If you’re wondering how to have a solid game as black against e4, consider the Sicilian Najdorf.
This Sicilian opening (can be open or closed) has been used by top Grandmasters including Bobby Fischer and Gary Kasparov, and for good reason. It’s solid, tough to crack, and is filled with small positional advantages for both sides.
Unlike the Sicilian Dragon, it is not generally a sharp opening (though there are some very sharp side lines like the poisoned pawn variation), so you won’t find a ton of tactical “quick wins” in this opening. That’s one of the reasons it’s so solid.
There are tons of variations and we won’t be able to cover all of them, but this article will give you some main ideas about the Sicilian Najdorf to begin practicing.
Let’s get started.
The Najdorf got its name from Moishe Mieczslaw (Miquel) Najdorf in the late 1940s. He had many successes with the opening and thus it was named after him. It began to get more popular by top players in the late 1900s and was used by the likes of Bobby Fischer and Gary Kasparov.
FEN for Sicilian Najdorf
rnbqkb1r/1p2pppp/p2p1n2/8/3NP3/2N5/PPP2PPP/R1BQKB1R w KQkq – 0 1
The Najdorf comes from this very interesting prophylaxis move 5…a6. In many lines of the Sicilian, b5 becomes a tense square for black to gain control of because there are three white pieces eyeing it up early on: Both knights and the bishop on c1.
It may seem strange, and go against opening principles, by playing a wing pawn move so early, but it has given white some trouble for years and is still one of the strongest ways to play the sicilian for black.
There are a few variations in chess pawn structures that can arise in the Najdorf. Grandmaster Mauricio Flores, in his book “Chess Structures”, devotes three chapters to games with these structures.
The main idea is that any of these structures can arise and you will want to familiarize yourself with the main ideas of what the pawns tell you your plans should be.
Many of the ideas in the next section occur in this book and it’s worth a read!
Pressure on the fixed e pawn
Black will most often play e5 to kick the knight from d4 and gain more influence in the center. Because the d pawn has already been captured, the only way to defend it with a pawn is the f pawn.
Often, white will work on a kingside pawn thrust and play f4, leaving the e pawn fixed and a potential target. Black many times plays b5 to gain space, but this also gives the light squared bishops the long diagonal and an additional attacker on e4 (in addition to helping control d5).
The d5 pawn push and subsequent e4 pawn push
Similar to the previous note, and a common theme in all Sicilian variations, black wants to push d5. In the above situation, black’s pieces are all coordinated very well to be able to push d5. I’ve often noted on this site that if black can push d5 comfortably, they can even the game.
Black’s goals are to push d5 and if the e4 pawn captures, an eventual e5-e4 pawn push can cramp white’s space and gain a huge initiative. In order to accomplish this, black often can put their rook from f8 on e8 to support this push later.
Lack of two central pawns
With the first few moves, black trades a wing pawn (c pawn) for a central pawn. This can give black a lot of chances to gain the upper hand early positionally.
With a6 and b5 played, black has gained more space on the queenside. Because of this, should the game go to an endgame, black will be able to tighten the grip on the queen side and potentially break through.
The Hole on d5
As is usually the case for black when playing the Sicilian, there is a big hole on d5. If black can ever successfully play d5 under favorable circumstances, they will have evened the game and taken away white’s small edge.
White often attempts to control this square and maintain a knight on d5. If black ever captures, the structure can transpose into what Flores calls “Najdorf type 1” and is the first skeleton structure listed above (with the white pawn on e5).
The Backwards D Pawn
Because the c pawn is traded off early, black needs to gain control of d5. Black has trouble pushing d6-d5 and thus the pawn on d6 can be exploited as it was in Sergei Tiviakov vs Viswanathan Anand.
Notice how many white pieces coordinate well and put pressure on the backwards d6 pawn.
The Good Knight vs the Bad Bishop
There are many games where white’s goal is to place a knight d5. This prevents black from accomplishing the thematic d6-d5 break in the center easily. Moreover, with pawns on d6 and e5, black’s dark squared bishop is forever stuck behind them without too much to do, as seen in Vladimir Eduardovich Akopian vs Alexander Morozevich.
White was able to trade all minor pieces except the “good knight” and black’s bad bishop. Now the idea is to somehow get the knight to d5 rather than the rook where it completely cramps black. One way is the ingenious route of c2-e3-d5.
When playing 6 Bc4, black may sometimes counter with e6 (transposing into the Scheveningen). When this happens, it may seem like the bishop is now cut off from any hope of influencing the light squares, but there are many instances you can sacrifice on e6 to open the king, particularly when the black knight on b8 moves to d7.
The resulting exchange is three pawns for a piece, but black’s position is much worse in this position.
Another possible trap to remember also occurs with the scheveningen. The knight can move to d5 and disrupt black’s flow in this game. If the pawn captures, white will win back the piece and more. If the queen moves, black will develop the Bishop to g5 and continue with a slight advantage.
Credit for these two positions to Mile-lile on lichess
If black plays an early e5 with the knight in the center, the white knight can move to f5 (because b5 is no longer available). It leads to interesting play and Magnus Carlsen has used this many times.
The key idea is if black does not capture the knight on f5, then it can remaneuver to e3 where it white will be guaranteed to place a knight on d5. Since the pawn is on e5, this knight can never be kicked by a pawn.
If black does capture the knight on f5, then white can still get the knight into d5 by playing Bg5 or beginning a pawn storm via g2-g4-g5.
Below are some great games to check out played by Bobby Fischer and Gary Kasparov
Bobby Fischer vs Miquel Najdorf
Bobby Fischer vs Miquel Najdorf
Herman Pilnik Vs Bobby Fischer (Game 4 in My Memorable Games)
Bobby Fischer Vs Hector Rossetto
Viswanathan Anand vs Garry Kasparov Immopar Rapid (1992)
Judit Polgar vs Garry Kasparov Linares (1994)
There are tons of variations in the Sicilian Najdorf, but below are some of my favorites I will be diving further into in future articles
- Adams attack
- English attack
- Main line Bg5
- Fischer sozin attack
- Classical opocensky variation
- O’Kelly Variation
- Polugaevsky variation
Let me know which you’d like to see me dive into and I will be sure to add it to the queue.