Chess in the Turbulent Era – vol. 4

While the whole of Europe was drafted into the First World War, Russia quit halfway. There another genius player was born in 1892. Read about Alekhine, a player for whom chess was an irresistible desire.

A dilemma

All Power to the Soviets painting

If you stay, you will find peace… You will have sons and daughters, who will have children. And they'll all love you and remember your name. But when your children are dead, and their children after them, your name will be forgotten... If you go to Troy, glory will be yours… And the world will remember your name. But you will never come back... for your glory walks hand-in-hand with your doom.

adopted from movie Troy

In Russia, the October Revolution was in full swing, where the Bolsheviks overthrew the provisional government and aimed at establishing a harmonic communist society, the Soviet Union. A civil war began between the Bolsheviks and many anti-Bolshevik forces. The future world chess champion, Alexander Alekhine, was charged with the connections with the White Army, one of the opponents of the Bolsheviks. He was imprisoned in 1919. Rumors said that he would be executed by the Bolshevik government, but a general called Lev Trocki gave him a chance to survive. Trocki offered Alekhine to play a game, and if Alekhine won, he would be released. For sure Alekhine won the game and saved his life, or we would have never witnessed his excellent performance of fighting for the world champion.

Lenin speaking to the workers of the Putilov factory, in Petrograd, 1917. Painting by Isaak Brodsky
oil painting of soviet revolution
October Revolution

Alekhine was born in 1892 in an aristocratic family in Moscow. To him, chess was an irresistible desire. His older brother Alexei helped him a lot in teaching him chess and taking him to tournaments. In 1913, Alekhine met Capablanca and made a friendship with him. Alekhine admired Capablanca for his extraordinary ability in chess; but at the same time, he began to envy Capablanca for his talent. Capablanca never worked hard, but he defeated prominent players and won the world champion easily; while it was a strenuous task for Alekhine to reach the peak, even he worked three times more than Capablanca. From 1913, Alekhine began to avoid participating in tournaments where Capablanca was in. He was not happy to play worse than Capablanca. He focused all his willpower and strength on chess, hoping that one day he could defeat Capablanca in the tournament for the world champion.

Alexander Alekhine
Alexander Alekhine

But endless wars and the chaotic political situation in Russia did not allow Alekhine to concentrate on chess. In 1921, Alekhine was given permission to leave Russia and travel to France, but he never returned. He settled in Paris with his wife, and shortly afterward he acquired the citizenship of France. At the same time, the Bolshevik communists gained the victory, forming the Soviet Union and annexing nations nearby, such as Ukraine and Belarus. The Soviet government did not like Alekhine for leaving his country; the influence of western culture made Alekhine alienated from the Russians.

In France, Alekhine studied Capablanca’s game thoroughly and worked hard to improve his own strength. Finally, the match for world champion between him and Capablanca took place in 1927. He could not imagine how he defeated Capablanca for six games (at that time, the player who first won six games won the match), for Capablanca played so solid and accurate. Alekhine felt excited about winning the world champion, as his hard work finally rewarded his brilliant success.

Jose Raul Capablanca vs Alexander Alekhine
Alekhine vs. Capablanca

But Capablanca was reluctant to acknowledge his defeat. He began to work hard after the match against Alekhine and expected a rematch so that he could retake the title of the world champion. However, the rematch never happened, probably because of the Great Depression in the 1930s and the Second World War.

During the period Alekhine was in France, the Soviet Union expanded fast and cast its influence to more countries; while Alekhine, who had lived in France for a long time, was indoctrinated with western political thoughts, which gradually drifted his ideology away from the Soviets’. After the match for the world champion, Alekhine was said to speak against Bolshevism. He was portrayed as a traitor and the enemy of the Soviets. He could never return to his country; the Soviets condemned him, and even his most loved brother Alexei claimed to break the relationship with him. To become the world chess champion, Alekhine had given up too much.

Continue reading about chess in the turbulent era of the 19th century in vol. 5 of the series. Learn even more in vol. 1vol. 2 and vol. 3. 



Young and active tournament player with excellent results including a 1st place at the BSSZ Aranytiz International Master, 1st place at the Chinese Youth Chess Championship G16, and part of the top 10 contenders in two World Chess Championships for girls G16 and G18.

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