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Thursday, 20 May 2021 18:21
In memory of Max Euwe on the 120th anniversary of his birth

The fifth World Champion Max Euwe was born on May 20, 1901, precisely 120 years ago. 

A champion, whom many call accidental, a champion whose games are somewhat understudied, a champion who, in fact, has never even been a professional chess player. How did this happen? Was it just a confluence of circumstances or there is some logic behind his ascend to the top? 

Let's try to figure it out. 

Young Max quickly came to the forefront of Dutch chess, winning the national by the age of 19. But chess went hand in hand with his studies – Euwe dreamed of becoming a mathematician. He enrolled at the University of Amsterdam, and not only graduated with honours but also continued his research and received his Ph.D. by the age of 25.

In 1926 Euwe was already such a respected maestro that Alekhine offered Max to play a short match when preparing for his duel with Capablanca. It was a close match – Euwe lost but was quite satisfied with the +2-3=5 result. The Dutchman was getting a taste for it, and although Euwe did not forget about mathematics, he tried his hand not only in tournaments (there were still few in the late twenties) but also in matches. Two duels with Bogoljubov were particularly interesting. Efim Dmitriyevich won both 10-game matches by a minimal margin. Curiously, these matches were called First FIDE Championship Match and Second FIDE Championship Match, respectively.


Photo: Amsterdam City Archives / Vereenigde Fotobureaux NV

As the winner, Bogolyubov had the moral right to challenge Alekhine, which he did. Max kept his chin up, he felt that he could already play with the best of the best on equal footing. In 1930 Euwe beat Capablanca in Hastings and challenged the legendary Cuban to a duel. Once again, his opponent was stronger and won this hard-fought match by a score of +2-0=8. It should be noted that Euwe was certainly lucky to be born in Holland. This rich country suffered relatively little damage from the First World War and has always treated chess with respect. It is no coincidence that all these matches were played in Holland. Subsequently, Timman would follow a similar path, but half a century later he did not manage to make it all the way to the top.

Euwe was doing a great job combining work with chess. He started a family, moved up the career ladder to become a respected teacher, but at the same time he decided to work more on the game, taking a break from tournament play. Indeed, Euwe played very little for a year and a half and then in the summer of 1934 started moving from one tournament to another performing consistently well (with just one exception). Max beat his countrymen Van den Bosch and Landau (6:0 and 4.5:1.5), tied for second place with Flohr at the strongest tournament of the year in Zurich, finishing just one point behind Alekhine but beating him in the head-to-head encounter. Later on, he won Hastings 1934/35, defeating Botvinnik along the way.

His only hiccup was a 50% score in a tournament against the strongest Soviet masters. However, I am sure that Max learned a lot from this trip. By 1935 Euwe was an undisputed player of the top-5 or even the top-3. Comparing him with other champions we can see that, say, Petrosian's results were no more convincing. So the Dutchman certainly had the moral right to challenge the World Champion. At the same time, everyone (and Euwe himself) considered Alekhine to be the favourite. An unofficial training match with maestro Rudolf Spielmann, which the challenger supposedly lost 4-6, did not inspire optimism. However, since the games of this match are not available, it is hard to say how committed Euwe was when playing.

Whatever the case, Euwe was diligently preparing for the match, patching up his trademark Slav, Defence, working on his “first serve” – the opening preparation with white. It should be noted that Euwe has always been an advocate of closed openings. The Dutchman even went to Vienna to work with Becker's archives. He got some help from a recognized opening guru Ernst Gruenfeld, studied endgames with Marozy, and invited Flor (who was in the top-5 at this point) to be his second. Flohr thought that such assistance would be improper and accepted this offer on the condition that Alekhine would not mind. The Russian champion was magnanimous, noting that all such preparation would be too little too late. And then something unthinkable happened.


