Edward Winter presents: Unsolved Chess Mysteries (4)

4/10/2007 – What would have happened if the score of the 1927 Capablanca v Alekhine match had reached 5-5? Would the contest have been declared drawn? The affair has been examined in depth in Chess Notes. Here chess historian Edward Winter sifts and summarizes the key evidence. There is also the strange case of a fake photograph of the two masters. Join the investigation.

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Unsolved Chess Mysteries (4)

By Edward Winter

The Capablanca-Alekhine 5-5 affair

On 25 November 1927 the score in the world title match stood at 3 wins for the defending champion Capablanca, 5 for Alekhine and 25 draws. In the next game (the 34th) Alekhine achieved his sixth victory, thereby becoming world champion. But supposing, instead, Capablanca had eventually pulled back to a level score of 5-5. Would play then have continued until a further game had been won by either player or would the match have been declared drawn at 5-5? Over the years Chess Notes has attempted to sift the available documentation, and a summary is provided here.


José Raúl Capablanca and Alexander Alekhine

The match in Buenos Aires was the only one played under the London Rules, which had been agreed upon on 9 August 1922 by Capablanca, Alekhine, Bogoljubow, Maróczy, Réti, Rubinstein, Tartakower and Vidmar. They were published on pages 133-134 of the November 1926 American Chess Bulletin and pages 125-126 of the January 1927 Chess Amateur. We believe that the first book to reproduce the full text was our 1989 volume on Capablanca.

Clause 1 of the London Rules stated:

‘The match to be one of six games up, drawn games not to count.’

That plain wording, coupled with the absence of any reference to a 5-5 condition elsewhere in the Rules, might suggest a quick end to the matter, but there are complications. Chess Notes first discussed a possible 5-5 condition in 1985 (C.N. 880), when the late Božidar Kažić of Belgrade informed us that during the 1978 Karpov-Korchnoi match in Baguio Max Euwe had told him regarding the 1927 event: ‘It is not true about 5-5; it is the imagination of journalists.’

In 1984, C.N. 728 had quoted from page 2 of the January 1928 BCM a letter written by Capablanca to Julius Finn from Buenos Aires on 15 October 1927. It ended:

‘Should the match here end in a draw, I suggest that the next match be limited to 20 games, the winner of the majority to win the match. Please attend to this for me.’

The complete text is given on page 203 of our Capablanca book, together with an extract from a similar letter which the Cuban wrote the same day to Norbert Lederer:

‘You have no doubt kept track of the match and have seen that no matter what the final result it is evident that another match should be played. I have spoken to Alekhine, who agrees with me. … If this match [i.e. the 1927 one] should end in a draw it might be advisable to limit the number of games to 20, the winner of the majority to win the match. If someone should win, then perhaps we might keep the same rules.’

An apparent contradiction between these items (the comments of Capablanca and the 5-5 possibility) prompted us to observe in C.N. 1775:

‘… When the winner of an unlimited match is the first player to win six games, it is mathematically impossible for the outcome to be drawn. There would thus seem to be three possibilities:

    1. Capablanca’s remark to Finn [and Lederer] was careless;

    2. Capablanca was thinking of possible future deadlock in which he and Alekhine might agree to abandon the match as a draw;

    3. Capablanca and Alekhine had a prior agreement that if the match reached 5-5 it would be drawn.

Possibility 3 would appear unlikely owing to the lack of documentary evidence – notably in the London Rules, which made no reference to a drawn match or a 5-5 condition. However, Clause 21 reads: “Any of the foregoing rules may be modified by mutual consent between the players and the contributors to the purse, or the referee in case of inability of the contributors to be present or to be represented, but such modifications shall in no way establish a precedent in future cases.”

It will be recalled that Capablanca wrote to Finn on 15 October 1927. The score stood at 3-2 in Alekhine’s favour, the games played on 13, 14 and 15 October all being short draws. Between 13 October and 21 November the result was one win each and 17 draws. Capablanca’s victory on 15 November reduced Alekhine’s lead to 4-3, so the 5-5 question could have become significant.’


José Raúl Capablanca

Occasional claims of a 5-5 clause continued to appear and to be challenged. For instance, on page 8 of the 4/2000 New in Chess a reader, Claus van de Vlierd, asked Genna Sosonko ‘on the basis of what document he assumes that a 5-5 draw would have been sufficient for Capablanca to retain “his” title’. Sosonko replied:

‘I have to admit that I took this erroneous information from a book by the Russian chess historian Isaac Linder. As you indicate there is no mention of this clause in the London Rules.’

Having quoted those comments in C.N. 3013 we asked when the 5-5 condition first appeared on paper. At that time, the earliest reference on hand was pages 47-48 of Capablanca by Vassily Panov (Moscow, 1959), but in C.N. 3326 Louis Blair (Carlinville, IL, USA) reported that at Kasparov’s Chesschamps.com website a contributor, Tapio Huuhka, had pointed out an earlier occurrence, in Max Euwe’s book Meet the Masters. The potential significance of this was considerable.

We observed in the same Chess Notes item that Meet the Masters, an English edition of Zóó schaken zij! (Amsterdam, 1938), was translated by L. Prins and B.H. Wood and published by Pitman, London in 1940. A second edition from the same publisher came out in 1945, and in both editions the relevant passage, regarding the 34th and last match game, was on page 55 and read:

‘When this game began, Alekhine had a margin of two games (5-3) in his favour, but not everybody backed him to win even then. According to the conditions of the match, Capablanca required to win only two games to achieve an even score (5-5) and remain champion. It was at this critical stage of the match that Alekhine won game and title.’


