SPRAGGETT ON CHESS
C.H O.D. Alexander
Conel Hugh O’Donel Alexander, 1909 to 1974, was arguably one of Britain’s greatest cryptanalysts ever and certainly one the most brilliant chess players of his generation. A Cambridge educated mathematician, he soon found himself recruited by the government when the second world war broke out. Alexander worked on the German Enigma machine at Bletchley Park during World War II, and was later the head of the cryptanalysis division at GCHQ for over 20 years. During his brilliant career he was awarded the CMG and the CBE. So well known was he in his field, that when he retired Alexander was sought out by the NSA to work for them (!), but he declined.
Chess was Alexander’s passion, and he was twice British Champion, the last time being in 1956. He was awarded the Internatinal Master title. Alexander’s style of play was very sharp and his real strength was revealed in complicated and messy positions. He played many of the best players of his day, including Lasker, Capablanca, Alekhine, Smyslov, Botvinnik, Bronstein, Keres and Fine. He defeated Botvinnik and Bronstein once each. Alexander represented England at 6 Olympiads (it would have been more, but he was prohibited to play behind the iron curtain lest he be kidnapped (!)), and was non-playing captain of the English team after he stopped competing , from 1964 until the early 1972. Alexander was also a well respected chess author.
More details of his life can be found at these links:
In the current issue of Winter’s excellent website http://www.chesshistory.com/
there are excerpts of an article written by Alexander for the Irish Digest (October 1959, pages 79-82) entitled ”Chess masters in Action”
. I have taken the liberty here of reproducing his colourful sketches of the World Champions that he met and played with over the board.
Alexander played Lasker only 1 time, in Nottingham 1936. ‘Dr Emanuel Lasker, world champion for 27 years from 1894, I met in 1936 when he was well on in the 60s and far past his best, though still good enough to dispose of me.
A rather small man with strong aggressive features, he produced even at that age a tremendous impression of toughness and of an endlessly resourceful fighting spirit; I have always thought him the greatest tournament player of all time.
He was unrivalled in his ability to win lost games – he never gave up hope and he had a genius for making his opponents play the kind of positions that did not suit them. He would get the steady players into positions where adventurous play was needed and the brilliant players into positions where consolidation was required; you were never allowed to be comfortable against Lasker.’
R.J. Capablanca and A.Alekhine
Alexander also met over the board Capablanca for the first and only time at the Nottinham tournament , whereas against Alekhine he had played not less than 4 times–achieving a respectable 2 defeats and 2 draws.
‘Capablanca … had an Olympian attitude to the game and his opponents; he knew he was better than you and since he proposed to play the correct moves (all of which were pretty obvious, anyway) he did not anticipate much difficulty in demonstrating it. If things had been a little harder for him he might in the end have been an even greater player, and better able to resist the impact of a player of equal genius and a greater passion for the game – Alexander Alekhine.’
‘Capablanca knew he was much better than anyone else and took it for granted; Alekhine never quite believed it and was always out to demonstrate it yet again to reassure himself. An intensely nervous, dynamic character, the way he moved his pieces was almost like a physical attack. Capablanca gave you the impression that disposing of you was a piece of routine, to be got over as quickly as possible; Alekhine, you felt, intended to give you a lesson you would not quickly forget for your impertinence in daring to oppose him.
I remember a curious incident in one of my games with Alekhine. Someone told me that when Alekhine was worried about his position he always twisted his hair with his fingers. In 1938 I played Alekhine in the Margate tournament and he made what looked to me like a weak move in the opening; I made my reply with a nervous feeling that I had probably overlooked something. What was my delight to see Alekhine, after a minute or two’s reflection, start to twist his hair.
This was about 10.0 a.m., and from then till 2.30 (it was the last day of the tournament and no adjournment for lunch allowed) Alekhine sat without leaving the board, and through all the turns of a complex game continued (to my great moral support) to twist his hair.
At 2.30 I made a slight tactical error and let my advantage slip; Alekhine moved, took a comb out of his pocket, ran it through his hair, got up, and walked up and down the tournament room. My own judgment (that my advantage was gone) was thus confirmed as clearly as if he had told me so, and I took an immediate opportunity to force a draw before worse befell me.’ [Alexander’s notes to the game are on pages 75-77 of the Golombek/Hartston monograph on him, having originally appeared on pages 282-283 of the June 1938 BCM. The photograph below was published on page 266 of the same issue of the BCM.-Winter]
For me, Alekhine will always epitomize chess, and I shall always remember my games with him with pleasure, even though he did win a brilliancy prize against me for one of them.’
Alexander met over the board Euwe not less than 8 times, achieving 1 win and 4 draws.
‘[Lasker, Capablanca and Alekhine] all had a genius for the game. Euwe, though he had great natural talent, always struck me as essentially a man of high all-round ability who systematically devoted this ability to making himself a great chessplayer.
”Everything that could be learnt about chess Euwe learnt, and taught to others …’’
Alexander played Botvinnik 5 times and achieved a respectable 1 draw and 1 win. When Alexander passed away Botvinnik is quoted to have said that Alexander was a ‘great chess player’.
‘Botvinnik is in the greatest tradition of world champions, with Morphy, Lasker, Capablanca and Alekhine. Playing him, one gets a strong sense of someone dedicated to the game – a mixture of monk and scientist.
When I played Botvinnik in Amsterdam in 1954 I was temporarily demoralized by watching him write down his first move. Slightly short-sighted, he gave his entire attention to recording the move in the most beautifully clear and precise script; only after completing this to his entire satisfaction did he again bend his mind to the game. This calm but intense concentration on even the most trivial aspect of the game made me feel like a fly under the scientists’ microscope.’
Alexander played V.Smyslov 4 times, making 2 draws.
‘Smyslov, a big slow-spoken redhead in the middle 30s who looks more like a Scot than a Slav, has a style as massive as his personality; after being beaten by Smyslov you feel as if you have been run over by a steamroller.’
SPRAGGETT ON CHESS