Photo: National Archives of The Netherlands

Alekhine, who always approached any competition very professionally, was surprisingly flippant this time. The first signs of this attitude became visible in his match with Bogoljubov in 1934 – but it was a competition of unequal opponents after all. However, he found his match this time. Why did this happen, how many games did Alekhine play being tipsy, how important is the fact that the match was played in nine Dutch cities? All of these matters require careful analysis. One thing is clear – there is no room for an accident in a long 30-game match. Alekhine was not in his optimal condition that is for sure. But the fact that a chess player of his caliber was unable to come round and beat Euwe speaks volumes of the Dutchman as an opponent. Euwe won 15½:14½ and became the fifth world champion. He was always humble about his victory and did not react publicly to Alekhine's words about the crown being lent out for two years. The Dutchman was not afraid of putting his reputation at risk as he continued to play a lot, and although Max did lose the chess crown in 1937, he remained a top player for one more decade.

Playing in the AVRO 1938, the event that brought together the eight best players of that time, Euwe turned in a decent performance scoring 50%. In 1940 the former World Champion Euwe locked horns with Keres and again it was a tense and equal contest, but the Estonian prevailed 7½:6½. I should note that all these years Euwe continued to teach, and it seems that even during the match with Alekhine he came to some games straight from the lyceum. That was the Dutch work ethic those days. In times of war, the Muses are silent, they say. Euwe worked in Holland, trying to save the Jewish players. Sometimes he succeeded, sometimes did not. Moloch spares no one, but the Netherlands was not hit by the war as hard comparing to the majority of European countries. No wonder that the first post-war super-tournament was held in Groningen, Holland.


Photo: Ben van Meerendonk / AHF, collectie IISG, Amsterdam

Alekhine and Capablanca had been long six feet under, Keres was confined in the Soviet Union because of the tournaments he had played in Nazi territories during the war, Reshevsky and Fine declined the invitation, but all the rest were there – both a young strong generation (Smyslov, Naidorf, Boleslavsky, Kotov, Szabo) and the old, though still young, guard (Flor, Tartakover and Vidmar, and of course Botvinnik and Euwe). It was an extremely important tournament, as one of the proposals after Alekhine's death was to declare Euwe the world champion and hold a Candidates Tournament. But no, a regular tournament took place and turned into an exciting race between Botvinnik and Euwe. Botvinnik eventually leapfrogged his rival by half a point to take the first prize.  Nevertheless, it is safe to say that from 1934 to 1946 Euwe was definitely in the top-5, and more often in the top-3. After protracted debates and negotiations, it was decided to hold a match tournament of six in 1948 with the title of World Champion on the line. Euwe turned 47 by that time and could not keep up with Botvinnik who was in his prime.


Photo: Croes, Rob C. / Anefo

From this point on the Dutchman dropped out of the battle for the chess crown. He would still play the Candidates Tournament (1953), showing a decent result and winning an excellent game against Geller with black pieces. He continued playing under the Dutch banner in the Olympiads for a long time, but his best years as a player were behind him. But he has one more great achievement under his belt. Widely respected, Euwe was elected FIDE President in 1970. In this capacity, he literally saved the match Fischer – Spassky. Thanks to his patience and wisdom the match did take place and Fischer, by winning, initiated a real chess boom. We are still feeling the repercussions of this boom these days. All the wonderful Wijk aan Zee tournaments (the event was launched when Euwe was the World Champion), the immense popularity of chess with hundreds of tournaments in Amsterdam, Tilburg, Hilversum, and countless chess columns in all the major Dutch newspapers – all those was a response to Euwe's achievements and appeal.


Photo: Verhoeff, Bert / Anefo

He never shied away from taking in a local tournament, playing in national championships (he won twelve of them), giving a simul, appearing on television, and publicly expressing his position on a certain topic. Refined and gentle but firm, he was not afraid of a conflict - open criticism aimed at him, from both the right and the left, from both Botvinnik and Larsen, never fazed Max. Euwe was a colossal player and a great chess personality. Not a genius, but a very talented hard worker – for this very reason many people think he was almost an accidental champion. And yet it was no accident, on the contrary, it makes a perfect sense that Caissa smiled upon the Dutchman and crowned him. Max Euwe is one of the most worthy men in the history of chess, the fifth World Champion.

Emil Sutovsky, FIDE Director General

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