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Three Interesting and Playable Third Move Alternatives for White Against 2...e6 in the Sicilian Defense
My Experience in Meeting 2...e6 in the Sicilian Defense as White
I have almost always been a 1.e4 player. I occasionally dabble in the English Opening (1.c4), but only to avoid various openings and my opponent's pet lines. In my time playing against the Sicilian Defense and playing chess generally, I have found that it isn't my strength to meet sharp and highly theoretical openings head-on. I like to play slow, positional games with white when possible, and my favorite opening to play as white is the Ruy Lopez, which I've written about here on Hubpages. Also, I like Maroczy Bind structures for their slow, positional and strategical play. So when I discovered that it is regularly possible to reach Ruy Lopez or Maroczy Bind structures against the Sicilian Defense, I decided to look into it more. The opening variations that allow such structures are ones that involve 3.Bb5 against 2...d6 or 2...Nc6 in the Sicilian Defense; they are named the Canal-Sokolsky Attack and the Rossolimo Variation, respectively.
Playing sharp and theoretical openings, such as the Open Sicilian (3.d4), allows for complications that are often beyond the complete comprehension of either player, so sometimes when the dust settles in such games, you can find yourself losing to a weaker player. I wanted to avoid this as much as possible. I have taken a page out of Magnus Carlsen's approach to chess, who admittedly is more than capable of playing the most complex positions well, by attempting to keep the game as under control as possible while maintaining positional advantages. From a computer analysis standpoint, I do not want the computer evaluation of my games to fluctuate greatly from one player having the advantage to the other, and this is sometimes impossible to avoid in highly complicated positions. This style of play is occasionally called "grinding," and it is where one side (in this case, white) attempts to maintain and slowly increase their advantage throughout the game.
Notice that when I mentioned playing 3.Bb5 in the Sicilian, I did not mention 2...e6 as one of the moves where Bb5 can be played. That is because Bb5 cannot reasonably be played on move three against 2...e6, as the bishop does literally nothing there and will only be a target for moves like a6 and b5 by black. GM Jan Gustafsson of Chess24 mentioned in one of his videos, that 2...e6 is perhaps the most "fighting" attempt by black in the Sicilian Defense, as it avoids these simplifying, positional lines. I had never thought of it that way, as I've never played 2...e6 in the Sicilian Defense as black, but I tend to agree with his statement. The Canal-Sokolsky Attack against 2...d6 is not quite as effective as the Rossolimo Variation against 2...Nc6, as black is more flexible and can play something like 3...Nd7 and claim that white doesn't have much of anything in the form of an advantage, but there white usually keeps a small but safe edge by resorting to Ruy Lopez structures or by opening the center and taking advantage of their development advantage. The move 2...e6 means that white can't play quite as safely, and this usually means that things are likely to get wild - something I almost always want to avoid while playing as white.
Before I learned about and began to use the safer Bb5 options against the Sicilian, I had never found it overly difficult to meet the moves 2...d6 and 2...Nc6, but I still wanted to avoid some of their complexities and deep theory. On the other hand, 2...e6 was always a move that I found difficult to combat. The lines in 2...e6 tend to be slightly less intuitive to play against (at least for me), as the piece configuration is often different from other Sicilian lines, the counterattacks can come quicker and more unexpectedly, there can be strange transpositions and pawn structures, and the f8-bishop can be quite annoying at times by pinning the c3-knight. I tried finding ways around this by studying the lines from the white perspective, but I still had difficulty with it all. I then decided to explore some other third move options.
Now I won't say that these moves that I am recommending be played against 2...e6 are "safe" options, but they are offbeat and sound, having positional aspects to them, and they tend to have a high win-loss ratio. Not only that, but the moves that I will be recommending are not as complicated and theoretical, so you will have a much simpler task in meeting your opponent's experience in this opening. In my observation, players who employ 2...e6 have a pet line in it that they have looked into a lot, so it can be hard to combat their time studying it, even if you're objectively the better player. I believe that the moves 3.b3, 3.d3 and 3.g3 against 2...e6 will give you a much higher chance of success if you've found yourself having trouble against it, and it can be a secondary option for those of you who wish to continue playing the Open Sicilian.
