Opening Exploration: Navigating the Najdorf

To follow up on last Tuesday’s video, I put together an analysis on the Be3 Najdorf, with improvements for Black. For those of you that missed the video, make sure to check out White’s refutation of my set-up:

For those of you who saw it, here are some of the highlights:

DarwinEvolution–leika (G/15 Internet Chess Club)

1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 d6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 a6 5. Nc3 Nf6 6. Be3 e5 7. Nb3 Be7 8. f3

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This will be the tabiya position for today’s post. In the game, I veered off with 8… Nbd7, but today I will suggest the main line, 8… Be6.

8…Nbd7 9. Qd2 Qc7 10. g4 h6 11. O-O-O b5 12. Kb1 Bb7 13. a3 Rd8 14. Qf2!

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And now Black is paralyzed! No longer able to play …Nb6 to push …d7-d5, I no longer have an active plan, and must wait for White to take action.

I could have tried to insert …Nb6 earlier, with the idea of reaching c4, but even in those lines, my light squared bishop is slightly misplaced. Why did I go for this set-up? Let’s take a field trip back to the third video I ever posted to chess^summit, back in October 2014:

In that game, the set-up was justified in that game because White not only wasted several tempi but also with a bishop on e2, the Qf2 idea was never possible. That game was actually one of the last times I employed the Najdorf, so I never really worried about going beyond the analysis I had at that time.

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So that brings us back to the tabiya position. As I mentioned before, Black’s bishop is slightly misplaced on b7, so here 8…Be6 is the much more logical step going forward. Note how I can still play for …d7-d5 if the opportunity presents itself, but I also get more space on the queenside, while eying the b3 knight for a potential trade. With the bishop on b7, White can play a2-a3 to stop the b-pawn push without worrying about opening the c-file.

Our first game is from the 2013 Tal Memorial, featuring Boris Gelfand with Black against Fabiano Caruana.

One thing you should note about this opening is that unlike my other analysis posts, the calculation must be much more concrete. The Najdorf is not for the faint-hearted, and will punish the tactically weak!

Caruana–Gelfand (Tal Memorial, 2013)

1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 d6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 a6 6. f3 e5 7. Nb3 Be6 8. Be3 Be7 9. Qd2 O-O

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Thanks to modern computer analysis, castling is the most popular option for Black. While the play is sharp, Black’s king is actually safe with best play.

10. O-O-O Nbd7 11. g4 b5 12. g5 b4!

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The key to handling a race position is to not be afraid to be persistent! Black doesn’t have time to waste and immediately attacks White’s knight, leaving his own under attack.

13. Ne2 Ne8 14. f4 a5 15. f5 a4!

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Same idea again! While White’s attack is scary, Black has also gained a lot of momentum. It’s important to not reward White for simply going first.

16. fxe6 axb3 17. cxb3 fxe6

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What just happened? Black opened the a-, c-, and f-files for his rooks while simultaneously liquidating White’s pawn storm. Black’s queenside pawns were also traded down, but offer Gelfand a lot of tactical opportunities.

18. Bh3 Rxa2 19. Bxe6+ Kh8

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White also gained from the earlier trading. For White to make progress, he must take advantage of Black’s lack of a light squared bishop.

20. Ng3 Nc7 21. Bc4 Qa8

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The computer assesses this position as equal, but one of the great things about the Najdorf is that the positions are very rich, as each side take turns attacking the other.

22. Rhf1 Rxf1 23. Rxf1 Ra1+ 24. Kc2 Rxf1 25. Bxf1 d5!

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Black justifies giving up the bishop pair by making the thematic …d6-d5 push, eliminating his main structural weakness.

26. h4 d4 27. Bg1 Ne6 28. Qe2?

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Who would have thought that this would be the critical mistake? A seemingly innocuous choice from Caruana but this move gives Black a key tempo. By not maintaining pressure on the b4 pawn, Black gets time to put a knight on c5, as well as threaten …d4-d3.

28…Ndc5 29. Qc4 Nf4!!

