PART 1: ALEKHINE’S DEATH
Part 1: Alekhine’s Death.
A New Perspective
This article is not an investigation into the death of Alexander Alekhine on that fateful Saturday evening in Estoril . This article lacks the rigour of such an official investigation. However, this article is the result of much investigation into the death of Alexander Alekhine. Careful, painstaking and exhaustive investigative work over the past 20 years.
I don’t present a conclusion as much as I simply present where I am at this very moment in this investigative work. Given the lack of information of what really happened on that evening of 23rd of March, and especially the lack of clarity of how the Portuguese authorities proceeded in the days immediately following the champion’s death, I am the first to recognize that any new information that might come to light in the future on this subject might change my entire perspective and opinion.
Finally, this article is a personal opinion. I have tried to remain loyal to the known facts, but I recognize that my interpretations of these same facts may be controversial.
In London, on the evening of the Saturday 23rd of March 1946, the British Chess Federation (BCF) held an extraordinary reunion where, after much heated debate, it was decided to go ahead and organize (in England, probably Nottingham) a World Title match between the title holder, Alexander Alekhine, and the young Soviet superstar, and heir apparent, Mikhail Botvinnik. A 10,000 dollar purse was guaranteed by the Moscow Chess Club.
Immediately after this historic decision was taken, the BCF sent a telegram to Alexander Alekhine, informing him of the good news. It was expected that Alekhine, who was staying in room 43 of the Parque Hotel in Estoril, Portugal, would receive the telegram the very next day (Sunday), and in all likelyhood leave for England soon afterwards.
By the time the telegram reached its destination, however, Alekhine was already dead: the World Chess Champion had unexpectedly died within hours of the telegram being sent! Just when his career was about to be resurrected from the ashes of World War II, Alekhine’s life vanished in a moment as brief as a flick of the eye.
Coincidence or not, Alekhine’s sudden demise has been the source of much speculation from chess players through out the world for the past 70 years, and has given rise to numerous conspiracy theories.
The death of World Champion Alexander Alekhine is not something that will likely go away any time soon. There are unanswered questions. There are many elements of a good mystery. (Some one in France has recently tried to create a theatrical piece based on it!) I personally have been interested in the circumstances surrounding his death ever since I first moved to Portugal some 20 years ago, from when I first started to hear about the doubts connected with the official version of Alekhine’s death.
Since that time I think that I have read most of the known literature on the subject, in the portuguese, spanish, french and english languages. I have spoken with numerous people in the chess community, both here and abroad, trying to gain some historical insight and political perspective . The internet has facilitated much of this work in recent years, especially with the boom of blogs; (there are some amazing blogs out there!) I have done a lot of research on related subjects, as well.
I have come to realize that if we only look as curious chessplayers at what happened to Alekhine in Portugal in 1946, then we will be missing a good part of what really happened. We should not try to separate his death from the social context of the time when it occurred, and for this reason I think it is insightful to understand some important aspects of Portuguese society that existed back then in 1946.
The Portuguese are a great people with a rich culture and a long, colourful history, and they have made enormous contributions to modern civilization. But between 1933 and 1974 a very repressive dictatorship installed itself in power in Portugal. The people were deprived of the basic democratic rights and freedoms that we today consider essential.
The government’s principal mechanism for maintaining control of the country was PIDE (Policia Internacional e de Defesa do Estado) which should be considered a combination of secret police, intelligence service and propaganda organization. It was tremendously effective in repression, intimidation, spreading fear and terror. Torture and arbitrary arrest were common. As an intelligence service it was one of the very best in the world. Israel later modeled its own services after it.
PIDE controlled every aspect of Portuguese society and answered only to Salazar. All opposition to the regime was eliminated. Dissidents were swiftly punished. All foreigners were watched, and counter-espionage was a state priority. There was total censorship of the press and radio. Mail was routinely opened, telephone calls recorded, and people watched 24 hours a day.
