Valeri Bronznik & Steve Giddins, The Lazy Man's Sicilian: Attack and Surprise White with the Basman-Sale Variation (New in Chess, 2015). 222 pp., $22.95/€19.95. Reviewed by Dennis Monokroussos.
In a previous post I was dismissive of the "Lazy Man's Sicilian", but this is not to be confused with being dismissive of The Lazy Man's Sicilian. In other words, I think there is at least one very serious problem with the opening line, but while I think the book's treatment of that problem was seriously inadequate that shouldn't be seen as an indictment of the whole book.
The first edition of the book was written by Ukranian IM Valeri Bronznik alone and published in German in 2004; this edition has been translated and updated by FM Steve Giddins. In his preface Giddins refers to the book as "overwhelmingly" Bronznik's, but Giddins' analytical contributions must be significant as well with 11 years of new games, some analytical sources and the use of the engine to help modernize the work. My suspicion is that these two aims - maintaining an "overwhelmingly" Bronzik-written book on the one hand and an up-to-date volume on the other - are nearly incompatible. I'm sure Bronznik did a fine job with the original edition, but even in a relatively minor line with comparatively few games there are going to be significant developments. Moreover, it's a sharp line, and computer analysis plays a serious role. Chess engines weren't bad in 2004, but they were far weaker than they are today. I've checked analyses from that era - my own, certainly, and even Garry Kasparov's from the early editions of his My Great Predecessor series - and there are always plenty of improvements to be found. So while Bronznik's way of explaining the key ideas and outlining the variations and so on may more or less survive intact to the present day, it's unlikely that the particulars of his analysis would fare even nearly as well. That puts Giddins in a challenging spot, and maybe an impossible one.
The book's philosophy is to offer a sharp but under-explored line (accounting for the "lazy" aspect of the variation), and to be sure the line chosen is almost entirely unknown. I cannot recall facing the variation 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 e6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Bc5 before, and suspect that few of you have either. While its roots go back to the 19th century (Louis Paulsen in particular played it four times against Paul Morphy, albeit with terrible results) Bronznik dubs it the Basman-Sale Variation, after a pair of IMs who played it with some regularity and success and demonstrated some of its key ideas. The first, Michael Basman, is a British IM known for his eccentric opening choices (e.g. 1.d4 h6 followed by ...g5); his main contributions to the variation came in the 1970s. The second is Croatian IM Srdjan Sale, who brought it to a larger audience in the 1990s.
Black's concept can be put like this: if White tries to maintain the knight on d4, then Black will pile up with ...Qb6, ...Nc6 and so on, with pressure against the knight and on the a7-g1 diagonal in general, not to mention White's b-pawn. If, however, the knight retreats to b3, Black plays ...Bb6, continues with ...Ne7 and ...0-0, and then typically goes for ...f5 (or sometimes ...d5). The positions are fresh and White's typical anti-Sicilian ideas don't carry over to this system. Between that and the underdeveloped state of its theory, we have the basis for the "lazy" moniker: Black needs to know relatively little in order to play the variation - or so it seems at first.
Here's a problem: Black is taking a lot of liberties in the opening, and is also playing in a very unforcing manner. This means that White has many options to choose from (adding to Black's workload) and sometimes the positions get so sharp and concrete that Black must walk a tactical tightrope to avoid a disaster. The dream of a truly "lazy man's" Sicilian is something of a will o' the wisp.
Let's outline the book and look at some specifics. After the introductory pages and a short historical chapter, there's a very useful 10-page chapter on motifs, outlining some typical structures, plans and ideas for both sides.
From there it's on to the heavy-duty theory. In part 1 systems the authors consider lines where White tries to avoid retreating the knight to b3. Chapter 1 examines 5.Nc3, chapter 2 presents the sharp 5.Nb5 and the third chapter looks at the solid-looking developing move 5.Be3.
In part two (chapters 4-10) they move on to 5.Nb3, and continue 5...Bb6 6.Nc3 Ne7 before divvying up the material. Each of the following seven moves gets its own chapter: 7.Bd3, 7.Be2, 7.Bc4, 7.Bf4, 7.g3, 7.Qh5 and 7.Bg5.
Part three is a one-chapter grab bag looking at alternatives to 6.c4, focusing on 6.Bd3.
Finally, part four looks at 3.Nc3. The authors are not offering a full Sicilian repertoire, but do examine 3.Nc3 as an important White attempt to get to a more traditional Open Sicilian while avoiding the Basman-Sale variation. The idea is that if Black plays 3...Nc6, then after 4.d4 cxd4 5.Nxd4 Bc5 6.Nb3 Bb6 White has 7.Bf4 (7.Nb5 is also strong, as the authors note), and because Black has played ...Nc6 rather than ...Ne7 he cannot meet the threat of Bd6 with ...d5. Therefore, they suggest 3...a6, and examine both 4.d4 and 4.g3, with the latter line bifurcating into variations with and without a quick d4.
The book has a useful list of variations and is very well-written. The verbal explanations (presumably mostly Bronznik's) are illuminating and (thus) helpful, and in general where deep analysis is required, the authors strive to present it. The book certainly has its virtues, but are the virtues of the variation sufficient to justify the book?
The problem mentioned in the "Lazy" review is a pretty serious one, but I also investigated a couple of other variations, one early in the book and one late. The early one starts with 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 e6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Bc5 5.Be3 Qb6 and now instead of the semi-refutation 6.b4! we'll look at a move covered in more detail, 6.c3. The play is very sharp here as well, and Black's task is not an easy one without prep - and maybe not even then. After 6...Nc6 7.Na3 Nxd4 8.Nc4 Qc6 9.Bxd4 Qxe4+ 10.Be2 Be7 11.0-0 Nf6 12.Bf3 Qf4 13.Qa4 0-0 14.Be5 Qg5 15.Rfe1 Ng4 the authors consider 16.h4 (played in the main game Hage-de Berkmortel, corr. 1995) and 16.Bg3. They don't consider 16.Bd4 or 16.Bd6, however, and while Black might be able to equalize against the latter he cannot do so against the former, and in most cases White finds himself with a serious edge.
The second line comes from the last part of the book: 3.Nc3 a6 4.g3 b5 5.Bg2 Bb7 6.d4 b4 7.Na4 cxd4 8.Nxd4 Nf6 9.0-0 Bxe4 10.Bxe4 Nxe4 11.Re1. Here three moves are considered: 11...Nf6 is given as the main line, and there's also 11...d5 and 11...Nc5. All three moves are fine, but I did notice some inaccuracies in the treatment of 11...Nf6. After 12.Qf3 d5 13.Bg5 Nbd7 14.c4 bxc3 15.Nxc3 Bc5 16.Rxe6+ fxe6 17.Nxe6 Qb6 18.Nxd5 Qxb2 19.Rf1 (this is given as dubious, but wrongly so; the real error comes in their next suggestion for White) Rb8 the authors consider only 20.Nxc5, which is a poor move. Black is obviously better after 20...0-0, when he can hope to exploit his extra material now that his king has been safely tucked away.
Instead of this, White has at least four moves that maintain equal chances, one of which is 20.Nxf6+. Black can maintain equality only by finding a long string of only-moves (see for yourself), many of which will prove difficult to find over the board. (And to find all of them over the board is unlikely for non-GMs, to put it mildly.)
The bottom line, for me, is that while the book exhibits numerous virtues, I don't find the variation trustworthy, it doesn't seem to me efficient as a "lazy" weapon (if I have to memorize numerous complicated variations past move 30 just to draw the game, I'm working!), and I found serious errors of omission in every line I explored. Not recommended, unless you want to use the book as a starting point for your own independent investigations.