Alexander Alekhine (Part 7): The Dark Years
In Part Six of this seven-part series, we saw Alekhine lose the World Championship to Max Euwe in 1935, only to win it back in 1937. After shocking the world (and Euwe, who was sure he would finish Alekhine off once and for all) with that epic performance, Alekhine continued to show that, at 46 years of age, he was still a force to be reckoned with! There were, of course, occasional failures, but for the most part he did extremely well.
Alekhine – 1st ahead of a weak field.
White’s winning, but it’s up to you to demonstrate your endgame technique.
Alekhine – 1st
Spielmann – 2nd
Petrovs – 3rd
Alekhine and George Thomas 1st and 2nd ahead of a weak field.
Alekhine - Rowena Bruce
1.e4 c6 2.Nc3 d5 3.Nf3 dxe4 4.Nxe4 Bf5 5.Ng3 is known to be inferior for Black, and the reply 5...Bg6 (5...Bg4 should be tried) 6.h4 h6 falls head first into a famous trap. Your job, if you choose to accept it, is to snap that trap shut in the puzzle.
Keres and Fine – 1st and 2nd
Botvinnik – 3rd
Alekhine, Euwe, Reshevsky – 4th through 6th
Capablanca – 7th
Flohr – 8th
Keres was undefeated while Fine lost three games. However, Fine’s two-zero score vs. Alekhine propelled him into a tie for first place (though Keres won on tiebreaks). Alekhine had an even score (three wins and three losses) but his victory over Capablanca was a nice consolation prize. Though Alekhine showed that he was still an elite player, the younger generation was clearly on his heels. It should be mentioned that the AVRO venue changed every few days (it was moved to one Dutch city after another), and the constant traveling exhausted the older players (the young bucks took the first three spots).
Alekhine had a perfect ten - zero score, but the field was very weak.
Alekhine – 1st (seven out of seven)
Golombek – 2nd
Though Alekhine was one of the greatest attacking players of all time (and perhaps the greatest tactician ever), you need positional skills, too, if you hope to be a top player. Here we see those skills on display.
Alekhine visited Lisbon in 1940. Here’s a description of that visit (by Francisco Lupi) from the magnificent book: A. Alekhine: Agony of a Chess Genius, by Pablo Moran. If you are interested in Alekhine’s final days, then this book is a must buy!
“In January of 1940, when the tiny Portuguese chess circle had never yet in its history had a visit from a World Champion, we were told that Alexander Alekhine and his wife Grace were on their way to Lisbon. We were tremendously excited. A reception program was outlined such as a Crown Prince on a pleasure-trip would not have disdained. The best suite of rooms was immediately reserved in Estoril’s luxury hotel, and a magnificent eight-cylinder car was produced for our guest’s exclusive use.
“On a misty February morning, if my recollections are accurate, we all went to the dock to meet the ship in which he came from Buenos Aires, where he had led the French team during the ‘Match of the Nations.’ Even before the ship was moored, we had spotted on the upper deck a very blond, smiling man, carrying two kittens in his arms.
“Later we grew used to seeing him, at his evening simultaneous matches, always wearing his dinner jacket of good English cloth, always using slightly theatrical gestures. He was perhaps a little too fat, his complexion was florid, and after three or four hours’ concentration at the boards he would show evident signs of exhaustion.
“After about every other passage round the ‘ring’ he would drink a cup of coffee. Once he drank more than twenty cups in seven hours. Meanwhile his wife would be sitting in one corner of the room, imperturbably knitting, while the kittens played with the wool. ‘Be careful,’ she would murmur every time he passed. ‘You are drinking too much coffee.’
“Alekhine delighted the Portuguese chess enthusiasts with his brilliance, his kindliness, his constant readiness to help young players, and his work for charity. But there was a war on, and the Russian-born was by adoption and inclination a Frenchman. In a fortnight, he was gone. Some weeks later I received a letter from him saying he was a Lieutenant-Interpreter in the French Army.”
I gave this account of his first visit to Lisbon to show Alekhine in a light that many readers might not be aware of. Yes, he had his enemies (all famous people do), but he was also extremely kind to many people and had close friendships and a vast numbers of fans all over the world.
It’s also important to know that Mr. and Mrs. Alekhine didn’t need to return to war-torn Europe. They were in South America and could have stayed there or made their way to the United States. However, Alekhine wanted to help France, and he returned so he could fight the Nazis side by side with his fellow Frenchmen.
After his return, things went badly, and France fell to the Nazis who arrived in the now helpless city of Paris on June 14, 1940. Seeing that things were grim, Alekhine returned to Portugal so he could arrange a rematch with Capablanca in America (his wife, a wealthy American citizen and famous artist, insisted on staying in France to defend their home and belongings. Eventually, the Nazis took over the chateau and looted it). His plan was to arrange the match, have his wife join him, and then book double passage for Rio de Janeiro or New York. Unfortunately, his plans failed due to Capablanca’s lack of interest and in his inability to get the necessary visas.
