Todo menos incocente

26/03/2020 – La Najdorf sigue siendo popular y los ajedrecístas han probado muchos movimientos con las blancas para refutarla. El ChessBase Magazine actual, el CBM #194 (marzo/abril), incluye dos nuevas ideas para el repertorio contra la Najdorf. Ambos son muy peligroso para las negras. El maestro internacional Alexander Seyb enseña por qué el movimiento 6.a3, un movimiento aparentemente inocente con el peón es todo menos inocente. ¡Échenle un vistazo a la siguiente muestra!

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An interesting waiting move

Alexander Seyb casts some light on 6.a3!? against the Najdorf

The Najdorf Variation has been for many years the most popular system in the Sicilian Defence both at professional and amateur level. Players with White find themselves faced with the choice: if they play one of the main variations they find themsekves up against a well-prepared opponent and have to accept a theoretical duel. But on the other hand the side variations are usually not suited to putting pressure on Black right from the start.

Since it has been demonstrated that in the main lines Black can hold his own, in the last decade players with White have been more and more turning to developing new and at first glance unconventional plans. One of these was first of all the move 6.h3, which can now rightly be called the main variation. It is no longer possible these days to count on the effect of surprise with this move.

Consequently it has been realised that on move six White can play just about "anything", from 6.a4 via 6.h4 to 6.Qd3 or 6.Nb3, Mateusz Bartel's move. Another attempt is represented by 6.a3, the value of which is what I will be trying to evaluate in this article as far as possible from the point of view of both players. So then: 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6 6.a3!?.

 

The move 6.a3 attracted some attention when world champion Magnus Carlsen used it at the Wijk-aan-Zee tournament in 2017 against Najdorf expert Radoslaw Wojtaszek and won his game, whilst on the previous day Karjakin had also used the line (against Giri and had drawn). But since then the setup had not really got beyond the status of a surprise weapon. I am, however, of the opinion that even as such a surprise weapon it can be of good service to players with White; so Najdorf players should not under-estimate the move 6.a3.

On move six Black has as a general rule five different options available to him, which will be examined as to their efficacity in what follows. In order to understand the ideas behind 6.a3 we shall in each case provide a comparison with other Najdorf or Sicilian lines.

A) The Scheveningen setup 6…e6

 

This move transposes to a complex of positions which are frequently described as the Classical Sicilian. Against 6.Be2, 6.Be3 or 6.h3 the move 6…e6 represents a solid reply. But against 6.a3 (and also against 6.h4) the Scheveningen setup cannot be recommended. White then has the opportunity to transpose to the Keres Attack with 7.g4. The Keres Attack with 6.g4 is the reason nowadays why the Classical Sicilian (5…e6 instead of 5…a6) is now considered to have a bad reputation. The insertion of the moves a2-a3 and ...a7-a6 leads to the game transposing to a line of the Keres Attack which (nowadays) is evaluated as clearly favourable for White: 7.g4 b5 8.g5 Nfd7 9.h4 Be7/Bb7 10.Be3 and White is ready to attack on the kingside.

 

Here the move 6.a3 fits perfectly into White's plan, and is in any case played in the "classical" Keres Attacj against Black's ...b7-b5 in order to stabilise the Nc3.

That this line must be to White's advantage can be seen above all when it is compared to 6.h3. Here 6…e6 7.g4 Be7 8.g5 Nfd7 9.h4 b5 represents a popular line. White now plays 10.a3. Compared to the 6.a3 line, White has lost a tempo here with h2-h3 and later h3-h4. But nevertheless the whole variation is considered dangerous for Black (see the game Bacrot-Navara from the analysis in the article).

The move 6…e6, though at first sight natural, can therefore already be described as a major inaccuracy.

B) Side variations

The side variations for Black 6…b5 and 6…Qc7 are dealt with in the game Saric-Artemiev. Here White should get the more pleasant game.

 

6…b5 is followed by 7.Nd5!, and after 6…Qc7 transposing to the English Attack with 7.Be3 is a good choice, in order to question the reasoning behind ...Qd8-c7.

C) The Dragon setup 6…g6

 

Only a few Najdorf players are prepared to switch to the Dragon setup since the resulting positions are clearly different from those of the typical Najdorf. yet above all against 6.a4 the transposition to the Dragon represents a logical choice for Black: In this case White can no longer castle queenside and inititate the kingside attack which is well known to be so dangerous. At first glance you might well assume that against 6.a3 too the Dragon is a logical choice since Black henceforth has at his disposal a clear spot to attack on the queenside. Once again White has to demonstrate that 6.a3 does not constitute a loss of tempo.