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Black’s knight’s are both active while Caruana’s bishops have yet to join the fray. What’s wrong with 30. Qxb4? Gelfand must have seen 30…Bf8! protecting the bishop while threatening a discovery. Black is winning in that line after 31. Qc4 Qa2 -+ as Black can’t easily stop the c5 knight from coming into d3.

30. Qf7 Qf8 31. Qc4 g6 32. Bf2 Ne2!!

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Another punishing blow from Gelfand! If White takes the knight, he must be prepared for the black queen to enter the 2nd rank by taking the bishop on f2. Caruana chose the only move to try and hold the fort.

33. Nh1 d3+ 34. Kd1 Qf3

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Now busting through the kingside, Gelfand has managed to win on both sides of the board. At this point, it’s just technical.

35. Bxc5 Qxf1+ 36. Kd2 Nf4!

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A quiet move – Black plans to put the queen on e2 and follow through with checkmate, so White doesn’t have time to grab the bishop.

37. Ng3 Qg2+ 38. Kc1

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38. Bxe7 would have lost on account of 38… Qe8#

38…Qxg3 39. Kb1 Ne2 40. Qf7 Qe1+ 41. Ka2 Nc3+ 0-1

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Caruana resigned. There’s simply no way for White to make use of his active pieces, as a sample line would go 42. bxc3 Qd2+ 43. Kb1 Qc2+ 44. Ka1 Qxc3+ 45. Ka2 Qxc5, and the d-pawn will promote with no three-fold chances for White.

What does this game tell us about the Be3 lines of the Najdorf? Well, it’s extremely tactical, and Black can’t play submissively if he has any aspirations of winning. Another aspect I will mention is that to play the Najdorf takes a lot of preparation – for each side; working with computers, reading manuscripts, analysis far deeper than the post I have provided you with today.

I stopped playing the Najdorf shortly after breaking 1900, because I found that it simply put too much emphasis on opening knowledge when playing 2000+ rated opponents, and the Bg5 lines alone gave me enough of a headache to stop. If you’re looking for a fun, easy opening to learn, this definitely isn’t it.

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Sam Shankland: The American Dr. Who

While America isn’t known for its ability to produce world class grandmasters, there’s definitely been a recent trend of increasing strength in the states. Most players love to talk about Hiraku Nakamura and Wesley So, I think more people should pay attention to Grandmaster Sam Shankland.

I first watched Shankland play at this past year’s US Chess Championships when he upset then tournament leader Varuzhan Akobian to cause a late shake up in the standings. Since then, he’s been relatively unheard, despite a strong performance at the Tata Steel Challengers section this past weekend (3rd).

For today’s post, I wanted to share a few of his games so maybe you too can appreciate his style of play.

Shankland – Michiels (2015 Tata Steel Challengers, Round 6)

1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. Nd2 Nf6 4. e5 Nd7 5. Bd3 c5 6. c3 Nc6 7. Ne2 cxd4 8. cxd4 f6

9. exf6 By opting to play this line of the French, Shankland must effectively control the c5 and e5 squares. White should have relatively easy development, and a backwards pawn to attack on e6.

9…Nxf6 10. 0-0 Bd6 11. Nf3 Qc7 12. Nc3 a6 13. Bd2 0-0

14. Rc1 In a relatively equal position, Shankland takes the most principled approach. By putting his rook on the same file as the opponent’s queen, Black has some questions to answer.

14…Bd7 15. Re1 Rae8

16. Na4 A strong move. From a4, the knight controls c5 (a critical square) and b6, while opening up the rook. If Black isn’t careful, Shankland will have a nice outpost on c5.

16…Bc8 A slight inaccuracy from Black. In an effort to create more space on his own side of the board, Black neglects White’s ability to find active play.

17. Ne5 Rather than allowing Black to push and trade his backwards e-pawn, Shankland uses a common idea of a blockade by placing his knight here.

17…Qb8 18. Bf4 Nxd4

19. Bxh7+ A critical moment in the game. With this exchange, White stands better as he traded his isolated d-pawn for the h-pawn, weakening the enemy kingside while maintaining the e5 outpost in the center.

