The Sicilian Najdorf was a firm favorite of two of the greatest chess players of all time – Bobby Fischer and Garry Kasparov.
They both stayed faithful to the Sicilian Najdorf for a significant part of their career.
No world chess champion is likely to stick with an opening for very long unless the results are favorable. Playing the Sicilian Najdorf with Black helped them both reach the very top of chess success.
If it allowed them to hold their own against the very players in the world, there is no reason for you to doubt it will hold its own against your opponents.
Here is GM Niclas Huschenbeth to take you through some model games by black.
Estimated reading time: 25 minutes
Table of contents
Ideas Behind the Sicilian Najdorf Variation
What do you want from an opening if you have the black pieces?
- Dynamic play?
- A sound position?
- Opportunities to take the initiative?
- Potential for an attack?
Well, you get all this plus one more added bonus in the Sicilian Najdorf.
The opportunity to play for a win with black!
This opening is named after Miguel Najdorf who did the most to investigate and play the opening on a regular basis. The first to play 5…a6 with 6…e5 was Czech IM Karel Opocensky.
Unlike in the French Defense and Caro-Kann Defense, there are no drawish lines for white to use in the Sicilian Najdorf!
The Sicilian Najdorf caters to players of all different playing styles. It is easy to imagine Tal playing the Sicilian Najdorf but a little more challenging to imagine Petrosian paying it.
Take a look at how he won a game with the Najdorf in under 40 moves!
Giustolisi, Alberto – Petrosian, Tigran, 1968.10.19, Chess Olympiad Qualifying Group 1, 0-1
The Defining Move of the Sicilian Najdorf – 5…a6!
After the standard opening moves in the Open Sicilian Defense 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3, the defining move of the Sicilian Najdorf is 5…a6
The moves 5…a6 serves two purposes:
- Black doesn’t commit his e-pawn to either e5 or e6 and prevents ideas of Bb5+ by White.
- The move …a6 supports black’s expansion on the queenside with …b5. Remember, the move …b5 not only gains space, but it also threatens to drive away the defender of the e4-pawn by advancing to b4.
The Sicilian Najdorf Wins at All Levels
There is a lot of mystique surrounding the Sicilian Najdorf, making many club players think it is not suitable for them.
Surely if the elite are playing it, it must be a complicated opening with a heavy theoretical workload, right? Happily, the answer is no!
As with many other openings, there are common themes, strategies, and tactics throughout the different variations of the Sicilian Najdorf.
Again, as in all openings, there is some must-know theory, but this is part-and-parcel of chess. The good news is the workload is likely less than you imagined.
One crucial factor to consider is the level of your play.
When you start playing titled players regularly, it doesn’t matter what chess opening you choose. You will need to study the openings in greater depth when you break the 2200 Elo mark.
No matter if that opening is the French Defense, the Philidor Defense, or the Sicilian Najdorf.
The sooner you start playing the Sicilian Najdorf against players at your current level, the better prepared you will be against the elite. The more you play the Sicilian Najdorf, the deeper your understanding of the opening moves, strategies, and tactics will become.
This is an opening you can play against the best players in the world. Why deny yourself the pleasure of playing such a rich opening with the black pieces now?
Savielly Tartakower said, “The blunders are all there on the board, waiting to be made.” There are also victories waiting on the board if you choose the sound, fighting Sicilian Najdorf.
Fired up and ready to play the tremendous Sicilian Najdorf? No? Then might I suggest the second door on the right, further down the hallway. I believe that’s where they play Tiddlywinks and checkers.
Do Not Fear the Hole, Use the Hole
There is no getting around the fact if you choose to play the Sicilian Najdorf with a fighting spirit, you will weaken the d5-square. Rest assured this weakness is not fatal.
The advantage is you know it will draw your opponent’s pieces like a magnet.
White will often forget about any other strategy but placing a piece on d5!
What can be better than knowing exactly what your opponent is planning? Only one thing – knowing how to play against his strategy.
In many cases, you want to use prophylaxis to stop your opponent’s plan. The exception to this rule is when your opponent is implementing a lousy strategy.
