Player Spotlight: José Raúl Capablanca


José Raúl Capablanca y Graupera (19 November 1888 – 8 March 1942) was a Cuban chessplayer who was world chess champion from 1921 to 1927. One of the greatest players of all time, he was renowned for his exceptional endgame skill and speed of play.[1][2] Due to his achievements in the chess world, mastery over the board and his relatively simple style of play he was nicknamed the "Human Chess Machine".[3][4] 


José Raúl Capablanca, the second surviving son of a Spanish army officer,[5] was born in Havana on November 19, 1888.[6] According to Capablanca, he learned the rules of the game at the age of four by watching his father play, pointed out an illegal move by his father, and then beat his father twice. At the age of eight he was taken to Havana Chess Club, which had hosted many important contests, but on the advice of a doctor he was not allowed to play frequently. Between November and December 1901, he narrowly beat the Cuban Chess Champion, Juan Corzo, in a match.[6][7][8] However in April 1902 he only came fourth out of six in the National Championship, losing both his games against Corzo.[8] In 1905 Capablanca passed with ease the entrance examinations for Columbia University in New York City, where he wished to play for Columbia's strong baseball team, and soon was selected as shortstop on the freshman team.[7] In the same year he joined the Manhattan Chess Club, and was soon recognized as the club's strongest player.[6] He was particularly dominant in rapid chess, winning a tournament ahead of the reigning World Chess Champion, Emanuel Lasker, in 1906.[6] In 1908 he left the university to concentrate on chess.[6][7]

According to Columbia University, Capablanca enrolled at Columbia's School of Mines, Engineering and Chemistry in September, 1910, to study chemical engineering.[9] Later, his financial support was withdrawn because he preferred playing chess to studying engineering. He left Columbia after one semester to devote himself to chess full time.

[edit]Early adult career

Capablanca's skill in rapid chess lent itself to simultaneous exhibitions, and his increasing reputation in these events led to a USA-wide tour in 1909.[10] Playing 602 games in 27 cities, he scored 96.4% – a much higher percentage than those of, for example, Géza Maróczy's 88% and Frank Marshall's 86% in 1906. This performance gained him sponsorship for an exhibition match that year against Marshall, the US champion,[11] who had won the 1904 Cambridge Springs tournament ahead of World Champion Emanuel Lasker and Dawid Janowski, and whom Chessmetrics ranks as one of the world's top three players at his peak.[12] Capablanca beat Marshall by 15–8 (8 wins, 1 loss, 14 draws) – a margin comparable to what Emanuel Lasker achieved against Marshall (8 wins, no losses, 7 draws) in winning his 1907 World Championship match. After the match, Capablanca said that he had never opened a book on chess openings.[6][13] Following this match, Chessmetrics rates Capablanca the world's third strongest player for most of the period from 1909 through 1912.[14]

Capablanca won six games and drew one in the 1910 New York State Championship. Both Capablanca and Charles Jaffe won their four games in the knock-out preliminaries and met in a match to decide the winner, who would be the first to win two games. The first game was drawn and Capablanca won the second and third game. It is incorrectly said in Golombek's book on Capablanca that Capablanca won all seven games.[15] After another gruelling series of simultaneous exhibitions,[10] Capablanca placed second, with 9½ out of 12, in the 1911 National Tournament at New York, half a point behind Marshall, and half a point ahead of Charles Jaffe and Oscar Chajes.[15][16] Marshall, invited to play in a tournament at San Sebastián, Spain, in 1911, insisted that Capablanca also be allowed to play.[17]

According to David Hooper and Ken WhyldSan Sebastián 1911 was "one of the strongest five tournaments held up to that time", as all the world's leading players competed except the World Champion, Lasker.[18][19] At the beginning of the tournament, Ossip Bernstein and Aron Nimzowitsch objected to Capablanca's presence because he had not fulfilled the entry condition of winning at least third prize in two master tournaments.[6] Capablanca won brilliantly against Bernstein in the very first round, more simply against Nimzowitsch,[10] and astounded the chess world by taking first place, with a score of six wins, one loss and seven draws, ahead of Akiba RubinsteinMilan Vidmar, Marshall,Carl Schlechter and Siegbert Tarrasch, et al.[6] His loss, against Rubinstein, was one of the most brilliant achievements of the latter's career.[20] Some European critics grumbled that Capablanca's style was rather cautious, though he conceded fewer draws than any of the next six finishers in the event. Capablanca was now recognized as a serious contender for the world championship.[10]

[edit]World title contender

In 1911, Capablanca challenged Emanuel Lasker for the World Chess Championship. Lasker accepted his challenge while proposing 17 conditions for the match. Capablanca objected to some of the conditions, which favored Lasker, and the match did not take place.[21][22]

In 1913, Capablanca won a tournament in New York with 11/13, half a point ahead of Marshall.[15][23] Capablanca then finished second to Marshall in Capablanca's hometown, Havana, scoring 10 out of 14, and losing one of their individual games.[15][24] The 600 spectators naturally favored their native hero, but sportingly gave Marshall "thunderous applause".[24][25] In a further tournament in New York in 1913, at the Rice Chess Club, Capablanca won all thirteen games.[10][15]

In September 1913, Capablanca received a job in the Cuban Foreign Office,[6] which made him financially secure for life.[19] Hooper and Whyld write that, "He had no specific duties, but was expected to act as a kind of ambassador-at-large, a well-known figure who would put Cuba on the map wherever he travelled."[26] His first instructions were to go to Saint Petersburg, where he was due to play in a major tournament.[10] On his way, he gave simultaneous exhibitions in London, Paris and Berlin, where he also played two-game matches againstRichard Teichmann and Jacques Mieses, winning all his games.[6][10] In Saint Petersburg, he played similar matches against Alexander AlekhineEugene Znosko-Borovsky and Fyodor Duz-Chotimirsky, losing one game to Znosko-Borovsky and winning the rest.[6]

The St. Petersburg 1914 chess tournament was the first in which Capablanca played World Champion Emanuel Lasker under normal tournament conditions.[10] This event was arranged in an unusual way: after a preliminary single round-robin tournament involving 11 players, the top five were to play a second stage in double round-robin format, with scores from the preliminary tournament carried forward to the second contest.[10] Capablanca placed first in the preliminary tournament, 1½ points ahead of Lasker, who was out of practice and made a shaky start. Despite a determined effort by Lasker, Capablanca still seemed on course for ultimate victory. However, in their second game of the final, Lasker reduced Capablanca to a helpless position and Capablanca was so shaken by this that he blundered away his next game toSiegbert Tarrasch.[10] Lasker thus finished half a point ahead of Capablanca and 3½ ahead of Alekhine.[6][27] Alekhine commented:

His real, incomparable gifts first began to make themselves known at the time of St. Petersburg, 1914, when I too came to know him personally. Neither before nor afterwards have I seen – and I cannot imagine as well – such a flabbergasting quickness of chess comprehension as that possessed by the Capablanca of that epoch. Enough to say that he gave all the St. Petersburg masters the odds of 5–1 in quick games – and won! With all this he was always good-humoured, the darling of the ladies, and enjoyed wonderful good health – really a dazzling appearance. That he came second to Lasker must be entirely ascribed to his youthful levity – he was already playing as well as Lasker.[28]

After the breakdown of his attempt to negotiate a title match in 1911, Capablanca drafted rules for the conduct of future challenges, which were agreed by the other top players at the 1914 Saint Petersburg tournament, including Lasker, and approved at the Mannheim Congress later that year. The main points were: the champion must be prepared to defend his title once a year; the match should be won by the first player to win six or eight games, whichever the champion preferred; and the stake should be at least £1,000 (worth about £347,000 or $700,000 in 2006 terms[29]).[22]

[edit]During World War I

World War I began in midsummer 1914, bringing international chess to a virtual halt for more than four years.[10] Capablanca won tournaments in New York in 1914, 1915, 1916 (with preliminary and final round-robin stages) and 1918, losing only one game in this sequence.[30] In the 1918 event Frank James Marshall, playing Black against Capablanca, unleashed a complicated counter-attack, later known as the Marshall Attack, against the Ruy Lopez opening. It is often said that Marshall had kept this secret for use against Capablanca since his defeat in their 1909 match;[31] however, Edward Winter discovered several games between 1910 and 1918 where Marshall passed up opportunities to use the Marshall Attack against Capablanca; and an 1893 game that used a similar line.[32] This gambit is so complex that Garry Kasparov used to avoid it,[33] and Marshall had the advantage of using a prepared variation. Nevertheless, Capablanca found a way through the complications and won.[19] Capablanca was challenged to a match in 1919 by Borislav Kostić, who had come through the 1918 tournament undefeated to take second place. The match was to go to the first player to win eight games, but Kostić resigned the match after losing five straight games.[6][34] Capablanca considered that he was at his strongest around this time.[10][35]