Here’s more from Francisco Lupi:
“On the afternoon in which we reached the conclusion that the negotiations for this match were stillborn, Alekhine and I wandered disconsolately down the busy Rua Aurea. I should emphasize that ever since his 1935 match with Euwe, Alekhine had stopped drinking. The first time he arrived in Lisbon, he did not even smoke. On this second trip to Portugal, I immediately noticed he was smoking again. That afternoon, as we passed a café, he told me, without looking me straight in the eyes: ‘I must buy some cigarettes. I see I have no more left.’ And he asked me to wait for him while he went into the café to buy them. I waited; but as he took much time, I decided to go in after him. And then I saw that he had asked for a bottle of wine, and, glass by glass, was emptying it.”
Alekhine was ill for several months but somehow recovered. Returning to his wife in 1941, Alekhine was approached by the Nazis who "asked" him to write some anti-Semitic material (to be used, obviously, as propaganda). This takes us to an interesting place. What if that was you? Keep in mind that this was WWII, death and despair was everywhere, and life had very little value. You can say "No!" and watch your wife take a headshot before you also get blown away, or you can write some gibberish and live to fight another day.
It’s not clear what Alekhine actually wrote. A series of articles, supposedly penned by the World Champion, appeared in a German newspaper in March, 1941. If he did indeed write the articles, they were most likely “fixed” by the editor. Edward Winter pointed out that the articles misspelled the names of many famous players. Also, various “facts” were way off the mark. Moreover, the articles in general were over-the-top nonsense, and any unbiased person would recognize it as such. It seems clear to me that whatever he wrote was indeed changed, and/or Alekhine purposely made these mistakes and wrote one absurdity after another so that the world would understand that he (quite literally!) had a gun to his head while doing so!
Sadly, after the war and its horrors ended, it was almost impossible to find an unbiased person. Thus Alekhine was vilified and, ultimately, destroyed. Those who were out to ruin him pointed to the articles and two other things: 1) He made random anti-Semitic comments at various times throughout his life. 2) After the papers appeared, he was allowed to play in several German tournaments.
I’m Jewish, but to me a few random comments that were allegedly made by someone from a different time (keep in mind that anti-Semitism was extremely common in 19th and 20th century Europe and America) aren’t important. What is important is how that someone treated/interacted with Jews. Alekhine treated Arnold Denker (a Jew) like royalty and with great kindness. Alekhine thought highly of the skills of the American (Jewish) grandmaster Isaac Kashdan and was more than happy to share his respect for Kashdan to anyone that would listen. His second in his 1935 World Championship match against Euwe was a Dutch Jew (Salo Landau). Also, allow me to give two quotes by Alekhine about Emanuel Lasker (who was, of course, a Jew):
“Lasker was my teacher, and without him I could not have become whom I became. The idea of chess art is unthinkable without Emanuel Lasker.”
“Lasker’s mastery precisely in the endgame – especially in a complex, rather than a purely technical endgame – stood for at least two decades at an unreachable height.”
And finally, Alekhine’s wife Grace was Jewish! He doesn’t sound very anti-Semitic to me!
Yet, such was the hate towards Alekhine that some people (Ossip Bernstein in particular) claimed he refused to intervene when the very strong Jewish chess master Dawid Przepiórka was executed by the Nazis in early 1940. The facts paint a very different story: Alekhine and Przepiórka were close friends, and Alekhine wasn’t in Germany and knew nothing about his friend’s predicament at that time (his German/Nazi situation didn’t exist until 1941). Unfortunately, hate often trumps truth.
Addressing the fact that Alekhine played in Germany during the war is easier to explain: The Nazis wanted him to play, and he didn’t want to find out if he’d be killed if he refused to participate. Most interesting, though, is the fact that other well-known players also participated in those events: Keres, Bogoljubov, Samisch, Stoltz, Lundin, Opocensky, and Pachman. None of these players were accused of Nazi behavior, only Alekhine was singled out.
Mr. Moran put it best: “The Nazism of Alekhine existed only in the minds of those who felt victimized by Third Reich realpolitik. And in the days which followed the fall of Germany, gaping wounds hampered sound judgment.”
Krakow – Warsaw 1941
Alekhine and Paul Schmidt – 1st and 2nd
Bogoljubow – 3rd
Klaus Junge – 4th
White has sacrificed a piece for a big attack. However, Black’s knight on e5 is threatening White’s queen. How should White play this position?
Alekhine 1st with five - zero, ahead of a weak field.
Gosta Stoltz – 1st
Alekhine and Lundin – 2nd and 3rd
Bogoljubow – 4th
Krakow – Warsaw 1942
Alekhine – 1st
Klaus Junge – 2nd
Bogoljubow – 3rd
Keller and Sämisch – 4th and 5th
Alekhine – 1st (he beat Keres in their individual game)
Keres – 2nd
Bogoljubow, Richter, and Foltys – 3rd though 5th
Gedeon Barcza – 6th
Here’s Alekhine’s win over Keres, which features a mix of positional domination and tactical acumen:
Alekhine and Junge – 1st and 2nd
Foltys – 3rd
Opocensky and Zita – 4th and 5th
Alekhine – 1st
Keres – 2nd
Junge and Schmidt – 3rd and 4th
Bogoljubow – 5th
Stoltz – 6th
This was a six-player double round robin event. The highlight was Alekhine’s two - zero score over Keres, but the World Champion also lost two games (splitting with Junge and Bogoljubow). In fact, out of the ten games played, Alekhine only drew one!
