September 23, 2009
Alexander Alekhine, considered by many the greatest chess master in the history of the game. Born in Moscow, Alekhine learnt his moves from his mother very early on in his childhood; at the age of 9 he was proficient enough to take up blindfold play, inspired by one of the Pillsbury’s impressive exhibitions in Moscow. Considerable postal play helped to develop his strength, and by the time of his first public appearance, at the age of sixteen, he was already a player of outstanding ability. At the time, he was able to conduct five blindfold games simultaneously.
Four stages are discernible in Alekhine’s career: the first period, from 1908 to 1920, in which he developed into a matured grandmaster; the second period, from 1921 to 1927, in which he improved his reputation considerably, consolidated his claim as challenger for the title, and finally defeated Raoul Capablanca; the third period, from 1928 to 1935, during which he was World Champion until his loss to Euwe; the final period, from 1936 to 1946, in which he regained his title, but showed definite indications of declining power.
On his initial appearances in the international arena, Alekhine immediately attracted attention because of his youth, his precocity and his obvious flair for sparkling combinations. Strongly under the influence of Mikhail Chigorin’s brilliant style, the games of this early period are weighted very heavily in favour of complicated middle-game play. Technical considerations were largely ignored, positional considerations were secondary, and King’s pawn opening are favored by Alekhine, almost exclusively.
Definite proof of Alekhine’s concrete progress appeared in his first prize at Stockholm in 1912 ahead of such experienced masters as Rudolf Spielmann and Marco. The next year he took another first prize at Scheveningen in an even stronger tournament. His play was definitely maturing and becoming more rounded. It was at this time that Alekhine made the acquaintance of Capablanca, who was already viewed as the logical contender for the title. Enjoying world fame for his great much victory over Frank Marshall and his first prize at San Sebastian, the Cuban at this time appeared a veritable Champion to an ambitious youngster like Alekhine.
In those days, the younger generation studied Capablanca’s games enthusiastically to catch ideas of the new technique. Alekhine learned a great deal from Capablanca’s games, which accounts to some point for the bitterness, which prevailed between them later years. At all events, Alekhine’s improved playing strength was sensationally demonstrated in the historic meeting at St Petersburg in 1914; it was in this great tournament that Lasker and Capablanca met for the first time. Everyone is familiar with the sensational course of the tourney, and how Emmanuel Lasker rose to the occasion to beat Capablanca at the very end for the first prize. Almost equally sensational, however, was the performance of Alekhine; finishing right behind Lasker and Capablanca he outpaced Siegbert Tarrasch and Marshall. From then on it was clear that Alekhine was one of that small select group of players who have really earned the title of Grandmaster.
Alekhine further improved his reputation by a fine showing in the Mannheim Tournament of 1914, which was broken off and never completed because of the outbreak of the war. Interned as an enemy, Alekhine escaped and made his way back to Russia. During the remainder of the war he served with the Red Cross. The resulting years of the Revolution and the Civil War in Russia must have been very bitter for Alekhine, but his chess kept on getting better. He played in the first USSR Championship in 1920, winning it easily; but shortly, thereafter, he left his native land – as it turned out, forever.
Despite the post-war aftermath of inflation and utter misery, chess tournaments were plentiful in Europe at that time, and Alekhine was able to score three “firsts” in rapid succession at Triberg, Budapest and The Hague. By this time he had switched to 1 d2-d4 as his favourite opening move, and while he was not very well known in this country, his name had already become a byword for brilliant, profound combinative play. He continued to roll up a remarkably fine record, and visited the US for the first time in 1924. However, his showing in the great 1924 tournament in New York was a disappointment to his admirers, for again Lasker won the first prize in sensational style, with Capablanca second and Alekhine only third.
This was a blow to Alekhine’s hopes, as well as to his prospects of a match for the title. He devoted his time to monumental annotations in the New York Tournament Book, and in his games in the important Baden-Baden tourney the effects were obvious: his play was again artistic and incisive. Alekhine always rated his games in this tournament very highly. The year 1926 was generally disappointing for him. In the great tournament at Semmering he was beaten by Rudolph Spielmann, who was in magnificent form. Alekhine’s nervous efforts to reach the top led to no less than three defeats – to Aron Nimzowitch, Karl Gilg and Milan Vidmar. A few weeks later, he missed another first prize at Dresden; this time Aron Nimzowitch came in ahead of him.
Meanwhile, Alekhine was busily engaged in finding backers to finance his match with Capablanca for the world title. He finally raised the necessary funds in the Argentina during his South-American tour of 1926, and the match was set for the autumn of 1927.