From page 32 of the 1938 book Zóó schaken zij! by Max Euwe

This statement (made when Alekhine and Capablanca were still alive) is of evident importance because of the stature of Euwe, a former world champion who had frequently conversed with both Alekhine and Capablanca in the 1930s about world title match conditions, but some complications were noteworthy. Firstly, during a discussion about ghost-writing Lodewijk Prins had informed us, in a letter dated 13 January 1988 (see pages 182-183 of Chess Explorations), that Hans Kmoch had worked on Meet the Masters as an unnamed ‘expert assistant’. This raised the question of whether the 5-5 statement did indeed originate with Euwe. On the other hand, Kmoch himself was also well acquainted with both Alekhine and Capablanca. Indeed, in his article ‘My Personal Recollections of Capablanca’ on pages 362-363 of Chess Review, December 1967 he wrote:

‘In Kissingen [1928], my contact with Capablanca became rather close. We had long walks together, usually talking about the world championship in reference to which Capablanca always used the expression “my title”, making it seem that the title had only incidentally and temporarily strayed to Alekhine. More than once he explained to me how I could make a lot of money. Very simple: just organize the return match against Alekhine and bet as much as possible on me; you will win, that much is absolutely sure.’

Another book which discussed the closing stages of the 1927 world championship match was Het Schaakphenomeen José Raoul Capablanca by M. Euwe and L. Prins (The Hague, 1949), but the chapter on the contest (pages 153-173) made no mention of any 5-5 clause. Although that section was labelled as having been written by Euwe, doubts subsist, for in a letter to us dated 22 October 1987 Prins referred to ‘“my” Capablanca book (I did most of the work including literary and analytic research)’.

Since it is impossible to determine exactly what Euwe himself did or did not write in the various books bearing his name (or to know the extent to which he verified his helpers’ input/output), we suggested in C.N. 3326 that further investigation of the 5-5 affair should cover the writings on the 1927 match of all three of them, i.e. Euwe, Kmoch and Prins. To date, though, nothing more has been discovered regarding this ‘Euwe twist’. A curious aspect is that, as noted above, the possibility of a 5-5 condition was first discussed in Chess Notes after Božidar Kažić had informed us of Euwe’s remark in 1978, ‘It is not true about 5-5; it is the imagination of journalists’. Yet at present the earliest known statement that a 5-5 clause existed is in a book by Euwe himself.

The 5-5 mystery gained further currency in 2003. Several times in ‘Garry Kasparov on My Great Predecessors Part I with the participation of Dmitry Plisetsky’ it was affirmed that if a 5-5 score had been reached the contest would have been drawn. However, as noted in C.N. 3013, Kasparov subsequently acknowledged that the claim might be unfounded. Nobody at present knows the exact conditions under which the 1927 world championship match was played. In C.N. 3253 (see pages 266-268 of Chess Facts and Fables) Christian Sánchez (Rosario, Argentina) quoted extensively from the Argentine press of the time, but no reference to a 5-5 clause was found.

So how can progress be made now? Evidently, the only hope lies in a hunt for further documentation, and not airy speculation. A particular feature of chess writing in the Internet age is premature opinionation. Complex historical subjects are diagnosed almost instantaneously by individuals unencumbered by familiarity with primary sources but happy to indulge in factless conjecture (often prefaced by such deathless words as ‘My best guess would be that ...’). That path, of course, can do only harm. One possible avenue for investigation suggests itself. What archival material, if any, exists in Argentinian chess circles?


A fake Alekhine-Capablanca photograph

Also on the subject of the Capablanca v Alekhine match, in C.N. 3405 Luca D’Ambrosio (Bolzano, Italy) suggested that a photograph often described as taken during the Buenos Aires match was probably a montage (i.e. a fabrication). The matter was examined in further Chess Notes items (for the details see the entry on ‘Fake pictures’ in our Factfinder), and here the bare conclusion is outlined. The Capablanca half of the photograph had been published nearly two years before the world championship match, and the Alekhine half was from a picture of him in play against Nimzowitsch at Semmering, 1926. It is not known who perpetrated the fake photograph, but C.N. 3513 reported that it had appeared as long ago as 1927, in a book on the world championship match edited by Alekhine’s brother, Alexei, Match na pervenstvo mira Alekhin-Capablanca. That is the version reproduced above, with a caption falsely asserting that the photograph had been taken on the first day of the match.

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Edward Winter is the editor of Chess Notes, which was founded in January 1982 as "a forum for aficionados to discuss all matters relating to the Royal Pastime". Since then around 5,000 items have been published, and the series has resulted in four books by Winter: Chess Explorations (1996), Kings, Commoners and Knaves (1999), A Chess Omnibus (2003) and Chess Facts and Fables (2006). He is also the author of a monograph on Capablanca (1989).

Chess Notes is well known for its historical research, and anyone browsing in its archives will find a wealth of unknown games, accounts of historical mysteries, quotes and quips, and other material of every kind imaginable. Correspondents from around the world contribute items, and they include not only "ordinary readers" but also some eminent historians – and, indeed, some eminent masters. Chess Notes is located at the Chess History Center.


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