Alexander Ilyin-Zhenevsky article about Alekhine and Capablanca

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This article was written in 1927, soon after Alekhine defeated Capablanca. An interesting insight into Soviet attitudes towards Western players (compare this with Kotov's words about Fischer more than 40 years later), and some obscure biographical information on Alekhine (Ilyin-Zhenevsky knew him well from Russian days).

The Alekhine - Capablanca Match

Despite the fact that chess have existed for thousands of years, the title of world champion has been created only recently. In ancient times, there were very strong players, some of them were considered best players of their epoch, but they did not have a formal world champion's title. And this is logical. The means of communications were much slower in the early days, strongest players very rarely played against each other, if played at all, and so it was nearly impossible to determine their relative strength.

Only in the 19th century, after railroads were built, and the countries have established closer relations, international chess tournaments have become possible.

The first formal chess world champion was Wilhelm Steinitz (1836 - 1900), who defeated three of his strongest contemporaries: Zukertort, Anderssen and Blackburne. But still, he had to prove his worth again and again in matches with the strongest players of his time.

Steinitz has won 30 (!) or so matches during his long career.

The world champion's title was a very novel concept by then, and this is proved by an amusing anecdote. When Steinitz toured Russia, he received an angry letter from some provincial player. This player asked Steinitz, in very harsh terms, how dared he call himself "world champion" when he never played against him, and he never lost a game in his life. Of course, this player's claims were laughable, and Steinitz didn't even bother to reply, but still, he did feel obliged to prove his worth as a champion and accepted all reasonable challenges. Only in 1894, when Steinitz was 58, he lost his match against a young, 26 years-old Emanuel Lasker and had to relinquish his chess crown.

Lasker became a world champion "by right". He didn't create this title for himself, but rather won it from a player who carried it before him. His legitimacy was undoubtable. So he didn't think it necessary to continuously play matches and thoroughly weighed all the new challengers. In 20 years of his championship reign [Ilyin-Zhenevsky most probably counted his pre-war reign, 1894-1914 - Sp.], Lasker played only five serious matches. He defeated Marshall, Tarrasch, Janowski (twice) and drew against Schlechter. In the meantime, Lasker played in many international tournaments, almost always winning. This created an unbeatable image in everyone's eyes.

Lasker was on the throne for more than twenty years, and it seemed that there was no equal for him. Even Lasker himself seemed to have thought the same. Moreover, because of constant wins, he became somewhat tired of chess. He thought that he's already explored everything there was about chess, that there were no secrets in chess anymore, and so the playing rules should be drastically changed to refresh and save the chess creativity. In the meantime, Lasker invented a new game which he named after himself, Laska. He spent a lot of time on this game, studying its creative possibilities. Lasker also talked about "retiring" undefeated, bestowing the chess crown to the second-strongest, in his opinion, player in the world - Akiba Rubinstein. Rubinstein, who represented Russia at the time, indeed had many successes and could really be considered the foremost candidate for the world championship. But everything went differently to Emanuel Lasker's predictions.

In early 1909, there were talks about a new rising star, a young American player Capablanca. In 1909, Capablanca won a match against one of the world's strongest chess players, American chess champion Frank Marshall, with a stunning result - 8 wins, 1 loss, 14 draws. After that, Capablanca went to Europe in 1911 and immediately won an international tournament in San Sebastian, overtaking all the European players, including Rubinstein. There were immediately talks about a match between him and Lasker. Interestingly, the relationship between Lasker and Capablanca quickly soured. Capablanca tried to challenge Lasker back in 1911, but these talks led to nowhere and only worsened their relationship further. Seeing Capablanca's aspirations for the world championship, Lasker decided in 1920 to voluntarily relinquish the world champion's title and hand it to Capablanca, like he wanted to do with Rubinstein. But the chess world didn't accept that, so their match did finally take place in 1921. The venue was Havana, Capablanca's tropical hometown. Later, Lasker would use that to explain his defeat. As you know, Capablanca won the match with an outstanding result: 4 wins, 10 draws. The match should have continued further, since only 14 games of the scheduled 24 were played. But Lasker didn't want to play on and just resigned the match. He said that he felt unwell in the hot climate and couldn't play anymore.

