Book review: “1.e4 vs The Sicilian II” – Parimarjan Negi (Quality Chess)
(click to buy from Amazon)
Even after all these years, I still get a kick when I receive a new chess book. But there’s something special about getting a Negi book. Perhaps it’s knowing that the pages are full of exciting and practical novelties, or maybe it’s an expectation that each volume contributes concretely to furthering modern opening theory. Or maybe I just like the writing. Regardless, the third of the series lived up to my hopes once again.
The second Sicilian volume covers the Dragon, Accelerated Dragon, Rauzer, Lowenthal, Kalashnikov and Sveshnikov variations, which is an incredible achievement in itself. In the preface, Negi allows himself to reminisce on his work on the series to date, which I found interesting. He says that his writing style has evolved from heavy theory to trying to help the readers feel comfortable with the resulting positions. I’m not sure he’s quite got there yet, to be honest, as this book is again more of a theoretical monster with plenty of novelties and inexplicable computer moves to wrap your head around. But there’s a little more in the way of general explanation than the previous volumes, and Negi is correct in claiming that the book links the approaches in different chapters together much better.
Still, in my opinion (as you have no doubt guessed by now), the main trump of the Negi series is in the theory. Negi continues to find some wonderful new ideas, both for White and, crucially, for Black. This to me is one of the stand-out features of these books (by the way, this is a practice repeated in Gawain Jones’ recent Dragon books, which I will review in due course). It’s one thing to find improvements over current practice by choosing to address only those moves found in the database, but it’s a whole other level to actively seek out and then tackle new ideas for both colours.
But enough chit-chat; I bet you’re dying to know what Negi recommends against some of the most dangerous and popular Sicilian variations around. I have to admit up front that I was a bit surprised by some of his choices. Against the Dragon I would have predicted a 9.0-0-0 repertoire, but Negi instead opts for 9.Bc4, avoiding the classical Soltis in lieu of 12.Kb1. This in itself is not so surprising as without the inclusion of Kb1 and Re8, the Soltis Yugoslav attack is well-known to lead to a draw pretty much by force in every line. On the other hand, this move-order allows Black the option of playing the ‘Topalov Dragon’ with 11…Nxd4, a pawn sacrifice recommended by Jones, well utilized in correspondence chess and even employed by yours truly. Could Negi really have busted this bastion of the Dragon?
The answer is: almost! In this heavily analysed variation, Negi utilizes and then extends the current state of theory in the correspondence world to put new pressure on Black’s defences. The main line, shown below, culminates in Black needing to find the strong novelty 21…Rb8! after which things end in a draw by perpetual check after further fireworks. This seems like a fair result of the author’s labours: Busting the Dragon was always going to be an unrealistic goal in my opinion, but being able to pose new challenges that only the best-prepared opponents can navigate is all one could possibly ask from a repertoire book.
But while the Dragon is confirmed to be a risky but playable opening by Negi’s analysis, the real surprise for me was to be found in the second section on the Dragon’s hyperactive younger brother, the Accelerated Dragon. Here I would have bet money that Negi would recommend the Maroczy, but instead we see an invitation for Black to transpose back to a regular Dragon after 5.Nc3. Negi admits that it was hard to choose between the two approaches, but in my opinion the current state of theory is still that the Maroczy should promise White a slight advantage and is in principle the reason why the Dragon is a main-line Sicilian while the Accelerated has been relegated to the category of ‘popular sidelines’.
Still, things are definitely more exciting after 5.Nc3, so I was glad as well as intrigued to see it recommended. Unfortunately (well, for White), my suspicions were confirmed in that Negi’s analysis doesn’t quite manage to bust the best defences. On the one hand, Negi does an excellent job of obtaining pleasant advantages against the popular 7…Qa5, 8…e6 and 8…a5 variations with some strong theoretical contributions. I was also very impressed by the chapters on the ‘main line’ with 8…d6 offering a transposition to the Dragon, and in particular Negi’s presentation of two options for White after 9…Bd7: 10.Qd2 and 10.h4. However, one reason why the Accelerated can be a real pain to face is that there are just so many sidelines to consider if one chooses 5.Nc3, and I think two of them still seem to be holding up for Black at the moment. The stubborn 8…Re8, which keeps increasing in popularity, probably proved too difficult a nut to crack in the end (although the analysis presented is very valuable, and practically White has an easier game), while I’m not completely convinced by the conclusions following the interesting sideline 8…d5!?.
