Obituary: Miguel Najdorf

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The Independent Online
Anyone passing through the Press Room of a world chess championship match in the 1970s or 1980s would have noticed that one table always attracted the strongest grandmaster visitors and produced the most animated discussions. And when an aged and podgy hand banged a piece down, accompanied by a gravelly cry of "Chess, easy game", and a raucous laugh, everyone knew that the focus of all the attention was Miguel Najdorf, one of the most successful and respected figures of post-war international chess.

Born Mieczyslaw Najdorf (pronounced to rhyme with high-dwarf) in Poland in 1910, he made his international debut in Warsaw at the Chess Olympiad of 1935, scoring nine wins, six draws and only two losses. The following year, he shared first place as a guest player in the Hungarian championship.

At the time of the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, he was playing in the Chess Olympics in Buenos Aires and, in common with many other European players, decided to sit out the war in South America.

In 1944, he took up Argentine naturalisation and changed his first name to Miguel. He went on to win the Argentine championship seven times, stretching from 1949 to 1975, and played for Argentina in 11 Olympiads from 1950 to 1976. Twice, in 1950 and 1952, he won the prize for the highest individual score on top board.

When international chess resumed after the war with a major tournament in Groningen, in the Netherlands, Najdorf finished in fourth place behind Botvinnik, Euwe and Smyslov. That performance, together with his pre-war results ought to have earned him a place among the contestants for the 1948 world championship series, but a proposal to include him fell foul of the intensely political manoeuvring going on between the International Chess Federation and the Russians.

In subsequent Candidates tournaments for the world championship, Najdorf finished fifth in 1950 and sixth in 1953. During this period he was one of the very few players from outside Russia who could have been a credible world title contender. His name, however, is now remembered less for his results in world championship qualifiers than for his championing the "Najdorf Variation" of the Sicilian Defence - which remains one of the most popular openings among the world's top players.

Najdorf's early successes in Poland and the length of his career in Argentina - he was still regularly playing successfully in tournaments in his late seventies - were both symptoms of a huge natural talent for chess. While other top players worked hard, both in their preparations and at the board, Najdorf seemed to sense without effort where his pieces belonged.

For him chess was indeed an easy game. His other great catch phrase, which echoed frequently around the world's tournament venues, was an admonitory "Play with your hands, not with your head!" usually uttered in criticism of a poor move played as a result of excessive thinking.

Towards the end of last year, the Dutch town of Groningen invited all seven surviving players from their 1946 tournament back for a 50th anniversary celebration. When asked how they would like to spend their time, the old men were unanimous: "Why, playing chess, of course". And we can be sure that Najdorf's vote was the most voluble. In nearly 70 years of tournament play, his love of the game had never diminished.

Mieczyslaw (Miguel) Najdorf, chess player: born Warsaw, Poland 15 April 1910; twice married (one daughter, and one daughter deceased); died Marbella, Spain 4 July 1997.