And so, since 1921, we had a new champion: Jose Raul Capablanca y Graupera.

We can clearly see Capablanca's nationality by his name. He's Hispanic, even though he's an American citizen. In America, you can find entire regions settled fully by one European nation or the other. Cuba, Capablanca's home, is one of such places. It's settled entirely by the Spanish, the old colonizers of America.

After becoming the champion, Capablanca deemed it even less necessary than Lasker to continuously defend and support his world champion's title. He retired to Havana to rest on his laurels. It certainly wasn't easy (and was quite expensive) to lure him out for a tournament, let alone for a match. In his six years as a "champion", the Alekhine match was the only one he played.

You may think from my words that I don't like Capablanca too much. So, I have to immediately say that it's not necessarily his personal fault. Capablanca is a product of his time and, what's more important, of social and economic relationships of the capitalistic West. The nature of capitalism is such that there is only one measure for everything: gold. And chess talent, as well as any other talent, is just a commodity. This ironclad law pushes aside the inner value of chess and interests of development and deepening of the chess art. Only when capitalism falls, and economic necessities won't stifle creativity anymore, chess, as any other art, will truly thrive.

Still, despite never playing a world championship match as a titleholder, Capablanca proved with his sporadic, but consistently successful tournament performance that he was still the strongest chess player in the world.

Let's take even two worst performances by Capablanca in that period: New York 1924 and Moscow 1925. In New York, Capablanca finished second after Lasker, 1.5 points behind him, but by defeating Lasker, he redeemed himself somewhat. We saw a similar picture at the Moscow 1925 tournament. There, Capablanca finished just third, behind Bogoljubov and Lasker, but, again, he defeated Bogoljubov in brilliant style and almost defeated Lasker. Lasker managed to draw only because of Capablanca's mistake. But Capablanca's greatest success happened this year, in 1927. In New York, there was a match-tournament featuring Capablanca and five of his closest rivals: Alekhine, Nimzowitsch, Vidmar, Marshall, and Spielmann. In this outstanding competition, Capablanca won the first prize without losing a game. It seemed that Capablanca was never as good as he was then. And there was no doubt that he was a legitimate and true world champion.

So, what's the secret of Capablanca's great chess gift? If we study his games, the first thing that should amaze us is their clarity and simplicity. Capablanca never strives for complications, never wants to confuse the opponents. He chooses the moves that lead to victory in the most natural and simple way. If there is no such continuation, Capablanca doesn't try to fancy his chances, but instead slowly and surely steers the game towards draw. Draws don't scare him in the slightest. If you need to take risks to avoid the draw, Capablanca will never do that. He approaches the game not as a fighter, but as a mathematician trying to solve a problem. If the problem cannot be solved, Capablanca just openly admits that. The fact that Lasker, whose playing is less precise but more inventive, constantly finishes ahead of Capablanca in tournaments, can be explained by this feature of Capablanca's playing. Sometimes an extra draw made by Capablanca decided a tournament's outcome for him. These qualities also explain why Capablanca was undefeated in matches until now: an extra draw means nothing there. Finally, this explains Capablanca's small loss rate. You can count his losses on the fingers of your hands. It's not a miracle when Capablanca doesn't win, but if he loses, this is almost a sensation. If we use the established terms, Capablanca's style may be characterized as positional. He avoids gambits with unclear chances. His games do sometimes feature deep and beautiful combinations, but all those combinations are based on precise calculations. Capablanca's main strength in comparison with other players is his immaculate, exceptional technique. The world has never seen another player equal to Capablanca in this regard. If Capablanca has even the smallest advantage, you can be pretty sure that he would meticulously, implacably realize this advantage and reach the winning endgame. It's only natural that Capablanca is also an unrivaled endgame player.

In the atmosphere of Capablanca's New York triumph, his first world championship match against Alexander Alekhine began.

Who is Alekhine and why did he have the luck to be the first who challenged Capablanca for his prestigious title?