Because playing with the d5-hole depends on piece development, it’s best to look at Black’s responses within the different variations.
Of course, creating a hole on d5 in the Sicilian Najdorf isn’t mandatory. Nor is it a good idea to play it in every variation.
Instead of …e5, in many instances …e6 will work as well.
The Old Main Line of the Sicilian Najdorf with 6.Bg5 is best met with 6…e6.
The Sicilian Najdorf truly does cater to players of all different styles.
There is no reason to fear the hole, and if you read on, you will learn how to put the hole to good use.
The Main Variations of the Sicilian Najdorf
Thanks to the power of the Sicilian Najdorf, white was forced to try numerous moves in the quest to gain an advantage.
In the Sicilian Najdorf there are four main approaches and three variations white players might try to avoid learning mainline theory.
Another reason for white to choose these lesser variations is to draw their opponents into what they hope is unfamiliar territory.
Knowing your strategies and critical moves will help you navigate the positions arising from the sidelines.
Thanks to the inherent solidity of the Sicilian Najdorf, Black has nothing to fear!
The Fighting Four Mainlines are:
- English Attack 6.Be3
- Old Main Line 6.Bg5
- Classical 6.Be2
- Fischer’s Favorite 6.Bc4
and the three main sidelines:
GM Simon Williams ends his first Master Method course with the advice to “Have fun!” The Sicilian Najdorf is full of positional ideas, terrific tactics, and the opportunity to have lots of fun.
Sicilian Najdorf Mainlines
Since the knights are already developed, the Sicilian Najdorf mainlines focus on the development of the bishops.
When white develops the dark-squared bishop first, either to e3 or g5, it usually signals his intention to castle queenside. Remember, there are exceptions to every rule in the complex game of chess.
White sometimes plays f3 before developing the bishop to e3. This prevents black from attacking the bishop with …Ng4 and aids the pawn storm by supporting the g4 advance so typical of the Sicilian Najdorf.
Developing the light-squared bishop to e2 or c4 usually means white will castle short and advance the f-pawn.
There are always exceptions, but the flexibility of the Sicilian Najdorf will help black successfully meet either strategy.
The Sicilian Najdorf English Attack- 6.Be3
The English Attack in the Sicilian Najdorf got its name from the numerous British chess players who adopted this plan in the mid-1980s. GM Nunn and GM Short, in particular, used it to good effect.
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 a6 6.Be3
White intends to play f3 to support the center, Qd2 allowing queenside castling and supporting Bh6, and starting a pawn storm against the black king with g4, h4, etc.
This plan is so dangerous the move 6.Be3 has been played about 12,000 times more than the second favorite option 6.Bg5.
In keeping with the fighting spirit of the mighty Sicilian Najdorf, black embraces the challenge with 6….e5!
Even before white begins his flank attack, black strikes back in the center.
White will either play one of two knight retreats:
- 7.Nb3 is the most popular, or
- 7.Nf3, which is more positional and must be respected.
The Popular 7.Nb3
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 a6 6.Be3 e5 7.Nb3
7…Be6 8.f3 Nbd7 9.Qd2 b5 10.0-0-0 Be7
In this variation of the Sicilian Najdorf, it is crucial to meet the threat of g5 with …Nb6. This allows black to keep a knight controlling the critical d5 square after the g5 advance.
When white advances the g-pawn, the knight will move from f6 to h5. The knight blocks the h-file, keeps another defender around the black king, and prepares to land on the f4 square.
Another option for black instead of 10…Be7 is 10…Rc8. Bringing the rook to the semi-open file when white castles queenside makes a lot of sense. Time is a crucial factor in positions with opposite side castling.
The Tricky 7.Nf3
Retreating the knight to f3 White says the hole on d5 is ample compensation for the loss of tempo. The obvious question to ask is, “If this is true, why is Nb3 played much more often?”
Nb3 is played five times more often than Nf3.
Even if your opponent isn’t playing the best move, you must still know how to take advantage of it. Especially when the move is not an outright mistake.
