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Wikimedia Commons

José Capablanca, World Chess Champion

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Born in Havana in 1888, former world chess champion José Capablanca is generally considered to be one of the top five players of all time. Such subsequent champions as Anatoly Karpov and Bobby Fischer were very influenced by Capablanca’s endgame techniques and the general lucidity of his play. During his career, the Cuban master also wrote Chess Fundamentals (available at Project Gutenberg), a touchstone book on the subject. Here are a few things you might not have known about chess grandmaster José Capablanca. 

He was a four-year-old prodigy.

Capablanca learned to play chess by watching his father, José Maria, play. At the age of four, while observing a series of games between his father and General Lono (both officers of the Spanish Army), the young boy noticed something strange: 

“During the second game that my father played, I noticed that he had moved one of his Knights not in the prescribed way—a move that was overlooked by his opponent. I maintained a dutiful silence till the close of the game, when I called my father’s attention to what he had done. At first he was inclined to dismiss my statement with characteristic tolerance of a father who hears something foolish issue from the mouth of his offspring. My earnest protestations, arising from the exultation of having acquired some new and interesting knowledge, and the doubtful look of his opponent, caused him to believe that he might, after all, have been guilty of deceiving the other player. He knew, however, that I had never seen a game of chess before, and he felt safe in informing very politely that he doubted very much whether I knew anything of what I was saying. My reply was to challenge him to a game of chess.”

Guess who won the next game. 

He was a college dropout.

You don’t often hear the phrase “chess millionaire,” so in 1906, Capablanca enrolled at Columbia University to study chemical engineering. The same year, he also joined the famed Manhattan Chess Club, where he was almost immediately recognized as the best player. He never became a chemical engineer.

He invented two new chess pieces.

Not a few grandmasters have complained about the soul-grinding requirement of memorizing thousands of openings in order to compete at the highest levels of chess. Garry Kasparov has pushed for computer supplements for players. Bobby Fischer invented a variation of random chess that has become known as “Fischerandom Chess” (sometimes called Chess960, because of the nine hundred sixty possible starting positions of pieces). Capablanca was a little more inventive. He proposed a new chessboard of 10-squares-by-8, with the introduction of two new pieces to the game: The archbishop, which can move as either a bishop or a knight, and the chancellor, which can move as either the rook or a knight.

He was fast. Really fast.

In 1907, Capablanca gave an exhibition at the Manhattan Chess Club, playing 22 boards at once, and winning all of them in under two hours. In his prime, Capablanca was considered to be the fastest chess player in the world. 

He took the title in 1921.

Capablanca first challenged reigning world chess champion Lasker for the title in 1911. Lasker agreed, provided Capablanca accepted a 17-point-list of conditions that favored the champ, including a limitation on the number of games that might be played. (Such a thing really isn’t all that unusual for world championship matches.) Neither side ever came to an agreement on the terms of the match, and it would be another decade before they finally met over the chessboard. "I hope the match will come,” Capablanca said a year before they played. “The sooner the better, as I don't want to play an old man, but a master in the plenitude of his powers."

Before the game could take place, Lasker resigned as world chess champion, leaving the title to Capablanca as default. Nobody was happy with that turn of events, and so Cubans raised $25,000 to entice Lasker into playing Capablanca in Havana. He agreed and Capablanca won decisively.

(It’s worth noting that poor Lasker had a lot on his plate at the time. He was financially ruined because of World War I. His travel plans were disrupted by the U.S. State Department, which denied him entry, forcing him to fly direct from Amsterdam. And he was in generally poor health; the sweltering Havana air wasn’t doing him any favors.)

He was undefeated for eight years...
From 1916 to 1924, Capablanca didn’t lose a single tournament game. This is all the more astonishing when you consider that during this time, he had to maintain the right to play for the world championship, take the title, and defend it. Until then, no one had ever won a world championship match (which can last dozens of games) without a single loss. The feat wouldn’t be repeated until 2000, when Vladimir Kramnik beat Garry Kasparov.

...but he was okay with losing (in principle).

During an impromptu lecture in 1932 to Cuba’s Club de Comunicaciones de Prado, Capablanca said, “Many players sometimes become annoyed because they lose, but one learns more by losing than by winning. When winning a player thinks he is doing very well and he does not realize the mistakes he is making; but when he loses he appreciates that somewhere he was mistaken and he attempts not to make the same errors in the future.” 

He eventually lost the title to Alexander Alekhine.

Nobody expected Alexander Alekhine to beat José Capablanca. The champ had never lost to Alakhine in regular play. So when the match went down in Buenos Aires, you can bet that a lot of people lost money when Alekhine came out on top, with six wins, three losses, and 25 draws. (As mentioned above, these matches can go on for quite some time.)

José Capablanca died while watching a chess game.

In 1942, José Capablanca collapsed while watching a casual game at the Manhattan Chess Club, and died the next morning. The cause of death was a cerebral hemorrhage. In 1962, Ché Guevara founded the Capablanca Memorial chess tournament, an annual event honoring Cuba’s greatest chess master.