Finally, though it is often recommended by titled players that we club-level players not shy away from main lines for our improvement's sake, if you are having difficulty combating a specific mainline variation of some opening, I believe it is more than okay to find another way of approaching it. Everyone has their own style of play and their own way of approaching the game, and this blog post is simply here to inform you of some alternatives, especially if you're encountering similar difficulties. There are plenty of idiosyncratic grandmasters who almost always use offbeat sidelines to meet certain highly theoretical openings, so it is a reasonable option for nearly all of us. I will only add that you should occasionally look into other openings if only to keep growing as a chess player.
What to Expect from This Blog Entry
The nature of this "Chess Openings" blog post will be different than the ones that I have done on a single variation, as I plan for this entry to be a survey discussing these three possible white responses more briefly. Also, because the variations I plan to speak about begin on move three, I do not feel it is beneficial to discuss possible earlier deviations. Furthermore, sidelines against this 2...e6 variation have a tendency to transpose into other openings. For instance, as you might think, 3.d3 has the intention of playing the opening more along the lines of a King's Indian Attack or Closed Sicilian. I will mention some games and ideas in those and the other transpositions, but I will mainly try to focus on lines that stay in the 3.b3, 3.d3 and 3.g3 options and also the more popular continuations therein. That is, my intention is not to write a blog entry about the King's Indian Attack, Closed Sicilian, etc., but rather to present games in how to approach these third move options, from where you can further study the openings and variations stemming from transpositions.
Why These Sidelines?
I believe that some of you would find it surprising to know how long it took me to realize that there were other reasonable attempts against 2...e6 apart from the Open Sicilian. It is one of those situations where the line is rare enough that it doesn't evoke a feeling of necessity, and often with openings, one commonly needs to be pointed in the right direction and reassured before attempting to deviate from what they know. Of course, it makes sense that a move like 3.d3 or 3.g3 would be playable, and I had some experience playing the King's Indian Attack before that aforementioned time already, but I never put two and two together until searching through databases. My point in mentioning this is that if you are having difficulty with a particular opening or variation, often there are ways of steering the game into something you know more, especially if you're playing as white. This may be either a temporary or permanent fix to your opening problems, but it's a fix nonetheless. Chess is complicated enough, so there's no need to make it even more difficult by spreading yourself too thin in trying to learn a unique response to every possible "question."
One thing I will mention here is that most 2...e6 players are familiar with French Defense structures, as sidelines in response to this line of the Sicilian often call for them to progress in a way similar to the French Defense. That is, don't expect for your opponents to be thrown off by a transposition into the King's Indian Attack, as they've probably seen it quite a bit. However, depending on the sideline you choose and your opponent's skill level, you might catch a few by surprise. Generally, moves like 3.b3 or 3.g3 are more likely to surprise your opponent than 3.d3.
3.d3 in Response to 2...e6 (the King's Indian Attack)
As I previously mentioned, the move 3.d3 has the intention of transposing into the King's Indian Attack or Closed Sicilian. Individually, these two openings involve large amounts of theory, and entire books have been devoted to each. The King's Indian Attack is especially complex, though it is often taught to beginners as a universal opening system, because of its flexibility and black's variety of responses, and the same could be said of the Closed Sicilian. I will not discuss either opening very much here, but I will give some instructive games. You should study the opening ideas of each to prepare yourself if you choose this line against 2...e6.
One thing that I have learned about the King's Indian Attack rather recently is that there has been a significant progression in theory since the time of Bobby Fischer, who was famous for his implementation of the opening. The opening is still seen at the highest level today, especially if white seeks a less theoretical and more "fighting" game. I had thought that the opening was very rare at the highest level and that, because of this, the theory was much the same as it was thirty or forty years ago, but that goes to show you my past chess naivety; because of this, I had tried strictly mirroring how Fischer played the opening, which is never a bad idea, but I thought to inform anyone not knowing this that you should study this opening again if only for this reason. Black is thought to equalize in a number of ways in the King's Indian Attack, as is the case with most white openings, but there is often a lot of tension in these positions because of the lack of exchanges, and thus the "fighting" label. Also, the games tend to be complex because of their rather closed, maneuvering play, and traditionally white sacrifices a good amount of material in order to attack black's king, as could be said of black towards white's king in many lines of the King's Indian Defense.
