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As we move into 2009 the Sicilian remains ever popular. This month we'll see further developments in fashionable and critical lines of the Sveshnikov, the Richter-Rauzer and that old Fischer favourite, the Poisoned Pawn.

Download PGN of January '09 Open Sicilian games

The Sveshnikov

The delayed and fairly potent piece sacrifice on b5, namely 1 e4 c5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 d4 cxd4 4 Nxd4 Nf6 5 Nc3 e5 6 Ndb5 d6 7 Bg5 a6 8 Na3 b5 9 Bxf6 gxf6 10 Nd5 f5 11 Bd3 Be6 12 c3 Bg7 13 Nxb5!? axb5 14 Bxb5, recently attracted the attention of no lesser theoretician than Kotronias, as we saw last month. Then I wondered what he had prepared for 14...Bd7 15 exf5 Nb8!. We are no nearer discovering an answer, but there have been recent developments in this key line:

We begin with Almasi - Ni Hua in which White opts for the popular 16 Qg4, but obtains no advantage against the logical, first over-the-board test of 16...0-0 17 0-0 h5 18 Qf3 e4!? before blundering quite horribly. 16 Qg4 is, though, by no means White's only option and, as we'll see in the notes, 16 a4!? deserves serious consideration too. However, the most-played response has actually been 16 Bd3, which is the subject of Gutsche - Hamarat.

The Four Knights Variation

I was but one of many people surprised when Ivanchuk ventured the solid 1 e4 c5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 d4 cxd4 4 Nxd4 Nf6 5 Nc3 e6 6 Ndb5 Bb4 7 a3 Bxc3+ 8 Nxc3 d5 9 exd5 exd5 10 Bd3 0-0 11 0-0 d4 in Topalov - Ivanchuk. Unsurprisingly the world no.1 responded with the critical 12 Ne2!, avoiding the exchanges which follow 12 Ne4.

At this juncture Black can either play 12...Re8 or Ivanchuk's 12...Bg4 13 f3 Bh5. Neither appears sufficient for equality, although it takes some typically aggressive play from Topalov to demonstrate the drawbacks to Ivanchuk's new idea of 14 Nf4! Re8!?.

The Classical: The Richter-Rauzer

We've covered the variation 1 e4 c5 2 Nf3 d6 3 d4 cxd4 4 Nxd4 Nf6 5 Nc3 Nc6 6 Bg5 e6 7 Qd2 Be7 8 0-0-0 Nxd4 9 Qxd4 a6 10 f4 b5 a fair bit of late. It remains pretty popular with Jakovenko and Mamedyarov recent recruits to the black cause. However, it hasn't been the most successful of weapons for the Azeri, as we'll see in the queen-trapping game Gashimov - Mamedyarov. There White opts for a fairly calm approach with 11 Bxf6 gxf6 12 Bd3:

This perhaps leads to a slightly more pleasant position for White, but the black set-up is fully playable. A sharper alternative is 12 e5!?, which was Akopian's choice against Mamedyarov; a game which you can find in the notes.

The Najdorf: The English Attack

Ivanchuk twice ventured the Najdorf en route to winning his recent rapidplay match. In the second matchgame the variation 1 e4 c5 2 Nf3 d6 3 d4 cxd4 4 Nxd4 Nf6 5 Nc3 a6 6 Be3 e5 7 Nf3 (do see the notes for details of the fourth matchgame, which saw instead the Topalovian 7 Nb3 Be6 8 f3 h5!?) 7...Qc7!? was debated. This has been under a small cloud for a while, but doesn't appear to be in such bad health. Indeed, after the further 8 a4 Be7 9 Be2 0-0 10 a5, 10...Nbd7 appears to be a solid and playable alternative to Ivanchuk's much more radical 10...Nc6 11 Bb6 Qb8!? novelty:

Leko - Ivanchuk continued 12 Nd5 Nxe4! and now White was content to repeat moves with 13 Bc7 Qa7 14 Bb6 Qb8 15 Bc7, but it seems that Black obtains sufficient compensation if White prefers to grab the exchange on a8.

White preferred another recent favourite in Jakovenko - Kasimdzhanov, opting for the variation 7 Nb3 Be7 8 Qd2 0-0 9 0-0-0:

Here Black went after the bishop-pair with the tempting 9...Ng4. However, he never really came close to equalizing after 10 Kb1 Be6 11 g3 Nc6 12 f4 Nxe3 13 Qxe3 Rc8 14 Nd5!, but can do better, I suspect, with a well-timed and early advance of either the a-pawn or even the b-pawn.

The Najdorf: The Poisoned Pawn

This remains arguably the most critical response to 1 e4 c5 2 Nf3 d6 3 d4 cxd4 4 Nxd4 Nf6 5 Nc3 a6 6 Bg5. A recent fashion for White has been 6...e6 7 f4 Qb6 8 Qd3!? Qxb2 9 Rb1 Qa3 10 f5, as played by both Mamedov and Gashimov:

Here Black has a number of options, but his choice in Gashimov - Grischuk is quite a reasonable one: 10...Be7 11 fxe6 fxe6 12 Be2 Qa5+!? (12...Nc6 13 Nxc6 bxc6 14 Bh5+! is one of White's main ideas, albeit one probably insufficient for any advantage) 13 Bd2 Qc7. Here White came up with the calm novelty 14 0-0, but never quite obtained sufficient compensation and was rather fortunate that Black later messed up in the time scramble.

No longer so popular is a line which was all the rage not so long ago, namely 8 Qd2 Qxb2 9 Rb1 Qa3 10 e5!?. However, I know that a number of high-level correspondence games are currently debating this line and their results may well presage a new wave of interest. This month we see the main line after 10 e5 discussed until White comes up with the aggressive novelty 21 g4!?:

However, I'm not so convinced by this. Indeed, White soon finds himself in trouble in Smirnov - Nepomniachtchi and even the superior attempt to trade the queens would only have left him at best with sufficient counterplay in the resulting late middlegame.

That's all for this month. Roll on Wijk! Richard


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