Encounters with Alekhine
This is Pyotr Romanovsky's account, published in Shakhmatny v. SSSR, 1956 of his various
encounters with a young Alexander Alekhine. Romanovsky was an early Russian chess player, born the same year as Alekhine, 1892, who won the USSR Championship in 1923, played in what was then known as Petrograd (aka Leningrad and Saint Peterburg) and co-won the same championship with Fedor Bogatyrchuk in 1927, in Moscow.
(From ‘Shakhmatny v. SSSR’ #3 March, 1956, pgs.87-89)
Encounters with Alekhine
(translated from the original Russian by by WilhelmThe2nd)
The All-Russian Amateur Tournament
I was very much delighted when the administration of the chess society included me in the All-Russian Amateur tournament and I immediately took an interest in the composition of the participants.
Many of them, for example Maliutin, Rosenkrantz, Chepurnov, Tereshchenko, Lebedev, Gelbak, were familiar to me from the autumn tournament of the St. Petersburg Chess Club in 1908 (The All-Russian tournament was planned for February 1909).
In July 1908 I had turned 16 years old. My pride was not a little flattered, that I was the youngest among all the participants and it would be necessary for me to do "battle" with solid and honourable people. Somehow, in a conversation with a member of the committee, Chudovski, I allowed myself to express my feelings about this and was somewhat disappointed, when two days later, meeting me, he said: "But you are not really the youngest participant in the tournament". I then learned, that participating in the tournament was a Moscow gymnasium student, Alekhine, who was three months younger than I. And, added Chudovski: "It seems that he plays quite strongly”.
From further conversations it was explained that this Moscow gymnasium student had already participated successfully in the Dusseldorf Amateur tournament and that in the autumn of 1908 he had taken first place in the tournament of the Moscow Chess Club, in which strong chess players had taken part.
Shortly afterwards in the chess column of the newspaper "Novoye Vremya" there appeared the game Alekhine-Blumenfeld, excellently won Alekhine. It produced a strong impression on me. The persuasiveness of the victory was enhanced by a brief report about the fact that Alekhine had won a match against Blumenfeld, who was then considered one of best chessplayers of Russia, by the score of +4, -0, =1.
At the end of January 1909 my introduction to Alekhine finally took place. The same Chudovski brought me to a young man with blond hair, seated at a chess table, and said: "Here is Romanovsky, of whom I have spoken to you about". Then he left us and we remained together. Alekhine immediately began to talk to me using the familiar “you”."How do you think you will do in the tournament?" - he asked me with a smile. Feeling myself somewhat embarrassed, I answered evasively that it was my first time playing in such a strong tournament and that it was difficult to foresee my result.
“Ah”, he interrupted me with a note of some disdain in his voice, “First of all, the tournament is not quite so strong as it seems to you, and, in the second place, in my opinion there is no sense playing in a tournament, where you do not expect to take first place. I, for example, am almost certain that I will take first, especially since, as I have learned, the title of Master will be conferred on the first prizewinner. With all these gentlemen”, he added, meaning our future opponents, “it is only necessary to play boldly".
Then Alekhine suggested we play some chess. I was so frightened by his statements that I quickly lost three games and we parted.
The tournament began. Alekhine’s swift attacks, his daring experimental play in the opening and resourcefulness in defence left a strong impression. His opponents, one after another, rather quickly suffered defeat.
An enormous impression was produced on me by the crushing defeats inflicted by Alekhine on Vyakhirev, Rozanov, Goldfarb, & Elyashev. I give the latter game, since I, being free during this day, observed it from the first to the last move, and witnessed the conversation that occurred between the players after the game.
S. Elyashov-A. Alekhine
It is astonishing that in games against Alekhine the opponents made exactly the same such "blunders”. Izbinsky, Goldfarb, and Evtifeev made approximately the very same errors. Alekhine’s sharp play right out of the opening, it seems, caused a feeling of confusion in his opponents.
The energy and uniqueness with which Alekhine developed well-known opening systems was extremely striking to me. The opening of his game with Rosenkrantz made an especially big impression on me.
Alekhine’s chief rival in the tournament proved to be Rotlevi. The encounter between Alekhine and Rotlevi attracted a great deal of attention. Alekhine played Black and for first prize it was sufficient enough for him to make a draw. Consequently, the extremely hazardous tactics Alekhine adopted right out of the opening in this critical game caused general consternation.
Alekhine took first place and became a Master. Our next encounter took place two years later when Alekhine moved to St. Petersburg in connection with entering Law school.
The Years 1912-14
Tall, with a light blush on his cheeks, Alekhine looked smart and dandyish in his Law School uniform.
