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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Back Channel: A Review

One of the essays contained in the book, “Fools Rush Inn: More Detours on the Way to Conventional Wisdom,” by Bill James is titled, “Jumping the Fictional Shark.” It begins, “It is within human nature, I think, to become less interested in fiction as we age.” Bill is not a polished writer, a fact many have pointed out, as can be seen by his use of “I think” above. It is unnecessary for Bill to use “I think” because since he is writing, one assumes he thinks. Bill does this kind of thing often. Since I am writing, it is not necessary that I write, “in my opinion.” Hopefully, a reader will know it is my opinion without my having to inform him of that fact. I, and many others, read Bill for his ideas.
What he thinks about reading less fiction as we age is applicable to me, and, I assume, many other aging readers. The love of my life said to me thirty years ago, “You don’t read fiction.” Gail had a point. I read made up stories when younger and had little interest in them as an adult. I read mostly non-fiction because it was interesting. Even the fiction I read was of the historical fiction variety.

Having read extensively on the subject of the JFK assassination not only have I read about the crime itself, but I have read about the surrounding climate during the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. As POTUS, JFK read a book, “The Guns of August,” by Barbara Tuchman, and was so impressed that he ordered many copies and distributed it to those in his administration. The book is about what led to what is now called the “First World War,” and it won a Pulitzer Prize. Immersing oneself in the milieu of that time naturally means reading extensively about what is now called the “Cuban Missile Crisis.” I had just turned eleven during that time and although I, like every other grammar school child in the country, was made to practice a “duck and cover” maneuver, which now seems preposterous, in which we got down on our knees underneath the desk and covered our little noggin’ with our hands. This we would do to “protect” ourselves in the event of a nuclear war. I was not into the “nightly news blues” at that age, but can still recall the gravity of the situation by how the adults reacted. My questions were invariably met with, You are too young” for the answers and to “go out and play.” I loathed being treated in this fashion. Fortunately for me, I lived near a Boys Club, and the adults there would answer the questions left unanswered by the adults in my neighborhood. JFK was reviled by most, if not all, of the adults with whom I had contact and this only worsened the longer he held office. One rarely reads of the depth of how much the POTUS was loathed and detested in the South. I have often wondered if that was the reason so many mediocre Republican’s were installed, or maybe I should say, “selected” to be POTUS. It has also made me wonder how it came about that a fellow Georgian, Jimmy Carter, ever obtained the position of POTUS.

Having read something about a new book by Stephen L. Carter, the author of “The Emperor of Ocean Park,” a novel written about in Chess Life magazine years ago, I was familiar with him, so I decided to check out the book after reading he had used chess as a backdrop. I mean, what could be better than a novel on two of my favorite subjects? When first looking over the book I read this on the back cover, thinking it about the book I was holding in my hands, “There’s a lot going on in this big, smart book…Lofty legal arguments coincide with a grittier plot…What makes this novel so vastly entertaining is the author’s sharp skewering of politicians, lawyers, and the monied social class that runs Washington.” -Kate Tuttle, The Boston Globe. That sounded interesting! Unfortunately, Kate was writing about Mr. Carter’s earlier book, “The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln. “ABRAHAM LINCOLN?! OH NO, MR. BILL. NOT ANOTHER BOOK ON THE DEVIL HIMSELF!” I thought.

Even though I purchased a used copy of “The Emperor of Ocean Park,” I never got around to reading it. It is rather humorous that I would look at the book and think, “All those pages,” but when looking at a book like, for example, “Legacy of Secrecy: The Long Shadow of the JFK Assassination,” by Lamar Waldron and Thom Hartmann, which is even larger and contains even more pages, I would think, “Look at all that meat!”

It being my birthday, I decided to read something different, and “Back Channel” fit the bill. Did it ever…I do not have words to tell you how much I enjoyed the book, so I will use some old cliches. I was “riveted” because it was a “page turner” that I “could not put down.” This after being put off by the use of a 19 year virgin black girl as the protagonist, which I found preposterous in the same way I found Will Smith playing the part of Jim West in the movie “The Wild Wild West.” I mean, come on, Negros were not members of the Secret Service until JFK became POTUS. I usually like my fiction to have some basis in reality. Then I thought, “OK, it is, after all, fiction, and if I had been born a Negro maybe I would write fiction using a Negro character.” Reading on, I came to understand what genius it was for this writer to have used the characters he chose.
I have always detested a reviewer who gives away too much of a book, and for that reason have preferred to read the book before the review. I have chosen only a little of the book to give you an idea of what this wonderful book contains.

“Viktor frowned. Definitely nyekulturny. Uncultured. To speak so casually about violence. Typical of the sort of man who rose to authority in a country that had never faced extermination, as the Motherland had.”

This made me think of Oliver Stone’s TV Series documentary, “The Untold History of the United States,” and how little, most of it wrong, we Americans understand of what is happening in Ukraine today. Often it is better to see things from another perspective, as in the case of a game of chess. Players must try and understand what an opponent wants, and what he is willing to do to obtain what he wants.

“In Russia, we have a proverb,” he said. “If you’re afraid of the wolves, you shouldn’t go into the woods.”

This reminded me of IM Boris Kogan, who was always sharing “Russian proverbs.”
“Few Americans probably realized the extent to which the military had become a law unto itself, in effect a separate branch of government. The Congress controlled its budget but gave the generals whatever they wanted, and the President was the commander in chief when he had time and they had the inclination. the system worked because the American military was run by men of unparalleled integrity.
Most of the time.”

You are probably asking yourself, “This is a novel, right?”

“Because your reporters are like the birds who eat carrion. They produce little of value, and feed off the remains of what others have left. They will destroy the reputation of your President for profit. the First Amendment is the tragedy of your system. In my country, we protect the reputations of our leaders, because in that way we protect the reputation and integrity of the Party, and therefore of the country and the people.”

Bill Clinton would say, “Amen, brother! Right on. Right on. Right on!”

“Bundy recognized the frustration in Bobby’s voice, and knew he had to avoid sounding too professional. The Kennedy’s were an impetuous clan, not thin-skinned, precisely, but quick to detect condescension. He addressed himself to the older brother.”

Sounds like Mr. Carter goes way back with the Kennedy clan, does it not?

“The way your mind works is fascinating,” he said, not turning. When you put the facts together that way, yes, you can reach the conclusion you suggest. But in the analysis of intelligence information, we have a word for people who make up their minds too quickly and then try to make the evidence fit. We call the amateurs.”

Here in America, we call them Bushwhackers, for that is EXACTLY the description of how we got BUSHWHACKED into going to war in Iraq
.
This is a magnificent book written by a brilliant writer. I do not read enough fiction to judge, but it is possible that Stephen Carter could be the best author, or at least one of the best authors currently writing fiction. Read this book and you can leave a comment and thank me later. Send this review to anyone you know who enjoys good fiction. Because every one has heard of the parlor game of “Six Degrees of Bacon,” based on the “six degrees of separation” concept, which posits that any two people on Earth are six or fewer acquaintance links apart, I know some reader either knows Bill James, or knows someone who knows him, so at least send Bill the URL and maybe he will decide to make an exception and read a book of fiction!

Forty seconds into this video you will see these words by the Devil Abraham Lincoln:
“I destroy my enemies when I make them my friends.”
The man made an awful lot of “friends” in the South before John Wilkes Booth made the Devil a friend.

Abraham * Martin and John *** Dion