Max Euwe, born at a dawn of the 20th century in Amsterdam, started competing in the international tournament only in the 1920s. Although he didn’t play chess professionally, pursuing mathematical studies all along, his talent and scientific approach to the game distinguished him even among the professionals.
The first „hint“ of his enormous capability was his 1926 match against Alekhine. Alekhine, who was preparing for his 1927 match against Capablanca, was at the height of his powers. He obviously chose Euwe as an „easy opponent“, intending to score a convincing victory. However, a match proved to be a highly tense encounter; only after taking enormous risk did Alekhine manage to prevail in the last, 10th game, and win the match by the closest possible margin – +3-2=3. After the match, Dutch chess enthusiasts formed the so-called „Euwe committee“, a body whose main goal would become the organization of the World Championship match in which Max Euwe would be the challenger.
Starting from 1928, FIDE who had a big interest in the organization of the World Championship cycle, decided to conduct its own championship. FIDE invited Euwe to play a 10 games match against Bogoljubow. The winner would gain informal right to challenge Alekhine (although the power of the champions allowed him to basically hand pick challenger on his own – cf. Alekhine – Bogoljubow, 1929 and Alekhine – Bogoljubow, 1934).
Bogoljubow won a match by the minimal score: +3-2=5. In the 1929 the players played a rematch, and once again Bogoljubow prevailed – +2-1=7. However, although Euwe played on equal terms against one of the strongest masters on the planet at the moment, he still couldn’t decide to commit solely to chess. Since he was a school teacher, he could only play during holidays. This caused him to miss some of the most important tournaments of those times, namely San Remo 1930 and Bled 1931.
Only in 1933 did the tables turn, but not without some drama. After winning the Dutch Championship for the record eight time, Euwe was on the verge of giving up chess. Fortunately, here Caissa intervened and sent the deus ex machina in form of Austrian chess master Hans Kmoch:
„ At the very end of 1933 in a cafe, I accidentally met Hans Kmoch, the Austrian master and analyst, who was then living in Holland. He knew of my decision to give up chess, but evidently had never approved of it. In Kmoch’s opinion, I could achieve much more than I had, and could test my powers in a battle for the title of world champion… On two counts Kmoch was able to convince me that, although Alekhine was undoubtedly stronger than me as a practical player, with thorough preparation could acquire enough of an advantage, that the outcome of the match would be at the least unclear… From this moment the decision was practically made: I would challenge Alekhine to a match for the world championship.“ (Source: Garry Kasparov, On My Great Predecessors, Part Two, page 28).
Following Euwe’s decision, the „Euwe committee“ set the things in motion, secured the required funds and issued a challenge to Alekhine. Alekhine accepted the challenge, probably thinking he would win the match as easily as his matches against Bogoljubow. He most certainly underestimated Euwe, just as he did during their 1926 match.
The match conditions were similar to the conditions of the Alekhine – Bogoljubow matches – 30 games, winner having to score 15.5 points and winning no less than six games. In the event of a 15-15 tie, Alekhine would retain his title. He was also granted the right to a return match in the event of losing the match.
The match started on 3rd October, 1935. The initial course of the match indeed followed the pre-match forecast – after 9 games Alekhine was leading 5-3 in terms of decisive games. However, in game 10 Euwe displayed excellent preparation and destroyed Alekhine’s Slav Defence in just 30 moves. Then, after winning games 12 and 14, Euwe even took the lead.
It would appear these defeats shooks Alekhine’s confidence. According to eyewitnesses, in the subsequent games, he was visibly not his former self. There has been a lot of controversy regarding whether he started drinking heavily in the second half of the match. The rumors about his drinking habit are partially true; the 21st game, for instance, was played with a 1-hour postponement and Alekhine smelled strongly of spirits beforehand.
However, it would appear the rumors about Alekhine’s drinking problem were also exaggerated to an extent. Most of the contemporaries were under the influence of the games such as 12th game, where Alekhine sacrificed a pawn in the opening, but then failed to find a right continuation, or 24th game, where he advanced the wrong move in the winning pawn endgame and failed to score a simple win. There is no denying Alekhine permitted himself to drink here and there, but he was far from being dead drunk during most of the games. Even Euwe himself expressed his opinion on the matter many years later:
„ I don’t think he was drinking more then than he usually did. Of course he could drink as much as he wanted: at his hotel it was all free. The owner of the Carlton Hotel, where he stayed, was a member of the Euwe Committee, but it was a natural courtesy to the illustrious guest that he should not be asked to pay for his drinks. I think it helps to drink a little, but not in the long run. I regretted not having drunk at all during the second match with Alekhine. Actually, Alekhine’s walk was not steady because he did not see well but did not like to wear glasses. So many people thought he was drunk because of the way he walked.“
In any case, the match was hard fought until the very end. After winning the 26th game (the famous „Pearl of Zandvoort“), Euwe came one step away from his goal. Alekhine retaliated in the 27th game, but he didn’t have the strength for more – three fighting draws followed and after 30 games the unthinkable happened – with the nail-biting 15.5-14.5 victory Euwe dethroned Alekhine and became the fifth World Champion in the history.