As the Championship match was to be played at then novel rate of 40 moves in the first 2.5 hours and 16 moves at hour thereafter, Alekhine played a practice match at the close of 1926 with Dr. Euwe, adopting the new time limit. Here again Alekhine did not produce one of his best efforts winning the ten-game match only by managing to win the final game.
The New York tournament, which began about six weeks later, started out badly for him. It was a six-man tournament, with each player contesting four games with every other player. In addition to Alekhine, the players were Capablanca, Nimzovich, Vidmar, Spielmann and Marshall – a formidable field! As the outcome proved, Capablanca was in magnificent form; but Alekhine seemed at first to be headed for a serous setback. While his position as challenger was assured in any event, it must be admitted that he was laboring under a certain amount of psychological pressure: if he failed to finish first or second, his position, from a sporting point of view would look rather hollow.
Consecutive losses to Capablanca and Nimzovich in the early stages of the tournament, coupled with a splendid showing by Nimzovich in the opening rounds, made the outlook for ultimate success very doubtful. Luckily, Alekhine pulled himself together toward the close and managed to catch the second place ahead of Nimzovich. Alekhine had thus corrected his position in a formal sense, but first-class critics knew that his chess had been poor, his poorest in years. Both the experts and the “experts” gave him short shrift in the coming match with Capablanca. Over the year, he had lost five serious games to the Cuban and never beaten him once. And with Alekhine’s inferior form in the last two years, it hardly seemed that Capablanca needed to take him seriously.
Precisely the cause of Capablanca’s downfall: he did not take the challenger seriously; he did not prepare properly for the match, did not study adequately, did not approach the contest with any realization of his opponent’s powers. The very first game was a bombshell for the chess world: Alekhine won! Too late Capablanca realized that he had blundered in underestimating his powerful adversary. Although the Champion fought on bravely for 34 games, he finally had to admit defeat.
Alekhine’s comment on the match is interesting:
” Psychology is the most important factor in chess. My success was due solely to my superiority in the sense of psychology. Capablanca played almost entirely by a marvelous gift of intuition, but he lacked the psychological sense.”
Of Alekhine’s subsequent career it can be said that he played many fine games, rose to crisis on many a critical occasion. His play at San Remo in 1930 and at Bled in 1931 was perhaps the high point of all his years of play. In 1932-34 his superb energy seemed to sag, and many of the games of that period are dry, inexact and lacking the fiery genius of his best days.
His first match with Efim Bogoljubow in 1929, for example, showed Alekhine at his very best; the second, in 1934, contains some of his worst games. Incidentally, Alekhine’s persistent refusal to give Capablanca another chance to play for the title is a deplorable aspect of an otherwise great career.
When Alekhine accepted a challenge to a little match with Max Euwe in 1935, no one would have credited the Dutch master with the slightest chance of winning. Yet Euwe, who had been steadily improving until he had worked himself into the very first rank of the grandmasters, survived the ordeal brilliantly, winning by the odd point in a 30-game match.
For Alekhine, the loss of the title was pure misery. His all too nervous attempts to justify himself led to a serious fiasco at the Nottingham tourney; and his prospects seemed none too bright for the return match which Euwe had politely agreed to play in the fall of the 1937.
On the basis of his form in the few preceding years, Alekhine was not expected to do well in the match; whereas it was anticipated that Euwe would do better than ever. The actual play, therefore, was nothing short of surprising. Alekhine took chances continually in his search for the most aggressive line; his energetic guest for complications wore out his younger opponent, and soon the ex-Champion had established a commanding lead. The match ended with an easy victory for Alekhine, who thus regained his title.
The coming of the war brought a new and unfortunate chapter in Alekhine’s career. After the fall of France, he played in a number of Nazi-sponsored tournaments at Krakow, Munich, Salzburg and Prague. During the Munich Tournament of 1942, held for the Championship of Nazi-controlled Europe, Alekhine wrote in a French newspaper that the tourney stressed “the leading role played by new European players and Europe to be now considered as the new center of the chess world”. More articles by Alekhine were published in the Nazi’ press criticizing Jewish players or Jewish influence into the chess game. Those articles by Alekhine, contained opinions so shocking that the controversy about them was becoming more bitter than ever just at the time of Alekhine’s death in Lisbon in 1946.It is one of the most tragic aspects of Alekhine’s death that he did not have an opportunity to speak up for himself during his investigation. He always claimed that his articles had been of a purely scientific nature, and had been twisted by the Nazis. Aside from his distinction as a very great player Alekhine enjoyed reputation as one of the best writers on the game before war. His two collections of his best games have been bestsellers for years. He was also one of the greatest blindfold experts in the history of the game.