Review: The Sicilian Najdorf 6 Bg5

Review: The Sicilian Najdorf 6 Bg5

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If you were to ask a hundred grandmasters to name the most difficult chess variation about which to write an opening book, my guess is that the 6 Bg5 Najdorf would be the frontrunner. It is perhaps the most analysed line in chess history, the pièce de résistance of definitive opening theory, and the ‘variation of champions’.

The list of world champions who have contributed to the theory over the decades is impressive: Anand, Topalov, Smyslov, Bronstein, Spassky, Petrosian, Tal and Larsen have all argued both sides of this incredibly rich variation, while Keres was a chief proponent of White’s case and, most notably, Kasparov and Fischer employed the black side as a primary weapon.

Even reigning champion Magnus Carlsen has tried it out on occasion, and – perhaps an even stronger argument - it remains the most topical variation in modern correspondence chess.

After that rather verbose introduction, the question must be asked: why would anyone want to try and write a book on this?! Trying to encapsulate the theory of 6 Bg5, and even to add to it, is simply a mammoth task, and one in which the author notes in the introduction that he “surely underestimated the task that was ahead of me.” Nevertheless, if I was to think of someone crazy enough to undertake such a challenge, I couldn’t pick a better author than Kevin Goh Wei Ming.

The Singaporean IM (and it is a travesty that I can’t call him a GM yet, but that’s another story) possesses a number of attributes that make him an ideal candidate for such a daunting project: Kevin is incredibly hard-working, a thorough and objective researcher, and a renowned theoretician, having written several excellent articles for the chess opening website Chess Publishing. These traits come through in his excellent new book from the Everyman publishers: “The Sicilian Najdorf 6 Bg5”.

Before I launch into convincing you to buy this book, I should first lay out my own biases: first, Kevin is a friend of mine (which is why I feel qualified to comment on his humility and dedication). And secondly, Everyman will soon publish my own first attempt at a chess book. Nevertheless, I will endeavor to show the same objectivity in this review as Kevin has done in his book; despite being devoted to using the white pieces to dismantle the Najdorf, the author tackles the many complex subvariations with admirable neutrality.

The Najdorf has perhaps earned the definition of a principled opening defence, and as such no book about it should be portrayed as claiming a refutation, or even an advantage, for White. Nevertheless, this book is jam-packed full of new ideas and excellent practical alternatives, offering multiple choices for both White and Black in each of the major lines.

The key conclusion drawn, as it should be, is that Black’s position remains robust and sound in the main lines, and a perfect game by both parties should see the point split. But never fear; there’s a whole lot of fireworks to be enjoyed before that.

Kevin writes in the introduction that “this book is first and foremost a theoretical manual,” and this seems an apt description. The book presents the absolute state of theory on this variation, as is evidenced by the thorough, up-to-date source material. The bibliography is extensive and the analysis utilizes all of the best modern sources, such as Luther’s Najdorf chapter in Experts vs the Sicilian (2nd ed) (2006) and Georgiev and Kolev’s The Sharpest Sicilian (2012), as well as all of the major online opening periodicals.

One tool I was very happy to see applied to this book is top-level correspondence and engine-vs-engine database. One of my pet peeves about opening books is when authors fail to check relevant correspondence games for key lines — or, even worse, claim a move as a novelty even though it has been played before in (more often than not many) correspondence games. This amounts to lazy authorship, poor researching and, often, simply erroneous analysis.

Not so in this book: Kevin widely researches and cites correspondence and engine games, which is absolutely crucial in such a sharp and deeply analysed opening. The reader can be confident that she can exercise the book’s recommendations in over-the-board practice without falling victim to a hidden refutation, which is a luxury I can’t say about all that many opening books I’ve purchased over the years.

In fact, quite to the contrary, you can expect to pick up a few easy points on account of the impressive analysis in this book. One example of this was the Polugaevsky variation witnessed in the recent game Zhao,Jun (2603)-Ma,Qun (2609), played on 1 July 2014. This followed the game Gao,Rui (2435)–Ma,Qun (2427), played in 2011, for the first twenty-four moves, with both games ending in relatively comfortable draws for Black.

Had Jun Zhao read Kevin’s book, however, he’d have seen on page 130 that White has the strong improvement 27 Bf1! Kh7 28 Rg3!, when Kevin’s analysis continues 28… f6 29 Qe4+ Kh8 30 Rf2! “with a continuing attack.” Actually, with the line being so forcing, we can even extend it a little further (as I’ve done in the notes to the game below) to discover that we reach an endgame that is hopelessly lost for Black. Given this, and Kevin’s analysis of Black’s earlier alternatives, it looks like the Polugaevsky with 15… Qxb2 may be one of the few main-line Najdorf variations that cannot promise Black full equality.

One line in which Kevin has made a particularly interesting contribution is the so-called Classical Variation, where Black adopts the most harmonious and natural developmental scheme, which somewhat characterizes the Najdorf. After 6 Bg5 e6 7 f4 Be7 8 Qf3 Nbd7 9 0-0-0 Qc7, which has been played literally thousands of times in tournament games, Kevin advocates, besides the popular main lines, the old and forgotten 10 Qg3!?.

Here Kevin breaks with tradition in choosing an old correspondence game from 1985 (!) as his illustrative game, but as always there are reams of deep analysis to sink your teeth into. In fact, the author flaunts convention a second time by leaving the notation of the main game in order to show that the oft-recommended main line 22…Qc5? Is simply busted. Overall, Kevin’s conclusion is that Black has no clear route to equality after 10 Qg3, and from my review of his analysis, I can’t find a reason to disagree.

For the attacking player, there really is no more suitable, more pleasurable variation than the 6 Bg5 Najdorf. It simply leads to some of the sharpest, most spectacularly tactical positions known to chess theory. Just take a look at the absolutely dazzling sacrifices White pulled out in Game 22 from the book:

I’m sure that by now you are sick of my singing the book’s praises and are eager to hear its faults. So let’s get straight to the criticisms.

The book claims to be a complete overview of 6 Bg5 for both colors, but I didn’t feel that this was the case. At several occasions, Kevin has left out some of White’s alternatives from his coverage – often, to be fair, because they are weaker or less topical than his preferred lines, which is hard to criticize.

On the other hand, Black’s weaker choices are invariably included, and so I would characterize this book as being closer to a White repertoire project than a neutral encyclopedic synopsis. This won’t bother many players from the white side, but if you are a dedicated student of the black side of the Najdorf and are considering buying this book, you will need to put in a little extra effort to cover all of White’s lesser alternatives. For example, after 6 …Nbd7, the rather insipid 7 a4 has recently become popular, as has recently been played by Morozevich, Vallejo Pons and Van Kampen.

Nevertheless, there was the odd occasion during the book where I wished that one of White’s minor (and, arguably, promising) alternatives was included in the analysis. Alright, I confess that there was only one such occasion, but it’s an important one. After the popular 7 …Nbd7, Kevin covers 7 f4, 7 Bc4 and 7 Qe2 – the three most promising moves for White – and concludes that Black is fine in all variations.

If such a conclusion is reached, I would have liked to have been presented with a smorgasbord of options for White that are designed to pose the maximum practical problems against a booked-up opponent. For the most part, Kevin has done this, but he may have missed a golden opportunity to analyse the very tricky sideline 7 Bc4 Qb6! (best) 8 0-0!?. 

I’m perhaps being a little unfair to Kevin here, seeing as more than half the key games in this line were played in the second half of this year, after he had sent the manuscript to the publishers. Nevertheless, this just goes to show how quickly the theory of the Najdorf moves. The game below details the key lines as I see them, in case you’re interested:

My other concern with the book is its chosen format. Kevin has gone for the popular ‘illustrative game’ genre, presenting forty recent games that are extremely heavy in deeply analysed variations and subvariations. The result is that you can easily read two or three pages without seeing a bold-faced move to indicate that you’re following the main game.

Using illustrative games to display the material is a good choice for openings in which strategic or positional themes are important, but my opinion would be that the Najdorf is so heavily theory-orientated that a labelled variations format (A1, A2, B1 etc.) would have been more appropriate, and perhaps a little more user-friendly. Certainly it would have made my life easier, but on the other hand, I’m a “read it in the train” sort of guy; I suspect most purchasers of this book will be going through its contents with either a board or a computer in front of them, in which case the format is less likely to be a problem.

Regardless of the layout, the depth and volume of the content is the same, and all of the key variations are included within the illustrative-game structure. I found myself referring to the variation index at the back of the book a lot more than I normally would for an openings book, and was pleasantly surprised to find it clear and surprisingly not at all convoluted.

The book is broken up into six chapters, which divide into Black’s main systems as well as White’s two chief alternatives against the Poisoned Pawn:

  1. The Trendy 6 …Nbd7
  2. The Good Old Polugaevsky, the MVLV [6 …e6 7 f4 Nc6] and 7 …Qc7
  3. The Classical Variation
  4. Poisoned Pawn Variation with 10 f5
  5. Poisoned Pawn Variation with 10 e5
  6. The Delayed Poisoned Pawn Variation

The formatting is amicable, with plenty of diagrams (me likey!). However, given the craziness of many of the variations, using a chessboard is probably obligatory for the serious student. The explanations are clear, the English is good and the evaluations are objective and refreshingly honest. There are a handful of innocuous typos scattered throughout the text, but this doesn’t detract from the analysis being very much the focal point of the work.

Kevin wrote this book with the intention of it serving as the definitive reference work for the 6 Bg5 Najdorf for 2015, and in this he has succeeded. It’s a must-have for any serious exponent of the variation with either color, and I predict it to be a popular book in the near future.

The real question for its longevity, however, will be to see how it measures up to Negi’s Najdorf work as part of his 1 e4 repertoire series, when he gets round to writing it. Following up on his excellent first book of the series, the talented Indian GM will also be proposing 6 Bg5, which will certainly make for an interesting comparison. For that, you and I will both have to wait.

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