What is the Poisoned Pawn Variation of the Najdorf Sicilian?
The Poisoned Pawn Variation is one of the sharpest and most heavily analyzed chess opening lines of all. It has stood the test of time and is regarded as one of Black’s best and most reliable ways of playing the Najdorf Sicilian. However, players on both sides of the board need to do a considerable amount of homework to be able play the Poisoned Pawn Variation successfully. It is definitely not for beginners.
The Sharp Najdorf Sicilian
We know from a previous instalment of our series that the Najdorf Sicilian arises after the following move:
The Najdorf Sicilian
Who Dares To Accept the Poison?
The famous Poisoned Pawn Variation occurs after:
One of White’s most challenging sixth moves.
It is a common theme in chess openings that when White’s bishop moves from c1, the b2-pawn is left unprotected and can be attacked by the black queen when she slips out to b6.
White could protect the pawn with 8.Nb3 or 8.Rb1, but they are both passive moves, after which Black will simply continue to develop and achieve a good position. 8.Qc1 is another way to defend b2, but White doesn’t want the powerful queen to be sidelined and tied to the defense of a pawn. Therefore, White’s most testing move is to offer the b2-pawn as a sacrifice.
Black’s best move is definitely to capture the pawn and take up the challenge offered by White.
The Poisoned Pawn Variation of the Najdorf Sicilian
Black is a pawn up but will lose more time when extricating the queen from b2. White will develop the remaining pieces, castle and start to attack the Black king. Both sides are playing for a win, which is part of the appeal of the variation.
Bobby Sets the Trend
Soviet chess players, noted for their deep preparation, dabbled in the variation in the 1950s and 1960s, with Alexander Tolush being a particularly frequent practitioner of the variation. However, it was only when Bobby Fischer added the Poisoned Pawn Variation to his armoury, in a game against Bruno Parma at Bled, 1961, that it started attracting considerable attention. Fischer, the hardest-working of all chess players, would never play anything he considered dubious. This meant he felt the Poisoned Pawn Variation was inherently sound, despite spending several moves on the queen, so early in the game.
Efim Geller, who for some time appeared to have the secret to beating Bobby Fischer, even beat the American with his own weapon at the 1967 Monte Carlo tournament – in just 25 moves.
Fischer had enough faith on the variation to use it twice against Boris Spassky in their famous 1972 World Championship match. The second of the two games brought a rare defeat for Fischer, who had to give up his wandering queen for insufficient material.
The Poisoned Pawn Variation at the Highest Level
Garry Kasparov adopted the variation – following in Fischer’s footsteps, as so many children of the 1960s did – and played it all the way to the top level. His fourth game against Nigel Short in their 1993 PCA World Championship brought a crushing victory for Black.
After 8…Qxb2, White’s two main choices are 9.Rb1 and 9.Nb3. Both moves prevent 9…Qxa1+ and both ask significant questions of the black queen.
9.Rb1 is played most often, when after the forced 9…Qa3, we reach this position.
White to Play
White has numerous choices from this position, including 10.f5, 10.e5, 10.Bxf6, 10.Be2, 10.Bc4 and 10.Rb3. Some options try to open up the position as quickly as possible, while others aim to complete development first before deciding where and how to attack.
It is easy to see why the Poisoned Pawn Variation is not recommended for beginners. Black needs to know something about each of the tenth-move option mentioned above, plus others besides. One slip and disaster is the only reward.
Ultimately, the big question remains: is the b2-pawn poisoned, or can Black swallow it and survive? It is fascinating to see that even in the age of super-computers, making chess preparation deeper and (in theory) easier, the Poisoned Pawn Variation remains a misery. One would have thought the stronger chess engines would have found a key line by now, enabling humans to state with authority the strength – or otherwise – of the poison inside the pawn. Is it safe for Black to make the capture, or not? We may never know. To paraphrase William Shakespeare: ‘b2, or not b2, that is the question.’
‘Yesterday…All Black’s Troubles Seemed So far Away…’
The battle of the Poisoned Pawn Variation rumbles on. Yesterday, in a big game at the FIDE Candidates Tournament, two experts locked horns and the game ended in White’s favour. The game is too deep to be analysed in a series on Chess Opening Basics, but here are the basic moves for the curious, just to show the Poisoned Pawn Variation in action. The game can also be viewed – with full analysis – over at our sister site, chess24.com. Watch out for White’s 18th and 19th moves, which represent the very latest in top-level preparation.
Incidentally, anyone wanting further information on the Najdorf Sicilian can find further details regarding Anish Giri’s Chessable course here.
More Chess Opening Basics
Here are links to the other parts of our series on Chess Opening Basics. More openings will be added soon.