Edward Winter's Chess Explorations (69)

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9/23/2011 – Many forgotten interviews with Alekhine have been reproduced over the years by the Editor of Chess Notes. We witness the great champion discussing his chess rivals and predecessors, plans, training routines, blindfold exploits, family background, education, personal lifestyle, pastimes, travel, politics and writings, including the notorious anti-Semitic articles published in the Nazi press in 1941.

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Chess Explorations (69)

By Edward Winter

C.N. 7263 quoted a remark by Mikhail Botvinnik on page 248 of International Championship Chess by B. Kažić (London, 1974):

‘Alekhine’s was a complex character. As soon as he felt any signs of hostility, he would shoot out his quills like a porcupine. When people were kind he felt bound to behave in the same way.’

That complexity makes it especially useful to retrieve from forgotten publications all possible information that can be gleaned from the interviews given by Alekhine. A number of such items have been presented in C.N. over the years, and examples are offered in the present article.

C.N. 6613 reproduced an interview with Alekhine which was published on page 1 of the Tribune de Genève, 27-28 September 1925:

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Another interview with Alekhine, by Lucien Zacharoff, was printed on page 7 of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 19 May 1929. A copy was presented by John Blackstone (Las Vegas, NV, USA) in C.N. 7260:

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From Alekhine’s observations the following particular comments may be noted:

  • ‘Yes, chess is an art, beautiful and esthetic ... I derive tremendous spiritual satisfaction from delving into its intricacies. Liking for it must be intuitive. It’s like music.’

  • (Asked why so many masters are ‘known to have gone crazy’ from indulgence in chess.) ‘Ah, but this is another fallacy. True enough, they were insane, some are today, but not from chess. You see, many people don’t know that to enjoy chess thoroughly a general wide cultural background is required. Some players are so engrossed in the game that they neglect other phases of their mental development, and this undue concentration on one thing results in dementia precox. Then, again, some have hereditary disposition toward insanity and it would have asserted itself in some other occupation anyhow.’

  • ‘I do not engage in politics nowadays at all ... In my views I am thoroughly democratic but not quite as much inclined to the left as the present Russian rulers, but I am most heartily in accord with the efforts of the Soviet Government to encourage chess activity in the Union.’

  • ‘What are my hobbies? I like music, horseback riding, painting. That is not enough? Well, add tennis. Do I play it well? That’s a different story.’

Wayne D. Komer (Toronto, Canada) and Stephen Wright (Vancouver, Canada) submitted in C.N. 7016 an interview with Alekhine by Archibald Lampman which was published in the Toronto Daily Star, 14 November 1932, page 3:

The C.N. item gave a full transcript. Below are some extracts:

‘“Are you good at figures, doctor?”, we asked. “I mean are you one of those chaps who can juggle a hatful and know all the answers?”

“No good at mathematics at all”, he says surprisingly. “No good at any of the exact sciences.” “Well, don’t you call chess an exact science?” “No, it’s an art. I’m pretty good at philosophy and all the abstract sciences.”

“Tell us, doctor – how do you train for these big bouts?” “Train? I don’t train – I knew all about it long ago – I haven’t even got a chess board.” Anybody lend the doctor a chess board?

“You mean to say you won’t slip upstairs and have a couple of rounds of shadow boxing with the chess board before you encounter the boys tonight?” He laughed. “I don’t know how I’ll put in the time – maybe play a little bridge.” “Good at bridge?” “Just a fairly good player.” ...

“Women good at chess?” “No – they’re not”, he says smiling. And, by the way, if all the Moscow lads smile like that, the home town can’t be so bad after all. “And that’s funny too – because they’re good at bridge and other things – but not chess.” “Just another mystery.” “About women?” “Yes, just one more.”

He has a library of 1,600 books on chess. “Read them all?”, we asked. “No”, he says off-hand, “I know what’s in them.” He has written eight books on chess himself.

“Anybody around the world now that can beat you, do you think?” “No, I don’t think so. I have beaten them all”, he says, although I only beat Capablanca by a small margin. I just want to hold my own against my own generation. If one of the younger generation came along and beat me – well – .” He shrugged a shoulder. “I don’t care.”

“No hard feelings, eh, toward the youngsters?” “No; none at all.” ...

We switched to the man himself. By the way, he smoked one cigarette after another as he talked to us – if that’s any help to you chess aspirants. And so did we, if that’s any interest. “You come from a noble family?”, we opened tentatively, as you can’t tell how people are going to look on this kind of thing.

