Alexander Alekhine

Full name
Alexander Alekhine
Life
Oct 31, 1892 - Mar 24, 1946 (age 53)‎
Place of birth
Moscow, Russian Empire
Federation
Russia

Bio

Alexander Alekhine is easily one of the greatest chess players of all time. Occupying a place on many people’s top 10 best-ever lists, the fourth official world champion held the title for 17 years—second only to Emanuel Lasker. He’s the only world champion to die with that distinction.

Alekhine’s chess brilliance extended to every aspect of the board and beyond. He’s best known for his tactical prowess and ability to produce combinations in complex situations. Yet, Alekhine was superior in quiet positions and endgames as well. His influence in theory is undeniable, too. Several opening variations bear his name, with the most notable being Alekhine’s Defense (1. e4 Nf6). Alekhine wrote more than 20 books on chess, and two of them are regularly mentioned among the best chess books of all time.

Youth and Early Chess Career

Alekhine learned how to play chess when he was six or seven years old. However, he didn’t get too involved in the game until a couple years later when he witnessed a simultaneous blindfold exhibition involving his older brother. That day, leading American player Harry Nelson Pillsbury broke his own blindfold simul record (21 opponents) by playing against 22 opponents—with 17 wins, one loss and four draws—which inspired the young Alekhine to surpass that feat.

By the age of 12, Alekhine could play blindfolded. A year later, in 1905, he played in correspondence tournaments and developed his skills quickly. It only took him a few more years to accomplish his first major success. In 1909, Alekhine took first place at the All-Russian Amateur Tournament. Now a top player in Russia, Alekhine showed signs as a world-class player over the next few years. In 1910, he won the Moscow Chess Club Autumn and Winter Tournaments, gave his first simul exhibition (15 wins, one loss and six draws), and tied for seventh out of 16 players in the elite Hamburg chess tournament behind the likes of Carl Schlechter, Frank Marshall and Aaron Nimzowitsch. The next year he played in another elite event, the Carlsbad 1911 chess tournament, finishing 11 out of 26 behind all-time greats such as Akiba Rubinstein, José Raúl Capablanca, Nimzowitsch and Schlechter.

A young Alexander Alekhine.
A young Alexander Alekhine

By most accounts, Alekhine’s career took off in 1914. In January, he tied for first with Nimzowitsch in the All-Russian Masters Tournament. But the real highlight for Alekhine was his play in the legendary St. Petersburg 1914 chess tournament, which attempted to bring together the top 20 players in the world at that time. They nearly succeeded. The 11 players who formed the event made it one of the all-time strongest tournaments, and Alekhine joined Marshall in a tie for third place. Those two were behind the first-place Capablanca and the two who tied for second place, Emanuel Lasker and Siegbert Tarrasch. Reportedly, Czar Nicholas II awarded the Grandmaster title to those five players at the tournament (the GM title wasn't officially awarded until 1950, four years after Alekhine's death). Some other top names from the event include Rubinstein, Nimzowitsch, and Joseph Henry Blackburne.

The next period of Alekhine’s chess career was marked by personal struggle. He was winning at a tournament in Manheim, Germany when World War I broke out. The tournament was stopped and Alekhine received the prize for first place, but a series of events interfered with chess. A declaration of war against Russia occurred, and Alekhine, along with other Russian players like Efim Bogoljubow, were interned in Germany and released several weeks later. A year later, in 1915, Alekhine was in Austria when he learned that his mother had died. Once he returned to Russia in 1918, he helped encourage chess activities in the country following a period when it was banned under the Bolshevik regime. Another obstacle in that timeframe happened when Alekhine was suspected of being a spy, but he was released soon after being held.

Before he permanently left Russia, Alekhine swept the Moscow City Chess Championship in 1920 with a perfect score of 11/11, although he wasn’t declared Moscow Champion because he wasn’t a resident of the city. The next year, he went undefeated (nine wins and six draws) in the same tournament, which was held in Moscow for the first time. It was retroactively named the first USSR Championship.

