A Creative Way to Check on a Mate

Mastering the game of chess is something few of us will ever do, but as games go, there aren’t a lot of surprises. The board is always the same, as are the pieces. The rules that restrict the movements of the pieces are, again, always the same. There are no dice to roll, cards to draw, coins to flip, or any sort of random number generator. Players can even take over for other players mid-game — all the information you need to know, from the positions of the pieces on the board to what pieces have already been captured, is there for you to view.

So to make it a little more challenging, some top chess players add a wrinkle. First, they play multiple opponents at the same time, making it harder to take into consideration each individual opponent’s approach. And second, they blindfold themselves. This makes it so the world-class player has to rely on his memory of the piece positions on each board; they can’t simply evaluate each match anew over and over again.

And, in one case, it also helped a man tell his friends and family that he’s alive and well — but on the other side of the world.

Playing blindfolded chess against multiple players isn’t something you see every day, pardon the pun. There are records of people attempting it as far back as the 13th century, but at the time, it was seen mostly as a parlor trick — few people believed that the player was truly blindfolded or that he was playing unaided. But that changed in 1937. On September 20th of that year, a master named George Koltanowski faced off against 34 different opponents over the course of 13 hours, blindfolded the whole time. (He probably took a few breaks in another room or something, but you get the idea.) Incredibly, he won 20 of the matches, and his feat made news throughout Europe. The Guinness Book of Records certified his feat, and Koltanowski became a famous name in chess circles. 

Koltanowski’s achievement and subsequent fame weren’t lost on Miguel Najdorf. In 1939, Najdorf, a Polish Jew, qualified for a chess tournament in Argentina. As previously recounted in this newsletter, the timing of the Argentine tournament was both fortunate and tragic — while the team was in Argentina, Nazi Germany invaded Poland, precluding Najdorf and others from returning home. Najdorf made himself a new home in Argentina, where he was safe from Nazi persecution, but was separated from his family and friends. 

Najdort wanted to fix that and reconnect with his family members. But he had no idea where they’d be (or if they were even alive), and similarly, they’d have no way of knowing where he was. So, he decided to grab his 15 minutes of fame. In 1943 — a couple of years before Germany would ultimately surrender — Najdorf attempted to break Koltanowski’s record. As Chess.com recounts, Najdorf took on 40 opponents simultaneously, all while he was blindfolded, and did quite well — he beat 36 of them while only losing one match (and playing the other three to a tie). But, per the New York Times, the real goal wasn’t to break Koltanowski’s record; Najdorf wanted to get press coverage for his feat: “In 1972, he recalled in an interview: ‘I did this not as a stunt. I hoped that this exhibition would be reported throughout Germany, Poland, and Russia and that some of my family might read about it and get in touch with me.'”

Sadly, it was all for naught. While news of Najdort’s stunt did reach Eastern Europe, none of his family reached out to him. Most likely, as the Times of Israel reports, most if not all of his relatives back home died at the hands of the Nazis. To add insult to injury,¬†Guinness wasn’t able to verify Najdort’s accomplishment, so he never officially became the world record holder in blindfolded chess.

Bonus fact: Najdort aside, Koltanowski’s record lasted through the end of the 20th century. It was topped briefly in 2010 by a German player named Marc Lang but has fallen since. The current world record holder is Timur Gareyev, who played 48 total games over 19 hours in December of 2018. Gareyev went 36-5-7, per Guinness, which is quite the workout for one’s brain. And for good measure, per Chess.com (which has a picture if you want to see it) he also worked out his legs during the process: he rode an exercise bike throughout the 19-hour ordeal.

From the Archives: Held in Check: More about the Argentinian chess tournament that sheltered Jews from the Nazis.