The third World Champion, Jose Raul Capablanca, snatched the crown from Emanuel Lasker in their 1921 championship match in Havana, Cuba. Lasker was arguably the toughest and grittiest of chess’ champions, and it took a man of absolute genius to finally end his reign of twenty-seven years.
Since his sensational first international appearance, the chess world knew that Capablanca’s rise to the throne was all a matter of time. He was dubbed “The Chess Machine,” much for his playing style that was distinctly simple, clear, accurate, and efficient.
Capablanca - The Prodigy of the Classical Age
Capablanca was born in Havana, Cuba on November 19, 1888, the son of a Spanish cavalry officer. His chess beginnings have come down to be quite apocryphal, although it was Capablanca himself who related them.
He revealed that he learned chess when he was about four just by watching his father play, and was soon good enough to point out his mistakes. One day his father made an illegal Knight-move that the opponent didn’t notice.
Capablanca told him about it after the game, and his father, surprised, chided him that he likely didn’t even know how to set the pieces yet. His childish pride stung, Capablanca responded with a challenge, which his father accepted. The elder Capablanca was soundly defeated, whereupon he was said to run the streets shouting that he had a chess prodigy for a son.
The elder Capablanca was elated at his son’s abilities and brought him to the Havana Chess Club. Chess was riding a wave of popularity in the 1890s in Cuba, an aftermath of the World Championship Match between Wilhelm Steinitz and Mikhail Chigorin held in Havana in 1889.
Capablanca never lacked for good opponents, and he developed rapidly that by 1901, at the age of twelve, he had risen to challenge Juan Corzo, Cuba’s national champion, to a match.
The match was a race to win four, and despite losing the first two games Capablanca rallied to win it 4-3. Although the encounter was for exhibition only, Capablanca took pride in his victory, especially that he was as yet untrained and hadn’t opened any chess book.
Capablanca’s first official national championship came four months later where he placed fourth, with Corzo winning. Notwithstanding the disappointing finish, he impressed a Cuban industrialist who saw a desirable future employee in him and agreed to sponsor his education in the United States.
Capablanca entered the University of Colombia in New York in 1906 to pursue chemical engineering.
In New York, Capablanca joined the famed Manhattan Chess Club and soon spent more time for chess than his studies. After about two years his patron terminated his sponsorship, and Capablanca dropped out of the university altogether in 1908 to concentrate solely on chess.
At the Manhattan Chess Club Capablanca developed a reputation as a fearsome and fast player. His natural feel and gift of intuition for the game had him excelling in rapid play where he would beat his opponents without giving considerable thought for his moves. In 1906, in fact, he had already defeated the World Champion Emanuel Lasker in such faster sort of chess.
At the Manhattan Chess Club Capablanca developed a reputation as a fearsome and fast player. His natural feel and gift of intuition for the game had him excelling in rapid play where he would beat his opponents without giving considerable thought to his moves. In 1906, in fact, he had already defeated the World Champion Emanuel Lasker in such a faster sort of chess.
Capablanca also distinguished himself in simultaneous exhibitions. In 1909, he embarked on an eight-week tour of the country and played over six hundred opponents, losing only thirteen games. This feat led to an arrangement of a match with the reigning American champion, Frank J. Marshall.
Marshall had been the United States’ best player since the turn of the new century. He was the country’s national champion since 1904, and that same year also won the great Cambridge Springs International Tournament. In 1907, he challenged Lasker for the World Championship but lost, 8-0.
Capablanca almost duplicated Lasker’s result, thrashing Marshall 8-1. Marshall was so impressed with the young Cuban that instead of resenting the loss, he set himself to endorse Capablanca for his international debut. Capablanca had so far only played in the American continent, and Marshall reckoned that talent as rare as Capablanca’s had to be unleashed unto to the chess world.
Marshall’s moment came in the great San Sebastian International Tournament of 1911. A tournament of the highest class, it invited all the four previous challengers to the world title in Marshall himself, Siegbert Tarrasch, Carl Schlechter, and David Janowski, and another outstanding upcoming talent in Akiba Rubinstein. Only Lasker was conspicuously missing.
The condition of the tournament was that every participant must have placed at least third in a master’s tournament, one which Capablanca did not meet. Marshall appealed Capablanca’s participation to the organizers, but two participants in Ossip Bernstein and Aron Nimzowitsch of Russia strongly objected. Fortunately, the organizers and all the participants eventually relented.