[edit]World Champion

The Hastings Victory tournament of 1919 was the first international competition on Allied soil since 1914. The field was not strong,[10] and Capablanca won with 10½ points out of 11, one point ahead of Kostić.[30]

In January 1920, Emanuel Lasker and Capablanca signed an agreement to play a World Championship match in 1921, noting that Capablanca was not free to play in 1920. Because of the delay, Lasker insisted that if he resigned the title, then Capablanca should become World Champion. Lasker had previously included in his agreement before World War I to play Akiba Rubinstein for the title a similar clause that if he resigned the title, it should become Rubinstein's.[36] Lasker then resigned the title to Capablanca on June 27, 1920, saying, "You have earned the title not by the formality of a challenge, but by your brilliant mastery." When Cuban enthusiasts raised $20,000 to fund the match provided it was played in Havana, Lasker agreed in August 1920 to play there, but insisted that he was the challenger as Capablanca was now the champion. Capablanca signed an agreement that accepted this point, and soon afterwards published a letter confirming it.[36]

The match was played in March–April 1921; Lasker resigned it after just fourteen games, having lost four games and won none.[36] Reuben Fine and Harry Golombek attributed the one-sided result to Lasker's being in mysteriously poor form.[30][37] Fred Reinfeld mentioned speculations that Havana's humid climate weakened Lasker and that he was depressed about the outcome of World War I, especially as he had lost his life savings.[10] On the other hand, Vladimir Kramnik thought that Lasker played quite well and the match was an "even and fascinating fight" until Lasker blundered in the last game. Kramnik explained that Capablanca was twenty years younger, a slightly stronger player, and had more recent competitive practice.[38]

Edward Winter, after a lengthy summary of the facts, concludes that, "The press was dismissive of Lasker's wish to confer the title on Capablanca, even questioning the legality of such an initiative, and in 1921 it regarded the Cuban as having become world champion by dint of defeating Lasker over the board."[36] Reference works invariably give Capablanca's reign as titleholder as beginning in 1921, not 1920.[39][40][41] The only challenger besides Capablanca to win the title without losing a game is Kramnik, in the Classical World Chess Championship 2000 against Garry Kasparov.[42]

The score sheet of Capablanca's defeat by Richard Réti in the New York 1924 chess tournament, his first loss in eight years

Capablanca won the London tournament of 1922 with 13 points from 15 games with no losses, ahead of Alexander Alekhine on 11½, Milan Vidmar (11), and Akiba Rubinstein (10½).[43] During this event, Capablanca proposed the "London Rules" to regulate future World Championship negotiations: the first player to win six games would win the match; playing sessions would be limited to 5 hours; the time limit would be 40 moves in 2½ hours; the champion must defend his title within one year of receiving a challenge from a recognized master; the champion would decide the date of the match; the champion was not obliged to accept a challenge for a purse of less than US $10,000 (worth about $349,000 in 2006 terms[44]); 20% of the purse was to be paid to the title holder and the remainder divided, 60% going to the winner of the match, and 40% to the loser; the highest purse bid must be accepted.[45] Alekhine, Efim BogoljubowGéza MaróczyRichard Réti, Rubinstein, Tartakower and Vidmar promptly signed them.[46] Between 1921 and 1923 Alekhine, Rubinstein and Nimzowitsch all challenged Capablanca, but only Alekhine could raise the money, in 1927.[47]

In 1922, Capablanca also gave a simultaneous exhibition in Cleveland against 103 opponents, the largest in history up to that time, winning 102 and drawing one – setting a record for the best winning percentage ever in a large simultaneous exhibition.[48]

After beginning with four draws, followed by a loss,