Riding a Bicycle

This one is from my newsletter.

In case you were wondering, I won’t be talking about physical exercise and actual riding of a bicycle, even though that is a painful subject for me, the lack of it, to be more exact. That will likely be a topic for another day.

Now I’d like to share a revelation that I recently found in a book.

For all my life I was playing the Sicilian with both colours. When I played it with Black I always felt more at ease because I knew that the long-term prospects were on my side. I only (only!) had to avoid being mated and then I knew that things will be great for me as the potential endgame would give me good chances for more than just a draw.

However, when I played it with White, I always felt rushed and under pressure. Larsen called the Sicilian a “cheap trap” in a sense that White exchanges the central d-pawn for Black’s c-pawn and then tries to “cheapo” his way to a quick mating attack. So I always acutely felt this pressure that if I don’t deliver the mate then my long-term prospects would not be something to look forward to.

With these feelings, I always treated the Sicilian in a very aggressive fashion. The English Attack, lines with f4 and g4, the Sozin in the beginning of my career, all of them aimed at either a pawn storm or a piece attack.

Of course, I knew Karpov’s games in the Sicilian, playing in so-called slow-mode and strangulating his opponents, but this was mostly because of his superior playing skills rather than the “correct” treatment of the Sicilian. When he faced a Sicilian player par-excellence in the likes of Kasparov, he was forced to abandon 1.e4 altogether – the positional Sicilians didn’t work anymore.

(Of the many slow-Sicilians I was particularly impressed by the game Smyslov-Hort from Petropolis Interzonal in 1973 where White’s knight arrived on g4 (!) before delivering the final blow on f6).

I never defined these feelings exactly and to be honest I never seriously tried. I knew what I was feeling and didn’t feel a need to share that with the world. But at the beginning of the year I invested half of my one-day commentating fee at the Rilton Cup in chess books and one of the books I bought was “Winning” by Nigel Short. While browsing the book I found what I’ve forgotten I was looking for: the accurate description of White’s play in the Sicilian. Here’s Short’s comment on Black’s 17th move from his game against Kasparov from the Amsterdam tournament in 1991:

“Playing White in the Sicilian is like riding a bicycle. You have to keep moving forward, otherwise you fall off.”

Incredibly astute observation by Short and one that perfectly described my feelings!

I have written before that one of the feelings I hate the most is the feeling of being rushed. Therefore it’s perhaps not a surprise that I have stopped playing open Sicilians with White. The itch for a full-fledged open fight with sights on the opponent’s king is still there, but most of the time I think better of it. The Rossolimo seems like a good alternative nowadays.

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