Opening theory in chess is constantly evolving. However, being the stubborn person I am, my personal repertoire has barely changed since I first began playing tournament chess. Never the type to want to learn and understand extensive theory, I relied upon relatively rare lines to throw my opponents off. For example, I have always played 6. h3 against the Najdorf Sicilian, and while this opening worked beautifully in the beginning of my chess career, its efficiency has decreased as the line itself became more well-known and as I reached a higher level of play.
About two weeks ago, I was participating in the US Girls Junior Championship, where ten of the top girls under the age of 20 are invited to play in a round robin tournament. There, I had three games against the Najdorf and while I won two out of the three games, the game where I lost made me realize that with the right preparation, I could easily be outplayed straight from the opening. This realization made it evident that I needed to learn something new against the Najdorf. Upon asking around and researching on my own, I’ve realized that not only has opening theory itself changed, but so has the way in which we acquire opening knowledge. Recently, grandmasters have been using correspondence games as a source for opening theory. In the annotations for a game between Caruana and Gelfand (which was, in part the inspiration for the subject of this article), Caruana says of his 14th move, “This had been played before by correspondence players. I didn’t fully understand the move, but I figured I should listen to them!”
In looking through correspondence games myself, I found a recurring variation in the Najdorf that seems to be gaining popularity; the 8…h5 variation in the Be3 Najdorf. The variation itself is very suitable for correspondence chess as it entails a lot of positional maneuvering and long-term planning. While I am not the most positional player, I still find the variation appealing due to its constricting nature, as white essentially aims to eliminate black’s counter-play.
1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 d6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 a6 6. Be3 e5 One of the mainlines — the others being …e6 and …Ng4 7. Nb3 Be6 8. f3 h5 A trending line nowadays. The obvious goal is to stop white’s king-side expansion; one of the central ideas in the mainline with opposite-side castling. The old mainline is 8…Be7 9. Qd2 O-O 10. O-O-O with white aiming for a king-side attack and black aiming for a queen-side attack (See Anand – Topalov, Stavanger 2013). 9. Qd2 Nbd7 10. Nd5 Bxd5 The more common variation – here white pursues similar goals to the variation with the knight taking instead: 10… Nxd5 11. exd5 Bf5 12. Na5.
The idea behind this variation is that white will opt for queen-side expansion with c4, b4, a4, and eventually a break with c5. Black will often opt for central play with an eventual e4 in conjunction with potential king-side play. In this position, the key recent game at the GM level was between Caruana and Nakamura (while Na5 is moved later in this game, it serves as the inspiration for the earlier Na5 line). Here, black has three main options: Be7, Qc7, and Rb8. Against 12…Be7, white should play normally as black is not creating any eminent threats. For 12… Rb8, white should make sure to stop black’s counter-play before developing naturally: 13. a4 Be7 14. Nc4 O-O 15. Be2
With 12… Qc7 13. c4 b6 (13… Be7 14. Rc1 Rc8, although 14…e4 is probably an improvement over the game
continuation (Zakhartsov -Bratus, Voronezh 2008), but white still holds a slight edge after Be2, 0-0, and b4 with the same queen-side expansion.) 14. Nc6 Nb8 15. Nxb8 Rxb8 16. Be2 Be7 (16… g6 Here, a game between two masters: Madl and Gerard, illustrates the queen-side expansion that is essential to white’s opening strategy). 17. O-O Bg6 18. f4! +=
Now, let’s return to what happens if the bishop takes back: 11. exd5 g6. Here, 11…Qc7 is also possible, to be followed by 12. c4. Should black play 12…g6, white should try to relocate his knight to its ideal square on c6 via c2 and b4. Another possible continuation is 12…a5 13. a4 b6 14. Bd3 g6 15. O-O Bg7. Here, white’s plan deviates as it becomes difficult to pursue queen-side play as black has locked down the b4 and c5 squares. White’s attention thus shifts to the center and king-side: 16. Rae1 O-O 17. Nc1 Nc5 18. Bc2 Na6 19. b3 Nb4 20. Bb1 Na6 21. Ne2 Nd7 22. Bh6 Qd8 23. Nc3 f5 24. Nb5 Nac5 25. Bc2 Qe7 26. Be3 h4 27. g4 (1-0 Jensen,E (2495)-Krivic,D (2528) ICCF 2014). 12. Be2 Bg7 13. O-O b6 14. Rac1 O-O 15. h3 Re8.
Caruana recommends 15…Nh7, but after
16.c4 f5 17. Bd3 Bf6 18. f4 exf4 19. Bxf4 Be5 20. Bxe5 Nxe5 21. Nd4 Qf6 22. Bb1 Rae8 23. Rc3 += White’s knight has two potential squares on c6 and e6 and the queen-side majority yields an advantage. Should black play 15…Qc7, white should focus more on the center and king-side (A worthy game to look into is Jónsson,D (2538)-Magalhães,L (2540) ICCF 2014).
16. c3 While 16. c4 might seem more logical, it lacks a future after a5. 16…Kh7 (16…Qc8 17. Kh2 Qc7 18. g4 Qb7 19. Rcd1 Nc5 20. Nxc5 bxc5 21. g5 Nd7 22. Bd
3 += Black’s bishop is essentially trapped by his own pawns and white has the bishop pair and more space) 17. Rfe1 Qc7 (17…Ng8 is met with 18. g4 Bh6 19. g5 Bg7 20. Bd3 Ne7 21. Be4 Rc8 22. Kh2 with white looking to relocate the knight on b3 and looking for more play on the queen-side) 18. Bf1 Qb7 19. Rcd1 Nc5 (19…Qc7 20. a4 Qb7 21. Kh2 e4 22. f4 Rac8 23. Kg1 Ra8 24. c4 Nc5 25. Nd4 Nfd7 26. Qc2 Bxd4 27. Bxd4 a5 28. Re3 Rac8 29. b3 +=
White has an advantage with the bishop pair and a more favorable pawn structure) 20. Nxc5 bxc5
21. Bc4 e4 22. f4 Nd7 (22…Ng8 23. Bf2 Rab8 24. b3 f5 25. Be3 Ne7 26. Rb1 a5 27. Red1 While white does not necessarily have an advantage here, his position is easier to play with space, the bishop pair, and a potential break on b4) 23. Bb3 Qb5
(23… Rab8 24. Ba4 Red8 25. Rb1 f5 26. Bc6 Qc7 27. Qe2 a5 28. Rec1 += White has a tiny advantage here with better placed pieces, the bishop pair, and a queen-side majority) 24. c4 Qb4 25. Qxb4 cxb4 26. Ba4 Rad8 27. Re2 += In this endgame, white has a small edge and should be trying to play g3, move the king towards the center, place the light-squared bishop on c6 and play for a c5 break. Should …Nc5 happen, which should capture with the dark-squared bishop and then double rooks on the d-file and push through using the d-pawn.
Overall, the …h5 variation poses an interesting problem to white, as he or she must switch strategies from the traditional king-side attack to a more positional game in the center and on the queen-side. In the Nxd5 variation, the knight maneuver Na5 to c4 in conjunction with a4 and queen-side play is essential to white’s strategy. White should also aim to contain black’s central counter-play with a timely f4. In the Bxd5 variation, white’s plans are more long-term and often the queen-side pursuit will not work out, in which case, one must focus one’s attention on the center and king-side. In many variations, white does not necessarily have an advantage, but the bishop pair and extra space provide for easier play and a potential advantage in the transition to the endgame. The variation on the whole contains fascinating positional planning, and has become a line I can’t wait to try in tournament play.