Remembering Capablanca

Jul 24, 2013, 12:34 PM |

Yakov Rokhlin (1903-1995) was a chess master, coach and author. He's probably best remembered as one of the first organizers of Soviet chess movement, playing a large part in opening of chess clubs in various cities of USSR.

In 1936, he met Capablanca at the third Moscow International tournament and later related this anecdote.

Remembering Capablanca

Moscow 1936. The hot days of the Third International Tournament...

In the late evening after the games, groups of Soviet and foreign players sit down in the restaurant of the National Hotel. The world-famous masters are discussing theoretical novelties of the day, sharing their opinions on their partners' play, arguing and joking.

I sit down at the table with a lone figure of Jose Raul Capablanca. Since my youth, I've always sympathized with this genius-level master and replayed his games. He - then a World Champion - was one of the first foreign players who broke through the "chess blockade" of USSR and came to our country to take part in the first Moscow International Tournament in 1925.

The Cuban looks melancholic. Tomorrow, he's going to play Dr. Emanuel Lasker. It's well-known that while Capa took his World Champion title from Lasker's hands, he doesn't like to play against his old adversary.

I'm talking with Capablanca on some "non-chess", abstract topics... Time passes, the hall empties soon. I accompany Capa to his hotel room, and the following exchange occurs:

"You play Lasker tomorrow?"

"Yes. I have Black. You must understand that it'll only be a draw."

"That's a pity! I think you shouldn't refrain from fighting. In Moscow 1935, Lasker defeated you. This tournament might as well be the old man's last. It's too bad if it goes down in chess history that in the very last game of two great players, Capablanca had to struggle for a draw."

Capa is silent. We enter his room. There's a chess board at the table.

The ex-champion suddenly says, "But which opening should I choose against the old Doctor? e7-e5 is impossible, I don't want to repeat my mistake of St. Petersburg 1914. I won't play French, too."

"Perhaps you might try Sicilian? As far as I remember, you were excellent in it, and I think Lasker doesn't like this opening as White, because he prefers to play Sicilian as Black."

Capablanca is already at the table and makes some opening moves.

"It's funny, but I have completely forgotten the Sicilian."

I show some lines and variants from the last tournaments. To my great amazement, Capa doesn't protest. He gets very serious and concentrates: wears his glasses, asks some questions, analyzes, criticizes.

20-30 minutes pass that way. The Cuban then suddenly lumps the pieces together and says, "No, no! I won't play your Sicilian!"

I understand that Capa wants to be alone, say farewell and take my leave.

The next day, the 2000-people Column Hall is packed. All chandeliers light up. Then a bell rings, signaling to begin the games. Dr. Lasker is already at his table, legs crossed, as always. His lively, piercing eyes look attentive and suspicious. With a customary gesture, Lasker moves his King's pawn two squares ahead and turns on his opponent's clock. Then he takes out a cigar.

2-3 minutes pass. The game at the other boards has already started, but Capa isn't at the table yet. Was he really preparing for the game? It's so unlike him!

Then, Capablanca arrives, charming and affable, as always. He makes his first move quickly. Sicilian! Pushing the clock, Capa apologizes for being late. Lasker nods his head: he's satisfied with those apologies. Then Capablanca apologizes to the arbiter too.

I'm not even trying to hide my curiosity and anxiety as I watch the demonstration board of the Lasker - Capablanca game. What will become of this game: a tempest or a "grandmaster draw"?

Some moves follow quickly, Capa suddenly gets up, approaches and greets me, but doesn't say anything more. His face is calm.

And only after Black's 9th move the Cuban stares at me intensively from a distance, catches my eye and blinks momentarily... 3-4 more moves are made. Capablanca is in the right mood, playing with great strength and inspiration. Lasker, the subtlest chess psychologist, probably didn't expect such an activity from his partner, whose character he seemed to have completely studied during the 25 years he knew him.

The struggle continues. Lasker complicates play, he defends valiantly and stubbornly, but the consequences of Black's brilliant maneuver lead to Capablanca's overwhelming material advantage.

...Late in the night, I again sit at Capa's room and study his today's game to send the winner's commentary to the Leningrad newspapers.

Capablanca is obviously very satisfied with his win, even though he tries to hide it. I write down all his annotations. It's 3 a.m., I'm going to leave, and Capablanca tells me as a farewell: "My friend, I dedicate this game to you. But have in mind that you have made an unforgivable mistake."

"What mistake?" I ask.

"You dared to recommend to a World Champion some elementary variants that are good only for some 2nd category players."

And Capablanca laughs loudly as he firmly shakes my hand.

This was actually their penultimate game. The very last game between Lasker and Capablanca was played in Nottingham and ended in a 19-move draw, so we can say that Rokhlin's "prophecy" of sorts came true.