When the publisher came to us with the tournament book of New York 1927, published in German, we saw a chance to correct a historical injustice. It just could not stand that the book of one of the most important chess events ever held in the U.S., written by the fourth world champion, Alexander Alekhine, was not available in English. (A 78-page pamphlet by Chess Digest [Alekhine, Alexander: International Chess Tournament New York 1927, Dallas, Chess Digest 1972] made no attempt at an extensive translation.)
The project seemed ideal for our husband-and-wife team. Mary, a former German teacher and Fulbright scholar at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, worked on the translation of the text, while Al, a chess editor and writer, helped sort out the colorful and intricate chess annotations Dr. Alekhine is famous for. We worked hard to maintain faithfully Alekhine’s original thoughts, as well as his presentation of material. Along the way, we discovered the inevitable mistakes in the commonly used databases of these games, as well as challenging typos in the German source itself.
But more than anything, we found Alekhine’s brilliance, humor, and deep insight. We hope you agree that the outcome is both an important piece of history and a series of chess lessons on the highest level.
In 1927 Alekhine obviously lacked the benefit of computers. And although Al ran “Deep Rybka 4” as he played through the games and variations, we made no changes to Alekhine’s annotations and inserted no notes. What readers get is what Alekhine wrote. Many readers will, however, enjoy running such an engine and will find a few bloopers. But they will much more often find impressive instances in which Alekhine sees his way through to the truth of a confusing position. And greatly to the benefit of the serious student, Alekhine is able to explain the reasoning that leads him to that truth.
We found Alekhine’s thoughts on his great rival, world champion José Raúl Capablanca, particularly interesting, revealing as much about Alekhine himself as the great Cuban. In this regard, we should understand the author’s perspective. To maintain his undisputed position as challenger, Alekhine had to come from behind during the last stages of the 60-game tournament, which ended in late March, to secure second place behind Capablanca, who had cruised through the 60 games of the marathon without a loss, racking up a plus score against every one of his opponents. But it’s important to know that the tournament book was written only after Alekhine’s subsequent victory over Capa in the Buenos Aires match for the world title, which took place from mid-September to the end of November of the same year. The result was a surprise to the general public, if not to Alekhine, who analyzed the games of New York 1927 to prepare for Buenos Aires while sailing there on the steamer Massilia. He writes that “Only then did it finally become clear to me how exaggerated were the general shouts of praise with which the quality of his (Capablanca’s) performance in New York was greeted.”
Indeed, Alekhine repeatedly makes the point, beginning immediately with his preface, “The New York Tournament 1927 as Prologue to the World Championship in Buenos Aires,” that the quality of Capablanca’s play in New York, despite results, was hardly worthy of the widespread public opinion that Capa was an Überspieler, or “super player.” Alekhine concedes Capa’s wonderful instincts in the middlegame, but undercuts the tribute by saying that his “ability lies much more in intuition than in critical thinking.”
On the negative side, Alekhine goes so far as to say, counter to both contemporary and modern assessments, that Capablanca was “definitely no remarkable endgame artist”! Then how did Alekhine explain Capa’s fine result? Nearly everyone was cowed by his reputation, playing below his true strength when facing the Cuban legend.
Of course, there is undoubtedly a grain of truth to this last assertion – great champions sometimes benefit from their reputations. At any rate, Alekhine’s premise affords him an ongoing context to work particularly hard throughout his book to find improvements in both Capablanca’s play and that of Capa’s opponents. Those readers who kibitz the games with an engine may, however, notice, as Al did, that the computer evaluations often agree with Capablanca’s choices. Ironically, and whatever the ultimate value of the moves themselves, Alekhine’s challenging suggestions, when brought forward to the era of chess-playing programs, may actually bolster the popular claim that Capa was the closest a human could come to being a “chess machine”!
The tournament book of New York 1927 is fascinating on many levels – as the history of one of the great chess tournaments, as a testament to the fourth world champion’s analytical skills, as a personal history of Alekhine’s preparation for his famous championship victory – and as a continuation of the great rivalry of the 1920s.
Wallkill, New York