Machgielis (Max) Euwe

“First of all, it’s a very high honour for me to play a match for the World Championship; and second, my little country would like to have a national hero.” (Max Euwe in a pre-tournament interview on why he had challenged the presumedly unbeatable Russian grandmaster Alekhine, 1935)

So, what’s a chess grandmaster doing in a series on computer personalities? Indeed, Machgielis Euwe (known as Max by everyone) is best known as the first amateur chess grandmaster and world champion who later became president of the World Chess Federation FIDE (Fédération Internationale des Échecs). However, he spent more time on his professional life in mathematics - he became a professor in mathematics - and later became also involved with Informatics, the forerunner of today’s Computer Science. This monograph will concentrate more on his computer-related activities than detailing his many great chess achievements.

Machgielis Euwe [pronounced ø:wə] was born on May 20, 1901, in Watergraafsmeer, a little village south-east of Amsterdam in my homeland the Netherlands. His father, who was a teacher, and his mother both loved the game of chess and the young Max was taught chess at the early age of five. He had a remarkable talent for the game and was soon able to beat his parents.

Euwe studied mathematics at the University of Amsterdam where he received his undergraduate degree in mathematics cum laude in 1923. Although by that time he was already a well-known chess player and had won the Dutch national championship (1921), he saw chess as his hobby and mathematics as his profession – it would always stay that way. In 1924 he started teaching mathematics, first part-time, later full-time. In 1926 he received his Ph.D. in Mathematics from the University of Amsterdam on the thesis “Differential variants of two co-variant vector fields with four variables.” Following this, he became a high school teacher at the Lyceum for Girls in Amsterdam, where he would stay until 1940.

Adopted essay in watercolor with glassine overlay for lettering. The portraits were switched around
on the final stamp showing the Euwe - Alekhine match (North Korea, 2001).

Becoming the World Champion Chess

During his teaching career Euwe continued to play chess tournaments, sometimes taking leave (and after finding a replacement teacher at his school). In 1926-1927 he played Alexander Alekhine and was narrowly beaten by the Russian. Euwe had a very methodical and scientific approach to the game. He kept a system of cards at home on which he recorded possible variants in opening and end games, and often tried them out in tournament matches. He was a “genius of organization, of logic and order.” In addition, he made sure he was in top physical condition by swimming, gymnastics and boxing and even won the amateur heavyweight boxing championship of Europe. In 1935 he played Alekhine again for the world championship. What everyone thought was unthinkable, happened. After a match that continuously seesawed, Euwe managed to beat the Russian grandmaster. While some ascribed his win to luck, some to the possible over-indulgence in alcohol by Alekhine, Euwe’s dogged determination, his deep understanding of the game and its variances and his sheer brilliance in the game surely played a major role in his achievement. Alekhine, a professional chess player, received a cheque for 10,000 Dutch guilders, while Euwe – the mathematics teacher and an amateur player – received nothing. His win caused a real upset, not least among the embarrassed Russians who considered themselves chess players par excellence. In the Netherlands chess was given a tremendous boost and has been popular ever since. There are numerous local chess clubs bearing his name. Despite the early scepticism about the new champion, Euwe proved to be a worthy world champion and was a formidable opponent in the tournament matches after his surprise win. Euwe kept the title for two years when in the re-match in 1937 the victory and the title went to Alekhine again.

During World War II, Euwe became the director of a chain store food company which enabled him to organize the clandestine transport of food to the resistance movement in Amsterdam for delivery to a suffering and hungry population. After the war he went back to his post as a teacher in mathematics.

Euwe becomes President of FIDE

In 1970 Euwe was elected to become president of FIDE – a post he was to hold for eight years. It was to become one of the most glorious periods for FIDE. Euwe visited many countries around the world at his own expense – forever the amateur - and FIDE’s membership was significantly expanded. In 1972 he presided over the famous Bobby Fischer-Boris Spassky world championship match in Reykjavik. This was at the height of the cold war and it was seen by some as a match between East and West. Despite numerous upsets and threats from both sides to cancel the event, it was Euwe’s negotiating skills and diplomatic determination that ensured the “Match of the Century” took place. The match was eventually won by Fischer.