Alekhine’s First World Championship

Alekhine played several mini-matches and elite tournaments leading up to his first title match in 1927. He won or shared first place in most of the tournaments in competed in, and in 1924, he played blindfolded against 26 players, breaking the record that inspired him to take chess seriously. The following year he broke his own record by playing against 28 people in blindfold chess.

In 1927, Alekhine successfully played his first world championship match against Capablanca after years of trying to organize one. The main obstacle to securing a match had been a significant purse of prize money that would pay the champion more than half even if Capablanca was defeated. Alekhine received backing from the Argentine government, which finally enabled the match to take place.

In Buenos Aires, Alekhine defeated Capablanca in the longest championship match ever played up to that time. Alekhine scored six wins, three losses, and 25 draws. It was shocking as Alekhine hadn’t previously won against Capablanca. Alekhine studied his opponent’s games before the match and found Capablanca’s weaknesses—then proceeded use Capablanca's style against him. The 34th and final game took four days, with adjournments, and remains a classic example of a grind-it-out win from the fourth world champion.

Alekhine and Capablanca never had a rematch for the world title. Alekhine thought that the large sum of money Capablanca required for the first match was an attempt to avoid it altogether. Alekhine offered a rematch but negotiations dragged on for years and were never finalized.

From 1927 to the mid-1930s, Alekhine dominated chess. His tournament wins during this period were extensive, and they’re highlighted by the San Remo tournament in 1930 (3.5 points ahead of Nimzowitsch) and Bled in 1931 (5.5 points ahead of Bogoljubow). In 1933, Alekhine once again broke his own blindfold chess record by playing against 32 people simultaneously.

Losing and Recapturing the World Title

Alekhine successfully defended his title twice against Bogoljubow. Each time, he won easily; in 1929, Alekhine had 11 wins, five losses and nine draws, while in 1934, he scored eight wins, three losses and 15 draw.

Another title defense occurred when Alekhine faced Max Euwe at the 1935 World Chess Championship in the Netherlands. Alekhine started out strong, winning their first game in brilliant style and leading five games to two. However, Euwe evened the score after seven more games and continued to narrowly win the match with nine wins, eight losses and 13 draws.

After losing the match, Alekhine had uneven results in tournaments leading up to his rematch with Euwe. The rematch happened quickly, and the two faced each other just two years later. Alekhine defeated Euwe in easily, regaining his title with 10 wins, four losses and 11 draws. That would be the final championship match Alekhine would play. He and Capablanca couldn’t come to terms, and Alekhine passed away in 1946 while finalizing everything on a world championship match with Mikhail Botvinnik.

After regaining his world title in 1937, Alekhine accomplished several tournament victories. However, his career was interrupted by another world war and more chaos in his personal life. Most notable were accusations of anti-Semitism, although many sources point out how Alekhine agreed to cooperate with the Nazis during World War II to protect his wife when she wasn’t granted an exit visa from France. Anti-Semitic articles appeared under his name, but Alekhine claimed that they were forged. Nevertheless, Alekhine stayed in Nazi-occupied Europe during World War II, playing and winning multiple events. He wasn’t invited to tournaments after the war ended.

Hours after he completed arrangements on a world championship match with Botvinnik, Alekhine was found dead in a hotel room in 1946. The circumstances surrounding his death are still debated today.

Legacy

Alekhine was a brilliant tactician who excelled in all areas of the game. He beat the world’s best during a golden age of chess, and also served as the precursor to the Soviet school of chess that more-or-less officially began with Botvinnik. Garry Kasparov once noted about how he “admired the refinement of his [Alekhine] ideas, and I tried as far as possible to imitate his furious attacking style, with its sudden and thunderous sacrifices.”

Alekhine is one of the greatest chess players ever, but his legacy doesn’t stop there. It’s only fitting that a top-10 player of all-time authored a book (My Best Games of Chess) regularly mentioned among the top 10 chess books of all-time. That work and his New York 1924 masterpiece remain strong influences on the chess world, in addition to his games and contributions to opening theory.

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