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6 6.Be3 e5 7.Nf3
7…Be7 8.Bc4 Be6 is forcing white to decide what to do with his bishop.
White can exchange the bishop or retreat it to b3.
The best way to learn is to follow in the footsteps of today’s strong chess grandmasters. Here is Anish Giri, facing 9.Bb3, and Alexei Shirov, facing 9.Bxe6, showing how to meet each of these moves.
Karjakin, Sergey – Giri, A., 0-1, Superbet Rapid 2019
The Old Main Line of the Sicilian Najdorf: 6.Bg5
As mentioned earlier, a good way of meeting 6.Bg5 is with 6…e6.
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6 6.Bg5 e6
Now, 7.Qd2 is not an effective move for white because it allows 7…h6! After the bishop retreats to e3, Black can attack it again with …Ng4.
After 7…h6 8.Bh4 loses a pawn after 8.Nxe4 is attacking the queen on d2.
The most popular choice by far for white is 7.f4. Black players looking for a safe response that includes many theoretical draws can study 7…Nbd7.
A Dangerous Surprise Weapon for Black to Use
A lesser-known option that offers better winning chances for Black is 7…Qc7.
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6 6.Bg5 e6 7.f4 Qc7
Developing the queen to c7 breaks the pin on the knight and applies pressure along the semi-open c-file. White will often play Qf3 when the c2-pawn is left unprotected.
Black is not afraid of white capturing on f6 because this will provide his king with more shelter.
Since white’s strategy involves a kingside attack, there is no reason for black to castle into the attack.
7….Qc7 has been played by Kasparov, Ivanchuk, and Vachier Lagrave.
Here is Vassily Ivanchuk showing how to play the position if white plays Bxf6. His opponent Jan Smeets was rated over 2600 when this game was played.
Smeets, Jan – Ivanchuk, Vassily, 0-1, Corus, 2010
In this game, black continued with 8…b5, but another good move is 8…Nc6. This move was popularized by Garry Kasparov.
Black intends to exchange knights on d4 and reduce white’s attacking potential.
The strong Chinese chess grandmaster Zhang Zhong has scored well with this line.
Here he shows us how to play against white’s standard plan with queenside castling and how to continue if white avoids the exchange of knights with Nb3.
Shabalov, Alexander – Zhang, Zhong, 0-1, USA-CHN Summit, 2001
There are many ways to play the Sicilian Najdorf. You can make it as simple or complicated as you want.
Here is GM Arkadij Naiditsch to show you how complex the positions can get. Fire up the engine and maybe you will find a novelty lurking undiscovered in the rich wilderness of the Sicilian Najdorf.
The Classical Variation of the Sicilian Najdorf with 6.Be2
The move 6.Be2 was a favorite of Anatoly Karpov and, as such, deserves our respect. Anand has also chosen this move when facing the Sicilian Najdorf.
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6 6.Be2
After restraining ourselves against the old mainline, we can once again play in the true spirit of the Sicilian Najdorf with 6…e5.
The Classical variation teaches us a lot about how to play the Sicilian Najdorf.
Although white might not be able to claim an advantage because of the weakened d5-square, Black must not become complacent about it either.
Remember, if Black can play …d5, in the Open Sicilian Defense he will be left with an extra central pawn and a slight advantage.
Play almost always continues with 7.Nb3 when black can play the flexible 7…Be7.
White will seek to expand on the kingside with f4 – signaling his intention to attack on the kingside – or play more patiently with a4.
The move a4 is played to take advantage of any weaknesses black might create with the advance of his queenside pawns.
In this variation of the Sicilian Najdorf, both sides will almost always castle on the kingside.
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6 6.Be2 e5 7.Nb3 Be7
The two main choices for white in this position are:
White sometimes plays 8.Be3, but this usually transposes to the lines with 8.0-0 and 9.Be3.
