Alexander Alekhine was considered to be an opponent with an insanely aggressive style, calculating mind-bending tactical combinations 12 or more moves in advance…
Would you be intimidated facing him?
Alexander Alekhine was a chess player gifted with a great imagination, a basically photographic memory and an unstoppable will to win.
He could calculate extremely long and complicated variations with ease and spot tactical possibilities far beneath the surface of a position, while his opponents often had no idea that a storm was even in the distance.
Suddenly Alekhine would sacrifice something and his opponent would be left thinking:
“Okay, I don’t see how….but I must be lost!”
Several moves later it would gradually become clear what Alekhine had dreamed up many moves before.
Consider the following position:
What would you do in the position above?
Your first thought would be to move that rook on e3 to somewhere safe, right?
Alekhine had seen a deep tactical possibility where he wins a piece by force in 12 moves!
He played the extremely complicated looking move Ne4!!
Alekhine had seen the Bd5 fork way back when he played Ne4 12 moves earlier!
As a chess-obsessed teenager, I read so many historical stories which exemplify Alekhine’s amazing genius that some of them seemed like they must be bullshit, but nope…It’s all true.
One story I particularly like is of Alekhine being drunk in a cafe yet still managing to simultaneously play a dozen chess opponents blindfolded, whilst at the same time playing a hand of cards and engaging in lively conversation!
It is also known that before his 1927 world championship match with Capablanca, he memorised every game the Cuban had ever played!
How can you face such an opponent?
Remember, this is half a century before databases and chess engines made the learning process easier.
And all self-taught.
Sometimes I think the masters of the past would crush today’s players if given a fair playing field, but that’s another topic altogether! 🙂
In this post we’re going to break down the elements which Alekhine focussed on when making decisions in his chess games and how you and I can try to model his play.
Alexander Alekhine: the Genius
Let’s have a look at a couple of Alekhine’s beautiful games for inspiration first, and then we’ll break down his style in detail.
Gonsiorovsky vs Alekhine
This game was played blindfolded by Alekhine in 1918, many years before he reached his peak.
Alekhine’s opponent wasn’t particularly strong, but the combination that he played and the beauty of his play (even without sight of the board) is absolutely breathtaking.
Imagine if you could play games as beautiful as this regularly as he did!
Alekhine vs Prat
This gem was played even earlier in Alekhine’s career than the previous game (1913) and is another example of the depth of his calculations, his attacking ability and mostly…
The aesthetic beauty of his play (a.k.a his ability to play sick sacrifices in every game!)
After seeing this game you’ll definitely know why Alexander Alekhine was my chess hero whilst studying chess as a teen.
Well I forgot to mention that that game was played in a simultaneous exhibition where Alekhine also had 20+ other opponents to deal with!
Now let’s try to understand how Alekhine was able to do this by having a closer look at his style.
Alexander Alekhine: Playing Style
Before I share with you my own thoughts, let’s see what some other great chess players have said about his playing style.
GM Max Euwe said: “Alekhine is a poet who creates a work of art out of something that would hardly inspire another man to send home a picture post-card.”
GM Bobby Fischer said: “He played gigantic conceptions, full of outrageous and unprecedented ideas. … He had great imagination; he could see more deeply into a situation than any other player in chess history. … It was in the most complicated positions that Alekhine found his grandest concepts.”
GM Emmanuel Lasker said: “Alekhine’s attacking genius has no equal in the history of the game”
As a learner I tried not to like him because a chess mentor of mine had said “fuck Alekhine man!, the dude was a Nazi” but whether or not that was true (it wasn’t) I still found myself drawn to his play.
As I studied games from the past masters I would always be coming across games where even a giant such as Rubinstein would be blown away in the type of tactical storm which only Alekhine could produce.
Have a look at the stunning 25.Bg6!! in the following game.
Alekhine vs Rubinstein
So how did Alexander Alekhine consistently produce such brilliant games?
It comes down to a few things.
- How he evaluated positions
- His ability to calculate deeply
- His tactical ability
I’m going to use some observations from the field of computer chess to explain what I mean about how Alekhine evaluated positions and will use a picture of the UCI options of the Rodent Chess Engine to illustrate.
How to Evaluate Positions like Alekhine:
The settings shown in the picture above can be altered to change how this particular chess engine evaluates positions.
I’m going to speak about 5 of these settings with regard to Alekhine (the human’s) evaluation of positions.
- Pawn Value (in pink): Instead of the default value of 100, I’d imagine Alekhine’s own value of a pawn would be a little less (maybe 85 or 90), since he was quite willing in most cases to sacrifice a pawn if he gained something else in return.