Once, at his invitation, I visited his home (he lived somewhere in the area of Isaakiev Square and Morsky Street) at an agreed upon hour, but he was not there. They proposed that I wait. Approximately an hour later Alekhine appeared.
Soon we sat in the drawing room and had a lively conversation. I questioned Alekhine about his foreign appearances at Hamburg, Carlsbad, and Stockholm. He spoke about his results very reservedly, although in the Stockholm tournament in the summer he had taken first prize.
"My victory was not difficult”, he said. – “My only possible rival was Spielmann but, after losing to Fridlizius in the first half, he was demoralized ". "Against Spielmann I won comparatively easily”, he added. –“I very much wanted to take revenge for my defeat in the Carlsbad tournament!” I was reluctant to talk about Alekhine’s failure at the Russian Masters Tournament at Vilnius, where he lost 8 games and collected 8 1/2 points in all out of 18 games, and our conversation soon passed on to other chess subjects.
Incidentally, I complained about the fact that my attempts to imitate his risky tactics had thus far been unsuccessful. "You sacrifice pieces and eventually you lose", I finished my thought. Alekhine began to laugh. "Well, my dear, first of all the whole point is that you must sacrifice correctly, and secondly, even after correctly sacrificing a piece, it is necessary to play with great precision in order to bring the attack to a conclusion... Recall the last game of the Lasker-Schlechter match. Schlechter’s sacrifice was completely correct, and Lasker’s “crown” hung by a thread. Unfortunately, however, things turned out differently."
"Had you wanted Schlechter to become the champion of the world?" - I asked.
"Schlechter is a master of great class”, answered Alekhine. – “in Hamburg and Carlsbad I felt this in my games with him. True, I was a little was afraid of him, and so the psychological chances were also on his side, but this does not diminish the persuasiveness of his victories. Furthermore, if Schlechter had won the match, we would now be witnessing a great contest between him and Capablanca".
Then he gave very high praise of the Cuban’s skill: “Capablanca always sacrifices correctly, and his entire game is so very beautiful, and how logical. He has lifted the combination of these two elements of the chess fight to a higher level. In any case, for Lasker, Capablanca is more dangerous than Rubinstein. One only has to get Lasker to play with him soon."
Alekhine was then sufficiently talkative and at the end of our conversation he began to discuss beauty in chess.
"The main element of beauty in chess, he said, is concealed in the striving to find truth. What good is a sacrificial combination, if it has obtained its completion only because of the poor defense by the opponent? A correct, deeply calculated sacrificial combination is, in essence, a creative masterpiece. It is precisely in this way that chess is brought together with art".
It was already after midnight, and I was going to leave, when Alekhine suggested we look at the only game he lost at the Stockholm tournament to the same Fridlizius, who had won from Spielmann. After arriving home that night, I wrote down the comments that Alekhine had made apropos this encounter. Here they are.
Yu. Fridlizius-A. Alekhine
During December, 1913 - January, 1914 Alekhine divided 1st-2nd places with Nimzovich in the Russian Masters tournament and they were both admitted into the grandmaster tournament with the participation of Lasker, Capablanca, Tarrasch, Janowsky Rubinstein, Marshall and others
In this difficult event Alekhine achieved a fine result, taking third prize after Lasker and Capablanca. All of Alekhine’s games were full of the exciting moments and sharp experiences. At the end of last round, I approached Alekhine and congratulated him. Alekhine's eyes began to shine. “Thank you”, - he said, - “but, you know, I only consider this success as one more step forward”. “How do you evaluate Lasker's victory?” - I asked. “I am not satisfied”, - he answered. –“I would have preferred Capablanca”.
On a bright July day in 1914 the express train from Switzerland smoothly approached the Mannheim station. Soon, at the door of one of 1st class cars, Alekhine appeared. We firmly shook each other’s hand. Besides me, some other Russian chessplayers and representatives of the organizing committee of the congress of the German Chess Union in Mannheim came to meet him. Alekhine was taciturn, complaining of fatigue and, knowing that the first round would begin in a few hours, he hastened to reach the hotel in order to get a little rest before the game.
A curious history preceded Alekhine's arrival. For a long time he did not answer the organizing committee’s invitation to take part in the tournament and, finally, three days prior to the beginning of the event he sent a telegram with approximately the following content:
«Please inform me, is Capablanca participating in the tournament?» The organizing committee was extremely discouraged by this telegram. It very much would have liked to have Alekhine participate in the tournament, but the majority of members of committee believed that Alekhine was searching for meetings with Capablanca and that without participation of the latter, the tournament would hold little interest for Alekhine. Though it had almost already become clear that Capablanca would not take part in the tournament, the organizing committee gave Alekhine an evasive answer, as though there were still some chances of Capablanca's participation.
