Sergey Kasparov, Steamrolling the Sicilian: Play for a Win with 5.f3! (New in Chess, 2013). 239 pp. $26.95/€23.95. Reviewed by Dennis Monokroussos.
First, a word of clarification. Contrary to the title and the book's front cover (Black: 1...c5 is on the board; White: a steamroller covering the first four ranks of the board), it is only the Sicilian with 2...d6 that will be smashed into the pavement. Those of you who play 2...e6, 2...Nc6, 2...g6 or some other non-...d6 version can go about your daily lives in peace. It would be better if this were made clear in the title or on the cover, as some people may order the book thinking that the 5.f3 approach works in all the Open Sicilians.
Only 2...d6 is covered, and 5.f3 is not a cure-all against other Sicilians. After, say, 2...e6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nc6 the move 5.f3 is fairly ridiculous, and Black is already better after 5...Bc5. 5.f3 also looks less than brilliant against 2...Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 - 5...Qb6 looks like just one of many ways to achieve at least equality. Caveat emptor.
This caution aside, 5.f3 is very handy if it's good: it eliminates the need to study the Najdorf (2...d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6), the Dragon (5...g6), the Scheveningen (5...e6) and the Classical (5...Nc6). Not too shabby, at least if 5.f3 itself is not too shabby. The quick answer from the database is that it's pretty good; in fact, it scores better than 5.Nc3! Better still, once you enter the move and check out the percentages for Black's replies, it still holds up. 5.f3 doesn't have a good score because Black blows up on one or two bad 5th moves while having the time of his life with some other reply. White scores well against all of Black's normal replies: 5...e5, 5...Nc6, 5...a6, 5...g6 and 5...e6. So far, so good.
It should also be noted that some very good players have used 5.f3, and it has been played often enough that it's not a shock weapon in master and grandmaster play. While 5.Nc3 is the main move by a large margin, the occasional advocates of 5.f3 include Vassily Ivanchuk (seven times), Peter Svidler, Dmitry Andreikin, Boris Gelfand, Judit Polgar, Ruslan Ponomariov and Nigel Short. Even Vladimir Kramnik used it once, but that was in a simul. So 5.f3 has a reasonable pedigree, and is not mere junk for the masses.
Most important of all, it has been played by the author, Grandmaster Sergey Kasparov (no known relation to the former world champion), and frequently. He has 42 games with the variation in Mega 2013 and enjoys a hefty plus score: +19 -3 =20. That's the good news. The bad news is that while most players perform above their rating when they have the white pieces, his PR with 5.f3 is well below his average rating. The stats: his average rating with White in the 42 games is 2483, his PR 2422. Black's average rating is 2282, with a 2350 performance. (I'm not sure why the numbers differ. It's -61 for him, +68 for his opponents.) On the other hand, here's some reassurance from the Powerbook 2013 database. White's average rating in the 5.f3 games is 2418; White's performance, 2463. When we enter 5.f3 and look at Black's replies, there is no case where the PR is above the average rating. (Nor is there any case where the distance is as small as it is with the Najdorf, the gold standard of Sicilian variations.) We can conclude then that as far as the statistics are concerned, 5.f3 is a reasonable option.
Let's turn to the book then. Kasparov divides the material into four parts. The first three examine different pawn setups Black can adopt in response to 5.f3, while the last looks at Black's attempt to avoid the 5.f3 setup with 3...Nf6. Part 1 looks at the Najdorf-ish reply with 5...e5, part 2 takes a look at the Dragon style approach with a quick (but not necessarily immediate) ...g6, and part 3 investigates what he calls Hedgehog structures. This may be a little misleading to some, as Black's knight goes to c6 rather than d7 and Black doesn't fianchetto the light-squared bishop. Still, there are similarities to a normal Hedgehog, as White creates a Maroczy Bind with c4 and Black has pawns on d6 and e6 and will look for the ...d5 break. Finally, part 4 investigates 3...Nf6, which attempts to circumvent the f3 plan. If White plays 4.Nc3, then after 4...cxd4 5.Nxd4 the traditional main line has arisen. White cannot get the f3 plan, but he can avoid the main lines with either 4.dxc5 or 4.Bb5+, and Kasparov presents both.
Each part has chapters isolating different sub-approaches for each side, and concludes with a series of exercises, 30 in total.
About the exercises: Kasparov scores them and shows his sense of humor and a little good-natured nationalistic pride when discussing the scoring totals. Here are the top two categories, as quoted from the book:
75 or more
Levon, we wish you and your team good luck at the next Olympiad. Maybe it's boring when one and the same team is always taking the gold medal. But I am sure that your millions of fans (including ourselves) are quite satisfied with such monotony.
Magnus, my daughter thought that you wouldn't do the exercises.
Cute. Kasparov is a user-friendly writer in general, and that extends to the chess content as well. He presents the material with complete games (167 in all) rather than in discrete, theory-only chunks. Some prefer the latter approach, but I think both are acceptable, done correctly. What counts is that the author gives the intended reader what he needs to play the opening competently, and doesn't lie or offer a load of baloney. Tell the truth: if the line works against A-C but is absolutely garbage against D, then 'fess up about it. As far as I can tell, Kasparov tells his readers the truth.
But back to the complete game format. As I went through the first few games, I was surprised by the absence of paragraphs offering this and that theoretical alternative. Flipping ahead, I assumed there must be some theoretical section somewhere, or some game where at last something with a tree structure would be present. It never showed up. Of course, there are so many games that one could form some sort of tree, but in fact Kasparov told the truth in his introduction:
There have been several critical remarks (both positive and negative) by experts and fans concerning my previous work. For example (I'm paraphrasing):
1) 'Too many games with little notes - a database dump'
2) 'Why are there no games given with this-or-that move in the book? They are in the database?'
As you can see, these two opinions are diametrically opposed. Besides, I am limited by the specified volume of every book. The author must jam his material into, say, 200-250 pages. However, to satisfy both types of critics we would probably need 1,000-2,000 pages as there are millions of games. And to analyse them all.
That is why your obedient servant has tried, in the previous book and in this one, to create something in-between, so as to cover the range of problems of the opening under discussion as fully as possible, but also not to overburden the book and your memory respectively.
Of course, you won't find 20-move variations leading up to an ending in this book. These days everyone has a coputer; at the time I worked on this book I used 'Houdini'. But today you will probably already have a stronger program, like 'Nairit' or perhaps 'Florida'. Accordingly, the evaluations may differ somewhat.
The author's mission is to explain the IDEAS and PLANS in the structures arising after 5.f3 as interestingly as possible. I hope this will raise your chances in tournaments and will improve your chess understanding on the whole. (Pp.7-8.)
I'm broadly in sympathy with this, but will offer a couple of comments if not complaints. First, there are not "millions" of games with 5.f3, and many of the games played in this line, as with every line, can be discarded. Second, not every game needs to be treated as a complete game in its own right. Plenty of other authors who use the complete game format still incorporate games and game fragments in the notes to other full games. I'm not saying that they should do this, either always or sometimes, but it's a false dilemma to suppose the options are to ignore games on the one hand or to implore the publisher for 1,500 pages on the other.
What I will say about his choice is that it makes the book refreshingly pleasant to use. The reader isn't forced to reset the board every fifteen seconds for the next variation, or to enter the whole lot by hand into the computer to study it later. One can actually replay the games on a board (or even mentally, if you're able and so inclined), read the notes, understand what's going on and then reset the board for the next game. There's a nice flow to the games, so you can see the evolution of the problem within each part and chapter, and the remarkable thing is that when you finish a chapter you feel as if you could actually go out and play the line against a good player and know what you're doing.
So I would say that if you're looking for something to play against the Sicilian with 2...d6, this is a book to consider - at least if you're not looking for fire-breathing chess. The approach with 5.f3 is a very solid one, more characteristic of 1.d4 chess. White is looking to start with a space advantage and to restrict Black, not to whip up a dashing attack in the middlegame. If this is what you're looking for, and your 2...e6 and 2...Nc6 needs have been met by other means, then I'm happy to recommend the book to players 1800 (or a bit lower, with ambition) up to the IM level.