type of adages you used in your evaluation. For Willy there is only one criterion - what are the moves available to you? Everything else is noise.

And indeed it is my understanding that strong players put much more weight on the concreteness of a position than the rough principles weaklings like me rely on. Does this mean we can now ignore these principles and adages of chess that we accumulated over the years? Maybe not so fast - the great Korchnoi once said: "Before you break the rules, you must first know the rules".

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A short answer to your question, by Francois Andre Danican- Philidor (better known just as Philidor (7 September 1726 – 31 August 1795)) and possibly the most known quote in chess. The full quote is: "Pawns are the soul of the game. They alone create attack and defense, the way they are deployed decides the fate of the game." Philidor is considered the best chess player of his times. What we currently call a world chess champion. So, your analysis underestimates the pawn moves. White did not get any "free tempi" because Black pawns are in key squares. That is the reason why the British Empire put a lot of effort in conquering Gibraltar, Falkand Islands, Australia, Canada, etc. Key positions. Black is not better, but is not bad either.

A long answer to your question, from the best chess book of all times. "My System", by Aaron Nimzowitch. The former world champion Tigran Petrosian read the book more than 10 times for a reason: "the positional struggle comes down to a struggle between mobility (of the pawn mass) on one hand and restraining tendencies on the other." The Sicilian is difficult for everybody. So difficult, that I prefer to start with 1.c4 :) So, you are not the only one who struggles with the Sicilian!!! This a long answer because you have to read the book of Nimzowitch!!! Best of luck!

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