By mere chance Capablanca was paired with Bernstein in the first round. Pouncing on the opportunity to prove his detractors wrong, Capablanca beat Berstein in a brilliant game that earned the tournament’s brilliancy prize. He also later defeated Nimzowitsch and finished with six victories against a lone defeat in fourteen rounds to take first place.
Not since Harry Nelson Pillsbury won Hastings 1895 in his first international appearance had such spectacular achievement been seen. Even more incredible was the patented fashion that Capablanca won his games. Displaying quick positional understanding and marked preference for simple positions, he won with the utmost ease. Nobody seemed to make chess as easy as he did.
Capablanca was immediately regarded as a serious world title contender, and himself issued a challenge to Lasker. In the days when the world title was owned privately and the champion could freely refuse a challenge or impose terms at will, Lasker issued match conditions that Capablanca thought were severely one-sided.
He called Lasker’s condition of the challenger having to beat the champion by at least two points “obviously unfair,” a claim that caught Lasker’s ire and strained their relations thereafter. The match was shelved in the meantime.
The next great event Capablanca participated in is one of the most memorable of the twentieth century, the St. Petersburg Tournament of 1914. Lasker this time participated, along with the other top six players of the world. This marked the first time that Lasker and Capablanca were to confront each other under official tournament conditions.
Capablanca led Lasker by 1.5 points after the preliminary stage, a substantial gap for Lasker to surmount in the final stretch where only five of the eleven contestants remained. Lasker, however, caught fire, beating Capablanca in their individual game and edging him by half a point just by the end of the last round.
St. Petersburg remains as the most thrilling neck and neck race between the two great rivals and reminded everyone that the formidable lion in Lasker was still roaring. Taking the title from Lasker was not a foregone conclusion.
When World War I broke out in 1914 and put a halt to international chess, Capablanca studied and trained seriously. Until then, he had not applied himself to the game wholeheartedly, relying mainly on his natural talent to go as far as becoming a world championship contender.
Capablanca’s hard work paid dividends, and he emerged to run a stretch of eight immaculate years. He was undefeated from 1916 when he lost to Oscar Chajes, to 1924 when he lost to Richard Réti. His most significant achievement in this period was taking the world title from Lasker.
Ten years after their initial match negotiations and much bitter haggling, the world championship match between the two chess titans was finally arranged in Havana, Cuba, in 1921. It was set for twenty-four games, with the first to score eight wins or twelve and a half points declared winner. Capablanca led by four wins at the end of fourteen games, and Lasker, seeing the impossibility of overhauling a four-point deficit with ten games remaining, resigned the match. Capablanca had become the third World Champion, doing so without losing a single game in a world championship match.
The first challenging event to come Capablanca’s way as world champion was the London International tournament of 1922. Not that he had anything more to prove, but the first order for him was to consolidate his title and impose himself in a tough field where every top competitor was raring to defeat him. Capablanca did exactly that, scoring thirteen points in fifteen rounds on the strength of eleven wins, four draws, and no defeats.
The victory aside, London 1922 was also significant in that it allowed the participants to convene and agree on the terms covering the arrangement of future private world championship matches, including important considerations such as the privileges of both champion and challenger, the purse money, the number of games, and the time control.
This agreement, which has become known as the “London Rules,” was signed by Capablanca himself and all the other players who nursed ambitions for the world championship, namely Alexander Alekhine, Akiba Rubinstein, Efim Bogoljubov, Richard Reti, Savielly Tartakower, Geza Maroczy, and Milan Vidmar.
Capablanca would participate in three more historical events as world champion. These were New York 1924 where he placed second to Lasker, Moscow 1925 where he placed third behind Bogoljubov and Lasker, and New York 1927, which he won easily.
In 1927, Alexander Alekhine was able to fulfill the match terms agreed upon in the London Rules of 1922. With the help of the Argentinian Chess Federation, he was especially able to raise the $10,000 purse money set forth in the rules.
Capablanca was bound to accept the challenge, and the match was set in the sponsoring federation’s home city of Buenos Aires that same year. The federation endeavored to raise the purse to give Capablanca, a Latin Americano hero, another moment of glory, and to have him prove that even a front-running challenger like Alekhine was as yet out of his class.
Almost nobody gave Alekhine a chance. Both in London 1922 and the New York 1927, he placed a far second to Capablanca. Their lifetime score, moreover, was lopsided, as Alekhine had never won a game from the Cuban since they first met at St. Petersburg 1914.
