Alexander Alekhine (Part 4): His Prime Years
I left Part 3 of this 7-part series with Alekhine beating Capablanca in their World Championship. Here’s how that article ended:
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.
And this leads us into Part 4:
After winning the title in late 1927, Alekhine didn’t play again (leaving out blitz events and exhibitions) until June of 1929 (Bradley Beach in the United States). He easily won this event with 8 wins, 1 draw, no losses (Lajos Steiner came in 2nd, a point and a half behind. Marshall came in 6th).
In September of 1929 he defended his title, in a 25 game match for the World Championship, against his old foe Bogoljubov, winning decisively: 11 wins, 5 losses, 9 draws. Alekhine uncharacteristically turned several winning positions into draws, so the score could have been far worse for the challenger.
I’ll take a moment out to share a story about these two players. I don’t recall where or when it took place (and I’m too lazy to do a deep search), but it’s extremely funny and thus well worth sharing.
Both men (who were sometimes friends and sometimes not) had played in the same tournament, and during the award’s ceremony Alekhine found himself on the podium. Instead of doing the usual “thank you” routine, he said the following: “Last night I had a dream. I had died and found myself at the Pearly Gates, but when I tried to enter I was told by Saint Peter that chess players were not allowed into Heaven! I wandered along the endless fence, hoping to find some other entry point, but it was hopeless. Then, suddenly I saw Bogoljubov on the other side, having a great time! I rushed back to Saint Peter and said, ‘You told me that chess players aren’t allowed in Heaven. But if that is so, why was Bogoljubov allowed in?’ Saint Peter replied, ‘Oh, he only thinks he’s a chess player!’”
This shows that Alekhine had quite a sense of humor. Here’s another example of his biting wit:
“When asked, ‘How is that you pick better moves than your opponents?’ I responded: I’m very glad you asked that, because, as it happens, there is a very simple answer. I think up my own moves, and I make my opponent think up his.”
The years 1930 and 1931 showed Alekhine in his prime. An attacking/combinative genius, he was the world’s greatest opening theorist, had magnificent positional skills, and was extremely strong in the endgame. In other words, he could do everything at the highest level, had no weaknesses, and was clearly superior to every other player on earth (including Capablanca).
After winning his match against Bogoljubov, his next two events left the chess world (and his opponents!) in awe:
San Remo 1930
Alekhine 1st – 13 wins, 2 draws, no losses.
Nimzowitsch 2nd – 3½ points behind Alekhine!
Others: Rubinstein, Bogoljubov, Yates, Ahues, Spielmann, Vidmar, Maroczy, Tartakower, Colle, Kmoch, etc.
Some thought that he would never improve on such a dominating performance, but he did just that in his very next event!
Alekhine playing Del Turco, San Remo 1930 | Image Wikipedia
Alekhine 1st – 15 wins, 11 draws, no losses.
Bogoljubov 2nd (5½ points behind Alekhine!)
Others: Nimzowitsch, Flohr, Kashdan, Stoltz, Vidmar, Tartakower, Kostic, Spielmann, Maroczy, Colle, Asztalos, Pirc.
It’s important to understand that Nimzowitsch was the 3rd best player on earth (Alekhine and Capablanca being the top two, of course) during the years 1927 – 1931. So imagine the impact it made on the world when the following game was played:
A 19-move rout vs. the great Nimzowitsch? How is this possible? After this game, Nimzowitsch said: “He deals with us like inexperienced fledglings.”
“In the whole history of chess there has been no other player who decided so many games by brilliant tactical blows as did Alexander Alekhine.” – Garry Kasparov.
It’s clear that in this period, Alekhine was head and shoulders above everyone else. He simply overwhelmed anyone that dared sit across from him!
It’s well known that Levon Aronian, the present number 2 player in the world, considers Alekhine to be the greatest player of all time. But Kasparov is another admirer:
“Alexander Alekhine is the first luminary among the others who are still having the greatest influence on me. I like his universality, his approach to the game, his chess ideas. I am sure that the future belongs to Alekhine chess.”
It’s easy to understand why Kasparov (one of the most dynamic players in history) loved Alekhine’s style, but Fischer, who was more of a technician and sought clarity whenever possible, didn’t care for Alekhine’s chaos. Nevertheless, you don’t have to love it to respect it. Fischer:
“Alekhine has never been a hero of mine, and I’ve never cared for his style of play. There’s nothing light or breezy about it; it worked for him, but it could scarcely work for anyone else. He played gigantic conceptions, full of outrageous and unprecedented ideas. He had great imagination; he could see more deeply into a situation than any other player in chess history. It was in the most complicated positions that Alekhine found his grandest concepts.”
Alas, flesh and blood humans don’t live in fairyland, at least not permanently, and by 1932 his gifts slowly started to deteriorate – he was almost 40 and, more importantly, poor health started to whittle away his greatness. The decline was slow at first (he was still incredibly strong!), but the occasional loss found its way into his results as he embraced Bacchus more and more (according to Hans Kmoch, Alekhine was drinking at Bled in 1931, and drank heavily during his 1934 match with Bogoljubov).
We’ll continue to explore Alekhine’s life in Part 5, Singing the Middle-Aged Blues.