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Courtesy Daniel Guggisberg ©, used with permission.
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Retrobituaries
Caroline Weldon, 19th Century Indigenous Rights Advocate and Sitting Bull's Secretary
The only known photograph of Caroline Weldon (seated), taken in 1915 with her friend Aline Estoppey
The only known photograph of Caroline Weldon (seated), taken in 1915 with her friend Aline Estoppey
Courtesy Daniel Guggisberg ©, used with permission.

It was December 15, 1890 and Sitting Bull was dead. The Indian police who had shot and killed him earlier that day were tearing through his cabins when they found two of the chief's wives and several other women hiding his son under a mattress, a portrait of the dead Hunkpapa Lakota leader hanging on the wall. Though they had been ordered not to touch anything, one of the policemen tore the painting down, using his rifle to smash the frame and his fist to punch a hole in the canvas. Lieutenant Matthew F. Steele, a cavalry member among those sent to assist the policemen, wrestled the painting—done, he later recalled, by a "Mrs. Weldon, a woman from the East"—away before it could be destroyed completely. Steele bought the painting from Sitting Bull's wives for $2 and kept it for six decades, donating it to the State Historical Society of North Dakota in 1953.

But who was the “Mrs. Weldon” who had journeyed all the way from the East to the Standing Rock Reservation to paint it? As in Steele's recollection, she is often a footnote to history—treated like a passing phantom when mentioned at all. Yet Caroline Weldon is worth remembering as an activist who set out alone to try and help Sitting Bull and his people. While her story as a white woman attempting to guide indigenous affairs is not uncomplicated, what she did was rare both in terms of 19th century activism and for a single woman in the Victorian era. Her courage is reflected in the nickname the Sioux gave her: “Woman Walking Ahead."

Sitting Bull, 1881
Sitting Bull, 1881
O.S. Goff/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The woman who would become Caroline Weldon was born Susanna Karolina Faesch in a suburb of Basel, Switzerland, in 1844. Her parents divorced when she was almost 5 years old, and she arrived in the United States with her mother in the 1850s. She grew up in Brooklyn, where she eventually married a fellow Swiss named Claudius Bernhard Schlatter. It was an unhappy marriage—at one point she left him for another man—and they divorced in 1883.

As she "struggled to endure her loveless marriage," Eileen Pollack writes in her book Woman Walking Ahead, the budding activist immersed herself in reading about the news of the West, particularly Sitting Bull’s leadership of the Sioux in Standing Rock. After her divorce, she joined the National Indian Defense Association (NIDA), formed by activist Dr. Thomas Bland with his wife Cora in response to the controversial Dawes Act. The act, passed in 1887, broke up indigenous land into individual allotments—often seen as a key step in the federal government's forced assimilation of Native Americans. It was sometime in the 1880s, according to researcher Daniel Guggisberg, that she also invented a new name for herself: Caroline Weldon. By then, she'd also had a son, named Christie, out of wedlock.

In 1889, accompanied only by Christie, Weldon left Brooklyn and went west to offer her support of Sitting Bull’s opposition to the Dawes Act in person. Although Sitting Bull had been well-known as a commander at the 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn, by the 1880s, aside from a stint with Buffalo Bill's Wild West show, his life was confined to the Standing Rock reservation. When Weldon arrived in June of 1889, he was suffering from a near-fatal bout of pneumonia.

For several months after arriving at Standing Rock, Weldon acted as Sitting Bull’s secretary. She also painted four portraits of him, and offered financial support to him and his family, drawing on a small inheritance from her mother. Weldon would later describe her impression of Sitting Bull: "As a friend […] sincere and true, as a patriot devoted and incorruptible. As a husband and father, affectionate and considerate. As a host, courteous and hospitable to the last degree.”

And while Sitting Bull seems to have appreciated her actions, not everyone did. Indian Agent James McLaughlin—one of the individuals authorized to interact with Native American tribes on behalf of the U.S. government, and who would order Sitting Bull’s fatal arrest—openly detested Weldon for her meddling. The press was also unkind, calling her “Sitting Bull’s white squaw.” One 1889 headline in the Bismarck Weekly Tribune crowed: "A New Jersey Widow Falls Victim to Sitting Bull's Charms.”

But any cooperation between Weldon and Sitting Bull would be interrupted by the dawn of the Ghost Dance in the Dakotas. The movement was sparked by a Paiute man named Wovoka, who prophesied in 1889 that the circular dance would help return the dead to the land of the living, where they would fight and force the white people off the land they'd stolen before uniting the indigenous people in peace. At a time when the Dawes Act was dividing ancestral land, and after decades of federal genocide, the Ghost Dance quickly became a phenomenon.

