Max Euwe: master of the empty square

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Max Euwe: master of the empty square

Max Euwe in 1963

Dr Max Euwe was the fifth world chess champion, wresting the title from Alexander Alekhine in 1935. Chivalrously, Euwe granted his defeated foe a revenge match in 1937, which resulted not only in an Alekhine victory, but a contest which witnessed probably the highest quality games ever produced in a world championship match, not just until then, but way beyond that time, in fact until the first Botvinnik v Smyslov match of Moscow 1954.

In the introduction to his new book, Max Euwe’s Best Games (New in Chess, £25.95), the celebrated Dutch Grandmaster Jan Timman points out that hitherto no fully satisfactory account of Euwe’s outstanding masterpieces yet exists. Either the collection stops too early in Euwe’s career, or unannotated games proliferate, or the analysis (lacking the power of infallible modern engines) is just plain wrong.

Euwe (for English speakers, the pronunciation is more like “Erver” than “Ewe”) wove some magical masterpieces, imperishable classics which stand the test of time, even when contrasted with the most coruscating gems of other champions.

They are all here: the “Pearl of Zandvoort”, against Alekhine (1935, see link below); the demolition of Capablanca at AVRO 1938; various wins against Paul Keres; an instructive endgame win vs. Botvinnik; and assorted illustrious scalps including Geller, Najdorf, Tarrasch, Rubinstein, Spielmann, Bobby Fischer, Smyslov, Reshevsky, Taimanov, Bogolyubov, Donner, Flohr….

The print and layout are admirably clear. Timman knows well how to create a balance between analytical commentary and dramatic narrative, while the detailed variations improve even on Kasparov’s observations in his epic series, My Great Predecessors. 

I was gratified to receive a mention myself on page 52:

“Ray Keene once pointed out that sacrificing pieces on vacant squares was a speciality of Euwe. “Normally sacrifices take place with a capture, but not with Euwe, whose wins in this vein, sacrifices on empty squares, are justly celebrated.” They include in this book: Euwe vs. Alekhine, Zurich 1934; Geller vs. Euwe, Candidates 1953 and Euwe vs.Colle, third match game 1928. There is also a neat win against Loman, which does not make it into Timman’s anthology, but which has always been one of my favourites.

Timman’s tribute reminded me of Shakespeare’s Richard III, Act I, Scene IV: “The empty, vast and wandering square…”

Something upon which the author briefly comments, but which offers up intriguing further possibilities for research, is Euwe’s adoption of a double bishop fianchetto against the father of Hypermodernism, Richard Reti, in 1920. Timman rightly adds that the double fianchetto was Reti’s own speciality, but that was not until 1923. Is it possible that Reti’s inspiration for his Hypermodern revolution actually came from Max Euwe?

If I have any advice for future editions, it would be to add a specific index of Euwe’s games, and also a few tables of Euwe’s best tournament and match results. Context is useful, but not vital; and, after all, this is a compilation of the fifth world champion’s best games — not a biography.

Euwe vs. Alekhine

The Hague, World Chess Championship (game 5), 1937

1.d4d5 2. c4 dxc4 3. Nf3 a6 4. e3 Nf6 5. Bxc4 e6 6.O-O c57. Qe2 Nc6  8. Nc3

This move is stronger than, 8. Rd1, seen in an earlier game.

8… b5 9. Bb3 Be7

A solid developing move. In Alekhine-Book, Margate 1938, Black opted for 9… b4, upon which White obtained the advantage with 10. d5!


A good novelty. In Reshevsky-Rellstab, Kemeri 1937, White didn’t get any advantage after 10. Rd1 O-O 11. dxc5 Qc7 12. e4 Bxc5 13. h3 Bb7. On d1, the white rook is hardly better than on f1.

10… Bxc5

Neither Botvinnik nor Euwe gives any comment on this recapture. Nevertheless, it is a serious mistake that puts Black in great trouble. He should have played 10… O-O. After 11. e4 Bb7 12. e5 Nd7, Black doesn’t have any opening problems. Probably, the only way for White to play for an advantage is with 12. Bf4. Incidentally, it is curious that Alekhine didn’t castle here. In an earlier encounter, he had already shown how important it is to postpone the recapture on c5 in this type of position.


Now the further march of the e-pawn can no longer be prevented.