As I previously mentioned, there are multiple ways for black to answer and equalize in the King's Indian Attack, and this is often the case for any openings where white does not play in the most forcing and principled way. This will also be the case in the 3.g3 and 3.b3 cases mentioned below. The third move responses of black shown in the pictures of this and the other subvariations are only a few of the more popular options black has.
Some different ways of strategically approaching the King's Indian Attack for both white and black can be seen in the following games:
More traditional looking King's Indian Attack games: Grischuk v. Bukavshin, Russian Team Championships (2014); Nepomniachtchi v. Le, FIDE World Blitz Championship (2014); Gelfand v. Polgar, World Blitz Championship (2009).
More modern looking King's Indian Attack games: Movsesian v. Danin, Russian Team Championships (2011); Svidler v. Movsesian, Tal Memorial (Blitz) (2008); Ponomariov v. Kamsky, SportAccord Mind Games (Blitz) (2011).
3.g3 in Response to 2.e6
The move 3.g3 can be quite similar to 3.d3, as both can lead to the King's Indian Attack. However, the move 3.g3 is slightly more flexible, as white doesn't clarify the center yet, and so white may also play in the style of a sort of Reversed Grunfeld with a later d4. These "Reversed Grunfeld" positions are often more positional and strategical, trying to inflict and fight against black's pawn weaknesses like the potentially isolated pawn that can occur on d5, than the King's Indian Attack, which is more of a brawl. That being said, the King's Indian Attack can also be positional in some lines, but I'm mentioning the more common scenarios. I happen to prefer 3.g3 over 3.d3 for its flexibility and because I prefer strategical games when playing as white.
The move 3.g3 isn't nearly as popular as 3.d3, just as the "Reversed Grunfeld" isn't nearly as popular as the King's Indian Attack, but the move 3.g3 tends to have a better win-ratio than 3.d3, probably for the reasons I've mentioned and because it's the best of both worlds in regards to flexibility.
From the diagram, it would seem that black doesn't have many options in responding to 3.g3, but this isn't necessarily true. The diagram simply displays black's popular third move responses, which also happen to be the most principled.
Here are some games from the 3.g3 line that don't transpose into the King's Indian Attack, in order to avoid repetition:
"Reversed Grunfeld" type of setup: Adams v. Vachier-Lagrave, Bilbao Masters (2013); Giri v. Agdestein, Norway Chess Tournament (2014); Andreikin v. Bologan, FIDE World Rapid Championship (2013).
Reverse Benoni type of setup: Kuzubov v. Miton, Reykjavik Open (2011).
A game with c3 followed by d4 in one move: Karjakin v. Radjabov, Azerbaijan vs the World (2009).
3.b3 in Response to 2...e6 (the Westerinen Variation)
The move 3.b3 is much unlike the other two third move options for white that I have previously mentioned, and for more obvious reasons. The move 3.b3 attempts to steer the game into play that resembles the Nimzo-Larsen Attack (1.b3), which is known to be a less theoretical but then slightly more attacking opening. With 3.b3, the opening has not technically transposed into a line of the Nimzo-Larsen, and the game still falls within the Sicilian Defense at this point, but I wouldn't be surprised if there existed such transpositions following 3.b3 or vice versa. Also, of the three opening variations I'm recommending here (and I say this tentatively), I believe this to be the most complex, though there may be ways to simplify it that I am not currently aware of; this may be good if you are looking for more of an unusual and improvised game.