This was in fact essayed recently by the women’s World Champion against none other than Negi himself. White deviated from his own recommendations in that game, which led me to investigate the variation further. My conclusion is that although White is the one pressing, Black’s chances of equality seem higher than White’s chances of getting a stable edge, although arguably this is still a perfectly acceptable repertoire recommendation. And if this is as close as it gets to me finding a hole in the entire book, well, that’s probably as strong an endorsement as I can give!
An interesting conclusion that comes out of the first two sections is that, if we ignore the Maroczy argument for the moment, the Accelerated Dragon may well be sounder than the regular Dragon. This might be hard to swallow for some, but actually, I’ve recently been converted to this opinion myself (although it’s probably still a minority view among GMs). But moving on from dragons of any description, I was very impressed with Negi’s work on the Rauzer and in particular his strategic explanations. I found this especially useful as this isn’t an opening with which I’m well acquainted. But further investigations seemed to indicate that Negi’s conclusions here are again state of the art. The same goes for the Lowenthal and Kalashnikov, two sidelines that begin to look increasingly unsound to me in light of these chapters. One could have predicted that these would be variations that White should objectively be able to prove an edge against, but Negi goes further to bring his lines to almost decisive advantages.
But one could hardly expect those sorts of results against the stable Sveshnikov, arguably the soundest of the Sicilians covered in this volume. And indeed, this is indeed Negi’s final conclusion, although he proposes several routes for White to pose problems for the second player. In this final section, we really begin to see how Negi’s approach to the series has changed, as the emphasis is much more on creating practical problems and taking the style of the game out of one’s opponent’s comfort zone. This coincides with the chief recommendation for White, 13.Nxb5!? in the main line after 10.Nd5 f5 11.Bd3 Be6 12.c3 Bg7, giving up a piece for three pawns. Usually in the main lines of the Sveshnikov, Black looks to sacrifice a pawn for long-term activity and attacking chances, but in the variation following this material imbalance, Black’s position somehow lacks the usual dynamism that the opening promises. On the other hand, this is quite a committal variation for White because the slightest mistake can easily lead to popping a pawn here or there and landing in a lost endgame.
Still, for the practical reasons mentioned above, I highly approve of this recommendation. My opinion does not really carry much weight when it comes to the Sveshnikov, to be fair, but this line also has the approval of several strong correspondence players, which is not something to be taken lightly.
For a work of this kind, and in this sort of series, it’s understandable that it will be measured also solely on the quality of the analysis. However, I’m a stickler for writing, style and typesetting norms, so I will add a few words to those respects. Once again, the prose is clear and easy to understand, and although there is improvement on the past two works, the explanations are light and fall a little into the background as compared to the heavy analysis. But this is what this series is all about, and I don’t mind the ratio given the high level to which the book is pitched. Once again I struggled to find typos, while the diagrams and typesetting are both very pleasing. The one thing I wouldn’t mind seeing in this series is the inclusion of small text chapters in between the major sections to sort of bridge the work between openings. As it stands, the pages run straight from one opening to the next and a page or two of text would help break up the reading as well as introduce the new topic in more general terms. But this is just my stylistic preference.
To sum up, this book is once again an outstanding work and worth every penny, if only on a novelty quota alone. When I review a new book, I review HARD, and I go out of my way to look for holes. This makes it difficult for any author to meet my high expectations, but Negi continues to impress me. If I weren’t so lazy, I’d even take up the Open Sicilian myself after reading this one! Another Negi book, another five stars.
Series Introduction 4
Symbols & Bibliography 6
1 Sidelines 7
2 10…Qa5 and 10…Rb8 21
3 11…Nxd4 31
4 12.Kb1 53
5 12…Nc4 67
6 Rare 7th Moves 79
7 Various 8th Moves 90
8 8…Re8!? 105
9 Various 9th Moves 118
10 9…Bd7 10.Qd2 127
11 9…Bd7 10.h4!? 141
12 6…Bd7 and Others 162
13 6…e6 7.Qd2 Qb6 183
14 7…Be7 201
15 7…a6 8.0–0–0 h6 225
16 8…Be7 234
17 8…Bd7 243
18 9…b5 258
19 13…b4 266
20 Lowenthal and Kalashnikov 287
21 Kalashnikov – 7…Be6 and 7…Be7 306
22 Sidelines 317
23 10…Bg7 330
24 10…f5 343
25 14…Bd7 360
26 15…0–0 372
Variation Index 389