An extensive network of informers and infiltrators was developed. A climate of fear and distrust was encouraged. PIDE officials wielded enormous power, and could arbitrarily arrest any person for up to 3 months without that person having to be brought before a judge and charged with something. And there were easy ways to extend detention for another 3 months .
Compared with other examples of dictatorships, however, Portugal comes out looking good. There were fewer murders and less brutality than the Franco dictatorship next door. The people who became members of PIDE were intensely patriotic, religious and believed zealously in the correctness of what they were doing. And this probably goes a long way to explain why Salazar’s dictatorship lasted so long as it did : PIDE became an integral part of the very fabric of the Portuguese way of life.
All of this should be kept in mind when we consider the circumstances surrounding the death of Alexander Alekhine. Many chess historians have not done so , and as a result they have failed to properly understand important aspects of Alekhine’s death.
THE ‘OFFICIAL’ VERSION
Remarkably, there is not a lot publicly known about the exact circumstances surrounding Alekhine’s death, even 70 years later.
The official account (limited to Luis Lupi’s letter of March 24 to the Associated Press in London, England, its photos, as well as the autopsy on the 27th ,assisted by Dr. Antonio J. Ferreira) can not be accused of being overly-informative and ingeneral seem to raise more questions than answers. The autopsy raises questions of competence.
Furthermore,the published photos, as we shall soon see, have raised doubts as to their overall credibility.
Finally, there are no witnesses mentioned anywhere, though Francisco Lupi (the step son of Luis Lupi, Portuguese chess champion and close personal friend of Alekhine) later provided some valuable background information both to Alekhine’s last days as well as to the scene in room 43 on the morning of the 24th when the photos were taken.
This pervasive lack of precise and accurate information gives the impression of an incomplete story surrounding the death of Alekhine, and together with the unusual timing of his death, has naturally led to speculation and rumour. Conspiracy theories have arisen, some claiming that Alekhine was murdered by the Russians. Others say it was the French or the perhaps even the Portuguese themselves. Still others say that Alekhine committed suicide!
Much of what has been written about this in books and on the internet is just pure nonsense and does not even respect precise dates and names. Much is romanticized. Often one writer takes what another has put forward as a theory and then treats it as proven fact. Or another writer will simply spice up one aspect of the story and invent new facts. Still others will copy and quote incorrectly the work of others. And the apparent contradictions in the official story just serve to fan these flames.
Having said all of this, however, we must stay focused on the official version put forward. Despite its defects, this version remains the one source of legitimate information on the death of Alexander Alekhine.
This consists primarily of Luis Lupi’s letter (A) to London on the 24th and the autopsy (B) of the 27th assisted by Antonio J. Ferreira :
A: On 24 March 1946 the following letter (together with the photos of the body of Alekhine, given below ) was sent by Luis C. Lupi to Robert Bunnelle of the Associated Press in London:
Herewith please find four (4) negatives and three prints of EXCLUSIVE ASSOCIATED PRESS PHOTOS taken by me. They are ALEXANDER ALEKHINE last photographs. I took these pixs with a small camera that I borrowed in the Hotel Park in Estoril where I rushed to cover the Alekhine death story – without my own camera! This is why they are not so good.
Pixs show ALEKHINE lying dead in his hotel room just as he was found in the morning of 24/3, by one hotel waiter. He must have died the night before (23/3) at about eleven p.m. as, according to the porter of the hotel, the Chess Champion went in about 23.40 – and had ordered his dinner to his room as usual.
He seemed to be sleeping so calm and natural he looked. Doctors said he must have died suddenly just when he was beginning to eat. On his right hand he still held a beefsteak – He ate with his hands and used knife and fork only when he ate in public…
The giant of Chess – dead, resembled a fallen oak tree. In his face he kept an expression of deep thought.
For captions suggest you use (if you will use these gruesome pixs…) and rewrite my messages of 23/3 slugged 01230 and 02345. Will you have a couple of prints on these negatives (a couple of each, please)? and oblige
Yours sincerely, Luís C Lupi.’
