I have quite a few old chess books on my shelves – I have a hard time passing them up whenever I see a street vendor selling them, and so they accumulate. The other day, in the small hours of the morning, weary but not yet ready to retire, I pulled a couple of volumes at random and settled in with a board and an adult beverage, looking forward to browsing a bit and perhaps playing over a master game or two. The two books I had happened to choose were The Book of the Nottingham International Chess Tournament, 10th to 28th August, 1936, With Annotations and Analysis by A. Alekhine (probably the best tournament book ever, given the quality of the annotation, and that the field included Alekhine, Capablanca, Lasker, Fine, Tartakower, Vidmar, Bogoljuboff, Flohr, Reshevsky, Euwe, and Botvinnik, among others), and a wonderful collection called The Treasury of Chess Lore, by that most beloved of all chess writers, Fred Reinfeld.
First I played over an outstanding game from the first round of the Nottingham tournament. It was the great Alekhine playing White against Salo Flohr, a player who hovered perennially just below world-championship level (and who had just placed first to Alekhine’s second at a tournament the previous month). The game is a French defense, and Alekhine plays with relentless determination and consummate skill, eventually winning the day. You can see the game below:
Alekhine, who by 1936 had lost his World Champion title and was feeling the ravages of both time and his dissipated life, mentions in his notes for this game that he made a mistake very early on, at move 4. He played 4. Bd2 (I have converted to algebraic notation here), and he tells us:
A “lapsus manus”. I intended to play 4. e5 and f4 as, for instance against Nimzovitch at San Remo 1930, but instead I made the move with the bishop first.
This must have been a very upsetting moment, I thought, for the once-invincible Alekhine: paired against a formidable opponent, in Round 1 of the strongest tournament ever convened, at a time when he is fighting for his sagging career, he has already, at move 4, made a strategic error. I could only imagine how the blood must have run cold in his veins. But as we have seen, his will prevailed – an example of the mettle of one of the greatest masters of all time.
So, after playing over this excellent game, I turned to Reinfeld’s book, an engaging anthology of chess essays and anecdotes (sadly, long out of print). As I leafed through the pages I came to a section called The Modern Masters, and in particular there was a page of old black-and-white photos of Alekhine, including the one below (forgive the poor quality; I just snapped it with my phone’s camera a minute ago):
I could see this was an older Alekhine, and turned to the notes at the back of the book to see where the picture was taken. Imagine my surprise to find that it was actually from Round 1 of the Nottingham tournament – the very game I had just been looking at. And on closer inspection, I saw that the position on the board was just after 4 … dxe4 – the very move at which Alekhine had made his mistake!
In this photo Alekhine is pausing to light a cigarette, trying to appear calm, but you can see from the tension in his mouth and shoulders, and from his awkward posture, that he must have been utterly shocked and dismayed. This was an amazing find – in these two dusty old books I had stumbled upon a unique, multidimensional and psychologically profound glimpse of a 70-year-old moment, involving perhaps the greatest player who ever lived.