Alexander Alekhine (Part 6): His Worst “Combination” – Age + Booze
As we saw, Alekhine reached his ultimate prime in 1930 and 1931. For a few years after that, he was still clearly the world’s best player, but the march of time and the wrath of alcohol took more and more out of him - though everyone still viewed him as unbeatable. Then came the first match against Euwe, and the chess world suffered a reality check.
World Championship Match 1935 (30 games)
Now we come to the real beginning of Alekhine’s fall. Facing Max Euwe, a young, hungry, and very strong player, Alekhine entered the match full of confidence. Indeed, after nine games, Alekhine was three games ahead. That lead, which would have been decisive if Alekhine was still in his glory days, vanished in the next five games. Alekhine drew two, with three losses. He went up again by two after two wins and two draws in the next four games. But after that, he was only able to win one more game (while losing four), leaving Euwe with a one point lead and the title.
Footage of the closing ceremony of Alekhine and Euwe's 1935 World Championship
Not wanting to sound prejudiced, I have to say that the quality of the games was outstanding, and every game was fought tooth and nail (not a good thing for the older player). It’s easy to say that a prime Alekhine would have won, but that Alekhine no longer existed, and Euwe’s level in this match was very high indeed.
Euwe – 15 ½
Alekhine – 14 ½
Stories have appeared in various sources of Alekhine not showing up for a game. When the officials went looking for him, they found Alekhine drunk and unconscious in a field. I don’t know whether that’s true or not, but his results after this match clearly show that the Alekhine of 1935, while still one of the top three or four players in the World, was no longer number one. Of course, a 43-year-old lion falling victim to a talented youth is an unavoidable fact of life. Indeed, a whole new generation of players had appeared (Flohr, Keres, Botvinnik, Reshevsky, Fine, etc.), and they were getting better with each passing year even while Alekhine’s trajectory was going in the opposite direction.
Jan Hein Donner, who was always happy to voice his opinions, wrote the following in his epic book (one of my all time favorites) The King:
“Euwe defeated this giant, but it was immediately clear that the chess world simply wasn’t having it. General opinion internationally held it that Alekhine had once again been having a drop too much.”
I should also add that Alekhine had great respect for Euwe. At a pre-match party, Alekhine said the following:
“I am proud and happy that the world of chess has a champion who is a gentleman. I am proud and happy that this gentleman is honorable. I take this opportunity to officially challenge my opponent. And I am happy, without hypocrisy, that if I am not the champion, a Dutchman is the champion.”
Here are some of his results after he lost the title:
Euwe and Fine = 1st/2nd
Bad Nauheim 1936
Alekhine and Keres = 1st/2nd
Alekhine 1st (Ahead of Keres, Bogoljubov, Sämisch and others)
Black, in a lost position, has just played 39...Rd6-f6 hoping White would fall for 40.Rxa6 when 40...Bxd4 wins a piece. What did Alekhine do?
Botvinnik and Capablanca = 1st/2nd
Euwe, Fine, Reshevsky = 3rd, 4th, and 5th
Alekhine 6th (a disaster!)
Botvinnik from his 100 Selected Games (This great book was a bible of mine in my early teens, and over the years, I have gone over every game and word written in it several times):
“At the board Alekhine was so direct that, as he thought out some combination, he was unable to restrain his feelings. When the position was complex, after making his move he would get up and start circling round and round like a kite.
“During the Nottingham Tournament of 1936 I myself had to endure some difficult moments in a game against Alekhine. This game reveals how thoroughly he prepared for playing in tournaments.”
Alexander Alekhine – Mikhail Botvinnik, [B72] Nottingham 1936
Botvinnik: “It was general knowledge that I had played this variation of the Sicilian Defense against Levenfish three months before the Nottingham tournament, and it was regarded as being favorable to Black. So at first I could not understand why Alekhine was playing this opening. But when the position as shown arose, I guessed from his expression that he had something up his sleeve, that he was preparing some combination. And I was right. He had prepared the maneuver 13.d6!”
Botvinnik: “Not every master would spot this move, for the pawn sacrifice is completely unexpected; its idea is to weaken Black’s f6-square. I managed to ‘wriggle out’ of this unpleasant position, though not without suffering some nasty moments. At the critical point in my search for escape, I had to spend some 20 minutes in thought, and all that time Alekhine circled round and round our table. Summoning all my will power, I managed to free myself of this strong ‘psychological’ pressure and find a way out of the trap.”
Botvinnik: “The only move. If 13...exd6 then 14.a3 Nc6 15.g5 and 16.f6.”
