07 April 2017

Bogoljubov -- Alekhine, Hastings 1922

Alexander Alekhine gave up three queens to beat Efim Bogoljubow in their last round game at Hastings Six Masters in 1922. The game featured some spectacular tactics and a textbook finish with a near zugzwang position giving way to an elementary pawn ending. Many chess enthusiasts consider it one of  the greatest games ever played. I included it among my ten candidates in the list created for my Spring Break Chess Camp class on the subject of the best game ever played.

Alekhine needed a win to finish first in the tournament as he was tied with Akiva Rubinstein going into the last round. This need drove his choice of the Dutch Defense, which he characterized as risky. Many recent accounts of this game confuse this event, held September 1922, with the Hastings International Chess Congress, held December 1922 -- January 1923. Rubinstein won the latter. Alekhine did not participate. The Six Masters event was a double round robin featuring two British masters--George A. Thomas and Frederick Yates--and four of the leading masters from outside Britain--Alekhine, Rubinstein, Seigbert Tarrasch, and Efim Bogoljubow.

The round-by-round results with links to the games are posted on Chessgames.com. I looked at crosstables for this event and for the Hastings Chess Congress in John Donaldson, and Nikolay Minev, The Life and Games of Akiva Rubinstein, vol. 2: the Later Years, 2nd. ed. (2011).

A. Alekhine from Wikimedia Commons*
Alekhine considers this game against Bogoljubow, alongside his win against Richard Reti (Baden-Baden 1925), as "the most brilliant wins of [his] chess career" (Alekhine, My Best Games of Chess, 1924-1937 [1965], 13). Irving Chernev also calls this game, "the most brilliant game ever played" (The Most Instructive Games of Chess Ever Played [1965], 67). Chernev annotates this game in The Chess Companion (1968) and in Twelve Great Players and Their Best Games (1976). The former is quoted on the website Master Chess Open:
Alekhine's subtle strategy involves manoeuvres which encompass the entire chessboard as a battlefield. There are exciting plots and counterplots. There are fascinating combinations and brilliant sacrifices of Queens and Rooks. There are two remarkable promotions of Pawns and a third in the offing, before White decides to capitulate.
Chernev, The Chess Companion (as quoted at Master Chess Open).
Andrew Soltis lists this game as number four in The 100 Best Chess Games of the 20th Century, Ranked (2006).

Despite such praise, Bogoljubow -- Alekhine, Hastings 1922 is absent from Graham Burgess, John Nunn, and John Emms, The World's Greatest Chess Games (1998). Burgess does include it in Chess Highlights of the 20th Century (2000), but that book contains 270 games. The editors of The World's Greatest Chess Games carefully culled their list to one hundred. Their criteria were:
Quality and brilliance of play by both contestants.
Historical value.
Historical significance.
Burgess, Nunn, and Emms (1998), 7.
Bogoljubow's play falls short of this standard. He makes several positional errors in the opening and middle game, which Alekhine then exploits brilliantly. Even then, however, Alekhine may have eschewed the clearest path to victory in favor of artistic chess.

Annotations to this game are found in many books, websites, and YouTube videos. Most annotators start with Alekhine's own comments in My Best Games of Chess, 1908-1923 (1927) or in W.H. Watts, The Book of the Hastings International Masters' Chess Tournament 1922 (1924). A. J. Goldsby offers detailed annotations on his website and also a YouTube video. While going through this game, I studied annotations in S. Tartakower, and J. DuMont, 500 Master Games of Chess (1975); Max Euwe, From Steinitz to Fischer (1976); and Garry Kasparov, My Great Predecessors, Part 1 (2003). The game without annotations is included in Rashid Ziyatdinov, GM-RAM: Essential Grandmaster Knowledge (2000), which I mention frequently on Chess Skills. There are three middlegame positions in GM-RAM from this game.

In my annotations, I aim to highlight the critical moments of this game, rather than creating a compendium of all that has been said by others.

Bogoljubow,Efim -- Alekhine,Alexander [A90]
Hastings Six Masters, Hastings, 21 September 1922

1.d4 f5 2.c4 Nf6 3.g3 e6 4.Bg2 Bb4+ 5.Bd2 Bxd2+ 6.Nxd2

6.Qxd2 offers White much better prospects. This game well-illustrates how this capture leads to a misplaced knight and reduces White's influence in the center. As long as this knight stands on d2 it prevents White's rooks from controlling the d-file and it stands as a potential target should Bogoljubow seek exchanges in the center. Tartakower suggests 6.Qxd2 and Nc3. Kasparov concurs.