Alexander Alexandrovich Alekhine, a Russian gentryman by birth, was born in Moscow in 1892. He's just four years younger than Capablanca. Like Capablanca, he showed an interest in chess from an early age. In 1909, being just 16 years old, he won the All-Russia Amateur Tournament in Peterburg, achieving the master's title. Ever since then, he'd been one of the strongest Russian players. Alekhine achived his greatest pre-war success in 1914. He shared 1st-2nd place with Nimzowitsch at the Russian Masters' Tournament in St. Petersburg, qualifying for the grandmasters' tournament, and there, he unexpectedly finished third, ahead of all the world's strongest players except for Lasker and Capablanca.

The war began when Alekhine was in Germany, in Mannheim; he played in an international tournament and was in the lead. Due to the war, the tournament remained unfinished, but everyone agreed that Alekhine was the moral victor. Together with other Russian players, Alekhine was arrested and declared a civilian prisoner of war. Still, he was freed shortly due to his heart condition and returned to Russia.

During the war, Alekhine served in the Cities' Union. He was still on that job when the 1917 Revolution happened. After the dissolution of Cities' Union, Alekhine found work as an investigator in the Moscow Criminal Investigation Department. Alekhine found great successes there, managing to solve several very complicated crimes. The ability to solve complications on the chess board helped him in his new job as well.

As time passed, Alekhine, despite his gentry background, became progressively more Sovietized. In the late 1919 or early 1920, he applied to join the Communist party. How sincere was Alekhine then? His later conduct, which I'll describe below, got some people thinking that Alekhine's decision was hypocritical. I disagree. I knew Alekhine closely enough at the time, he'd often spend evenings at my home, we worked on the organization of the First All-Russian Chess Olympiad [later regarded as the first Soviet chess championship - Sp.], and I can say that at the time, he struck me as a very sincere man. The other thing is, Alekhine's communism was somewhat shallow and didn't captivate him in full. This is right! By both his social status (a landowner's son) and his bringing-up and education (a lawyer), Alekhine was too distant from the working class and its titanic struggle. Alekhine's logic and life practice convinced him that the way of the Russian working class was the right way, but still, he wasn't a communist through and through. And this showed very soon.

In 1920, Alekhine quit the Moscow Criminal Investigation Department job and started working in the Communist International. Due to his mastery of foreign languages, he worked as a translator, and as a communist, he was a secretary of the cultural and educational department. The Comintern job was very fascinating for him. I still have Alekhine's enthusiastic letter from Ekaterinburg (now Sverdlovsk), which he visited together with the Comintern delegation. In this letter, he tells of the great propagandistic value of this visit, and that he'd translated 22 (!) reports in one day. But this letter also shows another feature of Alekhine's character. Despite his fascination with social and political work, he never forgot that he was a chess player first and foremost. In the letter, he enquired if it was possible to organize his tour in the Baltic states and, especially, if his match with Nimzowitsch would attract interest. He'd always dreamed to go abroad and show his exceptional chess strength in full. He was ready to do anything to fulfill this dream. And here's where the shallowness of his political outlook showed. Chess player in him prevailed over human and citizen. In the beginning of 1921, Alekhine married a foreign communist woman, a Comintern delegate, and went abroad as her husband.

Chess have totally consumed him, and he showed the full extent of his talent. During the war and revolution, Alekhine's talent didn't diminish, but rather thrived. Alekhine won a string of international tournament. He never refused an invitation and continuously won. There were even talks that while Capablanca retained his world champion's title by avoiding defence, Alekhine proved that he was the world's strongest player with his victories. Of course, after such talks, the match between Capablanca and Alekhine became inevitable. The formal talks went for quite some time before the sides finally reached an agreement this year, and the match began.

