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Ask GM Joel
Dear Joel,

I am a class A player and have been playing chess for six years. Whenever I'm White and my opponent plays the Sicilian, I choose a line which has led to great success for me. If the game starts 1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4, I play 4.Qxd4 instead of Nxd4. I've played this line a number of times in tournaments and online games and I've had a great success rate with it. Why isn't this line as popular, particularly with higher-level players? I actually like the fact that it's rare, since it catches my opponents by surprise. A common game usually starts with something like 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Qxd4 Nc6 5.Bb5 Bb7 6.Bxc6 Bxc6 7.Nc3 Nf6 8.Bg5 e6 9.Qd2 Be7 10.0-0-0 0-0 and white has ideas of putting pressure on the d6 pawn. What's your take on the 4.Qxd4 variation for white? Why isn't it seen more often?

By John on the Qd4 Sicilian | 2007-03-01
GM Joel responds
Offbeat openings often succeed at amateur levels because opponents have a narrow base of theoretical knowledge and are less equipped to deal with surprises. Your results at class A are not a good indication of the intrinsic worth of your openings, though they do indicate the value of 4.Qxd4 as a personal weapon for you.

The queen recapture has not made the big time for two reasons. The first is that higher rated players genuinely believe that 4.Qxd4 does not offer as good an opportunity to play for an advantage as do the main lines. Remember, the surprise value of an offbeat line for a grandmaster disappears after its first use—the players have each other too well scouted. Most GMs prefer to focus on openings that they will more likely use successfully on a regular basis.

The other reason 4.Qxd4 has not caught on is simply fashion. If the big boys at Wijk aan Zee and Linares don't adopt a variation, it doesn’t trickle down the chain. The fortunes of a sideline can swiftly and surprisingly change, however. Fifteen years ago the Rossolimo Variation (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5) had a similar status, but Bobby Fischer spurred a renaissance with the discovery of 3…g6 4.Bxc6!? in his 1992 return match with Spassky. Today, 3.Bb5 is arguably as popular as 3.d4 at the international level.

We will have to see if 4.Qxd4 finds a benefactor, but it has a very positive association for me because of the following game, my “Mona Lisa.”

GM Joel

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