Sicilian Najdorf – How to Play, Attack & Counter as White & Black

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Najdorf
Table of Contents

Quick overview

  • The Sicilian Najdorf is one of the most reputable and popular openings, particularly at the top level. It has been used effectively by World Champions such as Garry Kasparov and Bobby Fischer.
  • It arises after the moves 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6. The idea behing 5…a6 is to control the b5 square and possibly prepare a queenside expansion.
  • It is one of the sharpest and most theory heavy openings in all of chess, but deep study by intermediate to advanced players can prove rewarding.

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Lifetime Repertoires: Najdorf Sicilian

Introduction to the Sicilian Najdorf

The Najdorf is one of the most popular openings at the top level. It is highly tactical and theoretical, which can be good or bad depending on your level and playing style.

One thing to say about the Najdorf is that it is solid. There is a reason it is played at such high levels, and that is because it offers Black great chances.

The downside is the sheer amount of theory behind it. Grandmasters are of course ready to learn dozens of lines of complex Sicilian theory, which might not be the best road to go for someone starting their chess career.

The Najdorf arises after the moves 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6. The move 5…a6 might seem strange for someone seeing it for the first time. What does for Black’s development? It seems like a waste of time. But the Najdorf is very deep, and its complexity goes beyond such basic concepts.

The Najdorf was named after Polish-Argentian Grandmaster Miguel Najdorf (1910-97). The opening flourished at all levels in the 1950s and 1960s. Sublines became increasingly sharper, and refutations of it were growing just as quickly.

This process continues today. The richness of its lines, perhaps only rivaled by the Ruy Lopez, exemplifies the beauty and complexity of the game of chess.

The Najdorf Sicilian course

The Chief Ideas Behind the Sicilian Najdorf

5…a6 may seem to go against opening principles. The move develops no piece and attacks none of White’s pieces. However, this is an opening that goes beyond such principles, and it is not recommended until those opening principles are cemented. Only then should players learn when it is appropriate to bend the rules.

While White has a lead in development, this fact is far from decisive, as they are not directly threatening anything.

The reason 5…a6 is such a crucial move is because the b5 square is an important square to control in the Sicilian Defense. For example, the knight on c3 might like to pivot to b5 and then to c7, but 5…a6 precludes that.

Black often times will play an early e5, striking at the knight on d4, and once again depriving it of a flight square on b5.

Another key theme in the Najdorf for Black is queenside expansion via b5, and 5…a6 prepares this move. Also, the b7 square will be free to fianchetto the bishop, and the pawn may advance to b4 to drive away White’s knight on c3.

There are three main lines for White to respond to the Najdorf, these are 6.Bg5, the Main Line, 6.Be3, the English Attack, and 6.Be2, the Opocensky Variation.

The Main Line, 6.Bg5

White is threatening to take the knight on f6 which at present would double pawns for Black on the f-file, so Black must react.

Though Black would have liked to have played e5 at some point, it is not feasible in this position. After 6…e5, White can try to exploit the pin by playing Nd5.

Thus 6…e6 is the main move. In this line, White follows up with 7.f4 grabbing space on the kingside, which is thematic in this line. White usually castles queenside and looks for a kingside attack.

Black can play 7…Be7, unpinning the knight. This is considered the sharpest variation of the Najdorf. We might see a line like this:

8.Qf3 Qc7 9.0-0-0 Nbd7 10.g4

By castling long and playing g4, White has made their intentions clear, a kingside attack should ensue.

You can see the effectiveness of White’s kingside pawn push in the following game:

The Poisoned Pawn variation 7…Qb6

Nowadays, this is the most popular response for Black. Black launches an attack of their own first on the b2 pawn (the so-called “Poisoned Pawn”), hoping to neutralize White’s dangerous development lead.

Whtie does not have a good way to defend against this. Obviously, White was planning to castle long and launch a kingside attack, so if 8.Rb1, this is no longer possible. 8.b3 is too weakening for White, while 8.Nb3 allows an annoying check with 8…Qe3. And off course, 8.Qc1 would hang the knight on d4.

Generally, Black is able to capture this pawn. The reason it is called “poisoned” is because it is risky for Black to take. Pawn hunting with the queen with a lag in development can be very dangerous.

A typical line follows 8. Qd2 Qxb2 9.Rb1 Qa3 10.e5.

