Nepomniachtchi versus Carlsen Preview: Nepo Beats the Najdorf!

Nepomniachtchi Reigns Supreme in the Sicilian Najdorf

Will the Carlsen versus Nepomniachtchi 2021 World Chess Championship Match become even more exciting with one of the players playing the Sicilian Defense Najdorf variation? Nepomniachtchi is regarded as one of the best in the world when it comes to the Najdorf variation.

Although incredibly courageous, Magnus Carlsen‘s decision to play the Najdorf against an expert in this opening wasn’t a good decision. When you learn an opening with Black, you know which lines you dislike facing the most, making them the ones to play against it.

The line Ian Nepomniachtchi chose is regarded as a sideline with a few ways for Black to reach equality. Any sideline that can take down Magnus Carlsen deserves lots of attention, especially if you play the Najdorf with Black.

Along with 6.Rg1 if you play the Najdorf two other popular sidelines on move six are:

  • 6.a4, and
  • 6.g3

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

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Sicilian Najdorf variation 6.Rg1

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6 6.Rg1

Will the exciting Najdorf put in an appearance at the 2021 World Chess Championship?
Najdorf 6.Rg1

Magnus chose to play 6…b5, but it might be best to follow the timeless chess wisdom of meeting a flank attack with a counter-strike in the center. Because of this, 6…e5 seems the most principled response.

Here is the game between Nepomniachtchi and Carlsen to remind you this is not a sideline to take lightly.

Nepomniachtchi, Ian – Carlsen, Magnus, Legends of Chess (2.13), 2020, 1-0

As mentioned striking back in the center seems like the most solid approach by Black with play likely to continue 6…e5 7.Nb3 Be6 8.g4 d5 9.exd5 Nxd5 10.Nxd5 Qxd5 11.Be3

Najdorf 11.Be3
Najdorf 11.Be3

The two thematic central pawn advances …e5 and …d5, allow Black to avoid a lot of dangerous tactics and transpose into a comfortable chess endgame.

White can try 9.g5 instead of 9.exd5, but with queens off the board, Black is in no danger. Play can continue with 9…Nxe4 10.Nxe4 dxe4 11.Qxd8 Kxd8 12.Bg2 Bf5

Najdorf 12...Bf5
Najdorf 12…Bf5

Black will play …h6 to open the h-file for his rook. A point to remember is not to recapture after gxh6 with …gxh6 but play …g6 and …Bxh6; otherwise, you are closing the h-file.

Dominguez Perez, Leinier – Naiditsch, Arkadij, 1/2-1/2, Corus-B, 2004

Sicilian Najdorf variation 6.a4

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6 6.a4

Najdorf 6.a4
Najdorf 6.a4

This is a good waiting move for White that hinders Black’s queenside expansion and allows White to see Black’s plans. The disadvantage is it makes queenside castling unappealing for White, and Black can transpose into other variations of the Sicilian Defense with moves like 6…e6 or 6…Nc6.

However, continuing in typical Najdorf fashion with 6…e5 is perfectly playable.

The move 6.a4 leaves the b4 square weak, and a knight on b4 will help Black keep control of the d5-square. Black’s development unfolds along familiar Najdorf lines on the way to equality.

6…e5 7.Nf3 Be7 8.Bc4 Be6 9.Qe2 Qc7 10.Bb3 Nc6

Najdorf 10...Nc6
Najdorf 10…Nc6

Developing the knight to c6 instead of d7 allows Black to make use of the weakened b4 square. 

After White recaptured on d5 with a pawn, Black was able to play …Nb4. Although the knight got driven to a6, it always had the possibility of entering the game with …Nc5.

 Smirin, I. – Sjugirov, S., 0-1, World Rapid 2018

Sicilian Najdorf variation 6.Bd3

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6 6.Bd3

Najdorf 6.Bd3 Will Nepo and Carlsen play the Najdorf?
Najdorf 6.Bd3

This is a sensible developing move, but Black is doing very well against this sideline by continuing in standard fashion. Again this is a move played by Nepomniachtchi and Anand, so we mustn’t take it lightly.

6…e5 7.Nde2 Be7 8.0-0 0-0 9.Ng3 Be6 10.Nd5 Bxd5 11.exd5 g6

Najdorf 11...g6
Najdorf 11…g6

Against 6.Bd3 Black is holding his own and can look forward to a middlegame with equal chances for both sides. Fortunately for Black, the road to an equal position is familiar with moves such as …e5, …Be7, …Be6, and …Nbd7.

The following game shows Black has every reason to believe he can play for a win. Unlike many lines in the Najdorf variation, Black is not under a lot of pressure after 6.Bd3. 

There is no doubt both players will be under a lot more pressure in their 2021 World Chess Championship Match no matter what color they are playing.

Sadhwani, Raunak – Sethuraman, S., 0-1, 18th Asian Continental, 2019

In Conclusion

Because Black is doing well in the mainlines of the Sicilian Najdorf, it isn’t surprising White has turned to the sidelines in an attempt to gain an advantage.

Black should not take these lines lightly, but he can feel confident about holding his own against them.

The Sicilian Najdorf is a fighting defense based on sound positional principles. Thus it’s hardly surprising that Black meets the sidelines with another classical principle – playing in the center.

When one of the top Najdorf players chooses a sideline with the White pieces, you can feel good about playing the Sicilian Najdorf variation with Black.

In the upcoming Carlsen – Nepomniachtchi 2021 World Chess Championship Match, the opening choices are sure to be a big talking point. These two players aren’t afraid to play dynamic openings that lead to unbalanced positions. 

What remains to be seen is whether the openings they choose not to play prove more surprising than those in the match. 

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