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Inside Max Euwe

Jul 15, 2008, 6:05 PM 4

 In 1981 Max Euwe was interviewed by GM Hans Bouwmeester for Europe Echecs. The interview was also published in Chess, September-October 1981.

I ran across this excerpted version about 10 years ago. I didn't note the source.


B: Hannak in his biography of Lasker, called him an "Idealgestalt" (Could be translated "ideal man" - Ed.)

E: He was a charming, universal, intelligent man, very gifted but never boastful. He did set some tough standards financially (he had good reason); that was why a projected short Lasker-Euwe match about 1924 fell through. He demanded $100 per game, an enormous sum in those days. It could not be raised.

B: I understand that Lasker believed, after his match with Capablanca in Havana, 1921 that he had assured his finances for life but that he was ruined by rampant inflation in Germany?

E: I don't know for certain. Anyway, he returned to tournament play at Mahrisch Ostrau in 1923. He greatly impressed me there, more so than a year later in New York. His win over Reti was a masterpiece.


B: After Lasker, Capablanca became world champion. You played a match with him in 1931?

E: Yes, I lost 4-6. To be completely objective though, he had a little luck. In both the 5th and 8th games he got lost positions and in the 9th he won after having a bad opening.

B: Has Capablanca ever commented about this match?

E: No, not a word. He always had the attitude of a man who considers himself above the affairs of ordinary mortals... He once appeared for a resumption after adjournment against Yates dressed in tennis flannels but to his great annoyance was kept playing until long after dark.


B: Can you say something about Alekhine? Kotov and Muller have written biographies.

E: Kotov's writings are beautiful examples of distorted history. Pachman has refuted several of his statements recently. Muller is more reliable. Alekhine had a very difficult life. All in all, he was always very correct with me. He stayed with me during our match in 1926 on the eve of his match with Capablanca. In 1935, when I played him the Dutch press was against him and he had his problems with the committee who numbered some hard, strict men - maybe justifiably.

I recall the 29th game in 1935 vividly. The rule was that after 40 moves, whatever the clock situation, White should seal his 41st move. We had reached a rook and pawn endgame in which Alekhine was a pawn up but the position was completely drawn. He made his 41st move on the board. They told him to seal it instead. I offered to seal my move in reply; the position was quite familiar to me and there was not a scrap of danger in it. For the 30th and last game, Alekhine turned up in formal dress and accepted his defeat very sportingly.

His great years were 1930-1934. After Zurich 1934 his chess declined a little. Between 1932 and 1938, I felt I had his measure. Our results bore this out. It was only the 1937 match which harmed my figures.

B: The controversy between Alekhine and Capablanca is notorious.

E: It started after the 1927 match. Capablanca hardly took it seriously, playing bridge far into the night. His physique began to suffer and it was in the closing stages of the match that he went downhill. He gave interviews in which he said a lot of nice things about himself but nothing much about his opponent, which offended Alekhine. Capablanca took it for granted that Alekhine would play a return match. He wrote to Alekhine in an arrogant tone which, the latter replied, was not the tone in which you should write to a champion of the world. Alekhine wanted to be paid in gold dollars (at that time worth twice ordinary dollars) and on this basis Capablanca could not or would not pay. He just stopped negotiating. Capablanca beat Alekhine at Nottingham in 1936. In the AVRO Tournament 1938, Alekhine won. By this time both these great players were already inferior to the younger generation Keres, Botvinnik, fine, each of whom  had a quarter of a century in hand over them.

B: What was Lasker's opinion about these two world champions?

E: One of great respect: an opinion which in Capablanca's case was certainly reciprocated.

B: Not by Alekhine as well? I read somewhere that after Zurich 1934 he spoke very respectfully about Lasker.

E: I don't remember that. Perhaps I heard him but wasn't attending [sic - listening]. After he beat Lasker at Zurich he said something like "the Jew has had another lesson!"

B: So he was already anti-semitic in 1934?


E: Tartakover was a very interesting man - a paradox. A fine, often trenchant, writer. When, in London in 1946 Alekhine's collaboration with the Nazis came into question, Tartakover maintained that it was not for us but for the French Government to judge the case. That Alekhine was anti-semitic, we have all known since 1934, he said.

B: Some say that Tartakover was organising a collection for Alekhine around that time?

