The Sicilian Najdorf is one of black’s most popular and complex variations of the Sicilian Defense. The game begins with 1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 d6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 a6
Black’s fifth move in the Najdorf Sicilian might look strange at first – one might think it’s too early in the game to make such a pawn move, rather than focusing on controlling central space and piece development.
But there’s a certain logic to black’s move. By playing 5…a6, white’s pieces are deprived of the b5 square. Furthermore, black will often want to play …b5 in the near future, expanding on the queenside. The b7 square might make itself home to the light bishop, and this pawn can advance onward to b4 in some lines to drive white’s knight away.
White does obtain a lead in development and a space advantage for the time being, but black’s position is very compact and free of weaknesses. Later on, black’s two-on-one central pawn majority could prove to be an important factor!
Let’s see how the game can go from here:
Against the Najdorf Sicilian, white often wants to “strike while the iron is hot” and seek to attack before black catches up in development. The English Attack is a popular way to accomplish this.
Don’t let the innocent-looking move Be3 fool you – white has violent intentions! White wants to castle queenside as soon as possible, and then launch a pawn storm on the kingside immediately.
After 6…e5 (6…e6 and 6…Ng4 are also both possible) 7. Nb3 Be6 8. f3 Be2 9. Qd2 0-0 10. 0-0-0 Nbd7 11. g4:
We arrive at one of the main lines. The game because extremely sharp, with each side racing towards the enemy monarch!
11…b5 12. g5 b4! 13. Ne2 Ne8 14. f4 a5 15. f5 a4!
This position is insane! When I first saw this line in 2011, I knew I wanted to play the English Attack against the Najdorf Sicilian. White can play here 16. fxe6 or the surprising 16. Nbd4
Of course, both sides have plenty of room to deviate, so this line is by no means forced. The Najdorf Sicilian is an extremely complex opening, and it’d be impossible to cover all the options in one article! I’ll mention one alternative set-up for black though – involving an early …h5
With one move, black severely hampers white’s kingside pawn storm ambitions. Of course, the downside is that black won’t be able to castle as easily now, but black is often content to just leave their king in the center and begin queenside operations with …b5 soon.
This has been white’s most popular move over the years against the Najdorf variation, by a small margin. Once again, white wants to play actively on the kingside.
6…e6 is black’s main move (6…e5 would be dangerous now – white would have ideas with Nd5 to exploit the pinned knight), and now after 7. f4 gaining kingside space, black has a couple options.
One line continues 7…Be7 breaking the pin, and now 8. Qf3 Qc7 9. 0-0-0 Nbd7 10. g4
Once again white is charging full-steam-ahead on the kingside! After 10…b5 11. Bxf6 Nxf6 12. g5 Nd7, white will try to break through with f4-f5.
7…Qb6 is another popular option for black.
Surprisingly, white has difficulties defending the b2-pawn. 8. Rb1 gives up castling rights to the queenside and is quite passive, 8. b3 is extremely weakening, 8. Nb3 allows an annoying check on e3, and 8. Qc1 hangs the d4 knight.
But we all know how dangerous it can be to go on a pawn-grabbing adventure with the queen before development is complete! White’s most popular answer to the “Poison Pawn Variation” of the Najdorf Sicilian is is 8. Qd2 Qxb2 9. Rb1 Qa3 10. e5
Black’s up a pawn, but white’s far ahead in space and development. An exciting battle is sure to follow.
White doesn’t have to play quite as aggressively against the Najdorf as we’ve seen in the previous continuations! The Opocensky variation is a favorite of players seeking a more positional game. White intends to castle to the kingside.
One continuation is 6…e5 7. Nb3 Be7 8. 0-0 0-0 9. Be3 Be6 10. Qd2 Nbd7 11. a4
White slows down black’s queenside counterplay by preventing …b5. Black could have expanded with …b5 earlier, but it’s always a little risky to do so before development is complete – white can meet an early …b5 with a4 in many lines, trying to open the position while black is behind in development.
In these “position” lines in the Sicilian Najdorf, the d6 pawn and the d5 square are crucial factors.
The d6 pawn is a backwards pawn on an open file, and could be a weakness if white can attack it. Thankfully for black, the e7-bishop is a good defender of this pawn, and white has trouble attacking this pawn with any minor pieces.
If black can ever get the d6-d5 pawn break in, black might be able to claim the advantage. But this won’t be easy either – white has good control over this square.
White has several other options against the Najdorf Sicilian aside from the three we’ve looked at. The above diagram shows five other options on move 6 – from the direct 6. f4 to the sophisticated 6. h3 (this has become trendy in recent years – intending an early g2-g4 and trying for an “improved” version of an English Attack!)
As I said early, the Najdorf variation of the Sicilian is one of the most complex openings in all of chess. In my personal opening files I’ve made to help prepare before a tournament, I have no less than 10 different files on various lines within the English Attack alone!
If you’re up for the challenge and don’t mind some heavy memorization combined with a willingness to play slower, positional lines, the Najdorf might be right for you.
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