For a 50 year-old-man, Alekhine’s results were extremely impressive. But he outdid himself in his next event, at the age of 51!
Alekhine – 1st with an incredible undefeated score of 15 wins and only 4 draws!
Keres – 2nd (Two and a half points behind Alekhine)
Not done solving puzzles? Tactics Trainer is waiting!
Alekhine and Keres – 1st and 2nd
In 1943 the Spanish Chess Federation organized a strong tournament in Madrid, and Alekhine and Keres were supposed to be the two biggest names. The Nazis sent him there as their chess representative, but didn’t allow his wife to go with him (the Gestapo wouldn’t give her an exit visa, thus using her to keep Alekhine on a “chain”). Alekhine arrived at the tournament late (there were various reasons for this, but we’ll avoid them in this article) and it was held without him (Keres won). Though Alekhine had promised to return to Germany after the event, he refused to do so, remaining in Spain.
When asked by a Spanish journalist about his future plans, Alekhine said: “Plans? What plans can I have? The best part of my life has passed away between two world wars that have led Europe to waste. Both wars ruined me, with this difference: at the end of the first war I was 26 years of age, with an unbounded enthusiasm I no longer have.”
Once the war ended, Alekhine was banned from playing in tournaments outside of the Iberian Peninsula due to his supposed Nazi affiliation. He found himself stuck in Spain and Portugal, while his wife decided to remain in Paris (she was much older than Alekhine, 67 years old and in poor health, and had decided that enough was enough – she died there in 1956).
Forced to play in silly little events against weak players, and also forced to give endless exhibitions, Alekhine became more and more depressed. He drank incessantly. The “Alekhine hatred,” which he knew wasn’t warranted, dragged him deeper and deeper into a dark psychological pit. Not surprisingly, he got sicker and sicker (mentally and physically), and his chess became weaker and weaker.
Alekhine – 1st (winning seven and drawing one)
A four-game match vs. Rey Ardid, Alekhine won one game and drew three.
At this point in his life Alekhine’s chess skills were almost completely gone, he lived in abject poverty, and he was a physical wreck. He visited Dr. Casimiro Rugarcia in July, 1945, and after being examined was told that he had a fatal cirrhosis of the liver, but if he quit drinking and lived a pure life, he might last a few more years.
From Pablo Moran’s book, A. Alekhine: Agony of a Chess Genius: Alekhine looked at the physician with obvious compassion, put on his jacket, turned away - and as he left, said, “Then it is not worthwhile to quit drinking.”
Alekhine and Nunez Lopez tied for 1st
Lupi – 1st
Alekhine 2nd (followed by a weak field)
Rico Gonzalez – 1st
Garcia Medina and Alekhine – 2nd and 3rd
Pomar – 4th
Alekhine – 1st
Alekhine – 1st
Alekhine – 1st
A four-game match that Alekhine lost two to one with one draw.
Alekhine’s final months were, without any doubt, agony. One of the biggest blows came after his invitation to London 1946. While Alekhine was excited at the prospect of once again playing topflight chess, a group of players demanded that his invitation be revoked due to his Nazi affiliations. The witch-hunt succeeded and Alekhine was once again denied access to a proper tournament and also vilified by post WWII hysteria.
Realizing that Alekhine was ripe to be beaten (by just about anyone!), the Soviet powers that be contacted Alekhine and offered him a sizable sum to play a match for the World Championship against Botvinnik. Delighted at this new chance in life, Alekhine was in the midst of preparing for the match when he was found dead in his hotel room in Estoril, Portugal on March 24, 1946 (he’s the only World Chess Champion to die with the title). The autopsy ruled out heart failure, and the cause of death was given as asphyxia due to a piece of meat (three inches long and unchewed) lodged in the larynx. However, many believe he was murdered (cramming an unchewed three inch long piece of meat down one’s throat would indeed do the job!).
Alexander Alekhine survived imprisonment by the Germans (in Mannheim) in 1914, he survived imprisonment (and a death sentence) in 1918 Russia, he survived two world wars, and he survived the Nazis. Oddly, he was destroyed by his fellow chess players (many of whom were friends) based on post-WWII hysteria, false information, and sheer hate.
Originally buried in the Estoril cemetery, in 1956 his remains were moved (by the French and Russian chess federations) to Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris. Alekhine’s wife, Grace, who died in 1956, was buried next to him. Forced apart by the Nazis, they were finally able to be together in the city they loved.
RELATED STUDY MATERIAL
- Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, and Part 6 in this series;
- Watch IM David Pruess' video Amazing Games for Beginners: Alekhine's Attacking;
- Defend like Alekhine in Chess Mentor;
- Maintain your tactical readiness in our Tactics Trainer;
- Looking for articles with deeper analysis? Try our magazine: The Master's Bulletin.