E: I recall that  - but with Tartakover you never knew whether he was serious or not.

B: Is it true that during the second world war he spent a lot of time with the Nazi Governor Frank?

E: That is certainly true. Frank was friendly with Bogolyubov and they played chess together. It seems to me they just wanted to play chess. Alekhine may have hoped the Germans would win because he owned several houses in Leningrad. As things went, he lost everything...

I was recently approached by one of his nieces, who begged FIDE to rehabilitate her uncle. I called on her. She maintained that he had never done anything wrong; was merely anti-semitic. FIDE has never undertaken anything against Alekhine. We honour him as a great player.  His tomb in France bears a beautiful inscription. It seems to me a rehabilitation is superfluous for someone who is honoured.

After the war emotions ran high. In London in 1946 Bernstein above all was very excited about it all, but as I have already hinted Tartakover calmed him down a little. The investigations into Alekhine's war-time record were never finalised because of his death.

B: Nimzovich?

E: With him I have played many a time. He was a bit unpleasant, possibly paranoic. At meal times he constantly moaned that he was the last to be served.

B: Vidmar said the same about him. All the same, he was a good fellow?

E: Certainly. Vidmar had a good position; he was a professor in the university of Ljubljana but very, very gripped by chess.

B: Spielmann?

E: Very pleasant, though a little inclined to complain about things. He has often stayed with me. He was rather a dreamer. As a child he fell on his head. During his match against Davidson one game was adjourned, and afterwards he won it. 'You have been analysing with Euwe!' exclaimed Davidson. 'But my moves were better than his,' replied Spielmann.

B: Did you know Teichmann as well?

E: I met him just once. I was playing in an international match against the German player Post and lost a pawn. Teichmann looked at me and said 'I do not understand!' Later I picked up some compensation and finished by winning. Teichmann now remarked 'Now I do understand!'

B: You have often played against Tarrasch from who many masters of your generation learned a lot. There was, of course, a matter of forty years difference between you.

E: When I first met Tarrasch in Pistyan in 1922 he was complaining that the coachman had charged him 25 crowns for a short journey. Johner of Switzerland remarked 'The man demanded 25 crowns from me too; I offered
3 crowns and we finally settled for five!'

Tarrasch I almost always beat. His 'grand epoch' was already behind him. He was at his best between 1895 and 1908.

B: Do you remember his match against Lasker in 1908?

E: Very well indeed. The newspapers were full of it, just as they were with the St. Petersburg Tournament of 1909 where Lasker was beaten in the third round by Rubinstein. I can remember awaiting the papers each day with almost feverish excitement.

B: This tournament was a wonderful success for Rubinstein.

E: I got to know him later and played against him. A placid, intelligent man. He came to Holland towards the end of the '30s before his match with Alekhine. He finished his life in a mental asylum in Antwerp. During the war these asylums were sometimes exploited as refuges by resistance workers. Nazi investigators once descended on the place and asked Rubinstein 'Are you happy here?' 'Not at all!' Rubinstein replied. 'Would you prefer to go to Germany and work for the Wehrmacht?' 'I'd be delighted to!' Rubinstein replied. 'Then he really must be barmy!' the Nazis decided.

B: I should like you to say a bit about training for chess. You once said 'Maroczy and Reti were my teachers.'

E: Reti told me a lot of about the strategy of the centre. The King's Indian became one of my favourite openings. In 1920 I played a friendly match with with him. It was mainly to try some ideas in the openings. In spite of this our games became well known. With Maroczy I played a match of twelve games. He had a great talent for sane, prudent strategy.

B: All the same, he could combine brilliantly and his technique was famous.

E: He was unquestionably a grandmaster. But it was never a question of formal lessons.


B: Let us talk about the International Chess Federation, FIDE. You were involved in its foundation?

E: I was often with Dr. Rueb, its first president, at the time. He was president of the Royal Dutch Chess Federation, a fine organiser and an excellent man in every way. I did assist a little in the creation of FIDE in 1924.

B: The creation of FIDE was a great achievement of Rueb.

E: Undoubtedly. He established it basically and he directed it for nearly a quarter of a century. After the second world war he more or less created it all over again. I contributed just a little, mainly in connection with the  rganisation of the world championship. The zonal and interzonal tournaments were my idea. I don't want to boast. There were many criticisms. But we had to start somewhere.

