Alexander Alekhine (1892-1946) was a legendary chess player, ranked as an international grandmaster. He was world champion from 1927 to 1935 and from 1937 to his untimely death in 1946. He is perhaps best known today for the Alekhine defense, a brilliant defensive scheme that nearly forces the white player to overexpose the central pawns; this will be discussed below.
Alexander was born in Moscow, Russia, on the 19th of October, 1892. His father was a marshal of nobility and a member of the Duma, and his mother was the daughter of a famed industrialist, so young Alexander was born into a family in the aristocracy. His mother taught Alex to play at a very early age and he quickly fell in love with the game of chess. He began to play correspondence chess in his teenage years and by the time he was 15 he was entering into tournaments. In 1908, at age sixteen, he became a student at the Imperial High School for Law in Moscow and the following year, he won the Russian Amateur Chess Championship, and afterwards he began to play in significant tournaments both within Russia and internationally. His first major tournament win was in Stockholm in 1912 and he won the 1914 All Russian Championship.
During World War I, he served with the Red Cross and was awarded a medal by the Austrians for his bravery, due to the fact that he was wounded while helping another soldier. After the war, though, he returned to his first love, chess, and in 1920 he won the first Soviet Championship, but in 1921 he moved permanently to France.
In 1921, at a tournament in Budapest, he introduced the Alekhine defense, which he would often use in tournament play throughout his career. In response to a common opening of the time, P-K4, Alekhine responded with Kt-KB3, which seems to encourage the white player to advance his/her pawns. (In algebraic form, that would be 1. e4 Nf6) Of course, this position is a trap, because if the white player does this, he/she cedes the middle of the board to the black player and eventually the game. It is a wonderful defense, particularly against white players who tend to be overly agressive with their pawns.
He performed fantastically well in international chess tournaments throughout the 1920
s, earning him a match against the reigning world champion, Jose Raul Capablanca
, in 1927
. Capablanca, at the time, was seen simply as the greatest chess player to have ever lived, so it was a monumental upset
when Alekhine seized the title 6 wins to 3 losses with 25 draws (18.5-15.5). In a move that would eventually diminish Alekhine's record, he would never play Capablanca again, continually dodging him throughout the rest of both of their careers.
Instead, Alekhine defended his title against worthy opponents (but seemingly less worthy than Capablanca) until 1935, when he lost the title to Max Euwe. In 1937, after two years of intense training, he regained the title, and would hold it until his death in 1946.
After the onset of World War II, Alekhine was quite outspoken about his opposition to playing against Germans on the chessboard, going so far as to avoid any tournaments that invited German players. After France fell to the Germans, Alekhine fled to the United States, but his wife was stuck behind. The German government struck a bargain with Alekhine: if he would consent to play a tournament in Munich, then he could be reunited with his wife and be protected by the German government as they lived in Germany or Austria. Alekhine agreed, and until the end of the war, he lived with his wife in Austria.
After the war, Alekhine was the subject of much anti-German sentiment, and he was even rejected from playing in several tournaments. He played in a few minor tournaments and was preparing for another world title defense when on March 23, 1946, Alexander Alekhine passed away of a heart attack. He was alone and in poverty. In 1956, FIDE brought his remains to Paris and constructed a monument to him in Montparnasse Cemetery, where he is in statue form, made of white marble, sitting at a chessboard.
Alekhine's greatest gift to the modern world was that he helped to popularize the view that chess isn't merely a pastime, but instead a form of art. He was a great fan and promoter of chess from an aesthetic perspective. Within the game, the Alekhine defense is perhaps his greatest legacy.