After 7.f3 (the move order with 7.Be3 is less precise since Black has available to him the additional option 7…Ng4) 7…Bg7 8.Be3 Nc6 9.Qd2 0-0 White should turn to 10.0-0-0.

C1) If Black now continues 10…d5 similar to Dragon theory (the move 9…d5 leads ultimately by transposition to the same variation), we see the advantage of 6.a3 compared to 6…a6: 11.exd5 Nxd5 12.Nxc6 bxc6 13.Bd4.

 

The insertion of a2-a3 and ...a7-a6 here clearly favours White. In the Dragon the a2-pawn is frequently a target for attack, which is is ultimately reliably over-protectecd; at the same time Black has weakened his dark squares above all b6.

C2) Another (Dragon-type) attempt for Black would be 10…Nxd4 11.Bxd4 Be6.

 

In one of my own games I now unthinkingly played 12.g4, and after 12…Qa5 13.Kb1 Rfc8 Black was in the game. Instead of it 12.Kb1! is clearly better: Black can now no longer play 12…Qa5 on account of 13.Nd5 and after 12…b5 13.h4 White's attack is clearly more effective (for this line see the game Ganguly-Debashis).

The Dragon Variation should not be able to solve Black's problems.

D) The Rauser setup 6…Nc6

 

Against variations such as 6.Bg5, 6.Be3 or 6.h3 the transposition to the Rauser is considered somewhat slow. Compared to 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 Nc6 the move ...a7-a6 often proves to be a loss of tempo and White has available to him options for avoiding the trasposition to normal Rauser lines.

Against 6.a3, on the other hand, the Rauser setup looks at first sight like a logical choice: Black eschews continuations involving ...b7-b5 in order to deprive the move a2-a3 of its prophylactic justification for preventing b5-b4. White has to ponder whether a2-a3 at such an early stage of the game was a good idea.

D1) Playing classically with 7.Bc4 has been almost exlusively the choice in the few gaes played so far. White transfers his bishop to a2 and would like to argue that Black will in any case play ...b7-b5 sooner or later, after which a2-a3 will not have been useless. I am not convinced by White's play here. Without long castling White is unable to put the solid black position under pressure. Black did not have any problems out of the opening in any of the games, see Harikrishna-Oparin.

D2) One interesting idea is the pawn sacrifice 7.Nxc6 bxc6 8.e5!?.

 

In the classic Rauser after 5…Nc6 6.NSxc6 bxc6 7.e5 White does not get enough compensation. The insertion of a2-a3 and ...a7-a6, however, favours White here since the dark squares on the queenside, especially once again the b6-square, are lastingly weakened. Play develops with 7…dxe5 8.Qxd8+ Kxd8 9.f4,

 

and after both 9…exf4 10.Bxf4 and 9…e4 10.Be3 White continues with 0-0-0 and in conjunction with the idea of Nc3-a4 he has interesting compensation, see my analysis in the article.

The Rauser line ought to be a sensible option for Black to meet 6.a3. If Black would like to prevent the interesting pawn sacrifice after 7.Nxc6, he could play first 6…Bd7 and only after that ...Nb8-c6. The disadvantage to that, however, might lie in the fact that this bishop can now no longer be developed to b7.

E) The Najdorf setup 6…e5

 

The move 6…e5 is the standard move and the main idea of the Najdorf Sicilian. White is now faced with the choice between E1) 7.Nf3 to channel the play into positional waters or trying the interesting E2) 7.Nf5.

E1) 7.Nf3

 

Once again it is worth, by way of comparison, casting a glance over other Najdorf lines for White. After 6.Be3 e5 or 6.Be2 the move 7.Nf3 represents a popular plan for White nowadays. White would like to exploit the weakness of the d5-square. His plan regularly includes the following moves: Bc1/Be3-g5, Nf3-d2, Bf1/Be2-c4, 0-0, Qd1-e2 and where appropriate a2-a4. Getting in all these moves would be White's dream scenario. But here it becomes clear that White in each case has lost a tempo, either by Bc1-e3-g5 or Bf1-e2-c4. After 6.a3 e5 7.Nf3, on the other hand, White appears at first to have gained the extra move a2-a3.

This additional move, however, does not appear to me to offer any advantage, on the contrary: if Black meets White's Bc4 with ...Bc8-e6 and idea of White's is to play Bc4-b3 and after an exchange on b3 to recapture with cxb3. This underlines the weakening of the light squares, especially d5. On the other hand, if White has already played a2-a3, then there is the threat that after the recapture cxb3 his queenside will be put under pressure by means of ...b5-b4 or ...Nc6-a5.