B: Apparently a death certificate from the 24th had been signed by Dr. Antonio Jacinto Ferreira, (of whom I will discuss in more detail later in this article) but I have been unable to find any physical traces of this document, either in books or on the internet. However, the autopsy was performed in the Departamento de Medicina Legal na Escola Medica da Universidade de Lisboa on the 27th of March, 3 days after Alekhine’s death, in the presence of the same Dr. Antonio.J. Ferreira.
The obit was signed by Dr. Asdrubal d’Aguiar (1883-1961), a well respected doctor at the University, and an assistant Maria Figueiredo, though about the only thing that I can make out from the photo with any clarity is the date! Reliable sources say that the autopsy report indicated that death was due to asphyxia. It also noted signs of arteriosclerosis, cronic gastritis and duodenitis.
I should also add that later, specifically addressing the mounting conspiracy theories surrounding Alekhine’s death, Dr. Antonio J. Ferreira clarified his position in a short letter to Alekhine’s son , once again ruling out any foul play:
”I was present at Alexander Alekhine’s autopsy which took place in the Department of Legal Medicine, of the Medical School of the University of Lisbon. Alekhine had been found dead in his room in a Estoril hotel under conditions that were regarded as suspicious and indicated the need of an autopsy to ascertain the cause of death. The autopsy revealed that Alekhine’s cause of death of [sic] asphyxia due to a piece of meat, obviously part of a meal, which lodged itself in the larynx. There was no evidence whatsoever that foul play had taken place, neither suicide nor homicide. There were no other diseases to which his sudden and unexpected death could be attributed. Antonio J. Ferreira, M.D.” (September 1967)
There was little else to it in terms of details; no other information was ever made available or released for public consumption; there was no official news conference.
From what we can see, every aspect of this event seems to have been played down or sanitized of any drama:
Alekhine, quite simply, seemed to have died while eating alone in his hotel room, choking on a piece of meat. Death was apparently instantaneous. There was no foul play, we are assured right from the beginning. The photos show Alekhine slumped backwards infront of a small dining table, with a serene ,almost relieved, expression on his face. The champion had not suffered as he passed into the after life…and we can all rest assure that Alekhine was now in a better place…
That is the official story as far as the Portuguese authorities wanted us to come to know it . Clearly, the hand of state censorship/propaganda was not absent!
The photos circulated the world many times over, and were reproduced in hundreds of chess magazines and thousands of newspapers. It is understandable that the Portuguese government wanted the world to accept this story about Alekhine’s death: it is always embarrassing when someone famous dies while being a guest in your country. The simpler and less complicated the explanation, I suppose,the easier it is to accept.
But not everybody in Portugal bought the official story:
A few weeks later, on the 15th of April, a Lisbon newspaper (Diario de Lisboa) carried a front page article entitled ”O segredo do Quarto 43; A morte misteriosa de Alexandre Alekhine” (The secret of room 43; the mysterious death of Alexander Alekhine).
A day later (the actual date of the funeral of Alekhine) the same article was carried in the prestigious ‘Diario de Noticias’. (This article in its entirety can be found in Markl’s book , starting on page 136.)
The article was penned by a well known Portuguese journalist, Artur Portela (of whom I will discuss a bit later on in more depth). Because this article raised some questions that did not quite fit in with the official version of how Alekhine had died and of the validity of the autopsy results, and especially raised the possibility that Alekhine might have been murdered, it was quickly discredited by the powers that be as mere journalistic sensationalism; of even trying to shamelessly profit from the misfortunes of a famous person.
Curiously, even to this day, Artur Portela’s courageous effort to challenge the official version of Alekhine’s death continues to meet ridicule and scorn:
”Effectivement Alexandre Alekhine a été trouvé mort le 24 Mars 1946 dans sa chambre. Comme témoignent les journaux de l’époque, sa mort était entourée d’un mystère que tout naturellement les propres journaux se chargent d’amplifier, amplifiant à la fois leurs propres ventes.
