Few expected Alexander Alekhine to win the 1927 World Championship Match, as the man he defeated, Jose Raul Capablanca, was at the peak of his invincibility. Alekhine himself could not explain how he beat Capablanca, but as World Champion he proved himself more than worthy of the title with his own brand of genius. Whatever the measure of a world champion – his pure strength, number of tournaments won, longevity, and legacy in brilliant games and significant works, Alekhine is among the greatest world champions.
Alekhine was born in Moscow, Russia on October 31, 1892, the third child of aristocratic parents. At 7, his mother taught him chess. Alekhine had an older brother, Alexey, and as they were both fond of the game, their parents engaged some Russian masters to mentor them.
Alekhine started competing at the age of 12. He began with correspondence chess, and won a tournament organized by a Russian chess magazine in 1905. In 1908, he made his first international appearance and placed 4th in the 16th Congress of the German Chess Union.
Alekhine scored his first significant result when he won the secondary tournament of the 1909 Chigorin Memorial, thereby becoming an acknowledged master. The main tournament was won jointly by Akiba Rubinstein and Emanuel Lasker, the world champion.
In 1913, Alekhine came joint first with Aron Nimzovitsch in the All-Russian Masters Tournament. This victory earned him an invitation to the great St. Petersburg Tournament of 1914.
St. Petersburg 1914 was a historic event where the elite of early 20th century chess were called to participate. It included the world champion in Lasker, the leading title contenders in Akiba Rubinstein and Capablanca, former world championship contenders in Isidor Gunsberg, Frank Marshall, Siegbert Tarrasch, and David Janowski, a 19th century great in Joseph Henry Blackburne, and leading masters in Ossip Bernstein and Aron Nimzovitsch.
Alekhine placed third behind Lasker and Capablanca, a result that was as spectacular as it was self-affirming. Succeeding as world champion became a real possibility, and Alekhine believed it was all a matter of concentrated effort. That meant, especially, that he was not only to improve to the hilt but also prepare for the man who was sure to succeed Lasker someday – Capablanca.
Winning the world championship became Alekhine’s consuming ambition, but the following years would not augur well for him. Shortly after St. Petersburg, he was in Germany leading a tournament when World War I broke out. He was suspected a spy, imprisoned, but was eventually cleared and returned to Russia a few months later. In 1917, Tsarist Russia fell. Alekhine’s family faced Bolshevik persecution and lost their fortune, while Alekhine himself was forced to tread around Russia carefully, concealing his aristocratic origins and finding means to support himself. He joined the ruling communist party for his safety, and worked for a while as an actor. His victory in the All-Russian Championship of 1920, however, rekindled his chess ambitions, and he left Russia in 1921 to settle in Paris.
Alekhine was ready once again to pursue the crown, and winning it, as he had foreseen, had to be at the expense of Capablanca. His great Cuban rival was now the world champion, having defeated Lasker in their world championship match in Havana, Cuba in 1921.
Between 1921 and 1926, Alekhine was the busiest and most successful player in the European circuit, winning or sharing first prize in two-thirds of the many tournaments he entered. His least successful performances were third in Vienna 1922 and New York 1924, again behind Lasker and Capablanca.
Alekhine finally issued his challenge to Capablanca in 1927. Arranging a match at that point had become difficult for challengers, as in 1922, Capablanca and other top players agreed on strict terms that were to henceforth govern all world championship matches. It set, most importantly, the match purse that was to be raised by the challenger. Still, the brilliance of Alekhine in the preceding years whipped tremendous interest in the match, and Alekhine found his financial backers in the Argentine Chess Club. The match was set in Buenos Aires, Argentina that year in September, with the first to win six games declared as the winner.
Alekhine’s personal score against Capablanca up to that point stood at 5-0 in the Cuban’s favor. He was, in fact, in awe of Capablanca, and he had reckoned since St. Peterburg 1914 that only by thorough preparation would he beat Capablanca in the ultimate face off that had now become a reality. All those years of stalking Capablanca, studying his games and finding the tiniest chink in his armor would be put to the test. Alekhine’s assessment of Capablanca in New York 1924 would prove crucial to this match:
“I took home with me from this tournament a valuable moral victory: the lesson from my first game against Capablanca, which came as a revelation to me. The Cuban had outplayed me in the opening, achieved a winning position in the middlegame, carried a large portion of his advantage into a Rook endgame, but finally dropped his guard and let me escape with a draw. That set me thinking: Capablanca had certainly been exerting himself in this game in order to close the gap between himself and Dr. Lasker…. I was convinced that, in Capablanca’s position, I would surely have won the game. I finally spotted a small weakness in my future opponent: increasing uncertainty in the face of stubborn resistance. This was a discovery of rare importance for the future.”
