What is the Najdorf Sicilian?
The Sicilian Defense is introduced by these opening moves.
1 e4 c5
The Sicilian Defense
It is a very popular opening at all levels of play. Consequently, there are lots of different variations and each one has accrued a substantial body of theory.
The popularity is due to a number of factors: the desire for an exciting game; Black’s winning chances; the soundness and resilience of the opening; the adoption of the Sicilian Defense by numerous prominent chess heroes.
White already has several options on the second move. The Najdorf Variation is one branch of the Open Sicilian, which occurs after:
2 Nf3 d6
3 d4 cxd4
4 Nxd4 Nf6
5 Nc3 a6
The Najdorf Sicilian
It is the move 5 …a6 which distinguishes this variation from others in the Sicilian family (5 …g6, for example, is the Sicilian Dragon.)
Bobby Fischer and Garry Kasparov are the two World Champions most strongly associated with the Sicilian Najdorf.
The variation is named after Miguel Najdorf (1910-1997). Najdorf was a Grandmaster of chess and a very successful player. He was an eternal optimist both on and off the chess board. His life story is inspirational.
Najdorf played for Poland at the 1939 Buenos Aries Chess Olympiad. The Second World War broke out during the event and he had little choice but to remain in Argentina. We shall return to Najdorf’s own story another time, but will note that he was certainly worthy of a place in the 1948 World Championship tournament and it is a shame that it was never offered to him.
What is the Point of 5 …a6?
5 …a6 looks like an unassuming little move. There is, however, more to it than meets the eye.
The b5-square is important in the Sicilian Defense. Both of White’s knights and the king’s bishop are just one move away from occupying the square. Given such a concentration of attention, it makes good sense to protect the square with a pawn.
In some lines of the Najdorf, Black plays an early ….e7-e5, hitting the knight on d4. This is another reason Black would like to keep b5 protected. Indeed, White can throw a spanner in the works after the immediate 5 …e5, with 6 Bb5+ Bd7 7 Bxd7+ Nbxd7 8 Nf5! when the positional downsides to 5 …e5 become more prominent.
Additional, …b7-b5 is a key ingredient in numerous Sicilian recipes and the pawn needs protection before moving forwards.
Najdorf Sicilian: Early Options
White has a lot of options on the sixth move and these will determine the character of the game.
Main Line: 6 Bg5
Playing the bishop to g5 in the opening is a sign of aggressive intentions. White intends doubling the black pawns after 7 Bxf6, which leave the second player feeling uncomfortable and with an inflexible pawn structure.
Black can meet the threat in two ways.
6 …Nbd7 is considered somewhat old fashioned but remains playable.
6 …e6 is where the fun starts. 7 f4 and now 7 …Be7 is the most obvious reply but Black can head for the heavy theoretical waters of the Poisoned Pawn Variation after 7 …Qb6 8 Qd2 Qxb2. Black has a pawn advantage but is badly behind in development. It would be foolish to enter into this variation without serious preparation.
Classical: 6 Be2
This quiet developing move is a much more positional approach than the main line. White will simply develop the pieces on sensible squares, castle on the kingside and then use the harmoniously-developed pieces to apply pressure on the black position and to keep any counterplay at bay.
6 Be2 was a firm favourite of the young Anatoly Karpov (inspired by Efim Geller, who acted as Karpov’s second for some time.) Karpov was highly proficient at playing against the typical Najdorf move of 6 …e5; it was dangerous to leave a potentially weak square (d5, in this case) in any position against Karpov. Garry Kasparov circumvented the problem by switching to the Scheveningen Variation with 6 …e6 in his early title matches with Karpov.
Sozin Attack: 6 Bc4
Bobby Fischer loved to play this move and it brought him lots of success. The bishop takes aim at f7 and White will follow up with f2-f4-f5, to apply more pressure.
Black is advised to play an early …e6 to try and keep the bishop quiet. Another good plan for the second player is to play …Nb8-b7-c5, with the aim of trying to swap off the knight for the bishop.
The Sozin is not currently popular at the higher levels of chess but I am sure it will still pack a punch at club level.
English Attack: 6 Be3
The English Attack became popular in the late 1980s, thanks mainly to the efforts of John Nunn, Nigel Short and Murray Chandler. It is a very direct way of attacking the Najdorf.
White follows up with f3, Qd2 and 0-0-0 and a direct attack on the opponent’s king, treating the position in a singular fashion to the the Yugoslav Attack against the Sicilian Dragon. the move f2-f3 supports e4 and acts a springboard from which to launch the kingside pawns down the board. If the Black king castles kingside then a subsequent g2-g4 and h2-h4 will be a worrying sight.
Other options on move six include: 6 g3, 6 f4, 6 h3, 6 a4, 6 Rg1, 6 f3. They all have good ideas behind them but they have yet to be as popular as those given above.
There is also a Short and Sweet version of the course, which can be found here.
We will return to Lifetime Repertoires: Najdorf Sicilian for a closer look at the course soon.
More Chess Opening Basics
Here are links to the other parts of our ever-growing series on Chess Opening Basics.