Why the Closed Sicilian isn’t Bread and Butter

This past weekend I played in a small, three round tournament in Pittsburgh to prepare for the Pittsburgh Open in two weeks. Unfortunately (for me at least), the U1800 and open sections got merged, so I only had one opportunity to play someone over 2000, in a game that went south really quickly. My two wins though were against much lower rated opponents, and highlight many problems for players rated 1000-1600. For today’s post, I wanted to share my round 2 win over a 1300 rated player.

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Even against much lower rated opponents, I still push to play extremely accurately. In this game, White plays an uninspired Closed Sicilian and quickly falls apart!

Woskob–Steincamp (71st Pittsburgh Metropolitan Open, 2016)

1.e4 c5 2.Nc3 g6 3.g3 Bg7 4.Bg2 Nc6 5.Nf3

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With this move, I can glean a lot of information about my opponent. By not playing f2-f4, White opted for a much less aggressive line by developing the knight first. This could mean one of two things: 1) My opponent feels more comfortable in slow maneuvering positions or, even more likely, 2) my opponent doesn’t really know theory, he just understands the basic set-up for White. If the latter is true, White will probably give us cues with a misplaced piece.

5…d6 6.O-O Bg4

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When my opponent played Nf3, I decided that I wanted something aggressive. To come up with this move, I had to decide where I wanted my e-pawn. With the goal of a queenside attack, I figured my fianchettoed g7 bishop would be crucial, so I wanted my pawn on e6. That being said, it made sense to trade the light squared bishop since the e6-d6-c5 structure doesn’t really give my light squared bishop life.

7.d3 Nd4 8.Bd2

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The first real clue that perhaps White doesn’t really understand the Closed Sicilian structure. This bishop belongs on e3, because from there it has the added benefit of attacking the critical d4 square. By failing to contest the center, I can continue to keep the pressure on f3 and develop normally.

8…e6 9.Re1?

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This move is a mistake because now the thematic f-pawn push has less support. White likely thought that with my king still in the center this move made sense, but my king won’t be on e8 for long! If you are truly knowledgeable in your repertoire, you know that there are some moves you must play. f4 is one of them.

9…Ne7 10.h3 Bxf3 11.Bxf3 O-O

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The first critical decision. Here I decided against taking the bishop on f3 since I believed that my knight on d4 was far superior. As you will see, this knight becomes instrumental in orchestrating the queenside onslaught, specifically in attacking c2. It’s critical to understand that Black isn’t winning yet, arguably only slightly better. But if White fails to take action, the fall would be difficult to recover from.

12.Bg2 b5 13.a3 =+

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With this move, I have a concrete edge. White has just created a hook on b4 while simultaneously weakening the b3 square. This will make it difficult for White to kick the knight away from d4 conventionally, as c2-c3 ideas allows …Nb3. Even though I’m temporarily unable to play …b5-b4, the amount of tempi that White has surrendered is enough to be close to losing.

13…Rb8 14.Qc1 b4

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My opponent went into deep thought here, as White faces concrete problems. For example, if 15. Ne2? Nxe2+ 16. Rxe2 bxa3 -+ and the a3 pawn is untouchable since 17. Rxa3?? Bxb2 is dead lost for White. Not only am I attacking White’s knight, but he also must be wary of …b4-b3 ideas, weakening the c2 square for a potential knight fork, thanks to the misplaced rook on e1.

15.axb4 cxb4 16.Ne2 Nec6

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The threats are renewed! My knight on c6 can reinforce the knight on d4, and White must already answer to the threat of …b4-b3.

17.Nxd4 Nxd4 18.Bxb4??

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My opponent thought he had just won a pawn here, but can you find the refutation?

18…Rxb4 19.c3 Nb3 0-1

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And Black retains the extra piece. I eventually converted with little resistance, finishing the round 2/2.

Before the blunder though, here is what I had anticipated:
18. Rxa7

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Even with the extra pawn, White suffers chronic problems after 18… Rc8, as the pressure on the queenside is too great. White’s rook is offsides on a6, and my bishop on g7 is still a monster. A sample line would go like 18. Rxa7 Rc8 19. c3 Nb3! 20. Qd1 Nxd2 21. Qxd2 bxc3 22. bxc3 Bxc3-+

So what’s the lesson? If you are going to play a strategic opening, you must understand the concepts to play it in tournaments. Here my opponent knew a general set-up for the Closed Sicilian, but failed to demonstrate any thematic knowledge of the opening.

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5 thoughts on “Why the Closed Sicilian isn’t Bread and Butter

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