Capablanca had lost only four games in the twelve years preceding the match, and Alekhine’s peers thought it was too tall an order for him to win six in one match. The strong Viennese master, Rudolf Spielmann, even thought Alekhine would be “lucky” to win one game. After thirty-four games and three months, however, one of the longest matches in history, Alekhine did defeat Capablanca 6-3 to become the 4th World Champion. It was an emphatic conclusion to his single-minded pursuit of the title.
Capablanca pursued a return match with Alekhine, but Alekhine held him to the same terms of the London 1922 agreement, especially as regards the prize money. Even though Capablanca could not raise it, he was persistent. Alekhine stuck to his terms, and, regretfully, the friendly relations between the two geniuses deteriorated over the years as the match failed to materialize.
Alekhine went from strength to strength after his match victory. In 1929, he defended his title successfully against Efim Bogoljubov, 11-5. He would peak in the early 1930s, and his performances in San Remo 1930 and Bled 1931 would stand out as two of the greatest tournament performances in history. In 1934, he defeated Bogoljubov again in a world title match, 8-3.
In 1935, Alekhine surprisingly lost the world title to Max Euwe of the Netherlands. He was said to be having problems with alcohol, played some match games drunk, but straightened himself and regained the title in a rematch with Euwe in 1937.
Alekhine was well over his forties when he regained his title in 1937 and may have been past his best. In the great AVRO 1938, he encountered the newest generation of masters in Mikhail Botvinnik, Paul Keres, Reuben Fine, Samuel Reshevsky, and Salo Flohr, one of whom was sure to challenge him one day. Alekhine could finish only 4th-6th out of eight participants, but was ahead of Capablanca.
In 1939, Alekhine represented France in the 8th Olympiad, and won the silver medal for best performance on board 1. Capablanca took gold. Shortly before the Olympiad’s end, World War II broke out. The catastrophic event would prove tragic for Alekhine.
During the war, Alekhine was accused of conniving with the Germans and engaging in anti-Jewish activities. By the war’s end, he was largely an ostracized figure in the chess world. On March 24, 1946, he was in Estoril, Portugal, preparing for his world championship match against Botvinnik when he was found lifeless in his hotel room.
The circumstances of Alekhine’s death have been unclear. A medical examination revealed that he choked on his food, but conspiracy theories abound that he was executed by a French squad for his connivance with the Nazis, or by the Soviets for his anti-Bolshevik stance since he left Russia and settled in Paris.
Alekhine was the first truly dynamic player. He was foremost a classical player who understood positional concepts and static advantages as well as any of his contemporaries, including Capablanca. As chess progressed, however, he assimilated the new, Hypermodern ideas of his peers such as Nimzovitsch and Reti, and his style rounded off and became more flexible. Dynamic elements such as time and initiative became important themes of his games, and his best ones exploit these types of advantages vigorously. They have a furious, fast pace. He was a naturally gifted tactician who would typically cap quiet, positional play with amazing combinations and sacrifices.
His greatness is undeniable in his tenure as world champion and tournament records. He reigned as world champion from 1927-1946, except for the brief two-year interlude when Euwe took the title. He may have reigned longer if not for his death. At one point, he was second only to Anatoly Karpov in the number of tournaments he won.
He is also one of the finest writers among the world champions. His annotations are terse, but they instruct clearly and objectively at the most critical moments. He wrote around twenty books, and many consider two of these – My Best Games of Chess and New York 1924 – as among the ten greatest masterpieces of chess literature.
Lastly, he left many brilliant games, more than any other great master did, perhaps. They do not only delight and entertain, but also speak to high art Alekhine produced, because he combined his genius with unwavering dedication to the game.
- Reti-Alekhine, Baden-Baden 1925 – Alekhine’s most brilliant game, and one of the greatest games in history. It shows the depth and complexity of Alekhine’s imagination.
- Grunfeld-Alekhine, Carlsbad 1923 – A quintessential Alekhine game where he caps his strong positional play with amazing tactics.
- Bogoljubov-Alekhine, 1929 World Championship Match, Game 8 – a demonstration of Alekhine’s ability to play in the Hypermodern spirit. From a seemingly cramped position, he launches a deadly counterattack.
- Bogoljubov-Alekhine, Hastings 1922 – Another dynamic, Hypermodern game conducted brilliantly.
- Alekhine vs. Flohr, Bled 1931 – A game played by Alekhine at his peak, and against a touted future title contender. Again, he crowns his fine positional play with a brilliant tactical stroke.