Carlsen’s Sveshnikov

Bobby Fischer said that a turning point in his career came when he realised that he can play for a win with Black too, even against the strongest players.

I assume that this realisation must have happened during the period 1960-1963, because at that time he was still playing 1…e5. Fischer had relatively short draws in the Cordell Variation of the Ruy Lopez where he didn’t get chances at all in the Buenos Aires tournament and the Leipzig Olympiad in 1960. Even though his last two 1 e4 e5 games are from 1963, more or less from that period onwards he switched completely to the Najdorf. From the mid-60 he also incorporated the Alekhine Defence, but he never returned to 1…e5.

Nowadays there is no elite player whose repertoire does not include the 1…e5 move (barring the honourable Frenchman with 2 surnames and Nepo). After 1…e5 all of them play the Berlin Defence.

The World Champion is not an exception. He built his solidity around the Berlin and it has served him well for a very long time.

Then something happened during the preparation for the match with Caruana. Whether he thought that he should play different type of positions against this particular Challenger, or he wanted to change his approach with Black generally, or perhaps something else, Carlsen decided to adopt the Sveshnikov Sicilian as his main defence against 1 e4.

An interesting decision, the Sveshnikov. Kasparov used it several times as an alternative to his Najdorf in the early 00s and Gelfand made it his main opening in his World Championship match against Anand in 2012. Both did rather well. Still, generally speaking, it was considered that the opening lost a great deal of its former glory thanks to the line 11 c4:

This line stabilises the centre and largely kills Black’s dynamic counterplay. This change of character wasn’t to the liking of many Sveshnikov players and slowly the opening gave way to the eternally dynamic Najdorf.

So when Carlsen adopted the Sveshnikov, the first question I asked myself was, what does he have in mind against 11 c4? We are still waiting for the answer, as the only time so far this was played against him was in the blitz game with Nepomniachtchi, where the Russian was late for the game (!) so Carlsen accepted a draw after 11…b4 12 Nc2 a5 13 g3.

Theory aside (for this I invite you to join my newsletter using the yellow box on the right, since soon enough I will send a theoretical overview of Carlsen’s treatment of the Sveshnikov), I am very curious about the psychological implications of the use of this line of the Sicilian.

Let’s start with what Carlsen has said himself. He was quite open saying that he liked playing the position where he felt Black had easier play. This concerns primarily the 7 Nd5 line, played very often against him since the match with Caruana. In his own words, the engine gives an advantage to White, but when preparation ends then it is easier for Black to play who often has excellent compensation for the often-lost h5-pawn in view of an attack. His careful study of these positions has helped him understand the dynamics much better than his opponents – after the match he’s beaten van Foreest, Navara and Karjakin with only Caruana drawing.

Dynamism is present in the whole Sveshnikov, but at various degrees. If the above-mentioned line with 11 c4 lowers it to the minimum, the lines where White takes 9 Bxf6 gxf6 are one of the most dynamic ones in the whole theory of chess openings, while the positions after 9 Nd5 Be7 10 Bxf6 Bxf6 are somewhere in the middle. The level of dynamism is determined by White’s choice of lines, meaning that Carlsen is prepared for a different type of battle in each game he plays the Sveshnikov.

Does Carlsen’s newly-found liking for the dynamics mark a new phase in the development of the World Champion? Carlsen’s results in 2019 show that it appears that he has found his reliable mainstay opening against 1 e4 that, and this is crucial, allows him to play for a win with Black against any opponent.

Just like Fischer and Kasparov before him with the Najdorf, Carlsen may be equally successful with the Sveshnikov. It won’t be much about the actual theory and preparation, but more about the understanding of the inherent dynamics of these positions that will determine the outcome of his future games. So far, Carlsen seems to be ahead of the others in this aspect.

Still, nowadays the moat is always narrow as people learn to catch up very quickly. They will learn to understand the dynamics and Carlsen’s advantage may disappear. To quickly adapt and change is a vital advantage in today’s game. But that time still hasn’t arrived for Carlsen and, besides, he can adapt too.

While I don’t think this played a major role in his choosing of the opening, compared to the Najdorf, the Sveshnikov has one important advantage – it is more practical. If on White’s move 2 the possibilities are the same, after 2 Nf3 d6 White has quite a lot of sensible ways to avoid the Najdorf: 3 Bb5+, 3 Bc4, 3 c3 (not to mention the other, less critical ones) and even after 3 d4 cd there is 4 Qd4 and 4 Nd4 Nf6 5 f3. White also has the move-order 2 Nc3 with various ideas based on g3 and Nge2 while keeping the option to play d4, in addition to the Grand Prix Attack.

In the Sveshnikov these options are very limited. There is 2 Nc3 Nc6 3 Bb5 (as the Grand Prix is considered harmless after 2… Nc6) and after 2 Nf3 Nc6 only two options remain – the Rossolimo 3 Bb5 and 3 Nc3. This fact that White doesn’t have too many ways of avoiding the Sveshnikov may be very important in practice.

Carlsen’s choice of the Sveshnikov is definitely good news for the chess public. We already saw some and will definitely see more exciting games with the World Champion being aggressive with Black. The only danger lies in the possibility that people stop playing 1 e4 against him, but then again, as they say, you can run, but you cannot hide…

Alex Colovic
A professional player, coach and blogger. Grandmaster since 2013.
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