A Century of Chess: Capablanca-Lasker 1921
Capablanca and Lasker

A Century of Chess: Capablanca-Lasker 1921

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Capablanca and Lasker first crossed paths in the mid-1900s when Lasker was living in New York and Capablanca kept drifting away from his New Jersey high school to play chess in the city. Capablanca remembered coming across "a short, middle-aged man, with a rather large head," who was analyzing a game and was listened to "with evident respect" by those around him. Capablanca claimed that he was on the point of interrupting a few times and was "never so thankful for keeping his own counsel" when he realized that he would have been disagreeing with the world champion — whose understanding of chess, Capablanca conceded, was "of a different and far higher point of view" than his own at that time. 

Lasker was quick to recognize the talent of the local boy and described him in 1905 as "a young and promising player....whose youthful precocity antedates that of any other exponent of chess known to history."

When Capablanca had his breakthrough of breakthroughs at San Sebastián 1911, Lasker had the most memorable encomium, writing: "This is a great moment in his life. HIs name is known everywhere, his fame as a chess master is firmly established. And he is 22 years of age. Happy Capablanca!" 

It was immediately apparent that Capablanca v. Lasker would be the most interesting possible world championship match, more so than Lasker v. Rubinstein, but negotiations foundered on Lasker’s usual hard bargaining, leading to some acrimony between the two players.

St Petersburg 1914 was their first encounter over the board. Capablanca had Lasker’s back to the wall in two games, but Lasker with his famous defensive prowess escaped both times. Then, in what proved to be the decisive game of the tournament (and one of the most famous chess games ever played), Lasker overwhelmed Capablanca in a queenless middlegame.

The war put a pause in their rivalry, and by the time talks for a match could be arranged, Lasker had lost some of his ambition. He wanted to cede his title to Capablanca without making Capablanca play him for it, but, when it was pointed out that that wasn’t really how a world title worked, Lasker agreed to play the match — although, evidently, expecting to lose. 

Match negotiations at the Hague, 1920

That sense of a fait accompli has meant that the 1921 match tends to be overlooked and has left less imprint in chess history than other similarly titanic matches. But there’s a case to be made that the quality of play here was as high as in any world championship match. There were precious few mistakes and the match was one of very few to pit the world's unquestioned two top players against each other. 

Lasker kept trying to portray the match as being more about age and circumstance than chess — he blamed the Cuban sun for his lapses and wrote that "Capablanca set me problems of such difficulty that they completely sufficed to drain a tired man" — but even Lasker had to admit that the match really was of a high chess level. "I liked this match," he charmingly wrote afterwards. "I was delighted to find an antagonist of steel." 

Capablanca skeptical of Lasker

And then — great writer that he was — Lasker couldn't help but create an arresting narrative for the match. He described Capablanca as a consummate man of action — "a genius of practice" — and himself as "a theoretician and philosopher....interested more by the meaning of an event than the event itself, more by the rule than the individual case." 

He argued that he had deliberately avoided the modern methods — "I did not follow chess progress, even though I saw that it was ultimately necessary, just as it is necessary that a person one day dies," he wrote — but, having faced the automaton himself in Capablanca, he became "fully reconciled" to the modern style. What he meant was that there was vitality and imagination in Capablanca's hyper-positional play, even if it appeared drier than the 19th century chess that Lasker still, to some degree, represented. "His profundity is that of the mathematician not the poet," Lasker wrote. "His mind is more Roman than Greek. He excels therefore in planning a series of operations that have a logical objective and where the sequence is based not on time but on reason." 

After four quiet, skirmishing draws, Capablanca stole a pawn out of the opening in Game 5. Lasker found a challenging idea — "an ordinary player would never have thought of it," Capablanca wrote — resulting in a sacrifice of the exchange and complicated counter-chances. Capablanca fought his way through a difficult sequence and was better when Lasker blundered. 

Games 6 through 9 were careful grandmaster draws, with both players biding for minute advantages. Games 10 and 11 seemed to put the match away, Capablanca winning a pair of positional masterpieces in which Lasker might have been slightly passive in the opening but other than that made no obvious mistakes. 

Game 12 was one of very few opportunities in the match to see Lasker as himself. He reached a messy position featuring a rare material imbalance, but Capablanca kept his head and secured the draw. 

After a grandmaster draw in Game 13, Lasker blundered an exchange in Game 14 and then resigned the match, citing a 'physical breakdown.' 

Capablanca took real issue to Lasker's claims of ill-health and sensitivity to Cuban sunlight, even providing meteorological data to refute Lasker's claims of a hot sun in Havana at the time of the match. Capablanca pointed out that this was the first world championship to date in which not only did the defeated player not win a game but never even had a winning position — "a feat that I am very proud of," he wrote

The match was a fitting culmination to his decade-long ascent of world title chess — and in which, as Lasker himself conceded, Capablanca played at a level closely approaching perfection.