Upcoming book by John and Joshua Doknjas

The past two years have been unprecedented in Canadian chess publishing history, with five chess book written by Canadians being published:

  • IM David Cummings, The English (Everyman, 2016)
  • IM Raja Panjwani, The Hyper Accelerated Dragon (Thinker's Press, 2017)
  • George Huczek, A to Z Chess Tactics (Batsford, 2017)
  • IM Jean Hébert, The Sicilian: Thematic Sacrifices and Attacks (Le pion passé, 2017)
  • IM Michael Song and GM Razvan Preotu, The Chess Attacker's Handbook (Gambit, 2017)

Everyman Chess has announced an upcoming publication which will be the sixth chess book in two years written by Canadians:  

brothers Joshua Doknjas and FM John Doknjas: Opening Repertoire: The Najdorf, 320 pages; publication dates: Europe: Nov. 2018, North America: Jan. 2019


A Najdorf book by who?

A skeptical first thought might be: how can a young FM, and an even younger NM, possibly write a good book on the Najdorf? 

That's actually two questions:

  1. How could an FM and NM write a good Najdorf repertoire book? 
  2. How could anyone write a good Najdorf repertoire book? 

Let's look at that second question first.

The Massively Theoretical Najdorf

The Najdorf is the most tactically and strategically complex opening in chess, with decades of history and thousands of top-level games.

The Najdorf Sicilian begins with the following  opening moves:

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

After which White has a wide choice of reasonable continuations: 

6. Bg5, Be2, Be3, Bc4, f3, f4, h3, g3, a4, Rg1, even a2-a3, and others. 

That's a lot of options for White which Black has to be ready for, and none of those moves are safely ignored as silly sidelines: Magnus Carlsen has played six of those 11, and Kasparov, Anand, and Fischer have played the others. The first four of those options have more than 20,000 games in the ChessBase Megabase -- each. Even restricting ourselves to games played between 2600+ players in the past 10 years -- so no Kasparov, no Fischer, no Tal -- and there are still a daunting 1900+ games. 

That volume of games has not daunted everyone. Here is a list of recent Najdorf books from the Black side:

  • Winning with the Najdorf Sicilian, (New in Chess, 2013) by GM Zaven Andriasyan
  • The Sharpest Sicilian, (Chess Stars, 2012) by GMs Kiril Georgiev and Atanas Kolev
  • Play the Najdorf Sicilian, (Gambit, 2010) by IM James Rizzitano
  • Starting Out: Sicilian Najdorf, (Everyman, 2007), IM Richard Palliser 
  • Mastering the Najdorf (Gambit, 2004), by a Spanish GM and IM.

Three things are worth noticing about this list:

  • only 4 books in 10 years on the Najdorf is surprisingly few for an opening which is popular at all levels;
  • there hasn't been an Everyman book on the Najdorf for over 10 years;
  • there are no Quality Chess books in this list.

That last point is particularly interesting, and suggests a challenge with writing a repertoire book for the Black side of the Najdorf. Quality Chess is the current gold-standard for high-level and detailed repertoire books. You can find anti-Najdorf repertoires in the Quality Chess books by GM Parimarjan Negi (Grandmaster Repertoire - 1.e4 vs The Sicilian I) and by GM John Shaw (Playing 1.e4: Sicilian Main Lines). The Negi book is 306 dense pages and deals only with 6.Bg5 lines. 

But Quality Chess has not yet attempted a Najdorf repertoire book from the Black side. They announced "Playing the Najdorf" -- a title which QC uses for books where complete games outline a repertoire, but with less encyclopedic coverage than their GM Repertoire series -- for release in "late 2017 or 2018", but have not added it to their list of "Coming Soon" titles, or even said who the author will be!? The only Quality Chess book on the Najdorf is "The Cutting Edge: Sicilian Najdorf 6.Be3" by GM Milos Pavlovic (2011), which was to be followed by a volume on the 6.Bg5 Najdorf, but which has yet to be advertised. 

