World Chess Champion 1921-1927
“I have known many chess players, but only one chess genius: Capablanca.”
- Emanuel Lasker, World Chess Champion 1894-1921
An exciting event is currently underway in the world of chess – the World Chess Championship. Pitted against one another are current champion Viswanathan Anand of India and the young Magnus Carlsen of Norway. The 22-year-old Carlsen, a natural at the game of chess, currently holds a two game, 4.5 – 2.5 lead against the experienced veteran Anand through eight games in a championship match that for many signals a change of the guard in the world of chess. Although the illustrious Anand has held the crown since 2007 and has defended it against multiple challengers, Carlsen has been ranked No. 1 since January 2010. Carlsen, who currently leads by two games (with only five games remaining), stands poised to capture the last accomplishment still missing from his impressive resume – the title of World Chess Champion. Widely seen as the best player in chess over the last few years, the Norwegian seems poised to capture the crown.
But another important date in the history of chess is approaching. November 19th marks the birth of one of the greatest players the game of chess has ever had – the great Cuban champion Jose Raul Capablanca. Carlsen’s seemingly unstoppable march to the world chess championship seems especially fitting near the birthday of one of chess’ greatest players when we consider the number of times that the young Carlsen has been compared to Capablanca and some of the other chess greats.
When we think of great chess champions we often think of Bobby Fischer and the many great Soviet chess players – Karpov, Botvinnik, Tal, and Kasparov. But in that great pantheon of chess kings stands a man born in the island of Cuba – one of the greatest chess players ever to play the game. Born in Havana on November 19th, 1888, Jose Raul Capablanca was the second son of a Spanish army officer stationed on the island. At a young age Capablanca learned how to play chess by watching his father. It was said that at age four Capablanca pointed out an illegal move his father had made and proceeded to defeat him twice on the chessboard. At age eight he began to play chess at the Havana Chess Club where he further developed his skills in the game. A child prodigy, Capablanca continued his meteoric rise when in 1901 at age 12 he narrowly defeated Cuban champion Juan Corzo in a match in Havana.
In 1905 he passed the entrance exam for Columbia University and eventually moved to New York to study chemical engineering. It was in New York, playing in the Manhattan Chess Club were he was exposed to some of the great American and European chess players. He began to play in tournaments and in 1909 he even played U.S. champion Frank Marshall, the man who had unsuccessfully challenged the then-world champion Emanuel Lasker only a year earlier. He won 8 wins to 1.
Eventually the amazing results of Capablanca in strong tournaments like San Sebastian (1911) propelled him into the conversation as a contender for the world championship. He challenged then-champion Emanuel Lasker, the great German master, but due to difficulties in coming to an agreement on the terms of the match, a match was not arranged. A challenge was further postponed with the start of the First World War. Meanwhile, Capablanca began to dominate the chess world – winning the New York 1913 tournament and dominating in others.
Finally in 1921, after years of waiting for a shot against Lasker, Capablanca was given his chance to fight for the crown. The match was held in Havana. By 1921, Capablanca had become a giant in the world of chess and had not lost a match in serious play since 1916. It was in Havana where the Cuban won four games to Lasker’s none and became only the third world chess champion since the World Chess Championship started in 1886. It was during this time that Capablanca came to be known as the “human chess machine” for his exceptional and masterful skill at the chessboard. Between 1916 and 1924, Capablanca did not lose a single chess game. He played and bested many of the then-greatest figures of the chess world – Rubinstein, Nimzowitsch, Tarkower, Marshall, and others. Many began to think that Capablanca was unbeatable at the chessboard. It was only during the 1924 New York tournament that Richard Reti shocked the world and finally defeated Capablanca in a masterful game, concluding the Cuban’s streak of undefeated tournament play.
Capablanca, far right, next to Akiba Rubinstein, center (1914).
Capablanca gained an aura of invincibility during his reign as world chess champion and was especially known for his patient positional play, mastery at blitz games, and unmatched endgame play. During the years between 1911 and well into the 1920s, Capablanca had few, if any, rivals at the chessboard. But challengers did arise. One of Capablanca’s most bitter rivals was a man by the name of Alexander Alekhine. Although Alekhine had never defeated Capablanca in the many matches the two had waged on the chessboard, the Russian player had registered strong showings at several chess tournaments and secured second place in the New York 1927 Tournament, giving him the opportunity to challenge Capablanca to a match for the world championship in Buenos Aires.
The chess match between Capablanca and Alekhine was expected to be an easy victory for the seasoned and seemingly invincible Capablanca. The first to win six games would hold the title of world champion. However, in a long and arduous battle of attrition between the two chess greats lasting 34 games, it was Alekhine who shocked the chess world and pulled off an upset, winning 6-3 over Capablanca. Alekhine had come prepared and had endlessly studied Capablanca’s games in an attempt to win the match. His endless preparation paid off in the improbable victory.
After the loss of the world championship, Capablanca continued to play chess at a high level. After the upset, he played even better in the hopes of earning the chance of challenging Alekhine for a rematch and a chance to regain the title. He won first place at Hastings in 1929 and New York in 1931. But Alekhine would not grant Capablanca a rematch – some say the Russian feared a rematch against the reinvigorated Capablanca. As a result, Capablanca retired from chess, disillusioned by the inability to regain his title.
In 1934, Capablanca met Olga Chagodaeva, who would become his second wife and fell deeply in love. She encouraged Capablanca to return to chess. Full of new energy and resolve, Capablanca decided he would make a return to the world of chess. At Moscow (1936) and Nottingham (1936) Capablanca returned to the top of the chess world and defeated the field of strong players to win first place in both tournaments. It was at Nottingham where he finally faced his old rival Alekhine – the man who had denied him a rematch for the title. In a brilliant game reminiscent of his old days, Capablanca earned his redemption and defeated Alekhine.
Alekhine still never granted Capablanca the rematch that many thought he deserved. Eventually, old age and declining health caught up on the old Cuban champion. At the AVRO tournament in the Netherlands in 1938, his high blood pressure led him to an eighth place finish. Although he competed and finished well in other tournaments – it was clear by that time that his greatest days were behind him.
On March 7, 1942, Capablanca was observing a chess game and chatting with friends at the Manhattan Chess Club in New York, when he asked for help removing his coat, and collapsed shortly afterward. He suffered a stroke and was taken to Mount Sinai, where he died the next morning. The chess world mourned his death and even his bitter rival Alekhine wrote in a tribute to Capablanca: “… Capablanca was snatched from the chess world much too soon. With his death, we have lost a very great chess genius whose like we shall never see again.”
As we watch the current bout in the world chess championship between Viswanathan Anand and Magnus Carlsen and enjoy watching the meteoric rise of what seems to be yet another great chess champion in the young Carlsen – let us remember the man who the young Carlsen is so often compared to – Jose Raul Capablanca, the “Human Chess Machine.”