How To Play The Sicilian Najdorf for Black

Introducing the Sicilian Najdorf Chess Opening (Instructor NM Dereque Kelley)

The mainline of the Sicilian Najdorf begins: 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6

Starting position of the Najdorf

sicilian najdorf opening

The Sicilian Najdorf Variation is one of the most ambitious and positionally motivated lines of the Sicilian and, along with the Dragon, also one of the most popular. Black’s little pawn move …a7-a6 looks at first sight to be a bit peculiar, but it does have purpose and is also something of a high-class waiting move.

Black waits for White to commit himself before choosing his pawn structure and development. In many cases the move …a7-a6 is simply a precursor to the space gaining advance …e7-e5. It should be said that the immediate 5…e5 is possible, but then 6.Bb5+! is a good reply. After 6…Bd7 7.Bxd7+ Qxd7 the move 8.Nf5 is strong for White.

After 5…a6 standard play by White will be met with …e7-e5, followed by consistent development. This may include …Be7, 0-0, …Nc6 (or …Nbd7), …Be6 (or …b7-b5 and …Bb7). Often Black will be looking to exploit his extra central pawn with the freeing advance …d7-d5. A successful advance will usually ensure that Black gains at least equality, so it’s up to White to prevent or dissuade Black from carrying out this plan.

Origins of the Najdorf Sicilian

The Najdorf was first utilised by players such as the Czech International Master Karel Opocensky in the 1940s and was later refined by GM Miguel Najdorf, whose name it then took. At the highest level, the Najdorf is the most popular of all Sicilians and experts agree that it is 100% sound.

It’s a favourite of world champions Bobby Fischer and Garry Kasparov and is in the armory of many of today’s top players. White players are constantly looking for new and fruitful ways to battle against the Najdorf and we shall look at the most important systems in this article.

Former World Chess Champion Bobby Fischer

One point that should be, mentioned here is that there is a strong similarity between the Najdorf and the Scheveningen and they often transpose into one another. In general, I’ve taken the Najdorf to be lines which include …e7-e5 and the Scheveningen to be lines which include …e7-e6 (with the exception of 6.Bg5 against the Najdorf, when Black’s best reply is 6…e6.

The move 6.Bc4, another popular try against the Najdorf, is dealt with in the Scheveningen chapter as Black almost always replies with 6…e6.

The Najdorf can be divided into 4 parts:

  1. The Bg5 Mainline
  2. The English Attack
  3. White Plays Be2

The Mainline with  6.Bg5

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6 6.Bg5

This is probably White’s most aggressive attempt against the Najdorf. White develops the cl-bishop onto an attacking square, where it puts immediate pressure on the black knight on f6, one of the key defenders of the crucial d5-square. In this way it is difficult for Black to play in the typical ‘Najdorf way.

6…e6

The move 6…e5 would be the characteristic ‘Najdorf way forward, but in this instance it would be a positional error, one which would completely justify White’s previous move.

After 7.Bxf6 Qxf6 8.Nd5 Qd8 9.Nf5 White has achieved maximum control over the d5-square, with no real concessions that you would find in, say, the Sveshnikov Variation. Therefore Black adopts a more restrained ‘Scheveningen pawn structure.

7.f4

White continues to play aggressively and gains more space in the centre. Black now always has to watch out for two central advances: e4-e5 and f4-f5.

7…Be7

A logical move, breaking the pin on the knight and continuing to develop the kingside. However, Black does have some major alternatives here:

a) 7…Qb6 introduces the infamous “Poisoned PawnVariation”, in which Black’s queen makes a daring snatch of White’s b2-pawn

b) 7…b5!?, an invention of the famous Soviet GM Lev Polugaevsky, is perhaps an even more provocative move for Black, who ignores White’s advances in the centre and starts a pawn lunge on the queenside.

Opening theory suggests that this line is just about playable but Black really needs to know what he is doing! One point is that after 8.e5 dxe5 9.fxe5 Qc7! 10.exf6 Black regains his piece with 10…Qe5+.

8.Qf3

White prepares for queenside castling as he will want to launch his pawns forward on the kingside.

TIP: If you plan to launch your pawns forward on one wing, it usually makes sense to castle on the other wing.

8…Qc7

Of course Black can castle but in this particular line it makes more sense to delay this and begin queenside operations immediately.

9.0-0-0 Nbd7 10.g4

White begins the pawn assault on the kingside.

10…b5

Likewise, Black starts counterplay on the queenside.

11.Bxf6

White’s bishop was actually beginning to get in the way on g5, so White saves time by exchanging it.