Having come for Alekhine to go to the tournament together, I could not resist myself and asked him what had provoked his telegram, to this he answered:
“If Capablanca would have participated, then I would not have played. The fact of the matter is that in the coming years I must prepare for my match with Capablanca for the world’s championship. For this purpose I must take only first prizes. Right now I am still weaker than Capablanca, and, this means, that in the event of his participation I must be content, at best, with second place which does not enter at all into my calculations”.
“But Lasker is the world champion right now”, - I noted. “This is unimportant”, - he answered, -“soon it will be Capablanca”.
And so, even then the twenty-two year old Alekhine cherished the dream of gaining the world championship and had outlined a plan of his own making in order to turn his dream into reality.
In the Mannheim tournament Alekhine won game after game in splendid style. He showed me his games against Duras, Breyer, and Mieses, making brief comments on the course of the struggle. I was amazed at the insight with which he guessed the ideas of his opponents. Showing the game with Duras (White) after the 23rd move, he asked me how I would have played now.
I thought for about a minute and played 24. Rh1.
“You, like Duras also, did not deceived me in my expectations”, - Alekhine said. – “Both of you made the natural move of the Rook to the open file, but this is just a mistake”. And then Alekhine demonstrated the continuation that occurred in the game: 24. Rh1 Nd4 25. Bxd4 cxd4 26. Rxd4 Bb4! 27. Nb3 d5! (This is the point of the combination. If 28.exd6 e.p., then 28…Bb7+) 28. Ne3 c5 with an advantage for Black.
The war broke out. The Russian chessplayers were arrested, they stayed approximately a month in a prison in the fortress at Rashtatt and finally they were sent to Baden- Baden, where we were permitted to live privately by our own means. Almost all of us were put up in the same hotel. I lived on the second floor, -Alekhine on the third.
There Alekhine began work on a collection of the games of the All-Russian tournament of Masters of 1913-1914. He drew me into this work, and almost all evening long I spent in analysis.
I was amazed at his diligence and capacity for work. On any one analysis he was capable of spending several evenings. In analysis Alekhine was very objective. There was one case, when after a multi-hour analysis we arrived at the conclusion that the position had finally been exhausted, and he wrote out an extensive commentary on several pages.
Late in the evening I left to go to sleep. At 4 A.M. a telephone call awoke me. I raised the receiver. "Come to me immediately ", I heard Alexander Alexandrovich’s voice.
Entering Alekhine’s room, I found him behind the chessboard. It was the position that we had "drawn". "We did not notice the move b7-b6”, announced Alekhine, “which refutes everything. Let us take a look at it". And we took up the analysis again, sitting throughout the morning and the entire following day, since Alekhine turned out to be right.
My last encounters with Alekhine took place in the days of the first championship of the Soviet Union during October 1920. The second day after my arrival from Petrograd I was living at the cadets dormitory. After dinner I sat in my room, when suddenly none other than Alekhine burst in on me. We had not seen each other in several years. He had grown thin, he seemed to have grown taller, he was animated, almost merry. Then began the questions, stories, and sharing of impressions.
Alekhine said that he was going to go abroad to participate in international tournaments and to prepare for the struggle with Capablanca. "Lasker’s song has been sung”, he said, “their match is at hand".
Day after the day the tournament approached its end. Alekhine confidently took the lead and captured first place, not having lost a game.
Soon Alekhine left abroad, and we never met again.
Alekhine, in my view, had a conflicting nature, and in him two sides always struggled: a sober, cold calculating one and an exciting gamut of moods, which frequently carried him along in a sea of stormy emotions. This contradiction was also reflected in Alekhine’s chess creativity. It is difficult to say, when he was more dangerous, whether it was when logically, carefully, with technical virtuosity, he, move after move, destroyed the plans of his opponent, or when, with an inexhaustible ingenuity, all in a creative ferment he stunned his opponent with brilliant, inspired, and unexpected combinations.
Alexander Alekhine vs. Pyotr Romanovsky, 1909
"A Vase from the Imperial Porcelain
Works. Most graciously donated by His
Majesty the Emperor, as a prize in the
name of his Imperial Majesty and given to
the winner of the All-Russian tournament,
(Niva, March 21, 1909)
Two chess columns from Novoye Vremya mentioned by Romanovsky in the article:
'Novoye Vremya' chess column of 3rd (16th) November, 1909, concerning the Blumenfeld-Alekhine game:
'Novoye Vremya' chess column of 27th Oct.(9th Nov.), 1908, concerning the Blumenfeld match:
This is a reprint from an article I first published in July, 2007