Opening theory always marches on, and this is no exception. Vladimir Vukovic (author of the classic Art of Attack in Chess) pointed out that 13...exd6! is the best move: 14.a3 Nc6 15.g5 Re8! 16.gxf6 Rxe3 17.fxg7 Qh4+ 18.Kd2 (18.Kf1 Bxf5 wins for Black) and now instead of Vukovic’s 18...Qh6, 18...Qg5! is most accurate when 19.Ke1 (19.Qe1 is the subject of two puzzles below) 19...Bxf5 followed by ...Rae8 gives Black a winning attack.
Two puzzles from 19.Qe1:
After 19.Qe1 Rd3+!? 20.Kxd3
After 19.Qe1 Bxf5! (threatening 20...Rd3 mate) 20.Kd1
Back to the real game:
14.Bc5 (14.Qxd6? exd6 15.g5 Nfd5 is very much in Black’s favor.) 14...Qf4! (Better than 14...Qxd1+ 15.Rxd1 Nc6 [15...Nxc2+? 15.Kd2] 16.g5 Nd7 17.f6 exf6! [17...Bh8 18.Nd5 is better for White] 18.Bxf8 Nxf8 19.gxf6 Bxf6 and Black has sufficient compensation for the sacrificed Exchange.) 15.Rf1 Qxh2 16.Bxb4 Nxg4 (Botvinnik thought that 16...Qg3+ was inferior due to 17.Rf2 Nxg4 18.Ne4, but this actually wins for Black: 18...Qh4 19.Bxg4 Qh1+, etc. Instead of 18.Ne4, just 18.Bxg4 Qg1+ 19.Rf1 Qg3+ is a draw.) 17.Bxg4 Qg3+ 18.Rf2 (18.Kd2?? Bh6+!) 18...Qg1+ 19.Rf1 Qg3+ 20.Rf2 Qg1+, 1/2-1/2.
Botvinnik also said this in his 100 Selected Games:
“During his first and second periods, Alekhine always sought for the truth in the game; but in his last period (1934-46) his play was characterized by a new, and one might say a Lasker-manner of approach to chess. During these years he did not so much attempt to penetrate into the secret of a position as to seek a convenient moment when, without blundering, he could shatter his opponent with the combinative weapon, even in positions where the prerequisites were lacking.”
“Summing up Alekhine’s characteristic features as a chess player, one must specify first and foremost his exceptional fighting qualities, his profound psychological insight into the essence of the chess art, and his phenomenal combinative vision, which was a reflection of the specific features of the Soviet school of chess. At the same time I must again emphasize that during the last period of his career his imaginative powers declined.”
Kemeri – Riga 1937
Flohr, Petrovs, Reshevsky = 1st, 2nd, 3rd
Alekhine and Keres = 4th and 5th
White enjoys a huge positional advantage (space and two bishops). How did he push his opponent off the board?
Fine, Keres = 1st and 2nd
World Championship Match 1937 (25 games)
The story goes that before his rematch with Euwe, Alekhine quit drinking and took the contest very seriously (unlike his overconfidence and alcohol guzzling in the first match). He knew this was his last chance to regain the title, and he put everything he had into achieving his goal. The spark of battle ignited, and though he wasn’t the Alekhine of 1930/1931, he was close enough to it to shock the world. This wasn’t just for the title, it was for his dignity, and when all was said and done, it seems that it was more important for Alekhine than for Euwe.
The battle was hard fought, but Alekhine was two up with five games to go. Such a lead is pretty much decisive, and Euwe collapsed losing four games and drawing one. The final six game difference makes the match seem one-sided, but nothing could be further from the truth.
Alekhine – 15 ½ (once again World Champion!)
Euwe – 9 ½
After losing his title, Euwe (always a gentleman) wrote:
“Alekhine’s perfect technique and combinative talent are so well known that it is unnecessary to talk about them. His conduct of the endgame was shining. Even so, I admire most how he finished the adjourned games. I had to analyze them, too, so I know them well. When I think of how my opponent created ingenious ideas and how he finished them in unexpected ways, I have only the greatest admiration for Alekhine’s playing style.”
Their lifetime score was 28 wins for Alekhine, 20 losses, and 38 draws.
White’s a6 bishop seems to have wandered too far, and now it’s trapped behind enemy lines and, apparently, doomed. What can White do?
Not done solving puzzles? Tactics Trainer is waiting!
I’ll finish Alekhine’s story in Part 7, The Dark Years.