19…Kxh7 20. Qxd4 Ne5 21. Bg3 Rf5 22. Nf3 Nxg3 23. hxg3 Bd7

24. Nc5 Putting pressure on the backwards e-pawn and encouraging Black to trade away the bishop pair.

24…Bxc5 25. Rxc5 Qd6

26. Ne5 With no clear play, Shankland improves his position.

26…g5? Michiels intended to find some sort of play here, but opens up holes in front of his king.

27. g4! A great move! White blockades the g-pawn, while creating easy access for a rook lift to h3, fully exposing the king.

27.Rf4 28. Qd3+ Kh8 29. Qg6 Re7

30. Rc3 Paralyzing Black. After 30… Rh7, the game falls apart quickly.

30…Rh7 31. Qxg5 Re4 32. Rxe4 dxe4 33. Qd8+ 1-0

A good game by Shankland. By optimizing his pieces from what was relatively a equal position, Shankland was able to create outposts to help him limit Black’s ability to move.

Haast – Shankland (2015 Tata Steel Challengers, Round 13)

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

5…a6 The Najdorf is a favorite opening in Shankland’s repertoire. Recently he made a video series for chess.com on the line, which you can watch here.

6.Be3 e5 7.Nb3 Be6 8.f3

8…h5 Limiting any quick kingside pawn storm.

9.Be2 Nbd7 10.a4 Rc8 11.a5 Be7 12.O-O g6 13.Qd2

13…Kf8 A very interesting idea. By castling by hand, Shankland keeps his rook on h8, a much more appropriate file than the f-file.

14.Nd5 Bxd5

15.exd5 With this exchange, Black closes the d-file, hiding his backwards d6 pawn, which is the main weakness in many Najdorf structures.

15…Kg7 16.Ra4 b5 17.Raa1 Qc7 18.c3 Qb7 19.Rfd1 h4 20.Nc1

20…Bd8 With this move Black sets the tempo of the game. This bishop will slowly find its way to b8, allowing Shankland to connect the rooks while maintaining control of the c-file. White has wasted time with the rook maneuvers on the queenside, allowing for Black to play for a slight advantage.

21.Ra3 Bc7

22.Na2 White must solve the awkwardness in her position. The Women’s International Master’s pieces on the queenside are not coordinated, and will allow for Black to seize control of the c5 square.

22…Bb8 23.Rb3 Nc5 24.Rb4

24…Bc7 And now it becomes clear how messy White’s position truly is. With the a-pawn lost, White quickly grabs the h-pawn. While material may come out even, Black gets a strategic advantage by opening the h-file.

25.Bg5 Bxa5 26.Rxh4 Rxh4 27.Bxh4

27…Bb6 Now without the pawn on a5, Shankland takes full advantage of his repossession of the b6 square. By placing his bishop here, he forces White’s king off the dark square diagonal to the corner of the board…

28.Kh1 Rh8 29.Qe1 Qd7 30.Nb4 Qf5 31.Bf2 a5

32.Nd3?? After being outmaneuvered for most of the game, Haast makes her first big mistake, and Shankland finds a strong tactical blow.

32…Nxd3 33.Bxd3 Bxf2 34.Qxf2

34…Rxh2+! Using the h-file to create a king and queen fork. If White does not comply, Black has …Qh5, putting more pressure on the h-file.

35.Kxh2 Ng4+ 36.Kg1 Nxf2 37.Kxf2 Qc8 38.Ke2 Qc5 39.b4 Qxc3 40.bxa5 Qxa5 41.Rb1 b4 42.Bc4 Qc5 43.Bb3 f5 44.Kf1 Qb5+ 45.Kg1 Qd3 Completely outplayed, Haast resigned. 0-1

Like in the first game, Shankland uses his ability to maneuver pieces to active squares to outplay his opponents. In the first game, he attacked the c5 and e5 squares, and the second, the c5 square also played a big role. In both of the these cases a knight on these squares really limited the mobility of the opponent. Much like the Doctor, Shankland finds ways to inconvenience his opponents at exactly the right moment. Even if you don’t play the French or the Sicilian Najdorf, most openings have potential outposts. Your pieces are your sonic screwdrivers!

A pretty good tournament from Shankland this past weekend in the first super tournament of 2015. We’ll be seeing more from the Doctor in the near future!