11…Nxf6

The most common, although 11…Bxf6 and 11…gxf6!? are playable.

12.g5 Nd7

White gains further time for his assault on the kingside by attacking the black knight.

Strategies In The Bg5 Mainline

White will continue to march forward with his pawns on the kingside, looking to open lines of attack against the enemy king. One advance worth noting is f4-f5, which puts pressure on the e6-pawn, the only defender of the crucial d5-square.

If this square falls in to White hands, then this could spell trouble for Black. The downside of the f4- f5 advance is that it gives Black possession of the e5-square.

We’ve already learned that this is a very useful square for a black knight. In special circumstances, White can consider breaking through with piece sacrifices on e6 and b5 and these possibilities must always be taken into consideration by both players.

Once again Black’s counterplay is on the queenside. If White continues with no plan, then Black can proceed by dislodging the c3-knight with …b5-b4, followed by an attack on the slightly vulnerable e4-pawn with …Bb7 and …Nc5. Black can increase the pressure further with …Ra8-c8, after which the queen and rook hit the c2-pawn in

front of the white king. Black will often delay castling kingside in favour of starting immediate queenside action.

Theory In the Bg5 Mainline

The main line 6 Bg5 is probably the most theoretical line of the Najdorf and black players certainly need to remember a few key lines, particularly if he wants to take on the complexities of the Poisoned Pawn Variation.

However, unlike in the Yugoslav Attack against the Dragon, Black is likely to have some success by simply playing to the position’s strategic demands as White does not have such a straightforward plan of a mating attack.

Statistics

6.Bg5 has traditionally been considered as the ‘main line’ of the Najdorf but things have changed over the last few years. According to Megadatabase 2020, it shows that 6.Bg5 is now only White’s second most popular response to the Najdorf, behind the English Attack (6.Be3)

This database also revealed 29% win score for White and 24% with Black , although on average the white players were rated slightly lower than the black players.

Illustrative Game

Gm Relange Vs Gm Sadler, Hastings 1997

{From mobile, click the bottom right icon to open pgn}

The English Attack

 The mainline of the English Attack begins:

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6 6.Be3

This move signals White’s intentions of playing the English Attack, so called because of its development and utilization by top English grandmasters such as John Nunn, Nigel Short and Murray Chandler in the 1980s. This system of development is effective against both the Najdorf and the Scheveningen.

6e5

Black replies in typical Najdorf style. The move 6…e6 would transpose into the Scheveningen. .

7.Nb3

The aggressive 7.Nf5 is premature. Black obtains a free game after either 7…Bxf5 8.exf5 d5! or simply 7…d5! It should be said that 7.Nf3 is also playable, but 7.Nb3 is more popular and far more dangerous for Black.

7…Be6

Black simply begins to develop his pieces.

8.f3

An important move for the English Attack. As with the Yugoslav Attack in the Dragon, White prepares Qd2, and 0-0-0, together with a launch of the kingside pawns. The move f2-f3 both prevents an annoying …Ng4 and supports the advance g2-g4.

8…Nbd7 9.g4

An important space gaining move on the kingside. The positional motivation behind the idea is that White intends g4-g5, forcing the black knight to move away from its ideal posting at f6 and lessening Black’s control over the d5-square.

White can also delay this advance and continue development with 9.Qd2

NOTE: Control of the d5-square is of utmost importance in the Najdorf Sicilian.

9…b5

We’ve seen this typical lunge on the queenside before. Black initiates counterplay on the queenside.

Strategies In The English Attack

The stage is set for another uncompromising battle between the two sides. White will develop with Qd2 and 0-0-0 and, if allowed, will push forward on the kingside with g4-g5. Black may forestall this advance with the defensive move …h7-h6, or be ready to move his knight to either h5 or d7 (once the other knight has vacated this square).

If the f6-knight is forced to move elsewhere (g8, for example) then this is usually a sign that things have gone wrong for Black. Once again Black’s counterplay lies very much on the queenside.

Often, in the fight for control over the crucial d5-square, Black plays the pawn lunge …b5-b4. This asks the question of the knight on c3, which will either jump into d5 or retreat elsewhere. Black will find it difficult to arrange the freeing advance …d6-d5, but if White is careless enough to allow this, then this often turns out to be favourable for Black.

In general, play is sharp and dynamic, often involving positional or tactical sacrifices from both sides.

Theory

The English Attack is a relatively new system and as such there is less theory to learn than, say, the 6.Bg5 Najdorf. Although the battle can be extremely sharp, more often than not, playing by general principles should be enough for a reasonable level of success.

