Sunday, June 26

Alexander Alekhine: the spy and amoral chess player


Alexander Alekhine (Moscow 1892 – Estoril 1946) used to say that for him the Chess it was not a game but an art, and he boasted of fulfilling all the obligations that consideration entailed. His way of practicing it was aggressive, relentless and incredibly creative and thanks to it he continues to be remembered as one of the great geniuses of the board.

Also, yes, as a man utterly devoid of morality and scruples, that he was married four times and swallowed swallowed the fortunes of his successive wives –All substantially older than him–; that he collaborated with the Nazis and sympathized with the dictatorships of Franco and Salazar; and that he died under mysterious circumstances, perhaps murdered and undoubtedly devastated physically and psychically by alcohol and who knows if also by guilt. ‘La diagonal Alekhine’, French writer’s novel Arthur Larrue that the Alfaguara publishing house publishes these days, reconstructs his life.

Legend has it that a game with Leon Trotsky saved him from dying in front of the firing squad


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His international adventures began in 1921, when he left Russia after thishe was about to be executed by a firing squad. Because of his parents’ ties to the aristocracy, he had been considered a Menshevik, and sentenced to death for allegedly collaborating with the anti-revolutionary White Army. Legend has it that while awaiting his execution he was visited by the very Leon Trotsky, and that he decided to release him after playing a game of chess with him.

Fight for the throne

Virtually bankrupt – the Bolsheviks had appropriated his family’s fortune – he visited various European cities in the company of his second wife, and participated in a succession of tournaments. It is after settling in France that he decided to fight for the throne of chess, and in In 1927 he managed to snatch the title of world champion from Cuban José Raúl Capablanca, that since the beginning of that decade he had been unbeatable thanks to his modest, tactical and conservative game.

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Capablanca never stopped demanding a rematch but Alekhine, who was granted the power to choose candidates by the crown, was always denied it, probably out of fear. On the other hand, the Russian always opted for weaker rivals, and although in 1935 he lost the title against the Dutch Max Euwe – his defeat could have been contributed by drunkenness in which he played several of the games of the contest -, two years later he recovered it and did not lose it again throughout his life.

Refugee in Spain

When the Nazis entered France, Alekhine feared that they would seize the immense fortune of his fourth wife – and, in particular, the castle that he owned in Normandy -, so in In 1941 he agreed not only to compete under the German flag but also to actively dedicate himself to promoting the supposed German intellectual supremacy. To this end he published a succession of articles in which he spoke of the difference between Aryan chess and Jewish chess; the one, he claimed, was brave, while the other was cowardly and therefore dishonorable.

Later he publicly regretted the writing of these texts, and even excused himself by assuring that they had been modified without his consent by the Gestapo for propaganda purposes. However, that did not prevent that after Hitler’s defeat he was forced to see how tournaments from around the world vetoed his participation despite being the champion. He decided to take refuge for a time in Spain – there are those who claim that he worked as a spy for Franco – and later settled in Portugal.

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Resistance or the KGB?

Alekhine He was found dead on the morning of March 25, 1946, in his room at the Hotel do Parque in Estoril (Portugal), at the age of 53; the doctor in charge of certifying his death, Antonio Ferreira, ruled that it was due to suffocation that produced a piece of meat. However, there are several reasons to doubt that version. The Russian was found sitting in an armchair in front of a chess board wearing a thick coat in the middle of the Portuguese spring and showing an excessively calm demeanor, unlike someone who is dying by drowning.

Ferreira himself reported many years later that actually Alekhine had been shot to death, and that the body had been found in the street outside the hotel and brought up to the room wrapped in a tarp. Once there, a coat had been used to hide the wounds. Maybe it would kill him the French resistance, because of its collaboration with the nazis, or maybe Stalin ordered the KGB to finish him off. As described by ‘The Alekhine Diagonal’, in any case, that man had long been reduced to rubble.


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