Spéculateurs à la recherche de l’augmentation du salaire perdu, les journalistes se plaisent à chercher – trouver ou inventer – le poil dans l’œuf. Suffit d’imaginer le cadre imaginé par l’un d’entre eux – Artur Portela en grand romancier – et publié au Diario de Lisbôa le 15 Avril 1946, rendant compte d’ “A morte misteriosa”, qui avait permis à son auteur de demander un confortable avancement ; et à nous, comme nous sommes à l’intérieur d’un film, cela va nous permettre d’avancer en arrière jusqu’à retrouver l’Hôtel do Estoril et la chambre 43, où l’on vient de trouver le corps d’Alekhine.”
B: Even the renown Rui C. Nascimento, in the introduction to Markl’s ”Xeque-Mate no Estoril” did not spare Portela. He starts with ”No seu artigo, e dificil distinguir factos de produto da imaginacao.” (essentially, ”In his article it is difficult to tell fact from fiction.”) and then Nascimento takes his gloves off and really blows into it!
Rui Nascimento , born in 1914 and still alive and well when this article was first published (2010), is a Portuguese author, poet, musician , chess composer and has his own BLOG I recommend the reader visit just out of curiosity.
It was naturally in the best interests of the Portuguese government that the topic of Alekhine’s death go away, and a chorus of criticism followed. Artur Portela never again wrote anything more about the subject from what I have been able to discover. And no other Portuguese newspaper even dared to contradict the official version for decades to come.
But this did not stop people , especially chessplayers, from privately voicing their doubts about the official story of Alekhine’s death. Rumours spread of foul play and a coverup.
On the website INFOPEDIA you can even find an (unsubstantiated) Portuguese reference to Dr. Antonio J. Ferreira later denying his official role in the entire affair: ”Não obstante, o Dr. António Ferreira, xadrezista e médico, responsável pela emissão da certidão de óbito do campeão, teria mais tarde confidenciado a amigos que o corpo de Alekhine foi encontrado na rua, baleado talvez por razões políticas.”
(translation: ”However, Dr. Antonio J. Ferreira, chessplayer and medical doctor, responsible for the death certificate of the champion, would have later confided in some friends that the body of Alekhine was found out in the street, perhaps shot for political reasons.”)
I had also heard of this rumour in the first years that I was in Portugal.
MAKING SENSE OF IT ALL
As a starting point in the process of re-visiting Alekhine’s death in Estoril 70 long years after the fact, I think it is necessary to be frank and state what should be obvious to anyone today who even remotely follows the popular crime scene investigation(CSI) trend on TV: that there was no independent investigation into the death of Alekhine!
There was no rigor in the process at any point. There was no real science involved. There was no CSI team of forensic experts sealing off the hotel room while they take away samples to their lab. There was no coroner involved at any stage. And even the photo shoot seemed choreographed…
As I will try to show in this article, the entire aftermath surrounding Alekhine’s death, securing the hotel room, , taking the photos and breaking the news to the rest of the world, as well as the autopsy ,was controlled and carried out (from beginning to end) by PIDE (the Portuguese intelligence service of that era).
Let us start by dismantling the myth of the official photos: take a look at the two photos (photo1 and photo2) of Alekhine lying dead in his hotel room (43) at the Parque Hotel in Estoril.
a) In the photo on the left , in the upper right hand corner (on the commode,between the cup and two vases) you will notice a sort of dark coloured binder. Comparing the exact same area in photo2, you will see a difference: in photo two there is some paper on top of the dark coloured binder. Why the difference? Was it carelessness on Lupi’s part, and if not, why was he adding/taking away something from a crime scene ?
”All I know is that on Sunday morning about 10.30 I was awakened and asked to hurry to Estoril, because something had happened to “old Dr Alex”. I entered his room together with the Portuguese authorities…”
THE AUTOPSY ON THE 27th OF MARCH
Questions of the competence of the autopsy have been raised ever since the results were made public: asphyxia, provoked by a piece of meat that had lodged itself into the larynx. Looking at the peaceful position of Alekhine’s body in the photos, surely there must have been more. Perhaps this provoked a heart attack? The obit mentions that the body showed signs of arteriosclerosis, chronic gastritis and duodenitis, but just in passing.
