Person of day - 31 OCTOBER 2023
Alexander Alekhine is a considered a genius of chess combinations; many of his contemporaries said he fell in love with combinations and grew out of them. His chess heroes were Morphy, Anderssen, Labourdonnais and Chigorin- players that were famous for their sense of combination. He began to play chess when he was seven and achieved his first major victory when he was seventeen- he won the Russian amateurs’ championship while being the youngest competitor. But his true sensation came later; at the famous 1914 tournament in St Petersburg which brought together all the world’s greatest chess players including Lasker and Capablanca, 22 year old Alekhine came third, ahead of Nimzowitsch, Rubinstein, Tarrasch and Marshall. Russia now had a worthy successor to Mikhail Chigorin.
The First World War, which caught Alekhine at a tournament in Mannheim, interrupted that tournament and the future champion’s career. Along with other chess players, he became a German prisoner of war and, after returning home in 1916, he volunteered to fight on the front. He joined a division of the Red Cross and rescued the wounded from battlefields, for which he was awarded to St George Crosses and the Order of Saint Stanislav. He suffered two contusions and had stay in hospital, where he played blindfold chess with local players. After his release from hospital, he returned to Moscow.
During the Russian Revolution, the son of a noble Russian family suffered many nervous moments. At times, his life hung by a thread. He managed to resume his career only in 1920, when he won the first championship of Soviet Russia. Alekhine did not decline to cooperate with the Bolsheviks, but he nonetheless chose to leave his homeland at first opportunity. In 1921, he married the Swiss journalist Anneliese Rüegg, who was a member of the Comintern of the Swiss Social Democratic Party. Soon after his emigration to the West, he began his ascent to the top. His successes were great in scale: perhaps his most notable victory was at a strong tournament in Baden Baden in 1925. After this victory, Tartakower wrote: “Capablanca hasa title, Lasker has results, but only Alekhine plays with the style of a true world champion.”
After drawn-out negotiations with the world champion, Alekhine agreed to play against Capablanca in 1927 in Buenos Aires. Shortly before the match, both players participated in a four-round all-play-all tournament in New York, where the Russian champion came second, behind the champion. But Alekhine had no intention of losing in Buenos Aires, despite the widespread belief in Capablanca’s imminent victory. The details of this grandiose, dramatic contest are well known. Alekhine won the first game, lost the 3rd and 7th, equalized the score after the 11th and took the lead in the 12th, which he maintained until the end of the match. As a result, he won 6:3 and, after waiting for so long, became the world champion.
The chess world was amazed by Alekhine’s heroics and his defeat of the “invincible” Capablanca. Following this, he won tournaments in Bled and San Remo. At one of these, his performance was so astonishing that a hypnotised Nizowitsch exclaimed: “He crushes us like little chicks!” In 1929 and 1934, Alekhine played two matches against Bogoljubov for the world champion’s title and won both with ease. In 1935, he unexpectedly lost to the Dutch candidate Max Euwe, but in 1937 he regained his crown. That was the last match of the great champion. He held discussions with Botvinnik, but they were interrupted by World War II.
Fate prepared multiple trials for Alekhine. As a Parisian, he ended up in Vichy’s France and was forced to play in tournaments organised by Nazis in occupied territories. The newspaper Parizer Zeitung published anti-Semitic articles about Aryan and Jewish chess under his signature. After the Allied victory, Alekhine faced opprobrium from the chess world; multiple players threatened to boycott tournaments if he was invited, though he did have some defenders who spoke up for him.
The Russian genius died suddenly in a modest hotel room in Lisbon in March 1946. He was the only world champion to die undefeated. Alekhine was buried in Portugal before being re-buried in Paris. His tragic life story, which contained two world wars and a revolution, became a symbol of the trials faced by Russia in the 20th century.