There are a few points that I thought to mention. Firstly, black, as with many sidelines in the 2...e6 Sicilian, has the option to play in Sicilian Defense style by not committing to an early d5, or they may play in more of a French Defense style by playing an early d5. It is hard to say which is better. Playing in French Defense style is more principled, as black seeks to gain space, though the downside (at least in this variation) is that black is often left with slight structural weaknesses such as an isolated queen pawn. Playing in Sicilian Defense style is more consistent, as the position arose from a Sicilian Defense. Also, the Sicilian Defense generally tends to be more dynamic, but playing in this way may forgo the space advantage that white is ceding to black in all three of these white sidelines. Those things being said, I cannot definitively say which style of play to expect more from black in any of these white sidelines, as both styles are roughly equally as common, or such is the case in my experience. Also, I would say that both black choices are equally good.
The second thing I wished to mention is that this subvariation is very flexible for white. Apart from having committed to fianchettoing the dark-squared bishop, the pawn structure can take on many forms. It can look like a Maroczy Bind in some cases, or it can turn into a double fianchetto, all depending on what black does and also your style.
If black plays more along the French Defense with an early d5, then the line can even somewhat resemble the Reti Gambit of the French Defense (1.e4 e5, 2.b3 d5, 3.Bb2 dxe4). However, I believe that black's inclusion of c5 is favorable for white here, as in the Reti Gambit (a variation that I'll admit I know little about), I would think that white needs to be careful not to commit to an early d4 if there is not a clear way to unclog the a1-h8 diagonal, at the risk of making their bishop on b2 rather pointless. With c5 already being played in this Sicilian line, white may play an early d4, knowing that the center can be liquidated and that the b2-bishop will be active. That all being said, there are other, more preferable and precise ways of combating the French Defense-style response here; they often involve quicker piece activity before the d-pawn advances, as black cannot afford to continue to take more space.
As you can see from the diagram of this 3.b3 subvariation, black has a number of relatively popular third move responses, more so than to white's other third move options. The good thing is that white's responses and strategy tend to be the same regardless, so this cuts down on studying time. Furthermore, there are many transpositions in the black responses, so many equate to the same outcome. When in doubt on your fourth move, and as long as your e4 pawn is not hanging, I've found that 4.Bb2 is often a correct reply.
Here are some example games for you:
3...Nc6: Grischuk v. Popov, Moscow Championship Superfinal Rapid (2014); Gara v. Apecheche, Chess Olympiad (Women) (2014).
3...a6: Carlsen v. Svidler, World Blitz Championship (2009); Akopian vs Khenkin, Tilburg (1994).
3...b6: Anand v. Polgar, Arctic Securities Chess Stars (2010).
3...d6: Oral v. Navara, Czech Championship (2003).
3...d5: Nordenbaek v. Brouwer, Politiken Cup (2014).
3...Nf6: Oral v. Arlandi, Bled Olympiad (2002).
I hope you have found this post informative, though I realize that the explanations of these third move subvariations against 2...e6 are not very thorough. Regardless, I believe that this post may give you some ideas about how to meet this variation of the Sicilian Defense as white. I also believe that I covered many of the main themes that you will see early on in your employing any of these variations.
Two variations that I did not mention, which are not the Open Sicilian with the immediate 3.d4, are 3.Nc3, with the idea of delaying the d4 push until more ideal circumstances, and 3.c3, attempting to transpose into an Alapin Sicilian or Advance French variation. The move 3.Nc3 is an excellent way of meeting 2...e6. The primary reason I didn't mention this subvariation is that it is already quite popular and because it tends to transpose into lines of the Open Sicilian. With Wei Yi's recent immortal chess game in this line (seen here: Wei Yi v. Lazaro Bruzon Batista (2015)), I believe that it will become even more popular, and I myself have begun to use it on account of my aforementioned difficulties and Yi's "Game of the Century." The move 3.c3 is a solid alternative, and if you play the Advance French, which often arises, this may be something to look into.
That is all. Thank you for reading, and take care.
Any Comments or Questions about This Blog Post?
Phillip Durand from Winter Park on November 20, 2015:
I found your post very informative, especially as a player who doesn't mind ceding any opening advantage for the sake of "playing chess". I think a lot of "d4" and "c4" players avoid "e4" because they've suffered demoralizing defeats in open Sicilians, when, worst nightmares coming true, they've been caught in computer lines. Anyway, thanks for the post. Maybe next time you could share one of your games with any of these lines.