- Keep [Pieces] (in red): This weight affects the engine’s preference for swapping a particular piece. Alekhine seemed to prefer keeping as many pieces on the board as possible and to avoid exchanges and increase complications. Therefore, It’d make sense to increase the “Keep” value for all of the pieces.
- Material (in yellow): This setting controls how sacrificial/materialistic the play will be. We all know that Alekhine’s play was full of beautiful sacrifices, so I’d definitely make this setting much lower.
- Own Attack (in blue): This setting controls how aggressively the engine will seek to attack the enemy king. Higher settings will result in aggressive play while lower settings will result in balanced or more “positional” play. We know that Alekhine was a ruthless attacker, so this setting would need to be high.
- King Tropism (in green): This setting controls how close (general proximity) to the king the engine likes to place his pieces. Higher settings will result in the engine seeking to keep on transferring its pieces toward the kingside (or wherever the enemy king is), regardless of whether an attack is realistic or not. Lower settings will result in more “normal” play with the engine spacing its pieces in a balanced way across the board. I’d imagine that Alekhine’s “king tropism” setting would be pretty high, but not ridiculous.
So let’s think about how to apply these prejudices (which is all a “style” really is) to our own play.
Ok from now on when looking at a positional we (you and I!) will:
- [Pawn Value] Be willing to a sacrifice/”lose” a pawn if we get development, initiative or a permanent structural advantage in return.
- [Keep Pieces] When given the opportunity to exchange pieces, avoid it! Or only allow the opponent to swap under circumstances which are favourable for you.
- [Don’t be Materialistic] Be willing to sacrifice material in return for intangible forms of compensation (destruction of king defense, positional bind etc).
- [Attack without Fear] Be aggressive and attack the enemy king ruthlessly looking for checkmate. Look deeply for creative ways to weaken your opponent’s king position.
- [Position Pieces Near his King] Place pieces in the general area of your opponent’s king and if they are far away, seek to transfer them toward to king.
All of these elements combined with practice will fuse in your mind and have you evaluating positions of a similar level to Alekhine.
Let’s look at another Alekhine game for an example of these elements.
Alekhine vs Book
How to Calculate like Alekhine:
Evaluating positions like Alekhine is fine, but if you can’t calculate well you’re only going to leading yourself into attacks which are a dead-end.
You need to be able to calculate as far down the road as possible and see whether your idea is going to work out.
Ways to improve your calculation
- Solve studies mentally (without moving the pieces) and write down your calculations in a notebook like 1.Re4 Kxe4 (1…c4 2.Nc3++) 2.Qh1++. Over time you will see that the calculations in your notebook become deeper and more structured.
- Study games by the master of complicated positions (Alekhine, Tal, and Kasparov) and as you study them cover the moves and imagine yourself in the position of our hero. When the position catches fire (tactics start springing up) pause and calculate. Ask yourself
“How does this work? What if black captures the bishop?” and calculate as deeply as you can, writing your analysis in the trusty notebook you used in the the first bullet point.
Here’s an example of a study I came across recently which would be great for training your calculation.
When given this puzzle to solve in an online chess group I stared at my phone screen unflinchingly until I’d solved it.
It took me 15-20 minutes to solve it and calculate all of the details (alternate defenses etc) thoroughly.
I suggest you solve it too. Remember, no moving the pieces or cheating. Just you, your eyes and your brain working. Look at the puzzles until you’ve done all of the mental heavy lifting and solved the puzzle.
No matter how long it takes, put the mental discipline into trying to solve it without using an engine or checking the answer below.
Once you can solve studies like this, you’ll be on your way to calculating like Alekhine.
Want to see the solution?
Here it is.
How to Spot Tactics like Alekhine:
- If you are still under 1600, take my free tactics course here.
- Use CT-ART or ChessTempo to train tactics daily and do them theme by theme. Use the stats feature to see which themes you’re failing in and drill down in that theme until you kill your weakness, then move on. It goes without saying that you must solve all of these puzzles before moving a piece and there is a “no guessing” rule.
- Keep studying games by the master of complicated positions (Alekhine, Tal, and Kasparov) and following the process of covering the moves and sitting in “their shoes” I mentioned above.
Even if you don’t play exactly like Alekhine, you’ll improve your chess significantly just by trying to model him.
If you want to model your favorite player, whoever it might be… it is very possible.
All you have to do is figure out how they evaluate positions and what their strengths and weaknesses are and make their strengths your strengths as well.
In another post I am going to teach you how to also model your favourite player’s openings repertoire in the easiest way possible.
This will make the modelling job complete.
For now I’ll leave you with a collection of my favorite Alexander Alekhine games.