GM Miguel Najdorf

Full name
Miguel Najdorf
Life
Apr 15, 1910 - Jul 4, 1997 (age 87)‎
Place of birth
Grodzisk Mazowiecki, Kingdom of Poland, Russian Empire
Federation
Argentina

Bio

Miguel Najdorf was a Polish-born Argentinian grandmaster, one of the original 27 to receive the title from FIDE in 1950. Eight-time champion of Argentina, he is best known today for his variation of the Sicilian Defense with its key move 5...a6.

Early Life And Career

Najdorf learned chess at age 12 and early in his career played what probably remains his most memorable game: a four-piece sacrifice ending in a pawn checkmate that showcases his attacking prowess while still in his late teens.

Taught by GM Savielly Tartakower (also among the 1950 grandmasters), Najdorf was a fixture of Warsaw and Polish chess by 1930. After winning the 1934 Warsaw Championship, Najdorf shared second in his first Polish Chess Championship in 1935 (which was the third overall after events in 1926 and 1927). He began receiving invitations to international tournaments, including 1939 at Margate, where he drew former world champion Jose Capablanca in their only recorded match.

World War II

As a Pole of Jewish descent, Najdorf could not remain safe in his home country by 1939. Fortunately, he was not in Poland when Germany invaded but was participating in a tournament in the Argentinian capital of Buenos Aires. It was the 8th Chess Olympiad, in fact, which ran from August 21 to September 19. Individually, Najdorf had the best second-board performance of the event. (His former teacher Tartakower was on Poland’s first board.) 

In a twist of fate, Germany won the overall event while Najdorf’s Poland finished a half-point behind them in second. Like Najdorf, however, none of the German team members returned to Europe after the tournament.

A separate international tournament was played in Buenos Aires after the Olympiad. Najdorf shared first with GM Paul Keres, including a quick win against the Estonian in their individual matchup.

Najdorf would remain an Argentinian for the rest of his life, becoming a citizen in 1944. Tragically, while circumstances saved him from the Holocaust, most of his family perished—his first wife, his first child, both parents, and four brothers.

Post-War Career

Najdorf was arguably a top-five player in the world by the time the 1948 World Championship was played. In 1947, he had set a record with a 45-game blindfold simultaneous exhibition, of which he won 39 contests against two losses. Also of note, the eventual champion GM Mikhail Botvinnik had lost his only game against Najdorf to that point at Groningen in 1946.

However, the 1938 AVRO tournament played a large role in the selection of championship participants, and Najdorf was not quite top-level enough to play in that event. In 1948, then, he was on the outside looking in as Botvinnik claimed the title. It was impossible, however, to deny his overall strength, which was recognized when he was titled a grandmaster in the initial class of 1950.

Miguel Najdorf, 1950
Najdorf (seated left) in December 1950. Photo: Wikipedia (CC0 1.0), ©Dutch National Archive.

Najdorf would get several opportunities in the 1950s. He competed in two Interzonals and two Candidates tournaments in his postwar career. In the first of these tournaments, the 1948 Interzonal, Najdorf finished tied for sixth to earn his spot in the 1950 Candidates. He finished fifth there, which was good for receiving an automatic bid into the 1953 Candidates. Unfortunately, he finished seventh in that tournament, and a 12th-place finish at the 1955 Interzonal was the last time he made it that far in the championship process.

Miguel Najdorf, 1978
Najdorf in January 1978. Photo: Wikipedia (CC0 1.0), ©Dutch National Archive.

Although his championship chances effectively ended in 1955, Najdorf remained a strong player well beyond that. Tournament victories after he turned 50 years old include Mar del Plata in 1961, Havana 1962, and the 1976 South African Open. In 1979, he shared second place with an undefeated +3 -0 =10 score at the Clarin-sponsored Buenos Aires tournament, tied with former world champion GM Boris Spassky, GM Anthony Miles, and GM Ulf Andersson, and ahead of former champion GM Tigran Petrosian.

Najdorf also became a commentator for several top-level chess events and wrote a column for the Argentinian newspaper Clarin.

Sicilian Defense

The Najdorf Variation of the Sicilian Defense (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6) has been played over 80,000 times in the Chess.com Master Games database. That amount represents roughly one out of seven Sicilians, and even one out of 15 of all games beginning with 1.e4.

The position Najdorf himself reached 71 times with Black, scoring +35 -19 =17 with it. GM Samuel Reshevsky had the nerve to play the Najdorf against Najdorf, but Reshevsky lost two of three such games, proving that Najdorf was adept at both sides of the variation.

Najdorf was not the originator of 5...a6. It was played for the first time no later than 1926, but given his success, it is very reasonable that he should be its namesake. 

Legacy

Najdorf passed in 1987. In an obituary, The New York Times made note of Najdorf’s “imaginative attacking games” as well as his “big voice,” and even his written correspondence with the Pope.

Along with Tartakower, Reshevsky, and GM Akiba Rubinstein, Najdorf is one of the best Polish-born players ever, and he was one of the best players in the world in the 10 years after World War II.

Perhaps most notably, of course, you cannot study opening theory without encountering Najdorf’s name. For this reason, as long as chess survives, so will the name Najdorf. But the player, not just the series of opening moves that bear his name, should always be remembered, too.

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