Clash of Champions: Alekhine vs Capablanca

  • GM BryanSmith
  • | Jul 24, 2014

As we move further from the misty past and closer to modernity in our exploration of the endgames of world championship matches, we come to the battle between the incumbent champion, Jose Raul Capablanca, and the challenger, Alexander Alekhine.

The world championship match was held in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1927.

Capablanca, who we met last week when he took the championship from Emanuel Lasker, was considered to be the heavy favorite of the match. Alekhine had never defeated Capablanca and his record prior to the match was five losses and seven draws.

Little did people know then that many matches for the world championship would be won by players who had never before defeated their opponent! Petrosian (against Botvinnik), Fischer (against Spassky), and Kasparov (against Karpov) are some of the examples. But at the time Capablanca was considered practically invincible, and few believed that Alekhine had any chance.

image via Wikipedia

Alexander Alekhine had a very turbulent and unusual life. He was born in Moscow in 1892 to a wealthy family. By sixteen years old he was a master, one of the youngest at the time. (In those days, with less information available and more time needed to perfect one's craft, you did not find many young masters.)

The beginning of World War I found Alekhine playing in a tournament in Germany. At the outbreak of the war, the Russian players were taken prisoner. Later Alekhine was released and returned to Russia, after which details of his life were shrouded in mystery.

He apparently returned to the front, and also performed simultaneous exhibitions in military hospitals. After the Bolshevik Revolution, he was taken prisoner in Odessa, and was in danger of being executed. The details are unclear, but somehow he avoided that.

In 1921 he defected from Russia and moved to France. Throughout the early 1920s, he competed in international tournaments with great success, which allowed him to seek a match with Capablanca.

Alexander Alekhine: image via Wikipedia

It has been said that Alekhine was able to defeat Capablanca by improving his technical ability and restraining his wild imagination, in effect beating Capablanca at his own game. Indeed, in this match you hardly see the wild and sharp play typical of Alekhine's chess.

Alekhine understood that to attempt to defeat Capablanca in the style that he beat other masters would only backfire, that his energy would be used against him. Instead his play was strictly positional and his attacks very subtle.

Despite this, the decisive games of the match are among the most celebrated world championship games today.

Quite a few games where Alekhine had White reached the following ending, which arises from the -- aptly named -- Capablanca Variation of the Queen's Gambit Declined.

Despite Alekhine managing to create a little pressure in some of the games, they were all drawn. Although of interest, none of these games really provide the right material for an article.

Perhaps the most interesting endgame took place in the 32nd game of the match. Alekhine won a pawn, and using various tactical ideas was able to fight off Capablanca's counterplay and finally win. I already analyzed this game in my "A Pawn Up" series, but here I will present it again:

This game put Alekhine ahead by score of 5-3 (draws not counted), and on the verge of gaining the crown -- the rules of the match were that the winner was the first to reach six victories. However, according to some historians, the match would go to Capablanca in the event that it was ever tied 5-5.

If this was true, then the score at this point was hardly such a big advantage for Alekhine -- he would need to win one game to become the world champion, but Capablanca would still only need two wins to retain the title.

We move ahead to the 34th -- and final -- game of the match, the game that made Alekhine the world champion. With Alekhine needing only one win to finish the match, he once again played 1.d4, and the game went into another Queen's Gambit Declined.

Perhaps tired of seeing ...Qb4+ followed by a dreary ending, he did the logical thing, and cut out that possibility entirely by playing 6.a3!

Subtle positional pressure finally netted Alekhine a pawn on the queenside.

Now imagine the tension -- winning this position would make him the world champion. He was tantalizingly close to his life's goal. But a real professional and real competitor cannot afford to get shaky and lose his nerve.

Now let's see how Alekhine guided his advantage home, finally forcing the capitulation of the seemingly unbeatable Capablanca after 82 moves.

This endgame is in itself a real course on rook and pawn endings. First of all, while the queens were still on the board, we saw many instructive situations where the players offered or rejected various exchanges. Correctly assessing the changes caused by the exchange of a pair of pieces is crucial.

Finally, in the rook ending we saw a variety of typical themes, with Alekhine's slight inaccuracies perhaps making the ending only more interesting and instructive. We saw one of the most critical aspects of this ending -- the position of the rooks.