What about Alekhine’s liver? Alekhine is reported to have had a serious drinking problem all of his adult life, some saying between 3 and 4 litres of conhaque each day. But nothing is mentioned in the autopsy report about his liver. Surely a serious omission!
‘‘One day in Munich (1934) Alekhine invited me to his room, where Mrs. Alekhine played hostess. She opened a large trunk, which, to my amazement, contained nothing but liquor bottles – a traveling bar. I had a feeling of foreboding for the man whose chess genius I so greatly admired.’‘–Kmoch
You can readily find a multitude of other references of Alekhine’s alcoholism
In Xeque-Mate no Estoril ,on page47, Markl quotes the spanish historian Pablo Moran:
Some time during the July 1945 Gijon Tournament, he (Alekhine) showed up at the office of Dr. Casmiro Rugarcia, a chess aficionado who had befriended him during his soujourn in that city.
”Senor Rugarcia, I am here to be examined. I want to know the truth about my health. I implore you not to lie or deceive. Tell me how I stand.”
The examination revealed a grave cirrhosis of the liver. ”He had an enormous liver”, related Rugarcia, ”so big that it almost reached his right nipple. There was no cure, and his days were numbered.”
”Did Alekhine find out?”
”Naturally, I had to tell him. But I initiated the conversation with ‘Maestro, you must quit drinking.”
”That I know. Your colleagues all tell me the same thing.”
”But you are desroying yourself with each drink, and if you don’t quit you will die very soon.”
”And if I quit drinking, how long may I live?”
”If you quit drinking, look after yourself and lead a well-ordered life, you may still live a few years.”
Alekhine looked at the physician with obvious compassion, put on his jacket, turned away and as he left, said: ”Then it is not worth while to quit drinking.” (Moran, pp 1-2)
How could an experienced doctor like Dr. d’Aguiar not have noticed the problem of Alekhine’s liver?
And what about the apparent contradiction when Dr. Ferreira wrote to Alekhine’s son ” There were no other diseases to which his sudden and unexpected death could be attributed.”. Many have pointed out that arteriosclerosis and chronic gastritis are serious enough problems and each could have , under certain circumstances, caused Alekhine’s death. (Some sources say that Alekhine developed heart problems while living in Spain.)
Clearly the autopsy report leaves key questions unanswered.
I think the answer to these questions might be provided by taking a closer look at Dr. Antonio Jacinto Ferreira. We know that he was a reasonable chessplayer, that he signed the death certificate of Alekhine and so was at the Parque Hotel on the 24th. But you would be surprised at what you would learn if you took a closer look at him…
Dr. Antonio Jacinto Ferreira was born in 1906 and graduated in 1925 from the Escola Superior de Medicina Veterinária in Lisbon. He was a veterinarian ! This can be verified at the following sites (in portuguese):
To be fair, however, Dr. Antonio Jacinto Ferreira was a very good vet, because he held a post of professor at the Escola de Medicina Veterinaria da Universidade Tecnica in Lisbon. But a veterinarian all the same!
I suppose that might explain why he only assisted in the autopsy of Alekhine on the 27th, and might also explain his lack of attention to detail as shown in his letter to Alekhine’s son.
The second website above gives some bio of his active political life in Portugal. Dr. Ferreira was a very influential person in the political life of Portugal at that time. That web reference on his bio does not mention the most important thing, however: that Dr. Antonio Jacinto Ferreira was directly involved with PIDE (the Portuguese Intelligence Service): LINK (since removed–editor)
You will find Dr. Antonio Jacinto Ferreira’s name about half way down that list. Should we be surprised that you will also find Luis Lupi’s name on that very same list, some 17 names below Ferreira’s!!
That particular blog appears to be dedicated to making public the names of some of individuals who held powerful positions during Salazar’s repressive regime, and is just one of hundreds of such blogs that exist today that try to come to terms with the abuses of power and of the pervasive repression that existed before the revolution in 1974, when Portugal began its transformation to a democracy.
