#15: How dreaming of an alien planet made me realise I should play the Najdorf

ChessOpeningOff topic
My Najdorf origin story

The Beginning of the World – 1.e4
From your first breath on this planet, you could sense a thriving ecosystem centred on harmony and collective wellbeing. Grassland, forests and hills as far as the eye could see, with lakes and rivers of variegated blues dotted here and there. Incredibly fresh air.

Hard-Boiled Wonderland – 1...c5
In 2003–04, my then coach Peter Jovanovic recommended I play the Sicilian Kan against 1.e4. He gave me ChessBase printouts of many model games, and the variation soon became a part of my chess identity. No need to memorise sharp lines; harmonious development; dynamic middlegame potential. I played it as my main opening as Black against 1.e4 for over 10 years, from when I was rated 1700 and still as an IM. I played thousands of games with it online, especially on ICC.

The Beginning of the World – 2.Nf3
One of my two companions on this voyage was from another planet. This companion (let’s call them Migi) was quite small, around half a metre tall, with a whitish body. A vaguely humanoid slug, but without the sliminess, their skin was more like a smooth marble; a highly intelligent species. Their most striking feature was their two eyes protruding from their body as on a snail, but very human-like. Large and round, pure and piercing. Their body had its mouth around the middle, again human-like, but with no obvious limbs. Migi didn’t know which planet their species originated from, but they didn’t seem to mind. The universe was vast, and it was normal that some were born too far away from their origins to ever find out where their ancestors hailed from.

Hard-Boiled Wonderland – 2...d6
As I faced more strong opponents in opens and GM round robins, I struggled with the Kan. I’d be worse already in the early middlegame, needing to resort to muddying the waters, or I’d be ground down with no chances for counterplay. After playing it for so long, I wasn’t enjoying it as much and needed a change. But the idea of learning another opening, especially a main line, seemed daunting because from childhood, I somehow developed this notion that ‘learning openings’ = mechanically memorising variations, and I’d get sleepy looking at any variations (apologies to my past coaches).
From 2017, I started dabbling with other Sicilians and 1...e5. The Najdorf was the most attractive, but it seemed too sharp and theoretical. I played rare lines like 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 Bd7 and from 2019, 1...g6 purely to avoid theory because I didn’t understand how to work on main lines in a disciplined manner.

The Beginning of the World – 3.d4
From our vantage point, we could see various creatures were on the land, in the water and sky. There was no dominant species like homo sapiens on Earth. I wasn’t sure how they all sustained themselves, some sort of food chain existing seemed like the obvious answer, but somehow I got the feeling every species was at an equal standing here. There were no predators or prey. Perhaps they had some natural food source which was abundant and sustained the planet and all its inhabitants. A utopia?

Hard-Boiled Wonderland – 3...cxd4
In 2018, on a mountain in Biel, Switzerland, IM John-Paul Wallace and I discussed how the Najdorf was the best Sicilian, but it seemed like a lot of work to play it well. But if we knew it was the best, why not start immediately, even if it was difficult?
In 2020, I was studying IM David Vigorito’s Playing the Najdorf, a great book. However, I still couldn’t get over my fear of playing main lines, thinking opponents (not only strong ones) would just know it better than me, or I wouldn’t be able to navigate its rich landscape of various pawn structures and middlegame battlegrounds because I’d spent too long playing one system and I was scared of going out of my comfort zone.

The Beginning of the World – 4.Nxd4
There was an abnormally large centipede to our right, around 20 metres away, and Migi started chasing after it along a brownish path beside a river. Migi glided rather than ran, though I wasn’t sure how their body worked exactly to be able to move like that. I sensed they just wanted to chase the centipede for a bit of fun and exercise without wanting to actually harm it; like playing a game with the centipede.

Hard-Boiled Wonderland – 4...Nf6
As my addiction with openings began in July 2021, I perused countless Chessable courses and Modern Chess databases, and several books. For Black against 1.e4, I tried various first moves and several Sicilians. The Classical Sicilian was interesting. I learnt about approaches in the Kan I didn’t know of previously and it seemed enjoyable again. But as I understood openings and their connections to the middlegame better, I understood that the Najdorf was the critical option.
I sensed this keenly when I was going through Pavlovic’s book on the Sveshnikov recently. Sure, objectively, the Sveshnikov is also a good variation. But in many lines, the middlegame battlegrounds were too defined for my taste, and I realised I wanted more scope for unforeseen kinds of tension and uncertainty.
I realised I had to explore the Najdorf again. On May 2nd, 2023, I dug out Vigorito’s book from the bookshelf in my bedroom. This time, after 2 years of looking at openings, I could understand the variations and the author’s words much better.
Going to bed, though, I was still unsure. Maybe I’ll find another Sicilian just as good...

The Beginning of the World – 5.Nc3
As we slowly walked through the land, marvelling at the fertile landscape with its vibrant colours and serene atmosphere, my other companion and I could make out several figures standing on some hills, or cliffs, in the distance. Their shapes were familiar. Small, white, antennae with large eyes, something of a wise, composed air about them.
Migi seemed oblivious, or perhaps hadn’t seen any of them yet.
I gave a start and called out to Migi slightly ahead of me on my right.
“This could be your home planet!”

Hard-Boiled Wonderland – 5...a6
As I woke up from the dream on May 3rd, the impressions of the lush planet still permeated my senses. Trudging out of my bedroom, I wondered what the dream had been all about.
And I suddenly realised. I was myself in the dream, but I was also Migi.
I was going to play the Najdorf as my main opening as Black against 1.e4.

Time weighs down on you like an old, ambiguous dream. You keep on moving, trying to slip through it. But even if you go to the ends of the earth, you won’t be able to escape it. Still, you have to go there – to the edge of the world. There’s something you can’t do unless you get there.
Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore

If you want to receive posts like this in your inbox, you can subscribe to my newsletter at