The “Plan” Fails
In Part Two of our Alekhine series, I described Alekhine’s plan to force a match with Capablanca: “Play against the world’s best and win every tournament, thus showing that he was the true challenger to the title. And, at first he would also avoid Capablanca until he felt he was closer to him in strength.”
At first that plan was working, and he won tournament after tournament. However, winning every tournament is impossible (Nobody has achieved this, including Capablanca, Fischer, and Kasparov.) so his plan was, ultimately, doomed to fail.
We left our hero in a bad state: his plan of winning every tournament was suddenly shattered, the stress of chess politics (i.e., getting a match with Capablanca) was dragging him down, and an attempted suicide (most chess scholars don’t believe this happened, but the facts I listed in Part Two have convinced me that it did) added to his overall bleak situation.
The New Plan: Righting the Ship
Phase One – A few events
After his failure to win every tournament, his depression concerning his private life (or lack thereof), and the enormous wall created by the London Protocol (see Part Two of this series), most people would accept “reality” and give up the near-impossible chase to gain a title bout. But chess was Alekhine’s life, and if he was going to live, then his dream had to live too! Thus a new, more realistic two-part plan evolved. Phase One: Alekhine would participate in a few events (all in the first two thirds of 1923) to show he was still a top contender (which would also renew his confidence in his chess powers).
- Karlsbad 1923 – Alekhine, Bogoljubow, and Maroczy = first with 11.5 out of 17.
- Margate 1923 – Gruenfeld 1st with 5.5 from 7, Alekhine, Bogoljubow, Michell, and Muffang = 2nd through 5th with 4.5.
- Portsmouth 1923 – Alekhine 1st with 10.5 from 11. A great score, but the field was far weaker than he was.
- Two game Match vs. Muffang in Paris. Won by Alekhine with a 2-0 score.
Both players were blindfolded!
Black just played 20...Rd8xd4. How did the blindfolded Alekhine punish this?
Prelude to puzzles 6 and 7:
In this position Black played the crushing 30...Rxd4! Here are two puzzles based on this position:
Phase Two – Chess Politician/Rock Star
Having come to terms with the fact that nobody could win every tournament, Alekhine decided that his best path would be to cut down on his playing schedule and instead go on a long tour (giving endless simultaneous exhibitions) that would make him a household name all over the world. By doing this he hoped to secure sponsors who would back his bid for a match vs. Capablanca. The Muffang match was his final event of 1923. He spent the rest of the year (from September on) traveling on his world simultaneous tour.
September and October were devoted to many exhibitions in Scotland and England. The most important part of his tour, though, was to be held in the “New World” where money was everywhere and potential backers would be eyeing his every move.
The Grand Canadian Tour
This was the first time Alekhine had left Europe. Here he did interviews, made friends in high places, constantly stayed in the public eye, gave 6 normal simultaneous exhibitions and one blindfold exhibition (where he played 21 games at once) for an overall score of 163 wins, 10 losses, and 17 draws.
The Great U.S. Tour and NY 1924
Alekhine hit U.S. soil on December 5th. He went from one end of the country to the other, playing no less than 24 exhibitions from December 1923 to March of 1924 (three of them were blindfold simuls). His total score: 626 wins, 41 losses, 78 draws.
One would think he would be completely exhausted at this point, but the legendary New York 1924 tournament was to be held only one week after his final exhibition! This is what Alekhine had to say (in the Pittsburgh Post) about everyone’s chances:
“The international tournament, which will be held in New York beginning next Sunday, March 16, will, of course, have a great influence on U.S. chess. To my mind it will be the greatest tournament that has been played in the world since the Hastings tournament in 1895 since all the strongest exponents of the game living today will be represented. They are coming from every country where chess has become a favorite. England will have two, France two, Germany two, Russia and Hungary one, and, of course, the United States will present Marshall and Edward Lasker.
“Who will win? That is a hard question to answer, but I believe that Capablanca has the best chance, although there are others. Dr. Emanuel Lasker is still a very strong player to be reckoned with. Then there are Bogoljubow and Reti, who, while being the youngest [Alekhine was actually the youngest player in the tournament – JS], are very strong indeed. It will be a wonderful event. How shall I do? The very best I can, you may be sure!”
New York 1924 was dominated by three men: 1st Emanuel Lasker with the insane score of 16-4, Capablanca 2nd with 14.5-5.5, 3rd Alekhine with 12-8.
Alekhine's famous tournament book
Since Emanuel Lasker made it clear that he had no interest in the World Championship and didn’t want to play another match with Capablanca, Alekhine was the obvious challenger for Capablanca’s throne. However, it still seemed clear that Alekhine was a distant third behind Lasker and Capablanca (this meant that sponsors weren’t lining up to pay for a Capablanca – Alekhine match). To make matters even worse, Reti was still in the conversation for a match, Nimzowitsch and Bogolubow were improving rapidly and started scoring some very impressive victories of their own, and even Spielmann suddenly became a monster and joined in the now completely confusing “who is going to be the World Championship challenger” mess.
