The inter-war period was dominated by two champions: José Raúl Capablanca and Alexander Alekhine

Though José Raúl Capablanca was already 32 when he became World Champion in 1921, many in the chess world assumed that he would be champion for many years to come. He was considered unbeatable and, in some ways, the match by which he won the title had been a formality.

His predecessor, Emanuel Lasker, who was 53 and had been champion for 27 years, had even proposed resigning the title without playing. That proved unacceptable to the chess world. So they met in Havana in March 1921, with  the winner to be the first to win eight games or whoever had the best score out of 24 games. After only 14, Lasker had lost four without winning any, and resigned the match.

Capablanca was the roving ambassador for Cuba. That diplomatic sinecure meant he did not require an income from chess so once he had won the title, he was in no hurry to defend it. He set stiff terms for any rival: a purse of $10,000, worth about $140,000, adjusted for inflation. Of that, Capablanca was guaranteed $5,200, with travel and accommodation expenses also to be paid by the challenger. Neither Aron Nimzowitsch, a Latvian-born master living in Denmark (who challenged him in 1926) nor Akiba Rubinstein of Poland were able to raise so much money.

The great New York tournament of 1927 was organized to find a challenger. (In the previous elite tournament in New York in 1924, Capablanca had finished second to none other than Lasker.) Capablanca won comfortably with Alexander Alekhine, a Russian émigré living in France, finishing second. The money to finance a match was raised chiefly in Argentina and their match began in Buenos Aires on 16 September. The first to win six games would be champion.

This was the second longest title match of all time: it took 34 games to decide. Alekhine, who had adjusted his dynamic style to play more solidly, won the first game with Black but Capablanca switched to 1 d4 and leveled the score in Game 3.

The match became attritional, and most of the games started with the queen’s gambit. Capablanca won Game 7, but Alekhine took the lead by winning Games 11 and 12. Eight draws followed until Alekhine won game 21. After seven more draws Capablanca scored his third win, but eventually Alekhine triumphed after more than two months’ struggle.

Alekhine now set Capablanca the same conditions for a re-match that Capablanca had set when he was champion. After the Stock Market Crash of 1929, those conditions became insuperable.

Alekhine also avoided Nimzowitsch, who had won the Carlsbad 1929 tournament ahead of Capablanca. Instead Alekhine set less onerous conditions for a challenger whom he did not fear: Efim Bogoljubow, a Russian émigré living in Germany.

Their two matches featured entertaining fighting games, but at the critical moments Alekhine usually played better. The first, in 1929, was played in various Dutch and German towns for the best of thirty games. The score was close in the first half, though Alekhine always led, but he retained the title by 15½–9½. Alekhine dominated the 1934 re-match, also in Germany, winning 8–3 with 15 draws.

Alekhine chose as his next opponent an amateur, 34-year-old mathematics teacher — Max Euwe — against whom Alekhine had won a practice match in 1926. Their title match was played in various towns in the Netherlands between October and December 1935, for the best of 30 games.

Overconfident, Alekhine went down to a surprising defeat. He had led 4–1 with two draws, but then Euwe began to figure out his style and after 14 games he leveled the score. Despite Alekhine regaining a two-point lead the Dutchman was much stronger in the final third and took the title 15½–14½.

In 1936 Capablanca enjoyed a resurgence, winning tournaments in Moscow and Nottingham (the latter in a tie with the rising Russian star, Mikhail Botvinnik). Capablanca could not challenge Euwe for the title, though, because the canny Alekhine had included a return match clause in his 1935 contract.

Unlike his two predecessors, Euwe did not prevaricate over the re-match, which was played in the fall of 1937 under the same conditions as before – best of 30 games. In the two years since he lost the title, Alekhine had reformed his lifestyle, including avoiding alcohol. Though Euwe got out to an early lead, Alekhine soon erased it and ran away with the match by a score of 15½–9½.

By now a new generation of grandmasters was on the rise and the AVRO tournament of 1938, held in the Netherlands, and which included the top eight players in the world, was intended to decide who the next challenger should be. Paul Keres from Estonia won on tie-break over Reuben Fine, ahead of three world champions – Alekhine, Capablanca and Euwe. Keres issued a challenge to Alekhine, but he began secret negotiations with Botvinnik, the Soviet champion.

The outbreak of World War II in September 1939 put a stop to any immediate possibility of a title match. But negotiations with Botvinnik had just resumed in 1946 when Alekhine died in Estoril, Portugal.

With no reigning champion, there was a sudden vacuum around the organization of the title. Alexander Rueb, a Dutch lawyer, who had co-founded the Fédération Internationale des Echecs (FIDE) in Paris in 1924, saw an opportunity to establish his organization as the power broker in the chess world and he seized it. FIDE took it upon itself to organize a tournament to determine a new champion, and, in the process, FIDE took control of the title.


Dr. Timothy Harding, who has a PhD in history from Trinity College Dublin, is a senior international master of correspondence chess who has written many books on the game. His most recent, “Joseph Henry Blackburne: A Chess Biography,” published by McFarland, has received favourable critical reviews. 

Dr. Harding is on on Twitter (@TimDHarding). He has a Web site and a list of his books can be found at GoodReads.