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The great Danish grandmaster Bent Larsen once told me of a man he met in the United States, a formerly passionate chess player who had now settled down to a more or less normal existence. "You know," the man confided in Larsen, "I wasted three yea rs of my life on the Poisoned Pawn variation of the Najdorf Sicilian."

It could just as easily have been the Dragon Variation. One of the most popular openings at club level, the Dragon Sicilian offers a temptingly easy strategy. With his bishop on g7 and rook on the half-open c-file, Black has a ready plan of attack - particularly if White castles Q-side, when the standard Rxc3 sacrifice has won countless games without the Black player having to think at all. Yet keeping up with the latest theory on the sharpest attacking lines is almost a full-time job.

At the highest levels, however, Dragon-slayers have, for the most part, de-fanged the beast. Viktor Korchnoi was the last man to dare a Dragon in a world title final qualifier, but Anatoly Karpov made a good job of slaying it. Nevertheless, there are still a few grandmasters who encourage their own pet dragons to perform well.

Currently the most successful Dragon practitioner is Veselin Topalov of Bulgaria. In the following game from the Olympics, Black met the latest theoretical recommendation head-on, and was ready with an improvement.

After 20.Rg1, White must have been still following his home analysis. The idea of barging down the g-file for a quick mating attack looks promising: 20...Nxc3 loses to 21.Qxg6 while 20...d5 21.Nxd5 threatens all sorts of horrors. With 20...Rc4! and 21...

d5! however, Topalov found an effective way to block the effect of the bishop on b3 and defuse the attack completely. White's initiative ran out of steam and the Dragon claimed another victim.

White: L. Oll (Estonia)

Black: V. Topalov (Bulgaria)

1 e4 c5 17 f5 Nxb2

2 Nf3 d6 18 Bxf6 Nxd1

3 d4 cxd4 19 Qxg4 exf6

4 Nxd4 Nf6 20 Rg1 Rc4

5 Nc3 g6 21 Nxd1 d5

6 Be3 Bg7 22 h5 Rxd4

7 f3 Nc6 23 hxg6 fxg6

8 Qd2 0-0 24 Qxg6 Rf7

9 Bc4 Bd7 25 Nf2 Qc3

10 h4 Ne5 26 Kb1 Qe3

11 Bb3 h5 27 Rg2 Kf8

12 0-0-0 Rc8 28 exd5 Qe1+ 13 Bg5 Rc5 29 Kb2 Qe5

14 g4 hxg4 30 Kb1 Qxf5

15 f4 Nc4 White resigns 16 Qe2 Qc8