Odds and Dead Ends : Checkmate / The mysterious death of Alexander Alekhine

In 1946, a singular event in history occurred. The reigning World Chess Champion, Alexander Alekhine, (pronunciation of his name is debated depending on who is speaking, but most would pronounce it either Al-ek-ine, or Al-yek-hin), died whilst holding the title. This was the first and only time a World Champion has passed during his reign. What makes this intriguing, and curious for discussion here on HorrorAddicts.net, is that despite the coroner ruling Alekhine’s death an accident, conspiracy theories abound to this day about Soviet death squads and secret police murdering him after WWII had ended for political revenge.

Alekhine was born in October 1892 in Moscow, to a wealthy landowner father, and his mother was heiress to a large textile-industry fortune. Following in the footsteps of his older brother, he began playing in chess tournaments in the local Moscow clubs in his younger age, and by the time he was in double digits, he was addicted, playing games in his head throughout lessons and before bed. Bill Wall notes that ‘Garry Kasparov [the 13th World Chess Champion] tells the story that once in an algebra test, Alekhine suddenly leaped up with shining eyes. The teacher asked if Alekhine had solved the problem. Alekhine responded, “Yes, I sacrifice the knight, and White wins!” The class burst out laughing.’ (Wall, 2008)

As one of the world’s strongest players, Alekhine moved to France in 1921. He played tournaments against the strongest opponents in the world, and in 1928 successfully defeated José Raul Capablanca in a championship match to become the fourth World Chess Champion. Throughout the next decade, Alekhine played in all the world’s biggest tournaments, winning brilliancy prizes for incredibly played games in five Chess Olympiads (the chess version of the Olympic Games). Around 1934 he all but retired from major tournament play. Alekhine lost his title in 1935 to Max Euwe, but regained it again a few years later.

It is in 1939, however, that things changed. War broke out across Europe, and eventually, the champion needed to find ways to escape the continent. Repeated attempts to flee to Cuba, which would also aid the possibility of a rematch with his Cuban rival, Capablanca, were denied. In 1940, the Nazis seized control of the chatellenie at Saint-Aubin-la-Cauf, where Alekhine’s wife, Grace Alekhine, was residing. In order to protect her, Alekhine agreed to participate in many Nazi-controlled leagues and tournaments, as well as write articles and literature on behalf of the party. Many of these were overtly anti-Semitic, claiming things such as the idea that Jewish chess players were incapable of creating true works of chess art.

Come the end of the war, Alekhine was declined entry into all tournaments outside the Iberian Peninsula, with several pre-war invitations rejected. In 1946, The British Chess Federation decided to grant money as a prize fund for a World Championship match between Alekhine and the new soviet superstar, Mikhail Botvinnik. A telegram was sent to the hotel in Portugal where Alekhine was staying, and it was here that, on March 24th, Alexander Alekhine was found and pronounced dead. Alekhine’s funeral was arranged and paid for by the newly-created FIDE organisation (the international chess federation: Fédération Internationale des Échecs).

Here is where the conspiracy theories begin to write themselves. The initial line of inquiry decided that Alekhine had died of a heart attack, and yet articles in chess magazines claimed that the autopsy reports had stated that a three-inch piece of unchewed meat had been found in his windpipe. Due to the high improbability that someone could have effectively inhaled a piece of meat that long without chewing it, rumours began to fly. Theories that the Soviet Union reached Alexander and killed him as payment for both his Nazi affiliation and his denouncement of bolshevism in the early 1920s emerged. Many, including Grandmaster Kevin Spraggett, suggest that it is possible the Portuguese secret police of the time, PIDE, attacked Alekhine outside his hotel room and staged the death (Spraggett, 2010). Some even maintain that the photographs of his body in the hotel room were staged to suggest a natural death.

Debates still abound as to whether Alekhine harboured true anti-Semitic feelings, or whether all of his statements were purely down to a need to keep his family safe. Some have argued both, others have argued that his statements and articles were manipulated by the Nazi to fit their regime, and that Alekhine incorrectly spelled the names of famous players of the past to prove that he didn’t believe the rhetoric he was writing. It is quite likely that this is another issue which, like the true circumstances of his death, will remain forever unknown. In either case, the one thing that nobody doubts was his great chess ability, playing aggressively for the kill with no quarter given, and his death remains a mysterious singularity in the 125+ years of the official title of world chess.

-Article by Kieran Judge

-Twitter: @KJudgeMental

Bibliography

Spraggett, K., 2010. Spraggett on Chess – Part 1: Alekhine’s Death. [Online]
Available at: https://web.archive.org/web/20110708045154/http://kevinspraggett.blogspot.com/2009/03/part-1-alekhines-death.html
[Accessed 05 10 2019].

Wall, B., 2008. Alexander Alekhine (1892 – 1946). [Online]
Available at: https://web.archive.org/web/20091028083454/http://www.geocities.com/SiliconValley/Lab/7378/alekhine.htm
[Accessed 05 10 2019].

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