Certainly all of the names listed on this blog were either PIDE officers or directly working on their behalf; and were individuals who were to be feared.
Getting back to the autopsy on the 27th, we have to ask if Dr. Antonio Jacinto Ferreira’s mere presence have could have influenced Dr. Asdrubal d’Aguiar findings so that they agreed with Luis Lupi’s statement on the 24th ? (That Alekhine had died quickly while eating)
To answer that question, it might be helpful to understand how much influence and power PIDE exercised in universities during Salazar’s dictatorship: every aspect of university life was carefully watched if not directly controlled by PIDE.
Essentially, you could not be hired by a university without the approval of PIDE, who would check out the candidate for any political leanings that might not be considered pro-government. Students were not allowed to become involved in reform movements.
Even associating with the wrong people could have had very negative consequences. It was not uncommon in those days for armed PIDE inspectors just to show up and arbitrarily arrest students or professors.
As a concrete example, at the Faculdade de Medicina de Lisboa in 1947, PIDE showed up in force and invaded the classrooms, offices and labs. Hundreds of students were beat up and arrested, along with dozens of professors, including the dean. As a consequence, 26 professors were disciplined or fired. And there are numerous other instances of such brutality during Salazar’s dictatorship at virtually every university in the country.
So to answer the question, could Dr. Antonio Jacinto Ferreira’s mere presence at the autopsy of Alekhine have intimidated Dr. Asdrubal d’Aguiar, the answer is: very likely.
Which leaves the cynic just one more question: why even do an autopsy? And the answer to this question is considerably less complicated: it was the law to do an autopsy in cases such as Alekhine’s.
It appears to me that Alekhine’s autopsy might have had more to do with complying with the law than with actual science.
This is now a good time for us to re-visit Artur Portela’s April 15 article published on the first page of the Diario de Lisboa entitled ‘O segredo do Quarto 43; A morte misteriosa de Alexandre Alekhine”. I believe that this article should be the real starting point for any further investigation into the death of the champion.
In this article Portela essentially challenges some aspects of the official version of Alekhine’s death, and raises the possibility that the Kremlin could have had a hand in his death.
Portela also insinuated that it was not surprising that the autopsy did not reveal anything that was not already known(!).
The article offers some other additional information, but without quoting any sources or witnesses. For example, Portela mentions that there was a very valuable Sevres vase in the hotel room that had been broken and was in pieces, part of which fell on the commode. Definitely nothing of this is mentioned in Lupi’s letter to England nor any trace of it in his famous photos.
Alekhine received from Czar Nicholas II (in St. Petersburg ,1909) a beautiful Sevres vase. It was a prize for having won a national youth championship. It was Alekhine’s most prized possession, and when he decided to leave Russia for good, in 1921, the vase was the only thing that he took with him. He had it with him in his hotel room the night he died.
I quote from Alekhine (September 3, 1941) himself talking of this prized Sevres :
“I could tell you so many (anecdotes)! But the most recent one will be the best. At a tournament in St Petersburg when I was 16 I won first prize, which was donated by the Tsar. It was a most beautiful Sèvres vase decorated with the Imperial Russian shield. I always kept it with great care.
I took it everywhere with me in case I lost it. But, at the time of France’s debacle I left it in my wife’s keeping in Paris, in a small chest. From then until this last winter it was my nightmare that the wonderful vase should be mislaid. In Paris I looked for it and, not without effort, we found the chest, in a lamentable condition.
In what state would the contents be when the container looked so calamitous? But, miraculously, the vase was only slightly damaged, and I had it repaired in Lisbon. What a weight was lifted from my mind!”
Artur Portela added that Alekhine had told a friend that he intended to award the Sevres to the person who beats him in a world title match.
And especially curious is Portela mentioning that Alekhine had lost his overcoat the night before in Lisbon and returned to his hotel without it! In the photos of Luis Lupi we can see Alekhine sitting with an overcoat… is it the same one ? More embarrassing questions!