Weldon correctly assessed that Sitting Bull’s participation in the Ghost Dance would be used to arrest or kill him; she incorrectly perceived the spread of the dance as a Mormon plot. (The Mormons had been active in attempting to convert indigenous people as they moved into western land in the 1800s.) The growing tension around Weldon’s advocacy against the dance eventually led to her expulsion from the reservation.

She pled in a letter addressed to "My Dakotas": "Your dead friends will not come back to you. Save your money and take care of the living.” According to Ian Frazier in his 1989 book Great Plains, Sitting Bull tried proposing marriage to her—an attempt she rebuffed. She "finally left Sitting Bull's camp in disgust," and Sitting Bull drove her to the nearby town of Cannonball in his wagon.

The final years of Weldon's life were bleak. Only a month before Sitting Bull was killed on December 15, 1890, her son died of an infection. After spending some time in Kansas City, she came home to Brooklyn, falling into obscurity as the years went on. One night in 1921, a candle caught her apartment on fire, and she died on March 15 from her burns. Today, she’s buried in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, near an obelisk marked Valentiny, her stepfather’s name.

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Retrobituaries
Christine Granville, World War II Special Agent
Christine Granville circa 1950
Christine Granville circa 1950
Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Allies’ success in World War II owes a great debt to the women who outfoxed, out-shot, and outran their male counterparts across the globe. Perhaps most intriguing of these women, although little-known today, is Christine Granville, the Polish-born daughter of a ne’er-do-well count and a Jewish mother, whose real-life romantic entanglements, fearless sorties, and close escapes are enough for reams of dramatic stories.

Born Krystyna Skarbek in Warsaw in 1908 to an aristocratic, but broke, family of Polish nobility on her father’s side and a successful, but socially limited, Jewish banking family on her mother’s side, Christine, as she later came to be known, seemed destined to be able to handle whatever situation life threw at her. Likeable, beautiful, and driven by a strong sense of fun, she used her resources before the war to become an expert equestrian, a top-notch skier, and even a national beauty queen.

But her ancestry meant she would never quite fit in. According to Clare Mulley, the author of a biography about Granville called The Spy Who Loved, it would be this outsider foundation that later drove Granville to accomplish great things. As Mulley explained to Mental Floss, “although beautiful and well-connected, her mother had been born Jewish, and Christine was never fully accepted in the higher echelons of Polish society.”

The Nazi invasion of Poland in the fall of 1939 was, of course, a game-changer. Trapped in London with her diplomat husband, Jerzy Giżycki, and desperate to help the war effort in any way she could, Granville found a contact in the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) and pressed herself into service. She became Britain's first—and longest-serving—female special agent during World War II. Her facility for languages, her intelligence, and her calm under pressure all proved to be great assets in her espionage work, as she made her way in and out of Nazi-held territories. Even her long-time interest in skiing proved useful, allowing her to sneak into war-torn Poland by traversing the mountains just ahead of enemy soldiers.

Along the way there would be close calls, romantic intrigues, and triumphs that would become the stuff of spy novels. These included her escape from a Gestapo interrogation by faking a case of tuberculosis: Spies had been informed that Germans were terrified of catching the contagious disease, so Granville simply manufactured some symptoms during her detention by biting her tongue until it bled and then “coughing up” blood in the presence of her captors. Afraid to have someone in her condition in their custody, she was promptly let go and returned to her spying duties.

According to Mulley, Christine had one particularly impressive feat among her many accomplishments. “Christine became legendary within SOE [Britain's Special Operations Executive] for her single-handed rescue of three fellow agents from Gestapo prison, just hours before they were due to be shot in July 1944. One of the men was her lover, Francis Cammaerts, the leader of SOE in the south west of France, who went on to help coordinate French resistance support for the Allied troops arriving to liberate occupied France from the south.”

Active in no less than three theaters of war, Granville survived six years of dangerous fieldwork in an occupation where the average life span was six weeks. As a reward, she was decorated by both Britain and France. Sadly, however, her story ends with a twist that would put even writers like John le Carré to shame. She was killed by a man whose romantic overtures she spurned. As Mulley explains, “Christine met her untimely end in a south London hotel in 1952. Her murderer claimed that ‘to kill is the final possession.’ He was wrong. Nobody possessed Christine, not her father, not either of her husbands, and none of her many lovers. If anything, she was possessed by her drive for freedom.”

Her legacy, even if little-known and under-sung, endures. Thought to have inspired at least two of James Bond author Ian Fleming’s characters (the author never met her, but he may have heard of her exploits through his own MI5 contacts), Granville remains a figure who deserves further exploration. Mulley argues that she deserves more than the sensationalist treatment of paperbacks and action movies, adding that “her legacy lies in her inspirational example of a Pole fighting for Britain and her countries’ allies, and as a woman serving so effectively behind enemy lines. All too often women in the resistance are presented in romantic terms, as brave and beautiful. Christine had both these qualities, but she also made a hugely significant contribution to the Allied war effort."

A version of this article originally ran in 2016.

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