Alekhine’s Odessa Secrets: Chess, War and Revolution: A Review

The book

is meticulously written, but difficult to follow. This could have been remedied with a much-needed index. Because of my lack of knowledge concerning events after the first World War when the Soviets took power and became the Soviet Union I spent as almost as much time doing ancillary research to become familiar with the subjects as time reading the book. My limited knowledge of the period consisted of watching the movies Doctor Zhivago, and Reds, and reading the book, The Guns of August,

by Barbara W. Tuchman and Robert K. Massie, a book US President John F. Kennedy

purchased in quantity, asking those in his administration to read it, and what I have gleaned from reading about the game of Chess during that time period. Reading this book increased my knowledge exponentially because it is exceptionally well researched.
The book is replete with pictures and documents from the period. The book revises some things that have become accepted as fact. For example, “There was a long-held view that the first head of chess in the USSR was Nikolai Vasilevich Krylenko

-the Chairman of the Supreme Tribunal, a key figure in Stalin’s

repressions, and who later became their victim. But that isn’t the case!”

Vasily Russo was a checkers expert and the main organizer of the first USSR checkers championships. He also published the first book on checkers in the Soviet Union in 1924. It was Russo who was the driving force behind clubs being named “chess and checkers” and not just “chess.”

“There was a need to invite an authoritative figure to head the new organization. Thus, after a vote Krylenko was appointed Chairman of the Chess and Checkers Club of the Supreme Council of Physical Education.” Krylenko was convicted of treason(31-Jan-1938), and shot by firing squad in Moscow (29-Jul-1938).

Because of the book I have a much better understanding of some of the events of Alekhine’s life and the decisions he made. While hounded from all sides in life he nevertheless became Chess Champion of the World. It is possible Alekhine

was only hours away from death more than once in his life, yet he somehow managed to escape the grim reaper until it came for him while in Portugal. The story is truly amazing.

For example, “Ironically, all of those involved in case No. 228, apart from Alekhine, were accused of anti-Soviet activity and shot. Matrin Latis was arrested at the end of November 1937 and shot on 29 March 1938. Vilis Steingardt was imprisoned in the middle of January 1938 and shot the same day at (sic) Latis. Max Deich was arrested in summer 11937 and executed at the end of October. The prison doors closed behind Terenty Deribas on 12 August 1937, and he was executed at the end of the following July. Vladimir Yakolev was also shot in 1938. Finally, Stanislav Redens was arrested on 21 October 1938. He was “lucky” to live longer (Stalin’s brother-in-law, after all!) – he was shot n 12 February 1940.”

Alekhine ran, but he could not hide forever…

At the end of a wonderful story about Alekhine entering Robinat’s cafe (the Café de la Régence of Odessa) in Odessa and not being recognized until the entrance of Boris Verlinsky we read:

“And more on the topic of Alekhine and chess composition – the world champion devised an impassioned explanation of his love for this intimate side of chess: “The very idea of chess composition is close to my heart. I would be happy to create works quite alone…But this opponent, this colleague forced on you…he brings so much disappointment to the true chess artist who desires not only to win but above all to create a work of enduring value!”

“Alekhine of course refused to accept such a handicap but right away asked all preset to solve a problem that he clearly recalled once the question of a handicapped game arose.”

“The conditions are the following,” Alekhine said. “White starts without both rooks. In return black plays without his f7 pawn and white plays the first eight moves, but can only move pieces within his half of the board. You need to set the white pieces up so that white can mate in four moves or less no matter what move black plays.”

“After this puzzle, Alekhine challenged us to another one. From the normal starting position, white’s first four moves have to be as follows: 1 f3 – 2 Kf2 – 3 Kg3 – 4 Kh4. Black replies to each of white’s moves, but he is not allowed to interrupt the imaginative march of the white king. Black has to checkmate white as soon as the latter’s king reaches h4. What are black’s moves?”

Concerning the marriage of Alekhine and Anneliese Ruegg it is written: “Alekhine’s marriage to Anneliese Ruegg fell apart almost immediately after his escape to Europe. They had totally different interests. Once in Germany, Alekhine immersed himself in chess, playing match after match and traveling from tournament to tournament. His Swiss wife, on the other hand, burned with the desire to turn the entire world communist.
Alexander Alekhine’s son, also called Alexander, was born on 2 November 1921. Nevertheless, the appearance of an heir failed to glue this fictive marriage. together. His son later said: “I really missed my father as a child. I saw him very rarely. Then my mother died [Anneliese died on 2 May 1934]. I was brought to Zurich, where my father was playing at the time. He already had a new wife, but my step-mother didn’t accept me, as she had her own children while my father was totally obsessed with his chess. They put me in boarding school. Naturally, I took offense. It was only when I grew up that I came to realize that chess for my father was much more than his family. It was his life.”

The book culminates with: ALEKHINE’S MYSTERIOUS DEATH AND LENGTHY BURIAL. Who killed Alekhine?

“It was also printed somewhere that a waiter from a restaurant in Estoril that Alekhine sometimes frequented had died. Before his death, this waiter admitted that he poured a light-colored powder into Alekhine’s food at the end of March 1946 for a large sum of money. Two foreigners provided him with the poison and the money.”

“Naturally, there was a suspicion that the death scene on the photo was a hasty fake. One could assume that the already dead Alekhine was hoisted into the chair (which seems to be confirmed by the resulting folds of his coat), then the meat was shoved down his throat, his lips were smeared with froth and various objects were set out in front of him for maximum effect: the chess board, dishes, and a book.”
“And what about the book? The inquest report refers to a novel entitled Vers l’Exile by the English Catholic writer Margaret Sothern (1502-1568). It was open at a page with the line, “This is the destiny of those who live in exile.” A hint at Alekhine’s demise?”

“It would have been possible to reopen the investigation, but nobody wanted to. That is why the main question – whose country’s secret service got rid of Alekhine? – remains unresolved. Actually, there aren’t too many alternatives.”

“Alekhine’s son, Alexander junior, considered this version, liquidation by the NKVD, as the most likely. And it does indeed appear to be the most convincing.”

“Nevertheless, this is all just speculation. Documents of the NKVD’s Fourth Department, or more precisely, Sudoplatov’s “Portuguese Diaries”, could provide answers to many of these questions. However, these archives are inaccessible to mere mortals. They are subject to a decree by President Boris Yeltsin dated 24 January 1998 “On the list of Information Classified as State Secrets.” Maybe one day the Russian leadership will change its mind?”

In a recent email GM Kevin Spraggett,

who lives in Portugal and has written extensively on the subject, wrote, “ps I just recently met someone in Portugal who might be able to add more facts to the case.” See: http://www.spraggettonchess.com/part-1-alekhines-death/

If you would like to wade into the deep, murky waters of a grand sweeping story as a backdrop to the Royal Game, this book is for you. If you would prefer a book with more of Alekhine’s Chess you will be disappointed. You may think this pedantic book would only be of interest to someone attempting to become a PhD in Russian studies before embarking on a life in the CIA, but you would be mistaken.
I give it a wholehearted recommendation.

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One thought on “Alekhine’s Odessa Secrets: Chess, War and Revolution: A Review

  1. […] One of the books reviewed on this blog, Alekhine’s Odessa Secrets: Chess, War and Revolution by Sergei Tkachenko, Elk and Ruby Publishing House, has made it to the English Chess Federation shortlist. (https://xpertchesslessons.wordpress.com/2018/02/24/alekhines-odessa-secrets-chess-war-and-revolution&#8230😉 […]

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