6...Nc6 7.Ngf3 0–0 8.0–0 d6 9.Qb3 Kh8

White to move

While running a youth chess tournament at the end of our Spring Break Camp, I spent my idle moments going through this game. The position in the diagram above was on my board for much of the day. I asked many of the youth players and coaches whether they agreed with Alekhine's assessment that Black already has the upper hand. The first youth to face this question suggested 10.d5 and thought White was better. Tartakower also prefers 10.d5 to the move Bogoljubow played in the game.

Black's queen knight on c6 is more active than its counterpart on d2. White's queen is temporarily more mobile than Black's, but knowing how the game continued makes it hard to evaluate the position objectively. Black's queen proved to have more influence in the game. Perhaps the White queen is somewhat misplaced on the queenside. White's rooks are connected. Many youth players suggested that White has a lead in development and cannot be worse.

Alekhine annotated this game from the perspective of having won a brilliant victory. He might not have been particularly objective in his assessment of the game up to this point. We know that Black's queen made a foray to the kingside, where it provoked weaknesses, then returned to e8 to support action in the center and on the queenside. From the standpoint of the game's whole, Black's queen proved much more flexible and effective.

After 9.Qb3, Alekhine wrote, "This manoeuvre does not prevent Black from realising his plan, but it is already difficult to suggest a satisfactory line of play for White (Alexander Alekhine's Best Games [2012], eBook, loc 2665). Presumably, it is this comment that Euwe translated into the Informant symbol for Black has the upper hand in From Steinitz to Fischer. But, it seems to me that Alekhine might be annotating by result.

Tartakower and DuMont, 500 Master Games of Chess offer several improvements to White's play over the next several moves. Most of these suggestions are repeated by Kasparov in My Great Predecessors. I think the game is still balanced at this point, but that Black has a clear edge after move 18. Kasparov quotes Alekhine's "already difficult ... for White," adding "Why?"


After 10.d5, Kasparov offers two lines that the young players and I examined at the youth tournament.

10...Na5 11.Qc3 c5
10...exd5 11.cxd5 Ne7

In both cases, it does not seem that Black has an advantage. Kasparov states, "Black would have faced a thankless defence" (365).

10...e5 11.e3

Alekhine points out the vulnerability of White's knight on d2. If 11.dxe5 dxe5 12.Nxe5 Nxe5 13.Qxe5 and the knight on d2 is en prise. Tartakower, Euwe, and Kasparov all repeat this line.


Upon seeing this move, I might agree that Black has a slight edge after White's failure to play 10.d5.

White to move

12.b3 Qe8 13.a3 Qh5

At this point, Kasparov quotes Alexander Kotov, "The start of a deep strategic plan. First of all Black creates threats on the kingside and provokes a weakening of the opponents pawns" (Kasparov, 365).

A defect of My Great Predecessors is the absence of documentation. The whole series is full of quotes from other chess writers. Parts IV and V offer bibliographies, but not the sort of documentation that is desirable for a work that is so much a digest of the work of others. The first three parts offer less.

Kotov wrote several books about Alekhine in Russian (I saw the number six somewhere). One book exists in English, put out by R.H.M. Press: Alexander Kotov, Alexander Alekhine, tran. K. P. Neat (1975). I am tempted to buy this book. There are used copies floating about, and also an Ishi Press reprint.


Alekhine writes, "A good defensive move, which secures new squares for his f3-knight and revived the threat of 15.dxe5" (loc 2682). I do not see why 14.dxe5 was not possible. Tartakower rejects it because after 14...dxe5 15.Nxe5 drops a piece. It seems to me that White could open the center and does not need to follow-up by blundering away a knight. The h2-h4 push can be played later.

I considered 14.Rab1 to support b3-b4. The immediate 14.b3-b4 drops a pawn because after 14...e4 15.Ne1, the rook is skewered through White's a-pawn.

14...Ng4 15.Ng5 Bd7

White to move


Alekhine sought to provoke a weakening of White's kingside, and did so. But, Bogoljubow might have been a little too cooperative. I am tempted to regard 16.f3 as a mistake. Alekhine suggested in comments to 15.Ng5 that 15.b4 was preferable. Kasparov repeats Alekhine's suggestion.

Here Alekhine offers a tactical line that is even worse for White: 16.Bxc6 Bxc6 17.f3 exd4 18.fxg4 dxc3 19.gxh5 cxd2 with a better endgame for Black.

16...Nf6 17.f4

Black threatened 17...f4, which would have pried open White's pawn shield.

e4 18.Rfd1

18.d5 was White's last chance to be slightly worse.