It’s important to note that Alekhine wasn’t happy about his third place finish in New York 1924! Nonetheless, it turned out that his first round game vs. Capablanca taught him something of enormous importance. This is what Alekhine had to say in his book, On the Road to the World Championship:
“In spite of my failure in this tournament, I took home one valuable moral victory, and that was the lesson I leaned from my first game with Capablanca which had the effect of a revelation on me. Having outplayed me in the opening, having reached a won position in the middlegame and having carried over a large part of his advantage into a Rook ending, the Cuban then allowed me to neutralize his superiority in that ending and finally had to make do with a draw.
“That made me think, for Capablanca had been trying very hard in this game, so as to draw nearer to Dr. Lasker who was in the lead, and who had won against me the previous day. I was convinced that if I had been in Capablanca’s position, I should certainly have won. Thus I had finally detected a slight weakness in my future opponent: increasing uncertainty when confronted with stubborn resistance! Of course I had already noticed Capablanca committing occasional slight inaccuracies, but I should not have thought that he would be unable to rid himself of this failing even when he tried his utmost. That was an exceedingly important lesson for the future!”
- Alekhine dominated a small tournament in Paris (6.5-1.5) well ahead of Tartakower, Opocensky, Znosko-Borovsky, and Colle.
- At the end of 1925 Alekhine tied for first at Hastings (8.5 out of 9, an incredible score, but Vidmar was right with him all the way!).
I won’t do this next one in puzzle form since it’s too advanced. Instead you can just stare in wonder at one of the finest combinations in the history of chess.
Richard Reti – Alexander Alekhine
White has played very well and has a positional advantage. Many grandmasters would fall victim to this as Black, but Alekhine isn’t anyone’s victim. I’ll keep the notes to a minimum so you can zip through the drama that occurs.
Suddenly White’s king feels a bit loose.
Kasparov says, “From now on Alekhine makes a series of moves that sweep White off the board.”
27…cxb5! 28.Qxb5 Nc3 29.Qxb7 Qxb7 30.Nxb7 Nxe2+ 31.Kh2 Ne4!! 32.Rc4 Nxf2 33.Bg2
Another Kasparov quote: “Black is clearly winning, but Alekhine’s final combination makes this game a true masterpiece.”
33…Be6! 34.Rcc2 Ng4+ 35.Kh3 Ne5+ 36.Kh2 Rxf3! 37.Rxe2 Ng4+ 38.Kh3 Ne3+ 39.Kh2 Nxc2 40.Bxf3 Nd4 41.Rf2 Nxf3+ 42.Rxf3 Bd5 0-1. Alekhine calls this “the final point!”
Kasparov said, “I think there is reason to nominate this game the most beautiful ever played in the history of chess.”
Alekhine’s form was almost super-human in Baden-Baden, as the following puzzle will prove.
- Birmingham – Alekhine 1st with 5-0 against a relatively weak field.
- Dresden – Nimzowitsch 1st with 8.5 from 9, with Alekhine 2nd with 7-2. Both led Rubinstein, Tartakower, Von Holzhausen, Johner, Saemisch, Yates, Bluemich, and Steiner.
- Scarborough – Alekhine 1st with 5.5 from 6 against a relatively weak field.
- Semmering – Spielmann 1st with 13-4, Alekhine 2nd with 12.5-4.5 ahead of Vidmar, Nimzowitsch, Tartakower, Rubinstein, Tarrasch, Reti, Gruenfeld and others.
- Buenos Aires – Alekhine 1st with 10-0 against a relatively weak field.
Though Alekhine was viewed as Capablanca’s most dangerious challenger, the rest of the “who will play Capablanca” group (Nimzowitsch, Bogoljubow, Spielmann, and Reti) were neck and neck, and after Nimzowitsch dominated a couple more events, with Spielmann winning another one, things became completely confusing. All these players were worthy opponents, but in the end money talks (loudly!), and Alekhine was well aware that whoever came up with the London Protocol’s demands would undoubtedly be chosen by Capablanca.
Striking Gold in His South American Tour
Though Alekhine failed to get the desperately needed financial backing for a World Championship challenge during his Canadian and American tour, his South American tour (August – November, 1926) struck gold! During his stay in Buenos Aires he was introduced to Argentina’s president, various powerful government officials, and quite a few wealthy patrons of chess. They gave Alekhine the financial guarantees he needed to meet with the London Protocols outrageous stipulations. As a result of this, he was finally able to issue a challenge to Capablanca.
Alekhine gave 31 exhibitions in Argentina, his total score being: 202 wins, 18 losses, and 11 draws. He gave 3 exhibitions in Uruguay and 3 in Brazil, with a total score being 69 wins, 3 losses, and 7 draws.
Match with Euwe (Dec. 22, 1926 – Jan. 8th, 1927)
After returning to Europe, Alekhine played a ten game match with Euwe. Alekhine was expected to wipe Euwe out, and Euwe himself felt the likely score would be 7.5 – 2.5 in favor of Alekhine. However, Alekhine played poorly (I can’t image him not being completely burned out after his South American tour) and after nine games the score was even! Though Euwe would have been delighted to draw the final game and walk away with a tied match, Alekhine was about to challenge for the world title and couldn’t afford such a result! Though he had the black pieces, he put everything he had into the game and, after playing in dynamic but risky fashion, managed to grasp victory in both the game and match.
