Yesterday davejitsu asked where he might learn about masters from the past. I made a few suggestions, including our own Chess History Group and Batgirl's blog, and then he came back and asked whether I thought Capablanca or Fischer was the better player.
It's always tough comparing chess players or athletes from different eras and I wasn't willing to commit to one or the other, but I did point out that while Fischer, in his heyday, could beat the best the world had to offer, Capablanca was one of only two men in history to win a chess game against the Devil.
It happened like this:
During the 1920s when Capa reigned supreme there were always people wanting to test themselves against the world champion. Had he taken on all comers, he would have had little time to himself. So, when one day a stranger challenged him to play, he immediately refused.
The visitor then said, “I understand your time is valuable and I would not waste it; but if you play me a game of chess—and win—I will donate $10,000 to any charity you name.”
It was an enormous amount of money in those pre-inflationary days and Capa felt he could not refuse. As they sat down to play the man said, “The commitment so far has been all mine. Let us agree that, should I win, I may take for myself any one possession of yours.”
That this challenger might win was unthinkable so Capa readily agreed.
As the game went on, Capa found his position slowly worsening as the stranger played with unearthly accuracy. Little by little he built up a significant positional advantage and Capa's game was on the verge of collapse when he realised who he was playing. This was none other than the Devil, and the thing they were playing for was Capablanca's soul.
His hand shook with emotion as he played his next move but his voice remained firm. “Who are you?” he demanded,
“You know who I am. You know what I want.”
“Prove it!” said Capablanca. “If you're really the Devil, with a touch of your finger turn your king into a golden piece with a jewelled crown.”
Smugly the Devil did as he was bidden and Capablanca smiled. “You touched the king,” he said. “Now move it!”
Chagrined the Devil did as he was bidden, and soon fell to a clever Capaablanca combination before vanishing in a flash of black light.
It was the first time he had lost a game of chess since that wily bishop, Ruy Lopez had trounced him almost four centuries earlier.
* * *
But, let's be generous to the Devil. If it hadn't been for his mischief in Eve's orchard we wouldn't be celebrating Christmas this week. So while you're singing Christmas Carols, don't forget to lift a glass to Old Nick. And in 2009, if a stranger comes to your door and wants to play chess, you be very, very careful.
[When jitsudave asked about Capa and Fischer I searched the Internet for this story but was unable to find it. It's one I read more than thirty years ago and I've tried to re-create it as accurately as memory will allow. If anybody knows the story, please add any corrections or extra information. If you can provide a web link to it, that'd be great.]
And, before somebody points it out, I do realise that the Devil couldn't be compelled to move in those circumstances, but why spoil a good story with facts?