11… b4

Absolutely necessary was 11… Bb7, but Black’s case is by now quite miserable . After 12. e5 Nd7  13. Ne4 Be7, White has a choice between the direct 14. Nd6+ and the equally strong 14. Rd1, with a large advantage.


The refutation of Black’s previous move. White blasts open the position.

12… bxc3 13. exf6 gxf6 14. Qc4 Qb6 15. Qxc3

Typical Euwe. he wants to keep his queenside pawn structure intact and at the same time sets a deep trap. The computer prefers 15. bxc3, opening the b-file. After 15… Bd7  16. Qh4

Be7 17. Be3 Qc7 18. Rfd1, the black king has no safe squares, and it will eventually succumb to the crossfire of White’s pieces. However, Euwe’s approach is more direct.

15… Nd4

A logical sortie that is elegantly refuted by Euwe. With the alternative, 15… Ke7, Black couldn’t have stopped  the white attack either. By playing 16. Be3 Bxe3 17. fxe3, White gets the semi-open f-file as an attacking base. Black has no satisfactory defence, e.g. 17… Bd7 18. Nd2 f5 19. Ne4! and White wins in the attack.

16.Nxd4Bxd4 17. Ba4+ Ke7

18.Be3! Bxc3

Botvinnik indicates that Black could have had a tenable position with 18… Rd8. His analysis continues with 19. Rad1. That looks like a logical move, but it’s not the strongest. It doesn’t make much sense for White to increase the pressure on d4, since Black can maintain himself there. White can obtain a winning advantage with 19. Rac1!. Black will be unable to prevent the white rook’s eventual penetration on c7. The main line continues as follows: 19… e5 20. Qa3+ Qd6 21.Rc7+ Bd7 22. Qxd6+ Kxd6 23. Rxd7+ Rxd7 24. Bxd4 exd4 25. Bxd7 Kxd7 26. Rd1 and the rook ending is easily winning. After the text move, Black is beyond salvation: his king is exposed to a mating attack.

19.Bxb6Be5 20. Rad1 Kf8

20… f5 was hopeless as well. Play could continue 21. Bc6 Rb8 22. Ba7 Rxb2 23. Bc5+ Kf6 24. f4 Bc3 25. Rf3 and the bishop has no square on the long diagonal.

21.f4Bxb2 22. Rf3 Bb7 23. Rg3

Cutting off the enemy king.

23… Ba3

‘There is nothing else, if Black wants to play on,’ Euwe comments. This is a polite way of saying that it was time to resign. 23… Rc8 24. Rd8+ Ke7 25. Rd7+ would also have led to an immediate win for White.

24.Rxa3Rg8 25. Rg3 Rxg3 26. hxg3 Bd5 27. Bb3 Bxb3 28. axb3 Ke8 29. b4 Rb8 30. Bc5 Rc8 31. Ra1 Rc6 32. Kf2 f5 33. Ke3 f6 34. Kd4 Kf7 35. Kc4 Kg6 36. Rd1 Kh5 37. Rd6 Rxd6 38.  Bxd6  Kg4 39. Be7 Kxg3 40. Bxf6 Kxf4 41. Kc5Black resigns 1-0

Having struggled on this far, it seems almost arbitrary that Alekhine chose this point to resign, although the position is hopeless. The resultant endgame could have continued:

41… Kg3 42. Be5+ Kxg2 43. Kb6 Kf3 44. Kxa6 Ke4 45. Bh2 f4 46. b5 e5 47. b6 Kf3 48. b7 Kg2 49. b8=Q, when White, according to the engine, checkmates in, at most, another 12 moves.

As a small demonstration of the sizable number of top quality Euwe games, not always as familiar as they perhaps they should be, I wholeheartedly endorse the following games:

Euwe vs. Reti (1920)

Euwe vs. Loman (1923)

Euwe vs. Colle (1928)

Euwe vs. Alekhine (1934)

Euwe vs. Alekhine (1935)

Keres vs. Euwe (1936)

Euwe vs. Capablanca (1938)

Tartakoer vs. Euwe (1948)

Euwe vs. Najdorf (1953)

Geller vs. Euwe (1953)


Grandmaster Raymond Keene’s 206th book, Chess in the Year of the King, with a foreword by TheArticle contributor Patrick Heren, and written in collaboration with former Reuters chess correspondent, Adam Black, has just appeared and is available from Amazon.


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Member ratings
  • Well argued: 98%
  • Interesting points: 98%
  • Agree with arguments: 98%
33 ratings - view all

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