Having “survived” the Euwe match, and with his match against Capablanca around the corner, Alekhine still played in two more tournaments.
Here’s the final game of the match:
New York 1927
This event allowed Alekhine to gauge his strength against an extremely formidable field: Capablanca, Nimzowitsch, Spielmann, Vidmar, and Marshall. Actually, Spielmann was a last-minute replacement for Bogoljubow. His financial demands didn’t sit well with the organizers, and the telegram he sent to the tournament committee (“Instead of mediocre tournament suggest contest Capablanca – Bogoljubow”) was the last straw. Since Alekhine and Bogoljubow were friends, Norbert Lederer (one of the organizers) wrote the following letter to Alekhine (I’m just giving the opening, very funny, sentence): “I want to mention that friend Bogoljubow apparently no longer is entirely in his right mind.”
Everyone had to play four games against everyone else. Though Capablanca ruled the roost with an undefeated 14-6, the battle for the coveted second spot was tightly contested between Alekhine and Nimzowitsch. When the smoke cleared, Alekhine took second with 11.5. He had a loss and 3 draws vs. Capablanca and a loss, win, and 2 draws vs. Nimzowitsch, who took 3rd with 10.5. Though it looked like Capablanca was invincible, it was also clear that Alekhine was indeed the correct challenger.
Everyone was shocked that Alekhine accepted his invitation to play in this tournament (held June 25th to July 12th) since his match with Capablanca was due to start in September (and of course in those days the ocean voyage took a long, long time)! This is what Alekhine had to say about it (from his book, On the Road to the World Championship):
“It goes without saying that I was not satisfied either with my play against Dr. Euwe or with the way I performed in New York. Meanwhile my match with Capablanca had been settled and was soon to start. Had the labor of perfecting my play over the years been successful? Had I definitely remedied the faults in my style, retained the lessons of experience and fully understood what I had learned? I felt impelled to see if I had remembered everything that I had gradually been mastering, and so I was glad to accept the invitation to Kecskemet, despite the fact that it was only six weeks before my departure for the match in Buenos Aires.”
Kecskemet had two groups with the top 4 in each playing a final event. The scores of both would be blended together and the guy with the most points would be the ultimate winner. Alekhine 1st scored a big 8-1 ahead of Asztalos, Kmoch, Gilg (who also qualified for the final), while group two had Steiner scoring 8-1 ahead of Nimzowitsch (6.5), Ahues, Vajda. Alekhine played it safe in the final scoring one win, no losses, and 7 draws (ending in first with a total of 12). Nimzowitsch caught fire and won 4 games but lost one to take = 2nd with Steiner with totals of 11.5.
Alekhine had this to say about the second half of this tournament:
“I had convinced myself in the best possible way that I was playing logically and soundly and with the same facility as in Baden-Baden. The chess interest of the event was over for me by the end of the first half of the tournament. It was then just a matter of competing well enough to maintain a sufficient lead through until the finish.”
The 4th World Chess Champion
Going into the match, Alekhine had never won a game from Capablanca (their score was 5 wins for Capablanca, and 7 draws). Since the winner would be the first to win six games, and since Capablanca rarely lost even one game in a several year period, Alekhine’s chances seemed to be zero. No wonder that the world was shocked by the result.
A great example of Alekhine’s magnificent endgame technique (as shown by the invisible note).
The match itself was a long, extremely tiring affair that covered 34 games before Alekhine achieved the necessary six wins (6-3 with 25 draws). How did Alekhine take down his powerful foe?
There are several reasons:
- Alekhine had gotten better. And even here, Alekhine still hadn’t reached his prime!
- Capablanca wasn’t aware of Alekhine’s leap in strength, and was overconfident.
- Alekhine changed his style (just for this match), tossing out romantic leaps of fancy for a sturdier chess stance. Suddenly Capablanca was facing someone he never played before – a guy that was positionally as solid as a rock, tactically supreme, and technically not too far from Capablanca himself.
- Alekhine was in fantastic physical shape, while Capablanca wasn’t.
- Alekhine had discovered small weaknesses in his opponent’s games and was determined to make maximum use of that knowledge, while Capablanca made no such preparations since he expected an easy match victory.
- Alekhine was completely focused on the match, while Capablanca explored the city every night, partied, and enjoyed the company of adoring female fans.
Personally, I think Capablanca was a slightly superior player in 1927, but the many factors above confused and ultimately overwhelmed the Cuban genius.
After the match Alekhine continued to improve, and by 1930 he was, without any doubt whatsoever, the strongest player on Earth. In a way, Alekhine’s match victory was a form of “taking out the old and bringing in the new” since he created the blueprint that all modern chess pros follow today: Deep opening preparation, world class skills in every phase of the game, psychological preparation, physical preparation, and a deep study of the strengths and weaknesses of each of his opponents.
I’ll explore Alekhine’s prime years in a future article.