Statistics

According to Megadatabase 2020 6.Be3 is currently the most popular choice against the Najdorf, just slightly more so than the 6.Bg5. It’s a favorite of modern day top players such as Magnus Carlsen, Wesley So, and Vachier Lagrave. The opening was also played Kasparov, Anand, Shirov and Michael Adams in the earlier days of chess.

Illustrative Game

Michael Adams vs Peter Svidler, Dos Hermanas 1999

White Plays Be2

The Be2 mainline of the Sicilian Najdorf begins:

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 exd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Ne3 a6 6.Be2

White develops classically and gives a clear indication that he will castle on the kingside.

6…e5

The move 6…e6 would transpose into the Scheveningen

7.Nb3

7.Nf5 may be the first and most aggressive move that springs to mind, but this is hardly ever played. The reason being that it allows Black to strike immediately in the centre with 7…d5!, exploiting the vulnerable nature of the knight on f5.

Now 8.Nxd5 Nxd5 9.Qxd5 Qxd5 10.exd5 Bxf5 wins a piece, so White should continue 8.Bg5 d4 9.Bxf6 Qxf6 10.Nd5 Qd8. Superficially, White looks well placed, but Black’s advance in the centre has given him space for his bishops and the knight on f5 will be forced back with …g7-g6.

7.Nf3 is playable but is seen much less often than 7 Nb3, perhaps because white players are reluctant to block their f2-pawn, which advances to f3 or f4 in many lines.

7…Be7

Black sensibly continues to develop his kingside and prepares to castle.

8.0-0 0-0 9.Be3

White has quite a few different plans here but I will concentrate on one of the most logical ones. Traditionally, this bishop move is the most common idea, although recently many grandmasters have been paying close attention to the semi-waiting move 9.Kh1 Other ideas for White include the aggressive pawn advance 9.f4.

9…Be6

A good place for the bishop, supporting the desired …d6-d5 advance and controlling the c4-square. Another way for Black to develop his bishop would be with …b7-b5 and …Bb7. Here, however, 9…b5 would be a little premature due to 10.Nd5! and if 10…Nxd5?, then 11.Qxd5 wins material! White also wins material after 10…Nxe4? 11.Bf3 f5 12.Nxe7+ Qxe7 13.Qd5+.

TIP: Both players should be wary of Nc3-d5 ideas for White.

10.Qd2

More sensible stuff. White prepares to add pressure along the halfopen d-file by placing a rook on d1.

10…Nbd7

It’s actually possible for Black to play the freeing advance 10…d5!? now, but he prefers to develop fully before trying to carry out the advance. After 11.exd5 Nxd5 12.Nxd5 Qxd5 13.Qxd5 Bxd5 14.Rfd1 Bc6 15.Na5 White is better developed and keeps an edge.

11.a4

A good move, preventing Black from gaining space with …b7-b5.

11…Rc8 12.a5

Further restriction. This move prevents the knight from using the b6-square and prepares to meet …b7-b5 with capturing en passant, leaving an isolated and vulnerable a6-pawn.

12…Qc7

Vacating the d8-square, which may be used by the f8-rook.

13.Rfd1

Further pressure along the d-file. Here White uses the fl-rook to go to d1 as the a1-rook is already doing a job on the a-file and may even enter the game via a4.

Strategies In The Be2 Mainline

Play is certainly more positional than tactical in nature and it’s quite rare for either side to go for an all-out attack on the opponent’s king.

If we take a starting position to be after 8…0-0, then it’s possible to say that both White and Black have a number of different ideas and piece deployments. However, one constant theme remains throughout: the fight for control over the d5-square. Whoever wins this battle is likely to be successful overall.

Theory

 6.Be2 is the least theoretical line of the Najdorf and can be virtually played on general principles alone. It’s certainly more important to understand the various ideas associated with either side.

Statistics

According to Megadatabase 2020, 6.Be2 is the third most popular response to the Najdorf Sicilian behind 6.Be3 and 6.Bg5. Given its strategical nature, 6.Be2 appeals more to quiet and positional players.

I found 13,000 games in the database of which white scores 29% wins while black scores 25%.

Final Verdict

The Sicilian Najdorf is an ideal weapon for ambitious players who are not frightened of learning opening theory. Traditionally, 6.Bg5 has been the most aggressive and theoretical response to the Najdorf. One of Black’s responses to this is the notorious Poisoned Pawn Variation, a favorite of both Bobby Fischer and Garry Kasparov.

The English Attack is a relatively fresh system which is less complex but just as aggressive as 6.Bg5. On the other hand, White players looking for a quieter life will find that 6.Be2 should suit them.