Alexander Alekhine, New York 1927 (Russell Enterprises 2011). 168 pp. $19.95. Reviewed by Dennis Monokroussos.
Unlike Alexander Alekhine's justly renowned tournaments books on New York 1924 and Nottingham 1936, his book on 1927 is harder to find and less well-known. But why should this be? It was an important tournament with only first-class players. It could have been stronger, had Emanuel Lasker, Efim Bogoljubow and Akiba Rubinstein been present, but even in their absence it was a tremendous lineup:
- Jose Capablanca (the world champion and tournament winner)
- Alekhine (second place, and world champion just a few months later)
- Aron Nimzowitsch (the future author of My System was a genuine contender then)
- Milan Vidmar (a world class player who was also a notable engineer)
- Rudolf Spielmann (a great attacking player - see his The Art of Sacrifice in Chess)
- Frank Marshall (another great attacker and lover of complications)
60% of the games were drawn, which may have been high by the standards of the day, but then again, most tournaments then were of mixed strength. Some great games were played there too, so that's not a very good reason.
Perhaps there are three reasons for the book's rarity. First, it was originally written in German, not English. This is odd, considering that it was an American tournament, and Alekhine wrote tournament books in English both before and after this one. Second, as GM Andy Soltis notes in his foreword, there wasn't much drama in the contest, as Capablanca won going away. (Indeed, the victory was so easy that he [allegedly] went out of his way to avoid winning at least one game, slipping his opponent a note through the arbiter telling him to play better!) And perhaps there is a third reason, one that cuts both ways, and that's Alekhine's repeated, over-the-top bludgeoning of Capablanca in the introduction and throughout the text.
Alekhine only wrote the tournament book after his successful world championship match with Capablanca, and it reads like an "IN YOUR FACE!!!" to a chess world that thought Capablanca was invincible. Alekhine's introduction begins like this:
We know that the year 1925 brought Capablanca the biggest disappointment he had experienced up until then in his international tournament career: in the Moscow tournament, he took third only with great effort, lost two games to players of a relatively lesser class, and escaped defeat in some other games (as against Reti or Loewenfisch, for example), mainly thanks to the kindness or carelessness of the opponents....
We may say without exaggeration that for Capablanca, the somewhat negative impression of his qualitiative results during his Moscow performance cast a much more perceptible shadow over his reputation than his lost games - because even Lasker, the unsurpassed tournament fighter, was third in Hastings 1895 and shared second and third place with Janowski in Cambridge-Springs 1904.... But during the entire, very long period of his world championship, Lasker was never so defeated as Capablanca was by Verlinsky. It was especially this impression on the part of the general public - that he, although extremely rarely, could play absolutely weakly - that Capablanca had to try to obliterate sometime soon.
In other words, Capa had to win an event to save his reputation. This led to the formation of the New York 1927 tournament, and here Alekhine hastens to note and dwell on the fact that none of Capablanca's European competitors (i.e. everyone but Marshall) had never won even a single game against him, and Marshall had a lousy record as well. Indeed, Alekhine suggests that some of Capa's opponents in the event played as if commanded to make second- or third-rate moves, others were afraid, and still others were only peaceably inclined against him.
Alekhine spends four pages in the intro going recapping Capablanca's games, to see if the Cuban's sporting achievement rose to the same level in qualitative terms. (You'll never guess what he concludes.) Shockingly (not really), he's not impressed. In his four games with Alekhine, only the first one was real (after losing the first, Alekhine played only for a draw), and he says of his own play that it was so bad that "the refutation of [my inferior moves] would have been easy even for an average master" (p. 17).
Of Capablanca's games with Nimzowitsch, he only praises Capablanca's play in the third game, but hastens to say this: "But what a helpless impression Nimzovich's posiitonal play makes! Move 16.g4, for example, is unworthy of even a mediocre amateur. By the way, in this game Capablanca's play is not even consistently flawless...and only the final part is impressive in its logical simplicity" (p. 18).
This continues with the remaining players, but you get the point. Capablanca's play (but not just his) is critiqued vociferously in the games section as well, but Alekhine does offer a retraction of sorts:
But I have to state specifically that this...is directed solely toward the half-mythic Capablanca ...[the superplayer]. For when one takes the trouble to rid his thinking of this anesthetizing legend, then one comes, of course, to the belief that Capablanca is entirely a first-class master, whose ability lies much more in intuition than in critical thinking. (Page 20)
Alekhine then analyzes Capablanca's strengths and weaknesses in the opening, middlegame and endgame, most famously concluding about his predecessor's play in the last stage of the game that "one will have to come to the realization that Capablanca is no remarkable endgame artist, that his proficiency in this phase of the game is decidely of a more technical nature, and that there are other masters (like Rubinstein, for example, in rook endgames) who in some variations certainly are or were superior to him....in the endgame he is not to be feared by a first-class master, for here he succeeds only in exceptional cases to rise above the mediocre" (p. 25). Wow. Alekhine does make a case for this conclusion, but whether it is successful is a debate for another day.
While the chief historical interest of the book is in Alekhine's commentary on Capablanca, it's worthy in its own right as a purely chess book too. Alekhine's notes are very good, especially by the standard of the day, both in terms of their analytical depth, the insight of the text, and the psychologically piquant and sometimes biting comments.
Definitely recommended for chess history buffs, and a good book for chess fans in general.