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Amongst all the sacrifices in the Sicilian defense, the exchange sacrifice is one of the most famous tactical patterns , and it is well known to any e4 or Sicilian player. It is complex and different to most other sacrificial patterns as it can be used to serve different purposes. It is not aimed at doing only one thing in one specific type of position.

It can be employed regardless of where the white king is, and it can be used for immediate or long-term gains. Before we dig into this particular sacrifice pattern, it is worth noting that many typical sacrifices arise from the Sicilian defense:

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Sergei Movsesian vs Garry Kasparov, Sarajevo 2000

This first example game will show how how rich and complex a game can become after Black plays the typical Rxc3 exchange sacrifice.

Let’s take a step back here. As we have already seen, we can divide these types of sacrifices into two ideas. the first one is checkmate, as we will see in this example game. By removing one of the key defenders of white’s king, black simply gets more forces into the attack. We can safely say that black’s remaining rook is more powerful than the h1 rook when it comes to white’s king safety issues.

There are different types of positions, in which white hasn’t played the move f3, mostly in positions with kingside castling, the removal of the c3 knight will mean a terminal weakening of the e4 pawn, often the key central pillar that holds the white position together. By taking on c3 black wins the e4 pawn and then tries to prove that his compensation is more than enough for the exchange. But lets return to the first scenario, as in this game the white king is on the queenside.

How can black improve his position? That is the question you have to ask yourself in these double-edged positions where every move counts. Or, better yet, does black have time to improve his position or should he strike immediately. Often one preparatory move too many means a crucial tempo. Let us consider black’s options.

This move is a very interesting point in the game. Why is it safe to castle now and it wasn’t a few moves ago ? Because now the white pieces will have to do double duty. With the white king so unsafe, they will not be able to devote to a full scale attack on the kingside.

This game was illustrating how the Rxc3 exchange sacrifice can help to weaken the squares around the White King, and launch a decisive attack. The next example shows how this sacrifice weakens the whole white setup.

Nino Kirov vs Jonathan Speelman, Baku 1983

The second example game we will look at briefly, is a seemingly crushing victory provided by the tactical possibilities of Rxc3. I chose it to illustrate the potential of the semi open c file for black, and because it doesn’t include any of the two main themes that Rxc3 provides – a queenside attack on the king, or the weakening of e4.

In this position we can see the main feature of Sicilian pawn structures that makes Rxc3 so frequent and so powerful; black’s semi open c file !

In this game, the exchange sacrifice did not weaken White’s e4 pawn, as it is usually the case. Our next example shows another variation.

Mamedyarov vs Gelfand, Candidates 2011

The final position we will explore is a beautiful example of a long term positional power of Rxc3. In this game, played between Mamedyarov and Gelfand in the 2011 Candidates Tournament, Gelfand sacrificed the exchange when it seemed that white is the one holding the reins, and that white is the one attacking and winning the position. Rxc3 turned the tables and slowly brought Mamedyarov to his knees. Gelfand basically got 3 passed pawns for the exchange !

This game is a great example of just how “time-sensitive” Rxc3 sacrifices are. You play it when the time is right. Gelfand chose a moment in which white got lost in trying to attack and not succeeding. Furthermore, he chose a moment in which white had already gotten under pressure because of his one major mistake, Qh3. It was a finishing blow !

Exercises

Now take inspiration from the three brilliant examples above to assess the pros and cons of Rxc3 in the five following diagrams. Hope you will find them instructive !

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