“Yes – my father was marshal of Voronesh”, he says, “Russia under the czar was divided into states – my father was head of one of those states.”

“Did your family suffer a lot in the revolution?” No – not so much. I was sentenced to death”, he says, something like “The traffic cop hands me a ticket, see.” “Sentenced to death! – well, how did you get out of that?” We had to arouse some interest in the man about his own death sentence. He just shrugged his shoulder. “Blew over, eh? – this shooting business?” He laughed his sunny laugh again. “Yes – just blew over.”

He was an officer in the German [sic; Russian] army. He’s 40 now, so he couldn’t have been any veteran then. He’s also a reserve officer in the French army as well as being a lawyer. So that’s why he doesn’t care whether he wins or not. Twelve years ago he left Moscow for the last time.

“I’m practically an exile now”, he says, as though exiling was a great sport. “Why’s that?”, we asked. “Just because they don’t like you?” “No, they don’t like me – and I’m anti-Communist.”

He says in the old days there’d be about a million grade A chessplayers in Russia. Moscow was a great centre. “Didn’t the Soviets do something about the chess boards – kings and queens and everything?” “No, they didn’t worry about them. They still play chess.”

Dr Alekhine started to play chess at the age of seven. The family made him quit. “I was always good”, he said, as naturally as you’d say, “I’m punk at bridge”. He began again at 12. They let him go to it. He joined the local club at 15. And at 16 was a master of chess. Tie that.

“Was your dad good at chess?” “He played, but he wasn’t much good”, he said. By the way, there have only been seven or eight chess champions in the last 250 years. It’s not one of those things you rush into.

“When are you going to quit?” “Oh, I don’t know – perhaps I’ll practise law later on.” He’s going to the Far East to clean up on Gandhi’s crowd and then the Aussi playboys.

“Sure you’re not worrying about tonight?” He grins – jaunty, we call it. “Not much”, he says, and grabs our hand.’

Alexander Alekhine

C.N. 5631 supplied excerpts from an interview with Alekhine by Isaac Kashdan on pages 9-10 of the September 1933 Chess Review:

‘Particularly in Asia I was interested in the number of different peoples that play chess, and also in the varieties of the game itself. It is there that chess probably originated. I found several simple forms, and others even more complicated than the game we know. It may be, in time, that we can combine the best features of the Oriental game with our chess. This would be a more natural evolution than adding new pieces and squares, or some of the other changes that have been proposed. I do not believe that chess needs any change at present, as it still holds new wonders, and will continue to do so for years to come.’

‘I do not believe it is the function of the world’s champion to go on constant barnstorming tours. I wanted to make the world trip to become personally familiar with the conditions of chessplaying everywhere, and also to meet so many individuals whom I had known through magazine pages or correspondence. But I believe I can do more for chess in other ways, notably by writing. With more leisure, I could work out methods of instruction, and perhaps eventually be at the head of a vast system of schools and coaches, as has happened in contract bridge under Ely Culbertson. This would mean many new converts of chess, and cause a great awakening of public interest, as more and more people were initiated into the mysteries of our glorious game.’

A particularly significant pair of interviews in Spanish publications was submitted in 1987 by the late Pablo Morán (Gijón, Spain). Our translations into English are available on-line in Two Alekhine Interviews (1941). The importance of the articles relates, above all, to the much discussed question Was Alekhine a Nazi?

C.N. 5804 gave, courtesy of Juan Carlos Sanz Menéndez (Alcorcón, Spain), an interview with Alekhine by ‘Austral’ in the weekly news magazine Semana, 26 October 1943:

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Mr Sanz Menéndez provided a transcript which was given in full in C.N. 5804. To highlight some of the main points made by the world champion: the loss of his first game of chess, when he was aged about seven, reduced him to tears; with a few exceptions, women did not play chess well; to his knowledge, the only strong chessplayer among heads of state was Bonar Law, whom he had played (‘a very strong player’); the Chinese were much better at mah-jong than at chess. Alekhine also made some interesting observations on chess and bridge, but we are particularly intrigued by the many references to his being a criminalista (criminologist or criminal lawyer). He is even quoted as claiming to have written more than 18 books ‘some on chess, but the others on a wide range of subjects, including criminology, because that is my speciality’.

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All ChessBase articles by Edward Winter

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, over 7,280 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). In 2011 a paperback edition was issued.

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. Signed copies of Edward Winter's publications are currently available.

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