All in all 7.Nf3 should of course represent a playable alternative for White. But Black has available to him several good replies: The brisk 7…b5, to prevent Bf1-c4 immediately (see Harikrishna-Giri) and also 7…h6 (see the game Short -Paravyan) both constitute sensible plans. After 7…Be7 8.Bg5, on the other hand, White appears to retain some pressure.

If White would like to choose the positional setup with 7.Nf3, in my opinion it would have been better to have played 6.a4 or 6.h3 . After 6…e5 7.Nf3 these moves seem to me to be more useful than 6.a3 (but all that is of course another story).

E2) 7.Nf5

 

This move indirectly justifies 6.a3: 6…Nxe4? would now be a mistake on account of 7.Nxg7+ Bxg7 8.Nxe4 d5 9.Bg5, since Black cannot play 9…Qa5+ on account of 10.b4!

The continuation 7…d5 8.Bg5 d4 9.Bxf6 is forced and Black is here faced with the decision as to how he should recapture on f6.

E2a) 9…gxf6

 

Black weakens his pawn structure long term. White must nevertheless move his Nc3 which is under attack and does not immediately manage to maintain the blockade on the light squares, since 10.Ne2 (intending ...Ne2-g3) leads to problems after 10…Qb6.

E2a1) 10.Na2 introduces a lttle played variation, which could be analysed further. 

E2a2) 10.Nb1 is the main move. After 10…Bxf5 11.exf5 Qd5 White plays 12.Qd3, in order to keep up the blockade on the light squares (12…e4? fails to 13.Nc3!).

 

Black must now make sure that he can exchange his bad Bf8 for the white Nb1, before the latter is transferred via d2 to e4. So the main move is 12…Qa5+ and after 13.Nd2 Bb4 Black swaps off the knight. The resulting endgame, despite White's good looking light-squared bishop, should be level. The type of endgame which emerges has not been studied much and should offer sufficient chances to both sides to turn the game in their favour, see Demchenko-Areshchenko.

E2b) 9…Qxf6 was played in the game already mentioned at the start, Carlsen-Wojtaszek. Black keeps his pawn structure intact. In return White now gets the opportunity to place his c3-knight on its ideal square with 10.Nd5 (after 9…gxf6 this was not possible on account of ...Bc8xf5), after which Black can make up his mind between two queen moves.

E2b1) 10…Qd8 was the choice of Wojtaszek, but after11.Qg4 Black fins himself exposed to some tactical threats

 

11…g6 leads after 12.Qg3 Nc6 13.Nxd4 to interesting and unclear play. 11…Bxf5 12.Qxf5 Bd6 at first looks very solid for Black. But the weakness of the light squares should not be under-estimated: whereas White can make good use of his Bf1 for an attack on the black king, this is hard to achieve with the corresponding Bd6. In what follows White should take care to avoid an exchange of queens in order to continually keep threatening the black king with attacks. The game Carlsen-Wojtaszek offers excellent material for seeing the sort of long-term problems which White can pose.

E2b2) 10…Qc6 is the latest word in theory.

 

The idea of 11.Qg4 g6 12.Qg3 Nd7 13.Nxd4 leads here to an advantage for Black. So White turns to 11.c4, in order to maintain the good position of his Nd5, after which Black has the choice:

After 11…g6 12.Nxd4 White obtains interesting compensation, but no more than that.

The most solid is the move 11…Nd7. Later the knight on f5 is driven back to g3 by means of ...g6. White's play is based on a combination of the outpost knight on d5 and the lever f2-f4. In this type of position which has not been explored much both sides should have interesting options.

Things become more concrete with 11…Be6. After 12.f4 g6 13.Nf6+ Kd8 14.Nxd4 exd4 15.Qxd4 Qd6

 

the best for White is probably to repeat moves with 16.Qc3 Qc6 17.Qd4+ . The whole E2b2 complex of variations can be compared with the game Praggnanandhaa-Yilmaz.

Conclusion: 6.a3 represents an interesting option for White. Play has frequently not been explored to any great extent; so theoretical duels should be rare. In the form of the Rauser setup 6…Nc6/Bd7 or the Najdorf setup 6…e5 Black has available to him two variations which each lead to a level struggle. But in any case both sides should keep their eye open for the move 6.a3 as a surprise weapon.

You'll find the complete article with all games and analyses in the new ChessBase Magazine #194!

ChessBase Magazine 194

Tata Steel 2020 with analyses by Giri, Firouzja, So, Duda, Navara, Van Foreest and many more. Videos by Daniel King, Mihail Marin and Simon Williams. 11 opening articles with new repertoire ideas and training sessions in strategy, tactics and endgame!

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