Chess in the Turbulent Era – vol. 5

Alekhine, a Russian chess player you can read about in the previous article of the series, began to drink increasingly from the early 1930s. His health was severely harmed; that is one reason why he was defeated by Max Euwe, one of the players that stood out in the era after the First World War.

Amidst the flames of war

Euwe was born in Netherland in 1901. To him, chess was just a hobby rather than a lifetime venture, making him unique from most world chess champions. He was an amateur chess player, but a mathematician and a math professor. He only participated in chess tournaments during holidays, which he considered as a form of recreation.

Euwe as a math professor

In the First World War, Netherland remained neutral and was not severely damaged. After the war, when most European countries mourned for ruined homeland and suffered from serious economic problems, people in Netherland enjoyed relatively wealthy and prosperous lives. Many prominent players went to Netherland to play tournaments, which provided Euwe a good opportunity to practice chess. He improved quickly and was finally qualified for challenging Alekhine for the world champion title.

Many people do not believe that Euwe had the strength to become the world champion, and it is undeniable that Euwe was lucky in the match, as Alekhine was suffered from alcohol addiction, while Euwe was in his prime. But Euwe really performed excellently in the match. He was careful about every detail and skilled at turning the opening into an advantageous middle game, which was a valuable trait worthy for a top chess player.

For Alekhine, the defeat was painful. After the match against Euwe, Alekhine abstained from alcohol for several years and worked hard on openings as well as middle games. He finally retook the title of the world championship in the rematch against Euwe two years later and dominated the chess world till the end of his life.

It was 1937 now. Europe was distorted from the Great Depression in the early 1930s, and Fascism started to appear in some countries. Adolf Hitler, the chancellor of Germany, spoke passionately and indignantly, promising people that he was the person to save the economic depression. People were touched by his speeches and put their faith in him. But then, the ghastly darkness of Hitler began to rise. He condemned Jewish people as the filthiest and the evilest ethnic group and initiated the Holocaust, the mass genocide of Jewish people. Thousands of assets owned by Jewish people were destroyed, and millions of Jewish people were killed. As a Jew, Lasker was exploited of all wealth he gained through tournaments, and he had to flee to the United State together with his Jewish friend, the great Albert Einstein.

Ruins of a Jewish church
The Holocaust: Jewish people in the concentration camp

Under Hitler, Germany became more and more rampant. It annexed Austria and Czechoslovakia and invaded Poland in 1939. Within a few days, Poland fell into the German hands. The Polish grandmaster, Najdorf, was playing the Chess Olympiad in Argentina when Poland was sacked by the Nazis. He was shocked by the news, and could no longer concentrate on his game. Though he had a clear advantage in this game, he lost. Returning to Poland after the Olympiad was impossible, so he wandered alone in Argentina for many years. He did not know until the end of the Second World War that all his family members were killed by the Nazis. And a lot of Jewish Polish players, such as Przepiorka and Izaak Appel, were executed by the Nazis.

In the Second World War, Netherland was also defenseless against the Nazis and was occupied within a few hours. Euwe stopped participating in chess tournaments, but worked in an underground charity organization and provided food for homeless people. He was praised as an enthusiastic sociologist and admired by people in Netherland. He becomes one of the legends of Dutch sport. Nowadays he is still recognized as one of the legends of the Dutch sport.

The sculpture of Euwe in Amsterdam

When it came to Alekhine, he was accused of Nazi affiliation and anti-Semitism. Newspapers reported that he felt sick of Jewish players such as Lasker and spoke against Jewish chess strategy. This is probably because, during the Second World War, Alekhine lived in a small town near Lisbon where there were a large number of refugees and German spies. He even served as the German representative to chess events. On the other hand, many people tried to prove his innocence. He had good relationships with many Jewish masters and even married a woman with Jewish ancestry as his fourth wife.

After the war, in 1946, poor Alekhine was found dead in a hotel in Estoril, Portugal, when he was preparing for the World Championship match against Botvinnik. The cause of death was usually attributed to a heart attack, but according to the autopsy, people found that a large piece of meat choked him to death. Alekhine’s son stated that his father was murdered by the Soviets, who still bore a grudge against Alekhine for betraying his country.

Now it comes to the end of the war, the end of the turbulent era. We chess players should cherish our lives today in a peaceful era, where we can go abroad and play tournaments without the impediment of threats and wars. And we should never forget the hardships our great predecessors experienced, and how they persisted in pursuing their dreams in chess.


-Donaldson, Norman and Betty (1980). How Did They Die?. Greenwich House.

-Kmoch, H. “Grandmasters I Have Known: Alexander Alexandrovich Alekhine”

-Kasparov Garri (2003). “Alexander the Fourth, Invincible”. My Great Predecessors. Part 1. Everyman Chess. pp. 454 (Polish edition).

-“Was Alekhine a Nazi?”. Archived



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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