IM Pähtz plows through the material at high speed. Since this is her first video for ChessBase, perhaps this was nervousness in front of the camera. It’s my experience, when people are anxious about performing before an audience, they often rush through their lines as a way of getting it all over.
She definitely demonstrated her expertise. The games she reviewed were all from her own OTB tournament experience. She proceeded through them with interesting commentary. Again, the speed of the presentation was a problem. She would go through the analysis so quickly and her presentation was so deadpan, I found I had to frequently rewind the video just to follow her. Curiously, she frequently looks over and past the camera, leaving me with the impression that she was watching a clock on the wall.
For example, when discussing the Accelerated Dragon, IM Pähtz tells the viewer that in this variation, Black will not play with d6 and “in this variation things quite change and White should be rather careful in some variations.” My immediate reaction was a feeling this was too superficial for the intended audience of intermediate to advanced club and tournament players. I expected some detailed description of important differences between the traditional and accelerated forms of the Dragon and what are the implications of those differences, such as Black avoiding the Yugoslav Attack but White having an opportunity for a Maróczy bind. This would be coupled with some highlighted squares and some arrows added to emphasize the important strategic differences between the accelerated and traditional Sicilian Dragon. This is typical with other FritzTrainer DVDs. It appeared that IM Pähtz has not yet developed enough familiarity with ChessBase to illustrate her discussion with arrows and markers for squares. There are a few video clips where she does add some arrows and highlights, but most of those come from prepared diagrams that are stored in the database rather than using the keyboard during her presentation.
She needed to slow down and extend the running time of the video or present fewer clips. In that way, she could more fully explain the strategic concepts in the Sicilian variations she covered and the tactics that emerge. Three hours and thirty minutes was simply not enough time to cover all of the material adequately for an improving player like myself.
I assume that the intended audience was intermediate to advanced club and tournament players, somewhere between 1800 and 2000. Titled players would likely find the analysis to be interesting as a refresher, but I believe most would quickly conclude they’re already familiar with the material. Less experienced players would likely feel overwhelmed by the pace of presentation.
The DVD is divided into three parts. The first is a series of seven model games. The next is nine brief videos on different opening traps in the Sicilian. The third part is a series of fifteen test questions. The test questions are in the new interactive video format where she pauses the video and the viewer then makes their move choice on the chessboard by dragging and dropping the selected piece or pawn. If the viewer makes a reasonable move, a new clip plays that explains why the move was (or was not) the better move alternative.
This is not a comprehensive introduction to the Sicilian Defense. That’s just too broad of an undertaking for a few hours of video. IM Pähtz focuses on a few Sicilian variations in her model games: two Najdorfs, a Richter-Rauzer, a Scheveningen, a Sicilian with 2. e6 that transformed into a symmetrical English, a Kan, and a Kalashnikov. What was interesting about this collection is not so much their range but the conscious decision to include some games where tactics predominated and others where the game was much more positional in nature.
One of my favorite ChessBase videos is GM Nigel Davies’ DVD, French Defense Strategy. I learned a lot from that DVD. I had similar hopes for How to Play the Sicilian Defense. If the organization of the DVD focused on typical Sicilian structures, themes, and plans, I might have had that experience. A handful of games from the same IM without anything other than that to link them together left me feeling this was a missed opportunity.
I’ll indulge in a brief example. I’m not an IM or GM. If I advised my fellow improvers, I would stress that White typically needs to press for a middle game advantage in the Sicilian Defense. The extra center pawn tends to give Black an advantage in the endgame. So a collection of games illustrating what happens when White pushes aggressively in the middle game and what happens when White is passive would help reinforce a common strategic theme among the Sicilian variations. How does White go about the middle game? What are some of the classic sacrifices that happen frequently in the Sicilian? When are the conditions right for making a sacrifice, such as the thematic bishop sacrifice on e6?
There are some important priyomes to learn in the Sicilian Defense. That enigmatic borrowing from Russian fits well here. Priyomes combine both structure and characteristic maneuvers. For example, if Black plays a premature e5 in some Sicilian variations, a hole can be exposed on d5, the so-called Boleslavsky Hole. Two common variations where this arises is 6…e5 in the Classical Sicilian and 6…e5 in the Najdorf.
Players at my level can benefit from solid advice on how to play with and against the Boleslavsky Hole. There’s plenty to discuss. The common plans for White: occupying the hole with a piece, the backward d6 pawn, timing of a possible f4 break, etc. Black has his opportunities, too. These often involve timing a d5 break, controlling the c4 square, and maybe initiating a minority attack on the queenside.
Similarly, some Sicilian variations are prone to a Maróczy Bind. There was a time when players avoided it, even at the cost of significantly weakening their position. Strong players now better understand how to play with and against it. This is the sort of practical strategic advice for playing the Sicilian that benefits the audience appropriate for this DVD.
Video lectures and games illustrating plans such these were what I hoped to watch on How to Play the Sicilian Defense.
The one recurring theme in these videos is that the Sicilian can be played as a sharp, tactical opening or played in a more positional fashion. Granted. That’s also true of most openings. There are Giuoco Pianos, for example, that are far from pianissimo.
The opening traps were an unconnected collection. Two Dragons, an Accelerated Dragon, two Najdorfs, a Closed Sicilian, an Alapin, 2…Nc6 3.Bb5, and 2…Nc6 3.d3. Except for the Najdorfs, they were unrelated to the model games. Since the Sicilian Defense is such an extended family of variations, I believe the DVD would have been better by picking just a few variations and then keeping the focus on those same variations through all three parts.
For my money, the test positions were the most interesting part of the DVD. These work like a coaching session, where you are posed a chess problem and then you choose a move. Your coach then explains why your proposed move was (or wasn’t) a good choice. All that’s missing is the verbal exchange between coach and student, where you explain your analysis to your coach and get the coach’s reaction. There are limits to instructional DVDs, and having a running conversation with a coach is one of them.
Settling on a recommendation was difficult for me. I recognize that IM Pähtz is young and new to the ChessBase author team. I found her to be intelligent and articulate. If she slows down and keeps her audience in mind by replacing summary statements with more detailed instruction, I expect some exciting DVDs from her in the future.
I cannot say that I highly recommend this ChessBase title. For the strong club or tournament player, I’d suggest something like GM Daniel King’s Power Play 18: Play the Sicilian Najdorf or one of the various titles on individual Sicilian variations by GM Davies or IMs Martin or Lilov. These better explain the strategic themes and ideas, in my opinion. I’m not saying How to Play the Sicilian Defense by IM Pähtz is bad or to be avoided. It just wouldn’t be my first choice from ChessBase for improving my understanding of the Sicilian Defense.