Saturday, June 15, 2002
M I N D  G A M E S

To capture the white King

God forbid that Truth should be confined to Mathematical Demonstration!

— Blake

THE opponent exposes his King to attack, but Alexander Alekhine does not go for the kill. He smells a trap, because this opponent does not make silly mistakes like this. His hands tremble and the trapped King of the opponent suddenly looks armed and threatening to him, which is strange because Alexander is the champion of the world, a title that he defended in 1929 and 1934 against Russian Bogolyubov; fear is alien to him. He is suddenly so scared… and drunk — alcohol has snatched his power to think.

This is 1935 and he is taking on the challenger, Dutchman Max Euwe, for the world chess title. Alexander has a liking for alcohol and has been frequently drunk during his games with Euwe. In this crucial game, he loses not only the clear advantage, but also the lead and the title.


Come 1937 and it is time for a rematch, where Max is the champion and the favourite, taking on Alekhine, a recovering alcoholic. Alekhine plays his natural attacking game and takes the lead, but, soon, Max has white pieces and he puts the King in the open again. Every square starts looking like a trap to Alekhine but, this time, he goes for the kill and finds that he has been tricked indeed. He loses four games this way, but takes 10 and draws 11 to become the first man ever to regain the world championship. The trick of the white King, however, remains Euwe’s secret.

Unlike Alekhine, Max is an amateur, for whom chess is second to his career as a mathematician (He single-handedly popularised chess in Holland, besides being a prolific writer on the game, the president of FIDE from 1970 to 1978 and associated with the development of chess-playing computers).

In 1938, a tournament sponsored by AVRO (Algemene Verenigde Radio Omroep), a wireless company, is held in the Netherlands to determine the next world champion challenger, where the eight strongest players in the world are invited to play. Favourite Alekhine has wasted all his practice time in devising ways to escape the white King’s trap, so, his performance suffers. Estonian Paul Keres and American Ruben Fine are the joint winners. Mikhail Botvinnik comes third. In fourth place are Alekhine and Euwe. Another great, Capablanca, stands seventh. Alekhine accepts Botvinnik’s challenge for the world championship, mainly out of his fear of Euwe’s trap.

After the tournament is over, Max approaches Alekhine and says: "Alex, you didn’t accept my challenge, though you could easily have escaped my trap which is like a mathematical problem — you have to enter the trap to break it from within, step by step."

"Show me the steps," says Alekhine. Max: "Only if you answer this. In this chess tournament, every participant played with each other exactly once, receiving 1 point for a win, ½ for a draw and 0 for a loss. Is it possible that for every particular player, the sum of points of the players who were beaten by him is greater than the sum of points of the players who beat him?" Alekhine starts seeing traps again and, they say, he was never the same player again. For the white King’s secret, answer Max’s question at The Tribune or

— Aditya Rishi