the summer of 1957 I participated in the Swedish
national chess championships for the first and - so far - only
time. I played in one of the two junior groups, where I was
undefeated and received second prize after my schoolmate and
good friend Jan Sellberg. This encouraged me to start studying
chess in earnest. Already at the championships I got a collection
of Alexander Alekhine's best games entitled Schachgenie Aljechin
(Chess Genius Alekhine), which I studied during my summer vacation
from school, and which I credit for enabling me to win the Swedish
school championship later in the autumn of that year.
The book was written by chess master Hans
Müller in collaboration with A. Pawelczak. They both
knew Aljechin personally. The book contains an extensive 50-page
biography followed by a collection of a hundred games analyzed
Alekhine was one of the true giants of chess. He
dethroned Capablanca as world champion in 1927 and kept the title
until his death in 1946, except for a short period 1935-1937 when
Max Euwe first won the title and then lost the rematch two years
At the height of his powers in the early 1930s, Alekhine was much
stronger than all of his closest competitors. Just take a look at
these two tournament tables from San
Remo (1930) and Bled
(Veldes 1931). But it was not just the results that were impressive;
the way he crushed his opponents sometimes seemed downright magical.
Alekhine was above all an enormously creative attacking player.
One thing that characterized him, and which made it very difficult
to defend against his attacks, was that he sometimes would use a
combination to set up the right conditions for a second combination.
The real surprise came at the end! Here are two examples:
vs. Sterk, Budapest 1921
Here Alekhine has already sacrificed his e-pawn
in order to get open files for his rooks and to entice the
black pieces to go to the queen side, leaving the black king
with a weak defense.
His next move was Rc1-c4! Such a move
gives me a queasy feeling, following thousands of lost blitz
games on the Internet! The rook in the center of the board
in the middle game, and pinned at that! The queen unprotected!
Isn't that akin to dangling your feet in crocodile-infested
Black responded by moving his knight
Nc5-a4. Now b2-b4 would be met by Na4-c3.
Instead, Alekhine's next move was Bg5-f6!
The bishop cannot be taken because of
Rc4-g4 with check and Qe2xa6. But what does it actually
Black moved his rook Rf8-c8,
and Alekhine uncovered his final surprise: Qe2-e5!
The threat is Qe5-g5, and if g7-g6,
then Qg5-h6 and Qh6-g7 mate. Rc8xc4 loses to Qe5-g5.
Likewise Qa6xc4 loses to Qe5-g5, Kg8-f8, Qg5xg7, Kf8-e8,
Qg7-g8, Ke8-d7, Nf3-e5.
Therefore black played Rc8-c5.
There followed Qe5-g3, g7-g6, Rc4xa4
and black surrendered after a few more moves.
vs. Alexander, Nottingham 1936
How to get at the black king? His pawn
shield is weakened, but four pieces are protecting him,
and the pinned knight on f6 has three defenders.
Alekhine played e2-e4! Now f5xe4
is not possible because of Bh3xd7. Black played Nf6xe4,
hoping for Bb2xg7, Ne4xg5.
But white continued Qg5-c1!,
one of the most celebrated attacking moves of all time.
With two pieces hanging, black found
himself forced to retreat to f6, Ne4-f6.
Now Alekhine uncorked his second surprise:
Bh3xf5! If the bishop is captured, white continues
Nh4xf5, and the black queen falls victim to a knight fork
on e7 or h6 (or retreats to h8, which leads to mate through
Nf5-h6 and Qc1-g5).
Instead black played Kg8-h8. White
continued Bf5-e6 and won in a few moves when his g-pawn
began to march.
Alekhine was a passionate attacking player. Once, when Müller
pointed out that he seemed to like to play a2-a4 and h2-h4, he responded:
"You are right. I like these moves for attacking purposes.
The whole chess board must vibrate!" And when someone said
after a game that the board looked as if a horde of elephants had
stormed over it: "Yes, that is the way it should be. That
is the way it always should be!"
Müller's game comments are instructive and colorful. They
are interspersed with "Merkregel", short highlighted
pieces of advice sometimes bordering on platitudes. ("Don't
play the opening mechanically." "Look for counterplay."
"Avoid weakening pawn moves." "The rook belongs behind
the passed pawn." "If your position is cramped, trade
as many pieces as possible.") - Sometimes Müller sounds
more like a sports reporter: "As an eyewitness to this game,
we can still recall how Alekhine looked triumphantly at his opponent
with brilliant eyes, after he placed the bishop on the board with
an audible thud."
Alekhine's personal life was restless and unhappy. He came from
an aristocratic family in Russia that was dispossessed after the
1917 revolution. He was arrested and sentenced to death. But as
the story goes, one of the five judges - a chess player - who had
to sign the sentence, refused his signature. Alekhine survived the
immediate aftermath as an interpreter and married a Swiss woman
who had good connections with the Soviet government and knew Lenin
personally. There is also a legend (discounted by Müller) that
he played a game for his life with Trotsky, who was an accomplished
player! He left Russia in 1921 for Berlin and then finally settled
in Paris, where he received a doctorate in law at the Sorbonne university
(the subject of his thesis: the prison system in China!). Throughout
the 1920s and 1930s he spent most of his time travelling. He descended
into alcoholism, and this contributed to his defeat in the match
against Euwe in 1935 (although Euwe was no slouch). He was impetuous
and lacked social skills, something that made him many enemies.
When WW II broke out in 1939, he was drafted and joined the French
secret service, thanks to his linguistic talents. When France was
occupied, he fled to Portugal, but soon returned to Paris. In 1942
he moved to Prague. He spent the war playing in tournaments in nazi-occupied
Europe, ingratiating himself with the regime, although he had previously
demonstrated his hostility to the nazis. (He now even lent his name
to a defamatory article on "Aryan and Jewish chess").
In 1943 he went to Madrid. He did not return. But he was unable
to obtain permission for his wife to join him there. He fell victim
to alcoholism again. He died in March 1946 in a hotel room in Lisbon,
alone, probably from suicide.
In the 60 years since Alekhine's time, chess has progressed enormously.
Outright blunders are much less common in grandmaster games. Thanks
to computers, all master games are instantly accessible for study
and analysis. Openings have been analyzed to great depth. Chess
training has become much more efficient. It stands to reason that
even the Alekhine of, say, 1930 would be soundly trounced in a match
against any of today's best super GMs. But given Alekhine's talent
and passion, there can be little doubt that he would have clawed
his way to the top if he had had access to today's tools.