Thematic Ideas in the Najdorf

If you want to learn a new opening, memorizing lines and theory generally isn’t the best way to study. In a tournament game, the likelihood of your opponent matching those lines exactly after the 10th move is uncommon. What is important however, is to understand the thematic ideas. The best example of such an opening is the Sicilian Najdorf. After 5… a6, Black must be prepared for 6. Be3, 6. Bg5, 6. Bg4, 6. f3, and many other sub-lines. There are a lot of lines, and it easy to get lost in memorization.

In the Najdorf, however, understanding of the opening becomes far simpler if you analyze the position as a whole. For example, black’s backwards d6-pawn generally wants to be pushed to d5 and open the position for counter play. In order to demonstrate these thematic ideas, I have supplied two games I played at the 2013 Continental Class Championships back in October. In the first game, I failed to utilize these ideas and played passively, whereas in the second game, by playing the thematic ideas, I was able to reach a dynamic position.

Levkov – Steincamp (Round 3)

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

6. f3 This idea is a minor line, white can try to set up a Maroczy Bind, or transpose into the 6. Be3 main line.*

Nc6 7. Be3 Nxd4 8. Bxd4 e5 9. Be3 Be6 10. g4 h6

11. Qd2 White has transposed into the Be3 Main Line. In this position, I (black) need to find ways to push d6-d5, or I will have a passive bishop on f8/e7. White’s play is on the kingside, so I should find counter play with a minority attack on the queenside.

Be7 12. O-O-O

12… Qa5 This is a common idea in many Sicilian lines, the only problem is that I don’t have the threat of b5-b4 like in most Najdorf lines.

13. Kb1 b5

14. Nd5! This move isn’t rocket science and should be easy to find, but still shows that my opponent has a strong grasp of his own thematic ideas. Trading the queens is good for white, as it will be difficult to find any play with d6-d5 or b5-b4 pushes.

Qxd2 15. Nxf6+ Bxf6

16. Rxd2  The computer assesses this position as equal, but its a lot easier to play with white. Note how the backwards pawn on f3 is hard to reach, where as my d6 pawn is on a half open file. My f6 bishop is out of place, and its not quite clear how to find active play for Black.

O-O-O 17. a4

17… Bc4? My first big mistake of the game, my bishop on e6 was one of my best pieces, and a trade ruins my pawn structure. Here, 17… d5 (thematic idea) would have been much better, and if 18. axb5 dxe4 opens the position for my bishop pair. 

18. Bxc4 bxc4 19. Rhd1 Kc7

20. Rd5 White has a firm hold on the initiative, my pieces are inactive, and a lack of solidarity among my pawns is a concerning issue.

Kc6 21. b3 cxb3 22. cxb3 Rd7 23. Bd2 Rb8 24. Ka2 Rdb7

25. Rc1+ Here my opponent missed 25. Bxh6! because if 25… gxh6 26. Rxd6+ and white is clearly winning. Note how the key to this tactic involved one of white’s thematic ideas, exploiting my backwards d-pawn.

Kd7 26. Rc3 Rc7 27. Rxc7+ Kxc7 28. Kb2 Bh4 29. b4 Kc6 30. Kb3 Bf2 31. Kc3 Rc8 32. Kb3 Rb8 33. Ra5

33…Bb6?? Here 33…Kb6 was the best defense, but my position was already busted, the simple queenside pawn majority is enough to guarantee a win for my opponent.

34. Rxa6 Kb7 35. b5 Rc8 36. a5 Bc5 37. Bb4 f6 38. Bxc5 Rxc5 39. Rb6+ Kc7 40. Rc6+ 1-0

While neither myself or my opponent are highly rated players (both of us were below 1900 when this game was played), it is easy to see that my inability to find counter play cost me the game, and that at no point, white’s advantage was in doubt.

* In his book, The Sicilian Defense, Lubomir Ftacnik suggests an h7-h5 push in the Be3 main line to slow the thematic g2–g4 push. While I have no tournament experience with this line, I think its a line worth of consideration for players who do not like playing against the kingside pawn storm.

This next game, I was able to find success in a very similar opening line.

Chrisney – Steincamp (Round 5)

1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 d6 3. d4 cxd4 4. Nxd4 Nf6 5. Nc3 a6 6. Be2 e5 7. Nb3 Be7

8. Bg5!? This idea isn’t very common, as a future h7-h6 will by me a tempo. For this game, I had not prepared for this move, but I still used the Najdorf’s thematic ideas to reach a better position.

 8…Nbd7 This time I give a different look. I had already gone over my round 3 loss, and knew my failure to push d5 was a big piece of why I lost. Ideally, my bishop will go on b7, after b7-b5, and my knight on d7 will maneuver to b6 to put pressure on the d5 square.

9. Qd2 h6 10. Be3 Qc7 11. f3 b5 12. a3 Bb7 13. g4

13…Rd8 adding more pressure to the d5 square.

14. g5? Up to this point, I think both my opponent and I have followed the thematic ideas. This pawn push though is very premature, White will no longer be able to attack the kingside with force, and I will get to carry out my thematic ideas without rush. 14. h4 would be more in line with his plan, but I can play an immediate 14… d5! as 15. exd5 runs into 15…Nb8 (not Nb6 because of 16. Bxb5+), and I will have total control over the d-file. 14. 0–0–0 is the best move for white.

hxg5 15. Bxg5 Nb6 16. O-O-O

16…d5! The key thematic move. Unlike the last game, I have expanded on the queenside, and have a much better hold on the center.

17. exd5 Nbxd5 18. Nxd5 Bxd5 19. Qe3

19…Rh5 Not a thematic idea, but is an interesting move. …Rh5 develops my rook and threatens …Rxg5 followed by …Bxb3 after the queen recaptures on g5.

20. Kb1 Rc8

21. Rd2? White has run out ideas and is trying to find full control of the d-file with a future Rhd1 idea. Unfortunately this runs into 21…Bxb3! Getting a material advantage

22. cxb3 Bc5 23. Rc2 Bxe3 24. Rxc7 Rxc7 25. Bxe3

25…Rh3! After winning material, I quickly pin down the h–pawn and threaten e5–e4. White’s pair of bishop are not easy to play against, but this move really puts the squeeze on white to find something good.

26. Bb6 Rc6 27. Ba5 Nh5 28. Bd3 Rd6 29. Bc2

29…Rh6 Here I am in no rush to take on f3. It turns out that 29… Rxf3 was the best move, but I’m playing to limit white’s counter play. In this position, I assessed that the f3 pawn was actually a nuisance for white since it limited the scope of his light squared bishop.

30. Re1 f6 31. Bd2 g5

32. Be4 Now that white has run out of ideas, I can start grabbing pawns and going for an attack.

Rxh2 33. Bb4 Ng3 34. Bc6+ Kf7 35. Bd5+ Kg6 36. Ka2 Rh1 37. Re3

37…Rd1 Seals the deal, the threat of Rhh1 and checkmate on a1 cannot be stopped due to the unfortunate placement of the b4 bishop.

38. Bc6 Rhh1 0-1

Here in this game, it is much easier to see how black can find play in the Najdorf. By sticking to the traditional thematic ideas, black can easily find forms of counter play. You’ll notice how in these game, while both sides wound up deviating from theory, the thematic moves were essential to improving the position.

In a nutshell, here are some pretty basic thematic ideas in the Najdorf.

  1. Try to eliminate your backwards pawn on d6. This is a target for white, so by pushing it to d5, you eliminate it while opening the position. I’ve also noticed that on online games, my opponents sometimes trade on d5, and recapture with exd5. This is perfectly fine too, as the d-file becomes closed.
  2. Follow the queenside minority attack. After 5…a6, you usually want to follow up with b7-b5. If you get a rook on the half open c-file, a b5-b4 push could remove the knight from c3, giving you some chances for active play.
  3. Don’t trade queens unless you have calculated out the long term consequences. In the first game, playing …Qxd2 was costly for me, as I couldn’t find any counter play for the rest of the game. In contrast, the queen trade in the second game won me material. In short, don’t trade queens if it results in passive play for black.

Feel like I missed something? Feel free to comment and leave suggestions!