Alexander Alekhine (Part 6): His Worst “Combination” – Age + Booze

  • IM Silman
  • | Mar 3, 2014

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.”

J.H.Donner's The King | Image Amazon

Puzzle 1:

Puzzle 2:

Here are some of his results after he lost the title:

Amsterdam 1936

Euwe and Fine = 1st/2nd

Alekhine 3rd 

Bad Nauheim 1936

 Alekhine and Keres = 1st/2nd

Puzzle 3:

Dresden 1936

Alekhine 1st (Ahead of Keres, Bogoljubov, Sämisch and others) 

Puzzle 4

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?

Nottingham 1936

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):

Mikhail Botvinnik | Image Wikipedia

“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.”

13.d6 Qxd6

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:

Puzzle 5:

After 19.Qe1 Rd3+!? 20.Kxd3

Puzzle 6:

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.” 

Botvinnik again:

“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.”

Mikhail Botvinnik's 100 Selected Games | Image Amazon

Podebrady 1936

Flohr 1st

Alekhine 2nd 

Puzzle 7:

Hastings 1937

Alekhine 1st

Fine 2nd

Puzzle 8:

Kemeri – Riga 1937 

Flohr, Petrovs, Reshevsky = 1st, 2nd, 3rd

Alekhine and Keres = 4th and 5th 

Puzzle 9:

White enjoys a huge positional advantage (space and two bishops). How did he push his opponent off the board?

Margate 1937 

Fine, Keres = 1st and 2nd

Alekhine 3rd 

Puzzle 10:

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.

Max Euwe | Image Wikipedia

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.

 Puzzle 11:

Puzzle 12:

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.



  • 3 years ago


    if you were the one on the operating table you'd be absorbing plenty 😜

    chess as well as any other knowledge-based activity is "served best absorbed"

  • 3 years ago



  • 3 years ago


    "... and absorbing the lessons it holds."

    I like the word 'understanding' more than the word 'absorbing'.


    I "understand" what brain surgery is...but i am not able to "absorb" what they do.

  • 3 years ago


    IM Silman,

    Thank you for an outstanding presentation of a great man of history and of chess! Also for your continuing role as a good-will ambassador of chess.  My experience with Chess Mentor goes back over 10 years and I remember meeting you at a tournament giving a lecture and being very impressed with your obvious passion for chess and teaching!  Obviously you are continuing this great tradition.

    Keep up the great work.

  • 3 years ago


  • 3 years ago

    IM Silman

    Many are saying that the puzzles are too difficult. Yes, I expected that... in fact, I would be shocked if even 1% of the people looking at certain puzzles solved them in the first try! The point of the puzzles isn’t just to solve them, it’s to learn from them, and to appreciate Alekhine’s genius. That’s why I went out of my way to add prose and analysis inside most of the puzzles. When you first try and solve a position and fail, the answer to it becomes much more instructive since you have a personal stake in that particular position.

    In other worlds, there’s no shame in failing to solve the puzzles. There is shame if you move on to another one without looking at the notes of the failed puzzle, and absorbing the lessons it holds.

  • 3 years ago


    I finally managed to go through all the puzzles, of course, hardly solving any of them, it's just out of my league.

  • 3 years ago


    To Sillman:

    these games [Part 6], by far, taxed my ability to come up with the solutions. Is that because the level of competition improved greatly or because alekhine's skills were on the downslope or a combination of both. keres, botvinnik, fine and flohr certainly were a step above the competitors of the first 5 parts.

    truly looking forward to your conclusion to this "excellent" series!

  • 3 years ago


    Capablanca was outstanding player and genius and every player benefit from his greatness and learned from Capa; even Alekhine. Alekhine mention this himself, he made a deep study of Capablanca's games and when he met Capablanca for world championship match; Alekhine had to play like Capablanca to beat greatest player who ever live Capablanca. It took thirty-four games to win the match against unprepare Capablanca and any other player coming so unprepare would of been crush. I have deep respect for Alekhine and Capablanca, they were great genius.

  • 3 years ago


    @beaf123 {question comparing this era to present}

    I'd say regarding alekhine, the players of the present era really don't have much over him. his technical ability, his wonderful imagination, his insight into the 'truth' of a position, his energy and drive; all really have no equal, even today.

    as to others of his era in comparison to today, I believe "defensive skills" and the "ability to put up resistance" are far more superior now than then.

  • 3 years ago


    Capablanca is better than Alekhine!!! I jest, I jest.

  • 3 years ago


    In puzzle 1, after 18. Nd4 Bc8 19. b4, the optional variation is given for 19... Bxb4. After 19... Bxb4 20. Nb3 Qc7 21. Qe4, black has to save both the bishop & the knight. Here, instead of 21... Bc3 (as given), 21... Bd6 also serves the purpose. True, after 21... Bd6 22. Rxd6 Qxd6 23. Bxe5 white gets two pieces for rook. But after 23... Qd1+ 24. Bf1 Qxb3 black is simple exchange up. Or have I missed something?

  • 3 years ago


    Great series about the greatest ever!

  • 3 years ago


    very impressive...Alekhine did not allowed his opponent to retain the title.indeed a very determined fighter to rise up from his mistakes

  • 3 years ago


    How is the level of theese players compared to todays top players like Magnus Carlsen?

    My impression is that every sport is evolving because of a bigger playing pool etc. Is that a wrong statement?

  • 3 years ago


    Great artcile by Silman. Keep up the good work. I am highly motivated by Alekhine's style of play.

  • 3 years ago


    I had the pleasure, and honor of meeting Max Euwe at a tournament located at the Paul Masson winery back in 1979.  Mr. Euwe was there along with Boris Spassky, George Koltanowski, and Waler Browne. 

    I ran to the book store they had setup and bought the book on his victorious match against Alekhine, and got him to autograph it :-)

    To this day, it is one of my most prized autographs.

  • 3 years ago


    Very nice & well done Jeremy!!!!! I love your endgame book as it really helped me improve a lot. Maybe a pawn play book could be done by you also!??

  • 3 years ago


    graet article

  • 3 years ago


    No comment other than great puzzles, and thanks for bringing chess history to life!

    Had to look up the opening in Puzzle 11, Game 6 in the '37 WC rematch, even though I play the Slav (1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.Nc3 dxc4 4.e4 e5 5.Bxc4 exd4 6.Nf3 b5). I was surprised Euwe believed good things were going to happen with none of his pieces developed, to Alekhine's three. I was curious if black could save the game at all. Ended up using the engine and it happily plays 6...dxc3 instead of 6...b5. If 7. Bxf7 Ke7 8.Qb3 Nf6 it shows a clear advantage for black. If 7. Qxd8 Kxd8 8.Ne5 the white knight can swap itself for the rook on a8, but no more.

    I guess 6. Nf3 is a mistake in this line?

    @ stiso83, you're right, but IM Silman did mention that in his notes already.

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