Classical variation with 8.0-0
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6 6.Be2 e5 7.Nb3 Be7 8.0-0 0-0 9.Be3 Be6
Now the next moves are the first choice moves for both sides by a long way. Once again, you can trust your knowledge of the opening strategy in the Sicilian Najdorf to meet any weaker moves.
10.Qd2 Nbd7 11.a4 Rc8 12.a5 Qc7
Both Vladimir Kramnik and Boris Gelfand have been happy to play this position with Black against opponents rated above 2700!
The play took place across the board, and both games were exciting draws.
Leko, Peter – Gelfand, Boris, 1/2-1/2, Amber-rapid 12th, 2003
Classical Variation with 8.Bg5
This is white’s most direct attempt to seize control of the d5-square by removing a defender of this square.
Black must be careful because the natural 8…Nbd7 gives white the chance to gain a positional advantage after 9.a4 b6 10.Bc4.
Bc4 is a crucial move for white in taking control of d5, so a good response to 8.Bg5 is 8…Be6.
When 9.Bxf6 is the logical continuation by white.
9.Bxf6 Bxf6 10.Qd3
This brings us to a very instructive position that teaches us the dangers of playing on auto-pilot. Following the opening theory, unthinkingly, black would play 10…Nc6, which is certainly not a bad move.
However, Black can play for the initiative with 10…Bg5 – stopping white from castling queenside.
The move 10…Bg5 is not only positionally sound, but it is also likely to be a surprise to your opponent.
In the next game 10…Bg5 stopped white from castling queenside altogether. Black even exchanged queens while a pawn down! And still won the game against a strong opponent.
Maslak, Konstantin – Smikovski, Ivan, 0-1, Moscow op 2nd, 2006
Fischer’s Favorite 6.Bc4 in the Sicilian Najdorf
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6 6.Bc4
When an attacking great like Fischer favors a move, it is best to rein in our ambitions a little and play the solid 6…e6.
Black has a decision to make after 7.Bb3. The most played move is 7…b5, but 7…Nbd7 is catching up in popularity and makes a lot of sense.
The knight is headed to c5, where it attacks the bishop on b3 and defends the critical e6 square.
Considering the numerous Sicilian games where white has crashed through with sacrifices on e6, overprotecting this square makes a lot of sense!
Once again, white has two familiar main moves in this position:
- 8.f4, and
6.Bc4 e6 7.Bb3 Nbd7 8.f4
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6 6.Bc4 e6 7.Bb3 Nbd7 8.f4
The pawn advance looks more dangerous than it is in practice. Make use of Nimzovitch’s advice not to fear ghosts.
Concrete calculation will help us banish the ghosts in this variation of the Sicilian Najdorf. Black continues with his plan and plays 8…Nc5.
After the logical follow-up by white with 9.f5, Black must resist the temptation to go pawn hunting before his development is complete.
9…Nfxe4 allows the devastating 10.fxe6!
Instead, black can play the calm 9…Be7 and meet 10.fxe6 with 10…fxe6. Thanks to his knight on c5, the e6 pawn is adequately defended.
The following is a model game played by Garry Kasparov against the strong German chess grandmaster Christian Bauer.
Bauer, Christian – Kasparov, Garry, 0-1, World Cup of Rapid Chess-A, 2001
6.Bc4 e6 7.Bb3 Nbd7 8.Bg5
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6 6.Bc4 e6 7.Bb3 Nbd7 8.Bg5
This position is particularly dangerous for Black.
Fortunately, there is a powerful move available for Black that might even bring you a quick victory, as it did for Topalov.
The must-know move for Black in this position is 8…Qa5!
Black breaks the pin and, thanks to the knight being on d4 instead of f3, attacks the bishop on g5.
If a chess grandmaster rated almost 2700 plays 9.Bxf6 and loses in less than thirty moves, we can safely say Black does not need to fear this exchange.
There’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Study Topalov and Naiditsch’s fine play against this move, and you will have nothing to fear from 9.Bxf6.
A far more dangerous move is 9.Qd2. By now, it is clear opposite side castling is not something to fear but rather to embrace.
We play the Sicilian Najdorf intending to win with the black pieces!