Hopefully, you now have a much stronger sense of the real advantage of having a rook behind the passed pawn. We also saw Capablanca's defensive plan -- the exchange of the positions of the rooks.

There were  also themes of how a rook solidly defends the pawn chains while itself anchored (the black rook on f5), and some zugzwangs. In the end, we saw another basic motif of rook endings: the creation of a barrier to the opposing king.



  • 2 years ago


    A challenging ending explained beautifully.  Thank you!  How the game might have finished (since it may not be obvious how to finish it from the final position).

  • 2 years ago


    amazing article! thanks so much!

  • 2 years ago


    I could probably figure it out if I took a few minutes and set up the position, but in my head it's a little confusing -- this is coming from someone who does know the Lucena position. An explanation of a few of the plans would save me that trouble. Indeed maybe one should not feel like they have to defend both pawns and eventually give one up -- but that could have been explained very briefly.

    Probably giving up the h pawn and yeah, just trying to achieve the Lucena as always, should work well with the king cut off. I was trying to advance them together and maybe give up the pawns later, but that may just complicate the plan.

  • 2 years ago


    GM.Bryan, a great article, I love Alekhine aggressive playing style.

  • 2 years ago


  • 2 years ago


    Very instructive article.. @ IM Daniel Rensch I guess that Silman's story tellng on the exact topic covered in 6 parts was a bit better..

  • 2 years ago

    NM GargleBlaster

    All one needs to know in order to win from the final position is Lucena.  In fact, the h-pawn isn't even required. 

  • 2 years ago


    "Instructive article, but, truth be told, I miss the wild Bryan Smith of old who would regale us with tales of existential adventure in Moldovia and soul-searching treks through the Alaskan hinterlands."

    I actually prefer these kinds of articles. I don't come here to read a novel.

    Anyway, this is outstanding endgame instruction -- so many themes going on in that rook ending.

    The only thing is that I actually would want some analysis of the final position. Although the rook on the e file cuts off the king for now, it would seem like eventually the rook would have to give up ground, as black's rook can keep annoying white by attacking f4 or h4, and check whenever white's king moves to the g file... it's hard to defend both f4 and h4 at the same time. It seems like white needs to eventually transfer the rook to g5 or something similar to block out all the checks. Or maybe not -- but it's tricky enough that some comments about the technique from that position would be helpful.

  • 2 years ago


    Was Capablanca "playing by feel" (not calculating) when he dropped a pawn, or was it a simple oversight?  After white's 21. Qd2! most players would analyse the consequences of 22. Qa5 (attacking 2 pawns), but Capablanca did not.

    Regardless of age (Capablanca was 39 yrs and Alekhine was 35 yrs), match pressure, or indifference; missing a 1 mover... :-( 
    Did Alekhine put the queen on d2 for no reason?

  • 2 years ago



  • 2 years ago



  • 2 years ago

    FM TheMagician

    i thought i was 'all right' at rook pawn endings but these guys were playing like computers before computers!!

  • 2 years ago


    I miss Bryan's dietary suggestions.

  • 2 years ago



  • 2 years ago


    all you players have no taste!!!!!!!!! Alekhine was great~!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!Frown

  • 2 years ago

    NM GargleBlaster

    Sorry, no disrespect for this article was intended. If anything, anyone able to keep me awake at all through the Alekhine-Capablanca match probably deserves a Pulitzer.

  • 2 years ago


    This was a great article! Thanks

  • 2 years ago


    I'm putting all of these articles in my "reread with a chess set" category in my agenda. Although my rating isn't very high, if I am any judge of your recent lectures for stlchess, you should really also sign up to do video lectures on this site too. I would probably learn more by replaying the actual games in your articles, but I really do enjoy your presentation style and would love to see more content from you.

  • 2 years ago

    IM DanielRensch

    I loved Bryan's work there too - but I am LOVING this series!

    Come on guys (@grumpyguru and @gargleblaster) -- this articles are fantastic storytelling by Bryan!



  • 2 years ago


    @puiuus I'm sure the jewish community would disagree with you. Besides, Fischer,Tal and Morphy were more creative, deep and overall better. Don't get me wrong. I respect Alekhine as a chess player, He definitely had a style of his own. I bought My Struggle Alekhine and learnt alot from it. I'm not kidding that's the name of his book.

Back to Top

Post your reply: