In the book The Complete Chess Addict by Mike Fox and Richard James, the following passage appears on page 156.

Alekhine, near the end of his life, lonely and sick, but still world champion, told a friend of the amazing happenings at the great St Petersburg tournament of 1914. One night, in mid-tournament, there's a knock on Alekhine's hotel room door. A ragged old Russian peasant demands entrance, saying he has found a chess secret of great importance. Impatiently Alekhine lets him enter. ‘I have found a way for white to checkmate in twelve from the starting position,’ claims the old man. Alekhine starts to throw him out, but the peasant is insistent. To end matters, Alekhine sets up the board. Twelve moves later, the future world champion, white-faced, turns his king over. ‘Do that again,’ he says. The old man does. And again. Aghast, Alekhine hustles the old man along the corridor, to the room of his great colleague Capablanca. The same sequence of events happens. Capablanca thinks first it’s a bad joke: he ends up beaten again and again in twelve no matter what defence he tries.
As Alekhine concludes his sensational account, the friend leans forward eagerly and asks the question you are now asking yourself: ‘Then what did you do?’ Alekhine’s devastating reply: ‘Why, we killed him of course.’
Before you throw this book in the fire in disbelief, we’d better come clean. The above (roughly) is the plot of a terrific short story we read some years ago; annoyingly we couldn’t track it down. If you know the source, drop us a line.

Can any reader identify the short story in question?

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    The story you asked about has been identified as "Mate in Nineteen" by Vincent Fotre. Another story on a similar theme (chess grandmasters kill an outsider who has devised a foolproof way to win at chess), but longer and funnier, is Von Goom's Gambit by Victor Contoski.
    – user14111
    Commented May 6, 2022 at 10:00
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    @user14111 Thanks for the pointer! While we're on the topic, I might as well mention that The Chess Companion by Irving Chernev contains two stories along similar lines: "Professor Pownall's Oversight" and "The Three Sailors' Gambit." Both feature an unbeatable, diabolical player. Commented May 7, 2022 at 0:30

1 Answer 1


"Mate in Nineteen" by Vincent Fotre.

Alekhine and Capablanca are mentioned in the story but do not appear as characters. The only characters are a cobbler (not a peasant) named Renoir, who has discovered the forced mate in 19 (not 12) moves, and a chess master named Bonnet who kills him.

The story was published on p. 340 of the November 1954 issue of Chess Review, which is available at the Internet Archive.

"I suppose you are wondering why I did not tell you this sooner, but I was just thinking how ironic it would have been if your ideas had been valid. In one quick stroke, you, a common working man, would have relegated the immortals of the chess world — Anderssen, Capablanca, Lasker, Morphy, Rubinstein and the rest — to the ranks of blundering fools who wasted thousands of hours and untold effort in evolving brilliant combinations when actually any idiot capable of understanding the moves of chess could have defeated them simply by memorizing your system. Imagine! The exacting position play of Steinitz, the marvelous intuitive sacrifices of Alekhine — nothing but unnecessary, superficial, meaningless pushing of pieces! The concept is hideous: it leads one to believe that perhaps the greatest writings, the principles by which men have governed themselves for centuries may likewise be empty and foolish. No, M. Renoir, I am happy that your system is not infallible; indeed, if it were," — the master shrugged and looked straight into his guest's eyes — "I would hesitate to permit you to leave this room alive."

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    Thank you...this is great! Based on this information, I have found that the story is also reproduced in the book The Best in Chess by I. A. Horowitz and Jack Straley Battell. Also there is some interesting commentary here about various slightly garbled versions of the story. Commented May 6, 2022 at 2:00
  • @TimothyChow Yeah, actually I remember reading this story multiple times in russian internet. However each time it was described as an anecdote Capablanca liked to tell. Also the main character was Capablanca, not Alekhine, the tournament was held in Germany, not Russia, and the peasant played against the three of them - Capablanca, Alekhine and Lasker.
    – Haldot
    Commented May 6, 2022 at 3:11
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    Btw, I am unpleasantly surprised by the editing policy at this stackexchange. Like, the original answer contained all the needed information, but people decided to blow it up to the size of an essay. Thanks god math.stackexchange is not like that.
    – Haldot
    Commented May 6, 2022 at 3:16
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    I think that user14111's version was better. It's good practice here on literature.se for answers to locate and quote sources, rather than requiring every reader to do it for themselves. This is different from the situation on math.se where a mathematical proof stands on its own. Commented May 6, 2022 at 9:17
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    FWIW, on the SF&F SE, the policy is to generally at least have a summary and ideally a link to more information. We prefer to quote at least some text, even if it's accessible via links, because links rot and not everyone may have access to a resource. Personally, I tend to quote more extensively after establishing that it is a match, preferably quotes from the work that match that aren't in the summary, but I know others have disagreed on the degree of quotation. Commented May 6, 2022 at 11:56

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