Estimated reading time: 12 minutes
Alexander Alekhine, the fourth world chess champion, is well-known for his vicious attacks and wild piece sacrifices.
However, there is much more to this man than meets the eye!
- Learned chess early, around age 7!
- Was one of the strongest players in the world by age 22.
- Broke the world blindfold chess record.
- Became world champion in 1927.
- Lost his title and regained it!
- Died under mysterious circumstances—while still world champion.
Alexander Alekhine’s Early Career
Alexander Alekhine was born in Moscow on October 31, 1892—Halloween!
Like a lot of players around the turn of the century, he began his chess career playing correspondence tournaments.
And he quickly became fearsome good.
His first recorded game was played in 1902; Alekhine was just 10 years old!
In fact, he didn’t play his first OTB, in-person game until 1907 at a chess club.
His older brother, Alexei, was stronger than Alexander—for a while. But the future world champion quickly surpassed his brother’s skill set.
By age 16 he was considered one of Russia’s top players!
Alexander Alekhine won his first major tournament in 1914, tying with the very powerful Aron Nimzowitsch (author of the world-famous chess book My System).
In 1914, Alexander Alekhine and a few other extremely strong players were given the title of Grandmaster of Chess by Tsar Nicholas II (although the official FIDE title wouldn’t exist until 1950!).
That same year, he was set to win a strong tournament in Mannheim when World War I broke out. Alexander Alekhine and several others from the tournament were captured and held in Germany.
Alekhine and some of the other players were eventually released, but not all of them.
When he returned home, Alekhine held several simultaneous exhibitions, in which one person plays multiple boards at the same time, in order to raise money for those players still being held.
In 1920 Alekhine completely swept the Moscow championship tournament, scoring a mind-blowing 11/11!
He was married later that year, but it didn’t last long. He married again in 1921.
Alexander Alekhine and his new wife, with permission, left Russia to explore the west—and never went back.
He eventually left his second wife as well, and ended up in Berlin.
Alekhine continued to dominate in tournaments and matches.
Alexander Alekhine competed in the now-infamous New York 1924 chess tournament, which was created specifically to rival another big arena, the Cambridge Springs tourney of 1904.
Alekhine came in third behind Cuban Jose Capablanca and Germany’s Emanuel Lasker.
In that competition, Alekhine crushed Geza Maroczy (known for the famous Maroczy Bind in the Sicilian) with none other than… the Alekhine Defense!
Geza Maroczy – Alexander Alekhine
White had already lost a piece, and resigned the game once Alekhine forced further trades.
Around this same time, Alexander Alekhine was putting effort into arranging a match against Jose Capablanca, who was then world champion.
Negotiations were tough, though, because Capablanca was requiring any challenger to raise a whopping $10,000 (well over $150,000 today!) in order to compete…
…and Capablanca would keep over half that cash, even if he lost!
In an effort to raise the money, Alexander Alekhine held simultaneous exhibitions and even held a blindfold simul against 26 opponents, breaking the world record.
But, like Akiba Rubinstein, who also wanted to challenge Capablanca, Alekhine was unable to raise sufficient cash.
Frank Marshall and Aron Nimzowitsch met with the same issue, and were never able to challenge Capablanca.
1924 also marked the year Alexander Alekhine officially applied for citizenship to France while attending law school there.
Although he never actually practiced law, his degree earned him the title of Dr. Alekhine, a moniker he used throughout the 1930s, as well.
Speaking of his French citizenship application, he encountered a lot of red tape but eventually it was granted…
…while he played Capablanca for the title of World Champion in 1927!
Note: Although the Alekhine’s Defense is named after him, he didn’t employ it often in serious play. Nowadays, however, it is used as a surprise weapon by the top chess players around the world. There’s a whole course in our store dedicated to the Alekhine’s Defense.
Here’s a free preview about one of the most popular lines in the Alekhine’s Defense, 5.exd6:
Also, you can get the complete course with 50% off. Check it out below:
World Chess Championship 1927: Jose Capablanca vs. Alexander Alekhine
In a stroke of good luck and humanity, several Argentinian businessmen, along with the president of Argentina himself, backed the match and provided the $10,000 necessary for Alekhine to play.
He was finally going to challenge World Champion Capablanca!
The match took place near the end of 1927 in Buenos Aires. Alekhine celebrated his 35th birthday during the battle!
Their grueling conflict was the longest world championship match ever, and would remain so until 1984 when Garry Kasparov warred with Anatoly Karpov!
Alexander Alekhine won the match, and with it the title, but it hadn’t been easy. His final score was +6−3=25. That’s six wins, three losses, and twenty-five draws!
In those days, contenders played until one player won six games, no exceptions.
That Alekhine had defeated Capablanca came as a shock to many because before their world championship match, Alekhine had never won a game against the Cuban chess great!
It seems even Alekhine might have been surprised, as he later admitted he hadn’t believed he had the chops, but also that Capablanca had underestimated him.
It is said that Capablanca hadn’t prepared mentally or physically for the encounter, while Alekhine prepped both areas beforehand.
Alekhine also carefully looked at games from the world champion, dissecting and examining them, prior to the match.
Years later, chess giant Garry Kasparov said that Alekhine’s tenacious studying actually revealed some small holes in Capablanca’s play which greatly helped him during the rumble.
Vladimir Kramnik said he believes this was the first contest ever in which Capablanca didn’t have a single easily-won game. Wow!
Then it was Alekhine’s turn to be salty.
He agreed to let Capablanca in for a rematch, but…
…only on the same terms that he held in place for others!
So, for only $10,000, Capablanca could have a shot at regaining the title.
That match never occurred.
Some say Alekhine was scared. Others say his requirements were only fair.
Most, however, seem to believe that had Capablanca prepared hard for a rematch, Alexander Alekhine would have had no chance.
But the world will never know.
Alekhine After Capablanca: 1928-1934
Although the title rematch with Capablanca never happened, Alexander Alekhine did successfully defend the throne, twice, against Russian master Efim Bogoljubov.
Those bouts occurred in 1929 and 1934.
Critics claim Bogoljubov was easy pickings so Alekhine chose to play him instead of other world-class opponents.
While there may or may not be truth to that, Efim Bogoljubov was a strong, strong master.
That he couldn’t defeat Alekhine in his heyday isn’t very telling because nobody else could, either!
Alexander Alekhine publicly spoke out against Bolshevism/Marxism and was shunned by his mother country. Because of this, older brother, Alexei, would have nothing to do with Alexander. Some speculate this was not by choice…
Alexei was eventually murdered in Russia in 1939; most believe it was connected to his open support of Nazis.
San Remo, 1930 – One of Alekhine’s Best Tournaments Ever!
1930 was definitely a shining year for Alexander Alekhine, as he dominated San Remo so badly, the other players probably wondered why they showed up at all!
You may have heard of “Alekhine’s Gun,” a setup in which Alexander Alekhine used two rooks and a queen to completely dominate the c-file in a game.
But did you know it was played against the great Aron Nimzowitsch at this very tournament?
Alexander Alekhine – Aron Nimzowitsch
His final score at San Remo was a staggering 14/15 – Aron Nimzowitsch came in second with a 10.5/15 score. Not even close!
1930 also marked the year Alekhine began officially playing for France in the Olympiad tournaments.
In fact, he won the brilliancy prize at the very first competition, held in Hastings!
He also collected gold medals for his performances in Prague and Folkestone, and pocketed a silver medal at Warsaw.
This dude wasn’t messing around…
In 1931 came Bled, another competition in which Alexander Alekhine simply destroyed anyone who sat down across from him and was brave enough to move pieces against him.
He finished Bled with a score of 20.5/26, more than four points ahead of second-place Efim Bogoljubov. Wicked!
At the risk of seeming like we’re picking on the guy (…we’re not! Really!), Alexander Alekhine once again devoured poor Aron Nimzowitsch in a French Defense setup.
Alexander Alekhine – Aron Nimzowitsch
As a lot of readers may already know, Alexander Alekhine liked to drink…
…quite a bit…
According to strong master of the era, Reuben Fine, Alekhine began drinking heavily in Bled and was on the sauce while battling Efim Bogoljubov for the title.
There are stories—mostly unsubstantiated—about his booze-filled antics. Research at your own risk!
The early 1930s is also when Alekhine set a world blindfold chess record: 32 games against strong opposition!
He played all the games from another room, in his head. An arbiter delivered moves to and from boards.
