The Sicilian Najdorf, John Doknjas & Joshua Doknjas, Everyman Press, ISBN 9781781944837, 352pg, $29.95, eBook $21.95
The Sicilian Najdorf is a chess opening with an awesome and terrifying reputation. To create a book that covers the theory-heavy favorite choice of aggressive and sharp players like Bobby Fischer and Garry Kasparov is no trivial task. As someone that does not regularly play the Sicilian, even approaching this book for a review seemed daunting. However, the Doknjas brothers were up to the task and delivered a very readable and useful book that does the Najdorf justice. Indeed, I have started playing the opening myself and have not only enjoyed decent results, but had many enjoyable positions.
The Doknjas brothers are a pair of strong players (an FM and NM from Canada) that boast a resume of chess teaching, although this appears to be their first book. Although they don’t feature their own games in the book, online databases show that they do employ the Najdorf with success.
The back cover provides an apt description of the book, a true testimonial to its quality:
“The Najdorf is a very rare thing – an opening for Black that is highly aggressive but is also recognized as being objectively sound. In this book, FIDE Master John Doknjas and NM Joshua Doknjas navigate through the main lines of the Najdorf and provide the reader with well-researched, fresh, and innovative analysis. Each annotated game contains instructive commentary on typical middle-game plans. With thorough variations and explanations on pawn structures and piece placement, this book provides insight to both strong masters and less experienced players alike.”
This book features forty-two complete games in the chosen lines all stemming from 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6.
[FEN “rnbqkb1r/1p2pppp/p2p1n2/8/3NP3/2N5/PPP2PPP/R1BQKB1R w KQkq – 0 6”]
Almost every game in the book is from this decade, with fifteen as recent as the past three years. The table of contents is followed by a note about the authors, a short but high-quality bibliography, and a foreword by GM Emil Sutovsky. The coverage of the lines is organized as follows:
- Introduction (5 pages, 1 game)
- The English Attack: 6.Be3 (51 pages, 7 games)
- Theoretical Paths: 6.Bg5 (46 pages, 7 games)
- The Sozin 6.Bc4 (48 pages, 5 games)
- The Classical: 6.Be2 (50 pages, 6 games)
- The Fianchetto: 6.g3 (30 pages, 4 games)
- Patient Prophylaxis: 6.a4 (19 pages, 2 games)
- Early Skirmish: 6.f4 (31 pages, 4 games)
- The Adams Attack: 6.h3 (20 pages, 3 games)
- Offbeat Trials: 6.Qf3, 6.Rg1, 6.h4, etc (37 pages, 3 games)
So how do the authors manage the complex theory of the Najdorf? The format of the book is fairly standard for the Everyman Chess Opening Repertoire Series: complete games are annotated, with frequent call-outs that highlight particular points or tactical motifs. The annotations are at times dense – I would have expected nothing less considering the opening. A quick comparison of the number of games and the number of pages in each chapter should give you an idea of the level of detail devoted to each game.
Despite the large number of variations considered for most moves, the annotations are peppered with lots of explanatory prose, which is written in a clear and to the point style. An excellent example of this is found in Game 16, A. Naumann – A. Areshchenko (European Club Cup, Halkidiki 2002 – one of the older games found in this book). Picking up the annotations after the moves 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6 6.Bc4 e6 7.Bb3 b5 8.Bg5 Be7 9.Qf3 Qb6 10.0-0-0 0-0 11.Rhe1
[FEN “rnb2rk1/4bppp/pq1ppn2/1p4B1/3NP3/1BN2Q2/PPP2PPP/2KRR3 b – – 0 11”]
Question: What is White trying to accomplish with this move?
Answer: He wants to reinforce his e-pawn and possibly plans a rook lift (Re3 and then Rg3 or Rh3 after the queen gets out of the way). 11.Rhe1 is also a useful waiting move.
White has some alternatives here:
- 11.g4 b4 12.Na4 Qc7 13.Rhe1 Nc6 gave Black an excellent game in C.Mokrys-M.Avotins, correspondence 2011. Notice how Black fights actively for the dark squares in the centre after White began playing on the flank with 11.g4
- 11.e5? reveals one of the points of Blacks 9…Qb6 move as, after 11…dxe5! White shouldn’t take the a8-rook with 12.Qxa8? due to 12…Bb7, when Black’s queen covers the a7-square, cutting off the white queen’s escape (12…exd4 is also winning for Black).
- 11.Qg3 reveals White’s hand too early. Since the white queen no longer x-rays the h1-a8 diagonal, Black can play 11…Bd7! And following 12.Rhe1 b4 (12…Nc6 is also possible, which will transpose to the 13…Bxc6 variation of the main game if White captures on c6; while after 13.Nd5 Nxd5 14.Nxc6 Bxg5+ 15.Qxg5 h6 16.Qd2 Bxc6 the game is level). 13. Na4 Bxa4 14.Bxa4 Qa5 15.Bh6 Nh5 16.Qb3 gxh6 17.Nxe6 Bg5+ 18.Nxg5 Qxg5+, Black is up a piece for a pawn. White has some compensation in the form of more active and coordinated pieces, but not enough to claim an edge viewed against Black’s material advantage.
[Another diagram is given, even though only one additional move has been played. – DC]
[FEN “rn3rk1/1b2bppp/pq1ppn2/1p4B1/3NP3/1BN2Q2/PPP2PPP/2KRR3 w – – 0 12”]
Question: What is the point of this move?
Answer: 11…Bb7 is not at all the most popular move, but we believe it is the best. Black’s idea is to play …Nc6 and take back with the bishop (not the queen) if White chooses to play Nxc6. One of the points of doing this is that if White eventually wins the d6-pawn with Rxd6, he will not do so with tempo. Also, by leaving the queen on b6, Black is able to play ….Qxf2 in some lines.
The above game continues over another seven pages to conclude in a draw at move 53. As you can see, the authors do not shy away from sharp positions, but make rational choices about their repertoire and explain them in very clear terms. This is also evident in their choice against 6.Bg5 – they opt for 6…Nbd7, avoiding the extremely sharp and theory heavy Poison Pawn system.
This book should appeal to a wide range of chess players and fans of the Sicilian. Understanding a rich mainline opening like the Najdorf can be important for general chess improvement, and can be a formidable weapon even at the elite level. It is no surprise that this opening has been the choice of many great chess players, and this book makes it accessible to club players – cursory reading of the variations and the main ideas is likely to be useful for players 1600-2000, and stronger players should benefit from careful reading of the variations and incorporation of these ideas into their repertoire. Thanks to this book, I’m likely going to be playing 1…c5 at my next tournament.
Review by Devin Camenares.