After the war it was difficult, for Alekhine would not recognise FIDE. He wanted to keep his liberty and financial interests. At Stockholm in 1937 when I was still world champion, we tried to come to some arrangement. For example we wanted to make the AVRO tournament of 1938 an official "candidates" tournament but the competitors would have nothing of it. I remember the Dutch delegate van Trotsenburg walking out in disgust. Flohr was chosen as the main challenger with Capablanca the second in line. But Alekhine won back his title... As I've mentioned, Capablanca wouldn't put up the stake he demanded in gold dollars.

B: If he had raised the gold dollars, would Alekhine have played?

E: Certainly, he was not afraid of Capablanca.

B: Between Rueb and you as President of FIDE came Rogard of Sweden. Did you have much contact with him?

E: Not on the whole. The president of the Dutch Federation about this time, Goudsmit, was the intermediary between us but, sadly, he died very young. Rogard was a very dictatorial man, not keen on having me follow him; but it seemed he couldn't find anybody better.

B: I recall that the atmosphere at Havana in 1966 was very much against Rogard but in spite of this and his absence through illness, he was re-elected for another four years.

E: Because there was nobody else. He was easy-going and when FIDE had trouble raising funds for an official tournament, the Swedish Chess Federation would come to the rescue.


B: I recall that one day, as we were passing the post office, you remarked to me 'Wait a moment, I must go and pick up a pile of offensive letters.'

E: Yes, it was the Fischer epoch. Yet...I am satisfied with what I accomplished.


B: Are you happy about your successor?

E: Absolutely. I think Olafsson is doing good work. He is a little more strict than I; perhaps it would be difficult to find anybody less strict than I!

B: Let us consider chess as  a profession... For one season, 1946-7, you were a full professional player?

E: The Dutch Chess Federation wanted to provide me with the opportunity to regain the world championship. They guaranteed me 500 to 600 florins a month (the salary of a professor then) with an extra 75 fl. for the magazine. By giving simultaneous displays I recovered this money for the federation. Not a marvellous scheme but the federation was not rich at that time.

B: Preparing for a world championship match, you should not have to give
simultaneous displays!

E: No, it was a black period in my chess career.


E: In 1933, though an accepted grandmaster, I was thinking of giving up chess. Then came a famous letter from Alekhine, suggesting that we contest six games on a cruise from Holland to the East Indies. Hans Kmoch thought it a fine opportunity for me and a committee was set up to finance it.

B: It wasn't a good time for such a venture?

E: Van Harten threw himself into the task of raising 100,000 florins, largely in 10 cent contributions (one-tenth of a florin - Editor). He offered the scores of the games to clubs at 500 florins each.

B: Suppose we were to organise a match Karpov v Korchnoy in Holland, one
day in Haarlem, the next in Groningen and so on, people would say we
were mad.

E: I agree...that sort of thing in the AVRO tournament of 1938 aroused a lot of protests from the players.


B: Do you notice much evolution in technique?

E: In the openings, enormous progress has been made. For example, Timman beat Ribli recently with a theoretical innovation on the 26th move... The masters of other days were often just as creative, in fact their technique in the endgame was sometimes sublime but a man like Capablanca could get by without a deep knowledge of the openings. I once played a consultation game with Lilienthal against Capablanca and Kmoch. Kmoch revealed to me afterwards that he had had to break off at one stage to give Capablanca a long talk on the current situation in their opening!  In his best days, however, Capablanca could outplay opponents in the opening too.

B: Didn't he study much?

E: No. For his match with Alekhine, he prepared little or nothing.

B: Would you like to say a few words about chess computers?

E: I was recently called a pessimist because I said that I don't think a computer will ever be as strong as a master. Botvinnik thinks you can analyse intuition and programme it into a computer. I don't believe the human brain functions like a computer. You sometimes forget something. Five minutes later, you remember it. A computer knows everything or nothing! I entitled one of my lectures 'Can a computer think?' The answer can only be a counter-question: 'What is, essentially, to "think"?' There are a lot of computers coming along, and they are even being given Elo ratings.


Hans Bouwmeester tells how he was entertained to a fine meal prepared by Mrs. Euwe, who then had to leave because she herself has many activities. Euwe washed up whilst Bouwmesster dried. The interview had taken two hours.

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