It might be that QC has just made some unlucky choices about prospective authors; or it may be that they have chosen well, but each time their authors have broken down in the face of the overwhelming amount of material to cover for a detailed analysis of the Najdorf -- few are as fanatically dedicated as GM Kotronias, whose five-volume, 3,000 page repertoire series on the King's Indian currently stands as the benchmark for any "complete" repertoire book(s). Or maybe, unless you have a wonderfully obsessive analyst like Kotronias, an extremely detailed repertoire book on the Najdorf is not possible. If so, then a less detailed repertoire book is the only way to go, and there's no reason such a book can't be written. 

Can an FM and an NM write a good Najdorf repertoire book? 

I think it is generally assumed that players can only analyze or explain chess to those who are weaker than them. If that were true, then a book by an FM/NM combo would be suitable for experts on down. That might not sound like much -- nowhere near as impressive as having the factually accurate "GM Repertoire" in the title -- but it's still the vast majority of chess players, and it is probably very close to 100% of the chess opening book-buying world, since titled players now use almost only databases to prep their openings. 

But is that assumption true? 50 years ago it probably was. Back then, the only way to get to get a reliable evaluation of a position or to see well-chosen examples from chess's long history was to consult a very strong player. But today, databases put the history of the game at anyone's fingertips, engines provide reliable (if wordless) evaluations, and the ever-growing library of annotated games (both books and databases) means that anyone who wants to can find what world-class players have said about those games. It takes time, dedication, some computer skill, and good editors, but it can certainly be done.

Would it be as good as a repertoire book by a world-class player? In fact, a lot of it would be identical -- based on precedents and computer analysis -- but the thoroughness, imagination, and quality of some of the moves would probably be higher if produced by a 2700 GM and his seconds. Would that make it a better book?

Imagine MVL, the world's leading expert on the Najdorf, decided to publish all of his analysis on the Najdorf. Would that be a good book on the Najdorf? For titled players with the Najdorf on either side of their repertoire it would be gold: look at the variations you're struggling with and see what Maxime would do! Personally, I would be fascinated to look it over, if only to get a sense of how much a super-GM has studied his main lines; but I'm sure I couldn't retain more than 5% of his analysis, and so it wouldn't be a good book for me.

In a sense, MVL -- and all the top GMs -- already do share their home analysis: we see it in their games and (to varying degrees) in their post-mortems and analyses. If you want to know what MVL or Giri or Kramnik think about an opening, just analyze their games. Their games don't show us everything they know, or even a fraction of what is in their home prep files, but it does show what they think is good -- or good enough -- and does so at a less-than-overwhelming bitrate. 

Quantity and Quality

And this brings us to the flip-side of that "daunting" tens of thousands of games played in the Najdorf. Is it possible that this is actually an advantage to the non-GM author? 

Imagine that you are considering buying (or writing!?) a book on a real odd-ball opening -- maybe ...c6 + ...d6 vs everything. There are so few high-level games that start this way that most of the variations would be new and untested, and many of the middlegame positions would require strategic judgments that would have to come mostly from the author since in most lines it would be impossible to use our great predecessors as models. In such a case, the skill set of the author would have to be much higher than in a well-worn opening.

And the Najdorf is now a very well-worn opening. It is no longer unexplored territory: as the list of titles above shows, this won't be the first book on the Najdorf; and those thousands of games show what the world's best players thought and think about those positions. And computer engines can, thankfully, correct some of their errors.

To return to the two skeptical questions:

Q: Is there anyone who can write a good repertoire book on the Najdorf?
A: Depends what you want in a repertoire book. Nobody has found someone who can write a hyper-detailed GM Repertoire book in the Quality Chess mould…  but a less exhaustively detailed repertoire? – sure – just don’t expect it to answer all your questions or deal with all your opponent’s moves.

Q: Can an FM and NM write a good Najdorf repertoire book?
A: Yes. And if they skillfully use the books, databases and computer engines currently available, they have a better shot at writing a good Najdorf book than for some rarer openings.

That raises one follow-up question:

Q: Didl they?
A: We'll see...

... but, for now, here's a hintJoshua Doknjas annotates his win over Alina L'Ami -- in a Najdorf -- from the 2017 Reykjavik Open.

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