Alekhine was born into a rich family in Moscow, Russia: his father was a landowner and a member of the Duma, his mother, who along with his brother taught him chess in 1903, was the daughter of a rich industrialist. In 1914, after playing a tournament in Saint Petersburg, he was among the first chess players to gain the title of grandmaster.
He spoke Russian, French, German and English.
Following the Russian Revolution, in 1919 he was suspected of espionage and imprisoned in Odessa. He was eventually freed and soon moved to France where in 1925 he became a French citizen and entered the Sorbonne Faculty of law. Although his thesis on the Chinese prison system went uncompleted, he was known as Dr Alekhine for the rest of his life.
In 1927 he won the title of World chess champion from Capablanca; subsequently, he refused to grant Capablanca a rematch. In 1935 he lost the title to Max Euwe, a loss that is often attributed to Alekhine's alcohol abuse. He gave up alcohol and regained the title from Euwe in 1937. He held the title until his death.
During World War II, Alekhine played in several tournaments held in Germany or German-occupied territory. In 1941 anti-semitic articles, entitled Aryan and Jewish Chess, appeared under his name in the Pariser Zeitung. Extensive investigations (see Whyld) have not yielded conclusive evidence of the authenticity of the articles. After the war he found that he was persona non grata to tournament organisers.
While planning for a World championship match against Botvinnik, he died in his hotel room in Estoril, Portugal. His death, the circumstances of which are still a matter of debate, is thought to have been caused either by his choking on a piece of meat or by a heart attack. He is buried in the Cimetiere de Montparnasse, Paris, France. His gravestone was paid for by FIDE.
Some openings and variations are named after him. The Alekhine Defence (1. e4 Nf6 in algebraic notation) is the most important. There is also the Alekhine-Chartard attack (1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. Nc3 Nf6 4. Bg5 Be7 5. e5 Nfd7 6. h4), a pawn sacrifice in the French Defence.