Black is up a pawn and going for a queenside attack. White continues with their kingside pawn push and has a massive lead in development. This usually results in very interesting tactical battles.

An example game

The English Attack- 6.Be3

A common plan for White in the Najdorf is to use their development lead to launch an attack first, and 6.Be3 is a prime example of this. Almost always, White looks to castle queenside and launch a kingside pawn storm.

Black will often castle kingside, and there will be a tactical frenetic race to see who can get at each other’s king first. Remember that 5…a6 helps Black prepare an expansion on the queenside.

An example line

6…e5 7. Nb3 Be6 8. f3 Be7 9. Qd2 O-O 10. O-O-O

Both sides are castled on opposite sides and ready to launch a pawn storm.

6.Be2-The Opocensky Variation

This is a solid move, though played less and not as bold or aggressive as the previous two lines. It is considered more positional in nature than the English Attack or the Main Line, so slower games usually follow.

White will actually usually castle kingside in this position. Usually, at some point White will play a4, in order to prevent Black’s queenside expansion with b5. Let’s look at the following line:

6…e5 7.Nb3 Be7 8.O-O O-O 9.Be3 Be6 10.Qd2 Nbd7 11.a4

Black could have played b5 earlier, but this move is a little hasty without first developing their pieces, so Whtie has time to develop and then play 11.a4.

Black has a backward pawn on d6, and this could be a big weakness if White is able to attack it. In this position, the d6 pawn and d5 square are very important. It is not easy for White to attack it though, as the bishop on e7 does a good job of defending it.

In such positions, Black is usually looking for a pawn break in the middle with d6-d5. However, White has good control over this square and this is not so easy for White.

Neither side is making a crazy run at each other’s king like in the English Attack, so plans tend to develop slower in this line. The game is played more in the center.

Summary

This only just touches on the Najdorf and it would be impossible to give you a comprehensive guide on the opening, which is exactly why it is such a rich opening. This is one of the most theory-rich openings in all of chess.

Take a look at our guide on Choosing the Right Sicilian Defense for you, and also our Ten Best Chess Openings for Black.

The opening is highly tactical and extremely exciting games arise from it if you are willing to put in the bookwork. However, if you are a beginner, your time is probably best spent studying tactics or endgames, as many of your opponents will go out of book pretty quickly, making studying this complicated opening not have a great return on investment.

FAQs

Why is the Najdorf so popular?

The Najdorf is so popular due to the sound reputation it has and due to the fact that it has not been refuted. The opening is rich and new ideas come from it constantly.

Is the Najdorf good for Black?

Yes, the Najdorf is considered one of the most principled openings for Black and is often played when players are seeking a win. If players know what they are doing, it is not overly risky either.

Why is it called the Najdorf?

The Najdorf gets its name from Polish-Argentinian grandmaster Miguel Najdorf who popularized the opening in the 1950s.

Is the Najdorf good for beginners?

The Najdorf is generally not recommend for beginners due to the large amount of theory players need to study to be proficient in it.

Which is better: Dragon or Najdorf?

At the top levels, the Najdorf is considered the better variation and is more popular. Below the top levels, this boils down to a matter of taste though as neither opening is refuted.

Who invented the Najdorf Variation?

Czech player Karel Opočenský was actually the first to play the Najdorf, though it was popularized, and received its name, from Miguel Najdorf.

How do you play Sicilian Najdorf?

The Najdorf results after the following move order: 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6

Why is the Sicilian so hard to play?

The Sicilian Defense is hard to play because it is a very sharp opening, and generally that has studied it more can outplay their opponents.

Which Sicilian should I play as a beginner?

The Dragon Variation of the Sicilian the the most commonly recommended Sicilian for beginners.

Why is the Sicilian Defense the best?

1…e5 is actually preferred by engines to 1…c5. However, the Sicilian is seen as the best chance for Black to play for a win.

Is Sicilian Najdorf hard to learn?

Yes, the Najdorf is considered one of the most theory-heavy openings and thus considerably hard to learn.

Is the Najdorf better for white or black?

The starting position of the Najdorf is equal according to top engines, and thus is not better for either side.

Is the Najdorf sharp?

Yes, in addition to being one of the most theory-heavy openings in chess, the Najdorf has the added complication of being extremely sharp and tactically complex.

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Lifetime Repertoires: Najdorf Sicilian

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