Review: Understanding the Sicilian, by Mikhail Golubev

Gambit Publications
2017, 240 pages

By Davide Nastasio

I would love to play the Sicilian as Black.  I tried some DVDs to learn the Najdorf, but after more than a month watching the DVD I was nowhere near able to use it in a tournament, and after a couple of months in full tournament season, I had to let go of my dream to instead use more common openings with less theory.  But one cannot really give up on a dream, and from time to time I try different approaches. I have played extensively as White against the Sicilian using the Grand Prix, The Closed, and of course the exciting Smith-Morra.

Now I found this wonderful book, which in my opinion has the approach I was looking for.  It could be worth its weight in gold for someone who, like me, wishes to learn the Sicilian. The author decided to share his experiences as White against the Sicilian, and as Black playing the Sicilian, using 120 of his games from when he became a professional chess player in 1990. In total, the author has played over 440 games with the Sicilian, one side or the other.



Golubev playing against the legendary Korchnoi


The author focuses on the opening part of the game, rightly so, because the Sicilian is a maze, and it is important to have a guide who leads us around in the opening.  The games used as examples are exciting, and hard fought battles. This is highly instructive, because often we are taught just the first 10-15 moves in opening manuals.  In this book, however, (and this is the reason I particularly like the approach used in the book) we are given the entire game, showing what the plans are and the typical endgames after the opening phase is over.



Golubev playing against the 12th World Champion


I love this book because it helped me to build the confidence I need to play the Sicilian, not through memorization of reams of variations, but through showing me a great selection of games from a player who played it at professional level for over 35 years.   The author points us also to two other chess geniuses who have influenced him in playing the Sicilian: Mikhail Tal and Lev Polugaevsky.   Here we can appreciate, once more, this holistic approach in order to learn the Sicilian. Since today we have clearly an overload of chess information, a player who is truly dedicated to playing the Sicilian should first watch some of the games of the above-mentioned giants to appreciate their influence in Golubev’s games.



GM Polugaevsky is one of the world’s experts on the Sicilian.


In my opinion this approach is definitely more serious, and more fruitful, than just reading a book on openings, which will get old with time due to computer innovations.  The author correctly points out that today the silicon monsters create in minutes novelties that once would take years of home analysis, and this has created a problem because Golubev says nowadays one must rely on the engine to test and find new moves.  I partly disagree, because while what Golubev says is 100% true for professional players, the amateur players (who make up 99% of chess players worldwide) are quite far from being able to memorize precisely some lines up to move 25.  But don’t take my word for it: let me prove it to you through 2 games.

In 1990 two titled players played the following game.  Notice that Black is played by GM Soltis, who is an expert of the Sicilian and quite dangerous, yet look what happens to him!





The next game comes from the Georgia (USA) State Championship in 2015, played between White, an expert-level player, and Black with a rating of 2400, a master-level player.  Still the master-level player loses in 17 moves just as GM Soltis did 25 years before!  In this case, it seems the Black player wasn’t able to memorize even less than 20 moves of theory!





The Sicilian presents a possible advantage/disadvantage: yes, if we are playing against a professional GM, then our lack of memorization could land us in trouble.

Now let’s come to review the book.  The first thing I feel when I open a book is the quality of the paper. Gambit uses this nice rough, and not white, kind of cream-color paper. This is a pleasant sensation for the fingers. Often we don’t understand to which length the publisher went to give us the high-quality product we have in our hands, but I think the paper is important. If I counted well, the book is made up of 33 chapters, with one-third covering the Dragon Yugoslav attack, followed by four dedicated to the Fischer attack.  The book has a very nice index of variation, which is quite thick!





I looked at the game partly on my computer, through Chessbase 14, and partly on the board.   In this case, I did a simple search using 1.e4,c5; and the name Golubev M. on my Megabase 2017, and as result I had 474 games played with the Sicilian.  I copied these 474 games on a new database, Golubev_Sicilian, and then I began to watch the games.  I’d like to point out another reason which made me think the book is quite good.  In the beginning, Golubev says he took a long time to select the right games.  The first game of the book is not inside Chessbase Megabase, showing that in this book there is original material that only the author had access to, and this make the book even more worthy!!

Within the games, Golubev shows also games of other players on other lines which are not treated in a thematic chapter.  For example, in Chapter 1, entitled Miscellaneous, Golubev shows games in the Smith-Morra, like the following, because he didn’t select any from his own.




The warning given by Golubev after showing this game is that the Smith-Morra must be taken very seriously, compared to his opinion of the Wing Gambit, which never worried him too much.  GM Williams, on the other hand, said that he made one of his GM norms thanks to the Wing Gambit!

Pros and Cons: At the cost of being the most annoying reviewer on earth, I’d like to share a small criticism of the book. The Sicilian is an opening for Black. Golubev chose games from his career as White or Black, but on the games he played as Black the diagrams are oriented from the White side. In this world of computers, and the miraculous things we can do with them, I would expect to have the diagram oriented from the Black side when the author is playing Black.  Why?  Because I think a book can be used to improve our visualization, so from time to time we should study the games without using a board, and just read the book.





Listing the pros for having this book is quite easy, but let me sum it up this way: the Sicilian is an unbalanced opening.  It clearly will teach all the methods of attack on the king, typical sacrifices to open the castle, and in general a cornucopia of chess ideas which can bring someone to master level (after all we have 120 top games!).   The first game in the book shows a Greek sacrifice, and how Black saved the day against such powerful attack!

One con would be for the missing index/list of the games.  It would have been easier to have one page or two with all the names Golubev played against for reference.

Before I forget, I discovered the publisher Gambit also has an android app where one can find this book and all the other Gambit publishing titles. The price is quite reasonable, and less than the actual book. I love books on paper; however, I think the app is great, because it allows me to bring all the books I want on my tablet. Before when I was going on vacation I had to decide on a certain number of books to bring with me, and the weight was killing me!   Now I can bring all of them with me thanks to this app!   For those who are curious, here is the site for the app:





In conclusion: I think this book is quite original, and is a MUST-have in the library of someone who is genuinely interested in learning the Sicilian. I’m sure the book will catch the attention of coaches and trainers, because Golubev’s games are high quality against top opposition.  One can use them to teach the Sicilian, as well as show ideas and plans for the middlegame, or the typical endgames in which the different open Sicilians end up. Let me reiterate an important point: if someone is not interested in the Sicilian, this book is still a MUST, because it can be used to learn the art of attack!

Post Scriptum: one last reason to buy the book would be that Golubev is an expert on the King’s Indian.  He wrote a book for Gambit on the King’s Indian in 2005, and now to get a paperback copy from Amazon one needs to pay around $120!!! So buying a few copies of this book written by Golubev could be a good investment!



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