18...h6 19.Nh3 d5

White to move

Black clearly has the upper hand now, in my view. Where did White fail? On moves 10-18, Bogoljubow had several opportunities to open the center and possibly create a balanced struggle. He opted instead to close the kingside and close the center. As a consequence, his pieces lost their mobility and became passive. His long-term plan seemed oriented towards action on the queenside, but the game's subsequent course revealed surprising resources for Black there.

Kasparov offers another juicy quote from Kotov, which highlights the success of Alekhine's long-term strategic plan. Kasparov's note preceding the game highlights the centrality of Kotov's commentary.
The last of the wins is one of the most grandiose Alekhine canvases. It once again shows that his amazing combinations did not arise out of thin air, but were the fruit of very deep strategic preparation.
Kasparov, My Great Predecessors, 364.

This position is the first of the three in GM-RAM from this game.

Ne7 21.a4

This position is the second in GM-RAM from this game.

Now, Boguljubow weakens his queenside, offering Black a nice outpost for his knight. Could he have tried to close matters there, too, and then hunkered down inside a fortress? To wit, 21.c5 Qg6 22.Qe1 Neg8 23.Kh2 Nh5 24.Ng1 Ngf6. White has no play, but how will Black break through?

21...Nc6 22.Rd2 Nb4 23.Bh1

This bishop could be useful preventing Black's knight for employing d3 as an outpost. Alas, there is no way to maneuver the bishop to such a useful square so long as the knight on f1 must guard the weak g-pawn. Perhaps White could redeploy his knights to h1 and h2 to guard g3 and g4? Surely, that would offer Black some opportunities elsewhere on the board.

Maybe 23.c5 is no worse than White's other choices. the tension between c4 and d5 only benefits Black. 23.cxd5 looks suicidal.


White to move

Now, c4-c5 is not possible due to b6. The problems with 24.cxd5 are worse than before.

24.Rg2 dxc4 25.bxc4 Bxa4

Alekhine has won a pawn. More significant than the pawn, however, is the preponderance of force for Black on the queenside as things open up. Half of White's army is sitting in the bleachers with their monarch, watching the game.

26.Nf2 Bd7 27.Nd2 b5 28.Nd1 Nd3

Alekine rejected 28...bxc4 because it would bring a White knight to e5.


White has won back the pawn, but his position is now much worse than it was a few moves ago. Now the game enters the phase where Alekhine's flashy tactical brilliance shines. Black has several ways to win, but the manner he chose elevates this game in the opinions of many chess students.

29.cxb5 and Alekhine offers 29...Bxb5 30.Rxa5 Nd5 31.Qa3 Rxa5 32.Qxa5 Qc6 with a winning attack for Black.

Black to move

29...b4! 30.Rxa8

Ziyatdinov's third position in GM-RAM from this game has now been reached.


This brilliant move was not necessary to win. 30...Qxa8 31.Qb3 (Alekhine's suggestion) 31...Qa1 (Kasparov's improvement over Alekhine's 31...Ba4) 32.Qb1 Ra8 and Black has a technical win.

31.Rxe8 c2 

The point of Black's last few moves.

32.Rxf8+ Kh7 33.Nf2 c1Q+ 34.Nf1 Ne1

Threatening smother checkmate.

35.Rh2 Qxc4 36.Rb8 Bb5 37.Rxb5 Qxb5

White's moves 30-37 are the computer's top choice. Alternatives lose much quicker.

White to move

38.g4 Nf3+ 39.Bxf3 exf3 40.gxf5 Qe2

White to move

What can White do? He is in zugzwang. Pawn moves delay the end.


41.Nh1 Ng4 42.Rxe2 fxe2 and after sacrificing two queens. Black will gain one more to sacrifice.

41...Kg8 42.h5 Kh7 43.e4

Now White's remain pawn moves lose pawns.

43...Nxe4 44.Nxe4 Qxe4

White to move

45.d6 cxd6 46.f6 gxf6 47.Rd2 Qe2

Alekhine threatens checkmate in one.

48.Rxe2 fxe2 49.Kf2 exf1Q+

Alekhine's third queen sacrifice in this game.

50.Kxf1 Kg7 51.Kf2 Kf7 52.Ke3 Ke6 53.Ke4 d5+ 0–1

There is not much to criticize in Bogoljubow's moves after about move 20. But, his inaccurate play in the early game deprives this game of some of its merit. Alekhine's strategic preparation and tactical execution deserve study.

*George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress) derivative work: Jesus Angel Rey, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16985493.

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