If anything favored the challenger, however, it was his character that heavily contrasted that of the champion. Capablanca was always nonchalant, relying on nothing more than his natural abilities. He was supremely confident, never felt threatened by his rivals nipping at his heels, nor obliged himself to give more than token effort in preparing for his tournaments and matches. Alekhine, on the other hand, was as ambitious as a chess player could ever be. His desire to become world champion was all-consuming, and he had the matching drive and the limitless energy to fulfill it.
The match was for the first to score six wins, draws not counting, likewise in accordance with the London agreement. In what turned out to be one of the longest world championship matches in history, a record that would stand for close to fifty years, Alekhine beat Capablanca 6-3 after thirty-four games.
The unexpected in the reckoning of the chess world, and the impossible in the estimation of Capablanca, had come to happen. Capablanca relentlessly pursued a rematch thereafter, believing that Alekhine had only “borrowed” his title.
That rematch never materialized, and whether that was because Alekhine feared meeting Capablanca for a second time and purposely avoided him, or because Capablanca never met the conditions of the London Rules he himself endorsed especially as regards to the purse of the rematch, nothing now is certain.
What is only apparent is that Capablanca’s lightness about him and his almost frivolous approach to his chess affairs had come to burn him, and the consequences were too much for him to rectify.
Unable to secure a rematch, Capablanca retired from chess in 1931. Chess, however, was his life, and he was lured back for his final few performances.
He finished fourth in Hastings 1934, second at Margate 1935, and fourth at Moscow 1935. He showed flashes of his old self the following year when he won Moscow 1936, and shared first at Nottingham 1936. He placed second in Semmering 1937, but at the great AVRO 1938, he could only place seventh among eight participants.
His final event was the 1938 Buenos Aires Chess Olympiad where he played for Cuba. Fittingly, he gave the global gathering a last glimpse at his greatness, earning the gold medal for the best performance on the top board.
Capablanca was at the Manhattan club observing some games and chatting with friends when he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. He passed away the following day, March 8, 1941.
Capablanca came when the principles and theories laid down by Wilhelm Steinitz had been fully understood, and as their greatest exponent, he helped usher the golden age of classical chess. His games are the finest examples of play according to the classical tenets of grabbing equal space, developing rapidly, and positioning pieces optimally before embarking on an attack.
Even within that classical framework, Capablanca’s own unique, inimitable style evolved. It was one that always reflected deep strategy, impeccably calculated short tactics, deliberate elimination of risk and complexity, superb timing of exchanges, and magnificent endgame play. The clarity of his games and ideas came to be appreciated by future world champions Robert Fischer and Anatoly Karpov, and they built on them to develop their own personal styles.
Capablanca’s endgames, in particular, have come to grace many endgame textbooks. They are some of the most instructive in chess literature insofar as endgame play is concerned, and have helped countless players improve their mastery of this stage of the game.
No matter how his games have been examined and broken down into instructive endgame rules and guidelines, however, one gets struck once in a while that they really cannot be learned at all, for they are too sublime and could only be the work of a true chess genius.
- Corzo vs. Capablanca – A very young Capablanca executes a fine attack against Cuba’s national champion.
- Capablanca vs. Bernstein – Capablanca brilliantly finishes off Bernstein, who had vehemently opposed his inclusion in the great San Sebastian Tournament of 1911.
- Lasker vs. Capablanca – Capablanca’s wins in the finest style in the 1921 World Championship.
- Capablanca vs. Marshall – A defensive gem, Capablanca refutes the Marshall Attack at the first instance Marshall uncorks it against him.
- Capablanca vs. Spielmann – Capablanca sacrifices a Bishop to create a passed pawn that decides the game. A famous game that won Capablanca the Brilliancy Prize award at the New York 1927 International Chess Tournament.
Sources and suggested readings
- The Kings of Chess by William Hartston
- From Morphy To Fischer by Al Horowitz
- The Big Book of World Chess Championships by Andre Schultz
- Jose Raul Capablanca A Chess Biography by Miguel Sanchez
- Jose Raul Capablanca: The Third World Chess Champion by Isaak Linder
- Kings of the Chessboard by Paul Van der Sterren
- Improve Your Chess By Learning From the Champions by Lars Bo Hansen
- Masters of the Chessboard by Richard Reti
- Foundations of Chess Strategy by Lars Bo Hansen
- Wikipedia on Jose Raul Capablanca
- Wikipedia on Capablanca vs. Corzo, 1901
- Wikipedia on the San Sebastian International Chess Tournament of 1911
- Wikipedia on the St. Petersburg International Chess Tournament of 1914
- Wikipedia on The World Chess Championship Match of 1921
- Wikipedia on the New York International Chess Tournament of 1927
- Wikipedia on The World Championship match of 1927