B. H. Wood on Alekhine

B. H. Wood on Alekhine

Baruch H. Wood (1909-1989) is mainly known as publisher and editor of Chess for more than 50 years. But he also wrote an interesting weekly column for Illustrated London News from 1949 to 1979. This is a collection of Wood’s recollections and observations on Alexander Alekhine and his personality from Illustrated London News.

Baruch H. Wood
Baruch H. Wood

Alekhine loses

Alekhine dominated chess like a Colossus for years. Wherever he went, he received first-class hospitality and travelling expenses, on top of which he must have squandered the best part of £10,000 yearly – largely on champagne. He had less real showmanship than Capablanca, who made a great name out of hardly ever losing. Alekhine’s method was the cruder but terribly wearing one of winning, and winning again, and continuing to win again. Few people realise how the odds lengthen against a champion in all he does. Wherever he goes, his opponents are putting forward the effort of a lifetime. They have nothing to lose, for nobody expects them to win; and they have everything to gain, for if they do achieve the miraculous, they will “hit the headlines.” Alekhine could play and win twenty perfect games without arousing more than a ripple of interest. Then he would, in the very nature of things – perhaps through sheer staleness or boredom – lose a bad game, inferior in quality to any of the others; and the very fact that it was a loss by Alekhine would shoot it straight into a thousand newspapers all over the world. He felt this quite keenly, I know from conversations with him; he could never reconcile himself to the fact that it is an inevitable cruely which all who attain to the heights must suffer.

When Alekhine gave a simultaneous display, he faced not the usual twenty or so players, of whom half are normally fairly weak, but forty or more picked players, each out to make a supreme effort. In fact, the organisers were forced to pack the opposition with extremely keen players, for Alekhine would not consider such an engagement at less than about 20 guineas. When he played in a seaside congress, apart from first-class travelling and accommodation and free facilities of every kind, he demanded an appearance fee for which £50 was an absolute minimum, and the chance of a reasonable first prize. But (and this was the other side of the picture!) if, through playing just a little below form, he failed to take that first prize, the committee would look askance, and all over the world the writers would be demanding “Is Alekhine on the decline?”

All these nastier concomitants of fame contributed to making Alekhine a hard man, unloved and unloving. “A terror to hotel waiters,” I have heard him called. I present the majority verdict, though I must confess that my personal impression of him was a little kindlier.
(June 4, 1949)

Alekhine resigns

One of the tardiest resigners was the great Alekhine himself. He once adjourned a game against Tartakower in such a hopelessly lost position that it hardly seemed worth while to make out the diagram. Pressed repeatedly to throw up the sponge during the two days before resumption of play, he stubbornly refused, yet, on arriving at the rendesvouz and finding his opponent there, waiting for him, hale and ready for action, he resigned without even sitting down. The only possible inference, as Tartakower says in relating the incident, was that he had been hoping against hope that Tartakower would meet with some accident, or fall ill, and have to let the game go by default. [The game is Alekhine-Tartakower, Folkestone 1933. Ed.]
(June 25, 1949)

Alekhine writes

My first approach to Alekhine came when I asked him, as World Champion, for a series of articles in a chess magazine I was founding. He named a staggering figure, from which he would not bate one halfpenny; I accepted. Within three moths he had (by common knowledge) drunk away his title, and these expensive articles were no longer from the pen of a World Champion. His fall was a terrible shock to him; worse than the defeat even, was the attitude of the world of chess. Never greatly liked, he had made enemies everywhere and, restrained hitherto by his renown, they now emerged like rats from their holes to revile and belittle him.

He retired to his château in France, and for weeks I could not get a word out of him. Finally, I had to issue my magazine without the article from his pen that everybody had been promised. The time came to send off his monthly cheque. What to do? I deliberated a while, then sent it off as usual. I was sorry for him. Within a few days came two such articles as I have never printed before or since; they were the talk of the chess cafés for weeks.
(July 9, 1949)

Alekhine marries

Alekhine was a highly-strung and irritable man and could not easily have found a companion so supremely able to humour and control his vagaries as the American lady who helped him to regain his World Championship in 1937. On first impressions she was rather uninteresting. Only lengthier acquaintance revealed her quiet charm and remarkable strength of character. Alekhine would probably have been astonished if anybody had told him how much her ability to put up with his temperamental ups and downs had helped him.
(July 1, 1950)

Alekhine plays

The great Alekhine, who himself confessed that he was more interested in exceptions than rules, who would always try any bizarre move once, even in a World Championship match, was […] a rewarding study. His every movement was infused with a sort of suppressed volcanic energy. He would chain-smoke through a five-hour session, plucking his cigarette from his lips with almost explosive violence. Having made his move, he would snatch (“take” is an inadequate word) a cup of coffee, drain it at a gulp, leap to his feet, stride to and fro like a caged lion, occasionally (more like a panther now) steal up and peep over his opponent’s shoulder from behind to see how the position looked the other way round.
(September 29, 1951)

Alekhine smoking
Alekhine smoking during the 1935 World Championship match against Euwe. From gahetna.nl.


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