12 July 2009

Alekhine Leaves Russia

It's clear from my post on Alekhine's Record in Russia that Alekhine's development as a chess player faced serious obstacles in the years before he left Russia. After the first World War and the 1917 revolution, he played in only three tournaments before leaving his native country in 1921, at age 28. After leaving Russia, never to return, he played three important tournaments in 1921, four in 1922, and three in 1923, before playing a single event in 1924, the great New York tournament, where he finished third behind Lasker and Capablanca.

It's ironic that Alekhine left Russia at the same time the Soviet Union was making its first tiny steps toward eventual domination of international chess (see The Father of Soviet Chess?). In Soviet School of Chess, Kotov & Yudovich only mention Alekhine's departure in hindsight.

During the last years of his life he was keenly aware of his separation from his native land. He realized he had made a great mistake in leaving it in 1921. This realization added torment and tragedy to his last years. He died in Portugal in 1946, in poverty and loneliness,

Whether he would have lived as long had he remained in the USSR is open to speculation. As I mentioned in Chigorin and His Contemporaries, discussing the same book,

It's also worth noting that half of chapter three, on Alekhine ('Russia's Greatest Player'), is spent on the fourth World Champion's contributions to opening theory. In the 1950s, when the book was written, was it safer to write about chess openings than about facts that were contrary to the Soviet world view?

Kasparov, in My Great Predecessors I, noted that Alekhine received permission to leave Russia at the same time that Capablanca was playing Lasker in their 1921 World Championship match. In his book Alexander Alekhine, Kotov noted that Capablanca's victory over Lasker, combined with Alekhine's first place finishes, also in 1921, at Triberg, Budapest, and The Hague marked the Russian as Capablanca's main challenger. Kotov wrote,

Alas, fortune had prepared a blow against [Alekhine]. At the London international tournament [1922] Capablanca was in splendid form. The 34-year-old champion was at the height of his powers, and at the zenith of his successes. [...] How could anyone compete in those days with the brilliant envoy from Cuba? The world champion won game after game in London, drawing further and further away from his rivals. [...] It is true that, in this tournament as well, [Alekhine] was able to leave the other challengers behind, but neither on results, nor in quality of play, could he compare himself with the World Champion.

Alekhine's drive to procure and win a match against the Cuban goes beyond the objectives of my series on the Soviet School. Again, we can only speculate whether he would have had the opportunity to play Capablanca had he remained in Russia, but I tend to think that, given Capablanca's financial conditions, the match would not have taken place.

Of the 100 games in Alekhine's own book, My Best Games of Chess 1908-1923, 53 are from the period where he lived in Russia. Three of the 53 are correspondence games from 1908-09, when he was developing into a strong master. How many of his correspondence games are on record?

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