After 9.Qd2 Be7 10.0-0-0 Nc5 11.Rhe1 0-0 12.Kb1 Qc7
12…Qc7 is a critical move for Black, which prepares …b5 by covering the c6 square. Black must remain mindful of the opportunity for white to play Nc6 the moment the b-pawn advances.
In the next game, we once again see how concrete calculation allows Maxime Vachier Lagrave to ignore the battery of queen and rook lined up against g7.
Instead of adopting a passive piece placement to defend his king by focussing on g7, MVL proceeds with his plan and wins with a very lovely knight sacrifice on c3.
Abergel, Thal – Vachier Lagrave, Maxime, 0-1, FRA-ch 83rd, 2008
Sicilian Najdorf Sidelines
Although these sidelines aren’t especially dangerous for black, you can find yourself in a bad position against them.
Fortunately, you can use familiar opening strategies to meet the three most popular sixth move alternatives.
Sicilian Najdorf 6.h3
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6 6.h3
In this variation, instead of supporting g4 with f3, white supports the pawn advance with h3. The light-squared bishop is usually developed on g2.
Black, in turn, plays in a now-familiar fashion.
Since white is playing on the flank, it makes sense for Black to strike back in the center with …e6 and d5!
Play continues in thematic fashion with 6…e6 7.g4 d5 8.Bg2 Nxe4 9.Nxe4 dxe4 10.Bxe4 Nd7
For players who like to inject a little variety in their play, an excellent alternative to 7…d5 is 7…b5.
Both sides have a higher winning percentage in games with 7…b5, but white’s winning percentage remains below fifty percent against both moves.
In the next game, MVL once again shows us how to play this sideline of the Sicilian Najdorf when white castles queenside.
Ponomariov, R. – Vachier Lagrave, M., 1/2-1/2, SportAccord Blitz 2014
Take a look at how Mad Andersen defeated Francisco Vallejo Pons, who was rated 100 Elo higher. In this game, Francisco Vallejo Pons chose to castle kingside.
Vallejo Pons, F. (2694) – Andersen, Mad (2594), 2020.03.04, 0-1
Sicilian Najdorf 6.f4
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6 6.f4
The main idea for white in this sideline is to meet …e5 with Nf3 and not obstruct the f4 pawn advance.
Black does best to play the mainline and use a familiar strategy with 10…Nc5.
Instead of 10…Nc5 black’s primary alternative is 10…exf4, but usually transposes after 11.Kh1 Nc5.
10…Nc5 has been used with success by former world champion Viswanathan Anand.
Polgar, Judit – Anand, Viswanathan, 0-1, Buenos Aires Sicilian, 1994
Sicilian Najdorf 6.g3
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6 6.g3
This is undoubtedly the most positional approach white can adopt against the Sicilian Najdorf. Although it is now regarded as a sideline, black must not take this variation lightly.
Once again, Black can hold his own by following the mainline.
In response to 6…e5, white retreats the knight to e2 since Nf3 would block the bishop on g2. A key piece in white’s strategy to overprotect e4 and control d5.
After 6…e5 7.Nde2 Be7 8.Bg2 0-0 9.0-0 b5 10.Nd5 Nxd5 11.Qxd5
Be careful when playing this position with Black and remember after 11.Qxd5 your rook on a8 is under attack.
Follow in the footsteps of the current world chess champion challenger Nepomniachtchi and play 11…Ra7.
Adams, Mi – Nepomniachtchi, I., 0-1, Moscow Grand Prix 2017
Final Thoughts on the Sicilian Najdorf
The Sicilian Najdorf is an opening you can study just like any other chess opening. Unlike many other chess openings, the Sicilian Najdorf offers you every opportunity to play for a win.
Not only do you get to play for a win, but you do so from a solid positional base.
There is no reason to resign yourself to settle for a draw if you choose to play the Sicilian Najdorf.
The best part is that it’s generally acknowledged that the Open Sicilian is white’s best chance to obtain an opening advantage against the Sicilian. Now you can meet it fearlessly!