What are the main features of Alekhine's chess work? Alekhine is totally opposite to Capablanca. While Capablanca values simplicity and clarity, Alekhine strives for difficulty and complications. He likes sharp play. He's not afraid to create weaknesses in his position if he sees his opponent's weaknesses. Capablanca doesn't like risk, he's always playing solidly; on the contrary, Alekhine takes risks all the time. And nobody can find a sudden decisive strike in a very complicated position with thousands of threats and counterthreats quite as well as Alekhine. Another Alekhine's gret strength is his critical attitude towards position. Even in the opening variants that were played thousands of times, he's always in doubt - and he's not just doubting them, he's trying to improve them. While Capablanca added nothing to the theory and always plays the same formulaic variants, Alekhine contributed to the development of several openings, invented important novelties and even created a whole new opening which now bears his name - Alekhine's defence (1. e4 Nf6; the opening move was first used by a late Moscow-based player Mikhail Klyatskin, but Alekhine was the one who developed the whole theory of this opening). Alekhine's positional understanding shines through in his brilliant game commentary. We can surely say that Alekhine is currently the greatest chess commentator in the world.

We can also approach the Alekhine - Capablanca match from another angle. USSR is currently, as was Russia formerly, one of the strongest chess countries in the world. Already in Gustav Selene's chess handbook (17th century) we find a quote that "Russians, or Muscovites, play chess very inventively and with great diligence, and they are so masterful in this game that it's hard for other nations to rival them."

It's also known that during Alexis I's reign, Moscow send an embassy to Paris that amazed the Frenchmen with its chess-playing abilities. According to a French source, the Russians "schooled" the best Parisian players.

Still, despite Russia having a string of very strong players, no Russian has been a world champion. In the times of Morphy, there was a brilliant Russian player, Alexander Petrov. There were talks about organizing a match between him and Morphy, but it never took place. In Steinitz's time, another Russian player, Mikhail Chigorin, was one of his main competitors, but he couldn't win the world chess crown. Many people thought that Akiba Rubinstein, who represented Russia before the war, was Lasker's natural successor, but Capablanca's emergence ruined these plans. And now, we have another Russian, Alekhine, challenge Capablanca. He finally managed to achieve what his talented compatriots have tried to do for generations.

And so, they have finally met: a very cool and sober Southerner and a Northerner with a very "southern", stormy temperament. And the very first game brought a sensation. Alekhine, who'd never defeated Capablanca before, emerged victorious. This instantly overturned many predictions and made everyone quite wary. Then Capablanca won the 3rd and 7th games, seemingly turning the tides, but then suddenly lost two games in a row, 11th and 12th, and after a string of draws, also lost the 21st game. His title was under a real threat now.

Capablanca tried to equalize again and won 29th game, but that was the dying lion's last strike. After some more draws, Alekhine won the 32nd game and then 34th, winning the whole match. Alekhine became the world champion.

How can we evaluate both players' style in this match? We can say that while Capablanca remained as he always was, Alekhine's style was almost unrecognizable. When did he acquire such restraint and solidity? Where did his passion for complications go? Instead of a struggle between two clashing styles, we saw a match between two representatives of one style. Alekhine was very thorough and careful, and he would gladly agree for a draw if he didn't see a win. There was an incredible number of draws in this match. If the draws didn't count, Alekhine would've won the match much sooner. Alekhine's sudden change of style brought him much good. Capablanca lost. Alekhine beat him with his own weapon. Incredible, but true!

The Soviet players have met the news of Alekhine's win with ambiguous feelings. On one hand, most Soviet players have been rooting for Alekhine during the match. It's understandable. We all know and remember Alekhine well. Also, Capablanca was too condescending during his entire brilliant career, turning many people against him. But on the other hand, the news of Alekhine's success made us a bit bitter. A short time ago, Alekhine was completely "ours", but then he left us, and we can't just forget it easily. Is he with us, or not? The Soviet players' attitude towards him depends on that.

Alekhine passed his first exam: he defeated the seemingly undefeatable Capablanca. The Soviet players have their own "exam" for him. Will he pass?

P.S. Alekhine didn't pass that "exam". In 1928, after returning to Europe, he reportedly made an anti-Soviet speech at an assembly of Russian emigrees, alienating the Soviet chess community. Ilyin-Zhenevsky himself in a later article called him (not an exact quote) "a traitor, but a brilliant chess player nonetheless, so we still need to study his games to enrich our style."