Evgeny Sveshnikov, Sveshnikov vs. the Anti-Sicilians: A Complete Repertoire for Black. New in Chess, 2014. 251 pp., $28.95/€25.95. Reviewed by Dennis Monokroussos.
Earlier this year (I'd better hurry up with this review!) New in Chess published a book by Evgeny Sveshnikov on the anti-Sicilian move 2.f4, which I reviewed here. While I thought Sveshnikov did a good job of presenting the material both deeply and fairly, it seemed to me that the objective merits of 2.f4 and 2.Nc3 followed by f4 were insufficient to justify the book's purchase. (At least for most people.) I think this book should fare a lot better, and deservedly so.
Sveshnikov's black opening repertoire against 1.e4 is currently based on Sicilian lines starting with 2...Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 e5, and in this book he covers pretty much all of White's alternatives on move 2: 2.a3, 2.Na3, 2.b4, 2.d4, 2.b3, 2.c4, 2.d3, 2.c3, 2.f4, 2.Ne2* and then a series of 2.Nc3 lines, which he meets with 2...Nc6. If you play any Sicilian at all, you'll at the very least be interested in the pre-2.Nc3 material, and even if you play, say, the Najdorf you may still be interested in the second part of the book. That's because after 2.Nc3 Nc6 he does not allow White to return to an Open Sicilian after 3.Nge2 or 3.Nf3, but meets both moves with 3...e5. Najdorf, Dragon and Scheveningen fans can therefore follow his repertoire even if they have no interest in Sveshnikov's Sicilian repertoire against 2.Nf3. Of course, if you play the white side of any of these sidelines, you may still be interested in the book (or at least borrowing a friend's copy) to see what he says about your pet system.
Sveshnikov has some strong, surprising and provocative opinions. For instance, he thinks that White has the advantage in the Classical, Kan, Taimanov and Sveshnikov (the 5...e5 version) variations, and also thinks that after 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 e6 3.b3 "White has every right to count on an advantage" (p. 37)! Regarding the first claims, my understanding of contemporary theory is that he's probably right about the Classical Sicilian and might be correct about the Sveshnikov, but the Kan and Taimanov (or Paulsen) are in great shape at the moment. As for his claims about meeting 2...e6 with 3.b3, there is some logic to White's move, sure, but to claim an advantage, full stop? That's an interesting claim, but it's not overwhelmingly plausible.
I note this to highlight Sveshnikov's status as a maverick. He has gone his own way in opening theory for a long time, and it must be admitted that he has created great forests of theory where there were only deserts or at most oases. What you get with Sveshnikov are idiosyncratic but well-worked out schemes and ideas he's always willing to defend in his own practice.
Let's have a look at one of his suggestions. Against the Smith-Morra Gambit** Sveshnikov offers three replies. One is to decline the gambit with 3...Nf6, a move he advocates in his chapter on the 2.c3 Sicilian - a line which is often associated with his name. We'll leave that one alone and focus on the two replies he offers that are specifically for the Smith-Morra itself, one a sideline and the other a mainstream response. In the interest of brevity, I'll only look at the former one here***, which is this: 1.e4 c5 2.d4 cxd4 3.c3 e5. "Black immediately forces the play, so as to force mass exchanges and an equal endgame" (32). He focuses on the obvious 4.cxd4, but as Morra maniac Marc Esserman advocates 4.Nf3 Nc6 5.Bc4 (White's last two moves can also be played the other way around) let's stick to that. Interestingly, Esserman only gives 5...Nf6 here, leading to a position reminiscent of the Two Knights after 6.Ng5. Instead, Sveshnikov notes that 5...Qb6 is interesting, while elaborating on 5...Qc7: 6.0-0 Nf6 7.Ng5 Nd8 8.Qb3 Ne6 9.cxd4 Nxd4(!) 10.Qd3(?) ("Better is 10.Bxf7+, although here too, after 10...Ke7 11.Qb4+ d6, Black has the initiative.") 10...d5(!) 11.exd5 Bf5 12.Bb5+ Nd7 13.Bxd7+ Qxd7 14.Ne4 Qxd5 15.Nbc3 Qc6 "with a large advantage to Black, Fedoseev-Filipenko, Ekaterinburg 1996" (32).
Points to Sveshnikov for avoiding Esserman's prep, but there's also Hannes Langrock's book on the Smith-Morra to deal with. Langrock thinks that 5...Nf6 (the move covered by Esserman) is Black's best bet, but he does examine 5...Qb6 and 5...Qc7 as well. Regarding the latter, his line is 6.Qb3 d6 7.cxd4 a6 (7...exd4 8.0-0 Nf6 9.Bg5 gives White the initiative) 8.Nc3 Nf6 9.Nd5(!) Nxd5 10.Bxd5 Bg4 11.Be3 Bxf3 12.gxf3 exd4 13.Bxc6+ bxc4 14.Bxd4 with a slight advantage for White. It seems to me that Langrock has the better argument, as I think his analysis is correct. I tried 6...Nd8 to see if Black could perhaps transpose back into Sveshnikov's line, but White can do better, and I also took a look at the spirited 6...d5. It's a nice idea, but not enough for equality either.
In sum, I don't think Sveshnikov has the better of the argument over 3...e5 in the Smith-Morra, and as you'll see in the game file (have a look here) I don't think he has the better of the argument in his recommendation of 3...dxc3 either. Does this mean that you shouldn't buy the book? Not at all. Maybe his analysis of the Smith-Morra was a bit lax because of his confidence in 3...Nf6, and this was an unfortunate outlier. I think a reasonable case can be made for that, especially as there are other chapters where he delves much more deeply - typically in chapters featuring lines where he has made a well-known contribution to theory.
So my suggestion is to consider the book if you're in its target audience, but do check his suggestions carefully. Let's finish with some praise: Sveshnikov offers a lot of prose, and his explanations about what each side is trying to do, ought to avoid and ought to prevent, etc., are very useful. He is a man with a lot of ideas, and there is much to be learned from his works. But do check the details!
* 2.Ne2 is covered in the chapter on 2.Nc3 Nc6 3.Nge2.
** Or the Morra Gambit, to follow the most common label nowadays, even though Ken Smith's fanatical advocacy of the gambit helped put it on the map. Alternatively, Sveshnikov claims it's also referred to as the Morra-Matulovic Gambit. This could be an interesting subject for debate. The Mega 2015 database gives 15 games by Matulovic on the white side of the gambit, all from 1954 to 1958. For Smith, there are just his three failures from San Antonio 1972, where he was badly outrated by his opponents. If you're old enough to have his Chess Digest pamphlets from the 1970s and/or 1980s, though, you'll know just how often he played it and how tirelessly he promoted it. As for Morra, whose claim is apparently unchallenged, I don't see any of his games with the gambit in the database. Actually, the first person to punt 1.e4 c5 2.d4 cxd4 3.c3 in the database is the immortal loser: Lionel Kieseritzky, who won a very nice game against one Conrad Vitzthum von Eckstaedt in Paris in 1846. (It wasn't characteristic of the Gambit as we now know it, but it's pretty all the same.)
*** I take a quick look at the other approach in the game file.