1934 saw a fourth wife, Grace Freeman, whom he stayed with until his death in 1946.
By 1933, only three people in the world were seen as fit to challenge Alekhine to the title:
Capablanca, of course, along with Dutchman Max Euwe and lesser-known but very powerful Salo Flohr.
Eventually, Euwe agreed to battle for the throne in 1935, a match that would go down in chess history.
Capablanca was asked by a Dutch radio host his opinion on the match:
“Dr. Alekhine’s game is twenty percent bluff. Dr. Euwe’s game is clear and straightforward. Dr. Euwe’s game—not so strong as Alekhine’s in some respects—is more evenly balanced.”
Euwe himself said he didn’t have high hopes for the match, but in serious tournament play he and Alekhine were tied 7-7, so he did his best to remain optimistic.
Chess World Championship, 1935, Dr. Alekhine vs. Dr. Euwe
The 1935 match contained an… odd rule, to say the least.
The players had agreed that the winner would be the first to six wins, as was the accepted norm, but with a twist…
The winner had to have six victories and have accrued more than 15 points!
Normally, draws didn’t count at all. This time, they would be worth a half-point.
The match against Max Euwe began in October and ended in December—Alexander Alekhine had lost his title.
Many said he had been drinking too much. It is tough to play world-class chess while drunk!
Others, though, believe that he was simply overconfident and had massively underestimated the Dutchman.
Either way, the world had a new chess champion.
A friend of Alekhine’s said he stopped drinking for five years after this match.
Below are shown one of Alekhine’s best victories of the match, as well as one of the worst losses.
Alexander Alekhine – Max Euwe
Oof… now that’s a beat down!
Max Euwe – Alexander Alekhine
Check that strong rook shot by Euwe!
Euwe didn’t hesitate to agree to a rematch, set for 1937, which he lost badly to Alekhine with only four wins to Alekhine’s ten.
It was clear that the Dutchman had been outclassed.
Alexander Alekhine once again ruled the chess world.
Alexander Alekhine: 1938 – 1946
1938 was a good tournament year for Alekhine, who played consistently well against stiff competition.
He was comfortable, he was strong, and he was confident.
Enter Mikhail Botvinnik.
Also a soviet, Botvinnik had been super trained and prepped specifically for an eventual world championship match.
And so, when he felt he was ready, he challenged Alekhine in 1938.
Alekhine agreed, and negotiations were in place until World War II stalled the works.
Estonian GM Paul Keres also wanted a piece of the action, and was negotiating a title match with Alekhine.
Alexander Alekhine played for France in the 8th Olympiad, held in Buenos Aires, which had been a good place for our hero in the past.
He slayed it, scoring nine wins, seven draws, and no losses!
Alexander Alekhine was definitely back in top form.
The early 1940s were spent traveling to tournaments and even included a brief stint in the French army.
He spent quite a bit of time in Spain and Portugal, avoiding the Nazi invasion of Europe.
He won several chess tournaments and matches in the area at the time.
Alexander Alekhine was found dead in his hotel room in Estoril, Portugal, in March of 1946.
The coroner’s report claimed he choked on a piece of meat.
A handful of web sleuths today think he was murdered, either by a French Death Squad or by the Russians (who really, really wanted their boy Botvinnik to have the title).
But, no matter the cause of death, the fourth world chess champion, Alexander Alekhine, had indeed died.
His body lay unclaimed for weeks; finally, FIDE stepped in and took him back to France, where he is buried.
From then on, FIDE completely took over the world championship scene, setting the rules and making the decisions.
Alexander Alekhine: The World Champion who Inspired Generations
Several big chess names have weighed in on Alekhine and his play and his influence on chess.
The great Bobby Fischer was quoted saying:
“…he had great imagination; he could see more deeply into a situation than any other player in chess history. … It was in the most complicated positions that Alekhine found his grandest concepts.”
Garry Kasparov called him one of the top ten players of all time.
Levon Aronian believes him to be the best player of all time.
Alexander Alekhine penned more than twenty chess books during his lifetime.
These books were not intended for beginners. He was mostly showing off.
To this day, countless amateur and professional chess players study his games and read about his life.
There is no doubting that Alexander Alekhine made a significant and lasting impression on the chess world.
Wait! Before you go, check out these iChess posts that may also interest you: