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José Raúl Capablanca

José Raúl Capablanca y Graupera (November 19, 1888 - March 8, 1942) was a Cuban world-class chess master in the early to mid twentieth century. He was World Champion, between 1921 and 1927.


Chess career

Early years

Referred to by many chess historians as the Mozart of chess, Capablanca, born in Havana, Cuba, was a chess prodigy, whose brilliance was noted at an early age.

He learned the rules of the game at the age of four by watching his father play. The story goes that he noticed his father make an illegal move with his knight, accused him of cheating, but then demonstrating what he had done. Then "Capa" proved he could even beat his father.

Capablanca was taken to the Havana Chess Club when he was five, where even the leading players found that queen odds was impossible.

At the age of 12, he defeated the Cuban national champion Juan Corzo by the score of 4 wins, 2 losses, and 6 draws.

Rapid rise

In 1909, Capablanca won a match against US Champion Frank Marshall crushing him by +8 -1 =14. Capablanca was just 20 years old at the time. Marshall was of a high enough caliber to have played a World Championship match just two years earlier.

In 1911, on the insistence of Marshall, Capablanca played in San Sebastian, Spain at one of the strongest tournaments in the world at that time — all the leading players in the world apart from the World Champion, Emmanuel Lasker, were there. Ossip Bernstein and Aron Nimzowitsch objected to his presence because he had not won a major tournament. Capablanca responded by winning the first round against Bernstein, which also won the brilliancy prize. After that, Bernstein was filled with new respect and told people that he wouldn't be surprised if this young man won the tournament. Nimzowitsch also made a disparaging remark about Capablanca when he commented on a Blitz chess game, and so they played a series of blitz games which Capablanca won easily. The masters conceded that Capablanca had no equal at fast chess. For good measure, Capablanca won the tournament game with Nimzo as well. Capablanca astounded the chess world by taking first place with a score of +6 -1 =7, ahead of Akiba Rubinstein, Carl Schlechter and Siegbert Tarrasch .

In 1911 Capablanca challenged Lasker for the world championship. Lasker agreed to the challenge but imposed 17 conditions for a future match. Capablanca disagreed with these conditions and the match did not take place.

In September 1913 Capablanca secured a job in the Cuban Foreign Office. He had no specific duties but to play chess. This enabled him to play a number of exhibition games with the best players in Europe, and Capablanca proved that he was a class above them.

In 1914 at a tournament in St. Petersburg Capablanca met Lasker over the chessboard for the first time. Capablanca took the lead by one and a half points in the preliminaries but lost to Lasker in the finals. Capablanca finished second to Lasker with a score of 13 points to Lasker's 13.5, but way ahead of third-placed Alexander Alekhine.

World Champion

In 1920, Lasker saw that Capablanca was becoming too strong, and resigned the title to him, saying "You have earned the title not by the formality of a challenge, but by your brilliant mastery." Capablanca wanted to win it in a match, but Lasker insisted that he was now the challenger. But the chess world didn't see it that way. So they played in Havana in 1921, Capablanca beat Lasker +4 -0 =10. This feat of winning the world title without loss of a game to the incumbent is unparallelled, except for Vladimir Kramnik's win over Garry Kasparov +2 -0 =14 in 2000.

As world champion, Capablanca overwhelmingly dominated in London 1922. At this time in the history of chess there was an increasing number of strong chess players and it was felt that the world champion should not be able to evade challenges to his title as has been done in the past. At this tournament, the greatest players of the time including Alekhine, Bogoljubov, Maroczy, Réti, Rubinstein, Tartakower and Vidmar, met to discuss rules for the conduct of future world championships. Amongst other things, one of the conditions, which was imposed by Capablanca, was that the challenger would have to raise at least ten thousand dollars for the prize money. In the following years, Rubinstein and Nimzowitsch challenged Capablanca but were unable to raise the necessary ten thousand dollars. Then came Alekhine's challenge backed by a group of Argentinian businessmen and the president of Argentina who guaranteed the funds.

As World Champion, Capablanca also underwent major changes in his personal life. In December 1921 he married Gloria Simoni Beautucourt. They had a son, Jose Raul in 1923 and a daughter, Gloria in 1925. But this marriage ended in divorce. Capablanca also lost both his parents.

Capablanca was second behind Lasker in New York 1924, and again way ahead of third-placed Alekhine. He was only third behind Efim Bogoljubov and Lasker in Moscow 1925. But he completely dominated the 6-player match tournament in New York 1927, not losing a game and 2.5 points ahead of Alekhine. This made Capablanca the prohibitive favorite for the match with Alekhine that year.

Losing the title

However, this match was Capablanca's undoing. In this match that cost him the championship, Capablanca tried to get Alekhine to annul the match at one point, when both players were locked in a series of draws. Alekhine refused, and eventually prevailed +6 -3 =25. Alekhine refused to play a return match although that was one of the conditions of the match. Instead he played two matches with Efim Bogoljubov who was not in the same league (Capablanca had a 5-0 record against him!). Alekhine even refused to play in the same tournaments as his old rival.


After Capablanca lost the title, he won a number of strong tournaments, and in 1931 defeated Max Euwe +2 -0 =8. Then he withdrew from serious chess, and played only less serious games at the Manhattan Chess club and simultaneous displays. Reuben Fine recalls that in this period he could fight on almost level terms with Alekhine at blitz chess, but Capablanca beat him "mercilessly" on the few times they played.

In 1934, Capablanca resumed serious play. He had found a new ladyfriend, Olga Chagodayev, whom he married in 1938, and she inspired him to play again. In 1935, Alekhine lost his title to Euwe. Capablanca had renewed hopes of regaining his title, and he won Moscow 1936, ahead of Botvinnik and Lasker. Then he tied with Botvinnik in the super-tournament of Nottingham 1936, ahead of Euwe, Lasker, Alekhine, and the leading young players. This was Capablanca's first game with Alekhine for the first time since the match, and he got his revenge. Their feud was still intense, so they were never seen seated together at the board for more than a few seconds. Each man made his move and then got up and walked round.

In 1937, Euwe, unlike Alekhine with respect to Capablanca, fulfilled his obligation to allow Alekhine a return match. Alekhine easily regained the title. After that there was no hope for Capablanca to regain his title, and Alekhine played no more world championship matches till the time of his death. The absolute control of the title by the title-holder was a major impetus for FIDE to take control of it, and try to ensure that the best challenger has a shot at the title.

Capablanca's health took a turn for the worse. He suffered a small stroke during the AVRO tournament of 1938, and had the worst result of his career, 7th out of 8. But he could still produce masterpieces and other flashes of strength. In the 1939 Chess Olympiad in Buenos Aires, he made the best score on top board for Cuba, ahead of Alekhine and Paul Keres.

On 7 March 1942, he was happily kibitzing a skittles game at Manhattan Chess Club in New York when he collapsed from a stroke. He was taken to Mount Sinai hospital, where he died the next morning. It was the same hospital that Emanuel Lasker had died in a year earlier.


Capablanca is still widely regarded as one of the greatest players ever. He is especially renowned for his quickness of judgement, freedom from making mistakes, endgame skill, and positional style. He is considered a "natural" player, spending very little time preparing for his tournament appearances. Instead he would start a tournament slowly and try to pick up new things from his rivals' game.

In his entire chess career, Capablanca suffered fewer than fifty losses in serious games. He was undefeated for eight consecutive years, from 1916 to 1923 inclusive, a 63-game non-losing streak. This includes the win of the world championship.

In fact, only Marshall, Lasker, Alekhine and Rudolf Spielmann won two or more serious games with the mature Capablanca, but their overall lifetime scores were minus (Capa beat Marshall +20 -2 =28, Lasker +6 -2 = 16, Alekhine +9 -7 =33), except for Spielmann who was level (+2 -2 =?). Of top players, only Keres had a narrow plus score against Capa (+1 -0 =5), but that win was when Capa was 50.

According to Jeff Sonas' Chessmetrics rating system, Capablanca had the highest all-time 1-year, 3-year, 5-year and 9-year peak ratings.[1]

His bitter rival Alekhine wrote on Capablanca's death, "With his death, we have lost a very great chess genius whose like we shall never see again."

Capablanca founded no school per se, but his style was very influential in the games of two world champions Bobby Fischer and Anatoly Karpov. Mikhail Botvinnik also wrote how much he learned from Capablanca, and even pointed out that Alekhine received much schooling from him in positional play, before their fight for the world title made them bitter enemies.

Botvinnik regarded Capablanca's book Chess Fundamentals was undoubtedly the best chess book ever written. In it, Capablanca pointed out that while the bishop was usually stronger than the knight, queen + knight was usually better than queen + bishop. Botvinnik credits Capablanca as the first with this insight.

Draw death and changing the rules?

Capablanca predicted that chess would in the near future die a death of draws, meaning that masters could, if they wanted to, draw every game. This has not yet come to pass, though it has come very close to it. For example, in the first championship match between Karpov and Kasparov, the latter, on the verge of defeat, was able to switch to a less aggressive strategy and produce such a long string of draws that the match had to be annulled, exactly the sort of situation that Capablanca deplored and predicted chess was going towards.

To change such a fate, Capablanca suggested a new variation on chess, called "Capablanca Chess", to be played on a 10x8 board. His idea was that the added pieces and board size would increase the complexity of chess and allow the strongest player more opportunity to turn the game in his favor. Note that he proposed this complicated variant while he was world champion.

Quotes about Capablanca

See also: List of notable chess players, List of chess world championship matches.

Writings of Jose Raul Capablanca

  • A Primer of Chess by Jose Raul Capablanca (Harvest Books, November 2002, ISBN 0156028077)
  • Chess Fundamentals by Jose Raul Capablanca (Everyman Chess, October 1994, ISBN 1857440730)
  • My Chess Career by Jose Raul Capablanca (Hardinge Simpole Limited, October 2003, ISBN 1843820919)
  • World's Championship Matches, 1921 and 1927 by Jose Raul Capablanca (Dover, June 1977, ISBN 0486231895)

Further reading

  • Grandmasters of Chess by Harold Schonberg, Lippincott, 1973. ISBN 0397010044
  • World chess champions by Edward G. Winter , editor. 19981 ISBN 0080249041
  • Capablanca's Best Chess Endings by Irving Chernev; Dover; February 1982. ISBN 0486242498
  • Capablanca's Hundred Best Games of Chess by Harry Golombek (London, Bell, 1947). Available on Batsford reprint; 1971. ISBN 1879479478
  • The Immortal Games of Capablanca by Fred Reinfeld (Dover Publications; Reprint edition, August 1, 1990. ISBN 0486263339
  • Unknown Capablanca by David Hooper & Dale Brandreth; Dover; July 1993. ISBN 0486276147
  • Twelve Great Chess Players and Their Best Games by Irving Chernev; Dover; August 1995. ISBN 0486286746
  • Capablanca: A Compendium of Games, Notes, Articles, Correspondence, Illustrations and Other Rare Archival Materials on the Cuban Chess Genius Jose Raul Capablanca, 1888-1942 by Edward Winter (McFarland & Company, 1989) ISBN 0899504558

External links

Preceded by:
Emanuel Lasker
World Chess Champion
Followed by:
Alexander Alekhine

Last updated: 05-07-2005 11:41:22
Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04