Retrobituaries: José Capablanca, World Chess Champion

Image credit: 
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.

More from mental_floss...

March 20, 2013 - 11:00am
submit to reddit