Alexander Alekhine, the chess champion cursed for allying with the Nazis

Alexander Alekhine, character of a biography of vertigo, reached the dimension of “god” of chess in the first half of the 20th century. Born into the aristocracy of Czarist Russia, he was imprisoned by the Bolsheviks during the civil war for alleged white sympathies. He managed to get out, according to some legendary story, after giving checkmate to the very Trotsky in prison, but the Soviets would include him again in their list of enemies years later, when as a French citizen bowed down to the nazis and wrote a series of anti-Semitic articles describing the alleged inability of their Jewish rivals to honorably face the 64-square chessboard.

World champion in 1927, Alekhine earned the animosity of the rest of the chess players for refusing to grant the rematch for the planetary title to the Cuban J. R. Capablanca. He was a really controversial figure, even extreme, with a hard-working genius to succeed in the game that was combined with an erratic personal life; an alcoholic and suffocatingly disciplined man full of mysteries. The outcome of the World War II It would push him to wander around the countries where embryonic fascist dictatorships still survived, Spain and Portugal, where he would find a death in more than suspicious circumstances.

His life is now the subject of the novel Alekhine’s diagonal (Alfaguara), by the French writer Arthur Larrue. It is not a fictionalized biography because it only covers the last years of the protagonist, from his return to Europe in 1939, when the continent was already surrendering to destruction, until 1946, the date of his death. Nor is the author’s objective a simple fiction of the adventures of the chess player, but to make “a generational portrait” of the brilliant creators, such as Celine, who found themselves at the crossroads of adopting politically and morally problematic positions.

World Chess Championship in 1937.

Wikimedia Commons

“My novel is the expression of a systematic ambiguity”, explains Larrue to this newspaper. Alekhine, a citizen of occupied France, became a succulent propaganda tool for the Nazis. When the development of the conflict smiled at the Germans, he wrote forced (?) by Joseph Goebbels and his henchmen on the alleged inferiority of Jewish chess players. However, he would end up regretting those comments, as he acknowledged in a personal diary made in 1943 during a trip to Spain.

Are these explanations plausible? Can their words be justified by the context? “Historians have established that the articles were written in his own handwriting because they found the manuscripts. From a more comprehensive point of view, we can take into account the circumstances in which he wrote them, an occupied country where anti-Semitism was a common opinion. And also remember that Alekhine came from the regime of the tsars, where there was state anti-Semitism. He was not only a man of his time, but also of his country. All this as a whole does not take away responsibility, but explains it. As a novelist, what I’m trying to do is relate what could have triggered Alekhine’s actions,” says the author.

KGB crime?

The chess player’s biography is already very suggestive, but Larrue builds a deep and absorbing fiction about the twilight of man and the shadows of his glory. The novel is a pursuit of the intimate, personal truth of Alekhine. “He was an exceptional player, one of the five greatest in history – anyone who is interested in chess is going to run into him – and with exceptional strength, but as a human being perhaps it was the opposite,” he summarizes. Composer Harold Schonberg described it as someone “more immoral than Richard Wagner and Jack the Ripper”, while his rival Reuben Fine went further, calling him “the sadist of chess” for the enjoyment he derived from inflicting suffering on his opponents.

In the book, Larrue slips that the Soviet agents of Stalin they had very good reasons to kill Alekhine, although the official version of the death speaks of a choking on a piece of meat. “When I reconstruct death, there is a narrative void. We do not attend the moment, but we verify who could want it and who have verified it. But in between, it is not known what happens”, settles the writer, who personally points to a crime of the KGB that had the collusion of the Portuguese dictator Anthony Salazar.

Cover of 'La diagonal Alekhine'.

Cover of ‘La diagonal Alekhine’.


“The historical and biographical data are nothing more than tools to write a novel that is the best and most unique possible,” says Larrue when asked about the elusive border between reality and fiction. “The difference between a historian and a novelist is perhaps the same that we can find between the fact and the expression of the fact.”

What would you ask Alekhine if you could? “I’ve been to see him several times. [al cementerio de Montparnasse, en París, donde está enterrado con otros genios malditos] and I wondered if I could bring her flowers. In the end I bought a cheap one. A chessboard is inscribed on his grave and I placed it on the F6 square, which is the Alekhine defense square, where the knight stands to make that move. By this I mean that my position before the man is like in the novel: very ambiguous. Probably what I would have liked to do with him would be to talk about chess and play a game.”

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