What is Alekhine’s Block?

A lot of us have heard of Alekhine’s Gun (the tripling of rooks and queen in a file), but how many know what Alekhine’s Block is?

Put Restraint on Them by All Means. "Locked", chess art by Samuel Bak
Put Restraint on Them by All Means. “Locked”, chess art by Samuel Bak (Click to enlarge)

Alekhine’s block is a chess combination with a piece sacrifice (Knight, Bishop, Rook, or Queen) on the 6th rank (3rd for Black). It’s used for the first time by the former world champion Alexander Alekhine in 1910. The idea is to physically restrict, or block the enemy pawn in front of the attacking piece (thus Alekhine’s “block”). As Nimtzowitsch put it, “First restrain, then blockade, finally destroy!”

This tactical device is just one implementation of the general strategic principle we need to follow in chess. Actually, in both, attack and defense, we want to put the brake on the enemy pieces and reduce their fighting potential either to attack our army, or withstand our attack being in progress. We want our pieces to stay unrestricted, or break free if restrained (there are several ways that we may restrict the freedom of movement of pieces and we will cover them in upcoming posts).

Pawn storm, or piece attack, which one?

As all chess tacticians know, we may break the enemy king’s castle by throwing our pawns at it. Supported by pieces, pawns attack, destroy, remove, or render useless any enemy units defending the king. Once utterly vulnerable, attacking pieces just need to finish it off.

Another approach is to use pieces themselves to weaken enemy defenses. For example, with queen on h4 and bishop on d3, Black may respond with h7-h6 (the least fortunate response). After that Queen goes to e4 forcing Black to play g7-g6, or f7-f5 causing further weakening.

The most effective defense seems to be f7-f5 as it closes the dangerous b1-g8 diagonal and, importantly, gives life to the f8-rook. Instead of just blocking an escape route for its king, the rook is now taking an active part to protect its monarch, or even initiate a counterattack. Not only that, other pieces that may be positioned in the center, or on the queenside, establish communication lines with the king’s wing being under attack. This brings reserves into battle and reinforces the defense.

Let’s take a look at the game where the baby was born:

The simultaneous Exhibition, Moscow 1910 – Stonewall

We will witness here the Stonewall Attack  – Sack to Attack, that Will has covered lately.

Alekhine – Ostrogsky, Moscow 1910 (after 21…Nf8)

22.Rf6!

Alekhine’s block! This move blocks the f7-pawn, effectively cutting off the e7-rook and the rest of the black army from being able to help out the king. Restriction in action! We see the knight and g7-pawn defending the king (the blocked f7-pawn is just a nuisance) against clearly superior: queen, rook, bishop, knight and g5-pawn on White’s side. Very important in any war, combat power superiority at the selected point of attack!

White is threatening 23.Rh6 gxh6 24.Nf6+ mating. If Black takes the rook with 22…gxf6, then 23.Nxf6+ (another attacking piece appears on f6! FM Weteschnik refers to this tactical mechanism as reloader) Kg7 24.Qh6#. Finally, on 22…g6, follows 23.Raf1 Be8 (to protect f7-pawn as Nh6+ is threatening) 24.Rxg6! fxg6 25.Rxf8+ Kxf8 26.Qh8+ Kf7 27.Nh6#

22. …Ng6 23. Rxg6 fxg6 24. Bxg6 1-0

You may have already noticed that White could have played a knight’s block 22.Nf6! 22…gxf6 23.gxf6 winning. Maybe Alekhine preferred the more eye-pleasing rook’s block to create more of a thrill for the audience of the simul this game was played in.

So, it’s restriction, restriction, restriction! In attack and defense alike. Think American football, enemy defenders always try to sack the player carrying the ball by knocking them down in order to inhibit their freedom of movement. Or basketball, where players block and set picks on defending players, or set screens to free up cutting teammates and create shooting room for them.

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