Euwe combines computers & chess

In 1956, Euwe changed his career interest from teaching mathematics to becoming involved with the new technology: computers. He joined Remington Rand’s computer department as a scientific advisor. In 1959 he became the director of the Research Center for Automatic Data Processing in the Netherlands, a position he held until 1965. He had accepted this position with the proviso that he could continue his work for FIDE. This condition was accepted. The Research Center established a number of study groups to research areas like: telecommunications, a Dutch language computer dictionary, the Algol/Cobol group (to establish a universal programming language in Europe/the Netherlands, rather than a Dutch version of Cobol).

While at the Research Center, Euwe chaired the Euratom commission from 1961-1963. This research project was commissioned by Euratom (the European Commission for Atomic Energy) and was tasked to study the feasibility of running a chess program on an electronic information processing device – i.e. a computer. This was done to discover how well a computer could play the game of chess, as part of their research in artificial intelligence. Euratom’s ultimate aim was to automate their translation process as they had to translate many documents within the European community. Could a computer be used for that purpose?

Being one of the few experts in computer informatics, Euwe was appointed professor in Informatics - the forerunner of today’s Computer Science - at the Universities of Rotterdam and Tilburg in 1964. In 1976 he was appointed as professor in Cybernetics at the University of Mantach in Luxembourg.

In 1981, while on vacation in Israel, Euwe suffered a heart attack. After his return to Amsterdam for further treatment, he died on November 26, 1981. He left an impressive oeuvre behind – his more than 100 works on the game of chess, some of which have become classics.

The Netherlands honoured her great son with the opening of the Max Euwe Centre in 1982. The centre is dedicated to the importance of his life and work on the game of chess. It also houses a chess museum and a chess library and is located at the Max Euwe Square in Amsterdam. In 2001 the Netherlands issued a souvenir sheet to commemorate his birth centennial.

Chess & computers

When the first micro computers arrived in the seventies, one of the criteria for deciding if a machine was a computer at all, was the question: “Can it play chess?” Only if the answer was affirmative, was the machine deemed to be a computer as it proved to be capable of making logical decisions. However, the first attempts to automate the game of chess go back much further.


In 1769 the Austrian-Hungarian Wolfgang von Kempelen revealed a chess-playing automaton, named “The Turk”. The name came from the man-sized model dressed like a Turk sitting at the chess board. The automatic mechanism appeared to be able to play a game of chess against a human opponent and could grasp a chess piece and physically move it across the board. However, the machine was a hoax, the ingeniously constructed cabinet hid a small person behind its many cranks, wheels and secret panels. The machine was destroyed in a fire in 1854.

A real automaton, the ”El Ajedrecista” (“the chess player”) was built in 1912 by the Spaniard Leonardo Torres y Quevedo. This machine was able to play the king & rook versus king end game and debuted at the Paris World Fair in 1914.

The ability to play chess was an important feature of the first micro and mini computers. In 1977 the first Fidelity Chess Computer saw the light. The version above dates from the early eighties.


IBM has always been a staunch supporter and sponsor of chess tournaments as it saw the link between the thinking men’s game and its own computers. IBM even created a special chess-playing super-computer, “Deep Blue” [a reference to IBM’s nickname “Big Blue” which stemmed from the colour of its computers in the sixties and the fictional computer “Deep Thought” from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.] In 1996 Deep Blue (see above) played reigning world champion Gary Kasparov but the computer lost 3 games and won 1 game, with 2 games being drawn. Following an upgrade, the massive parallel processing super-computer was able to think from 4 to 40 moves ahead. In 1997 a re-match occurred and Deep Blue beat Kasparov 3.5 – 2.5 under tournament conditions. Following this, IBM retired the machine and dismantled Deep Blue.

Deep Fritz (see above) was a German chess computer program that managed a draw when playing world champion Vladimir Kramnik in 2002.

In Euwe’s heydays a chess computer was still a dream, a wish still to come true. Today, playing chess on a computer is quite common, but it’s one of Euwe’s many legacies.

© Wobbe Vegter, 2007

[ Back ]