Our Superman in Havana

The great man of letters was better at holding a debate than his drink

Dominic Lawson

In the course of chess history there have been a few special events in which a remarkable new talent announces itself to the world. We might describe this as the calling-card of genius. No tournament more aptly fits this accolade then the one held in the Spanish seaside town of San Sebastiàn 100 years ago: for the genius in this case was the most naturally gifted player ever to have been born: José Raúl Capablanca.

It was in the spring of 1911 that 15 of the world’s strongest players were invited: by far the youngest was the 22-year-old Cuban, Capablanca, who had never before travelled to Europe. One of the participants, the Russian Ossip Bernstein, complained to the organisers that the Cuban had not earned the right to take part. And who should Bernstein be drawn to play against in the first of the 14 rounds? Capablanca. 

This is what happened, with the Cuban playing White. 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6 4.0-0 Be7 5.Nc3 d6 6.Bxc6+ bxc6 7.d4 exd4 8.Nxd4 Bd7 9.Bg5 0-0 10.Re1 h6 11.Bh4 Nh7 12.Bxe7 Qxe7 13.Qd3 Rab8 14.b3 Ng5 15.Rad1 Qe5 16.Qe3 Ne6 17.Nce2 Qa5 18.Nf5 Nc5 19.Ned4 Kh7 20.g4 Rbe8 21.f3 Ne6 22.Ne2!? (Capablanca fearlessly invites Bernstein to wreak havoc on his Q-side, judging intuitively that his own K-side attack will justify the sacrifice of two pawns) Qxa2 23.Neg3 Qxc2 24.Rc1 Qb2 25.Nh5 Rh8 26.Re2 Qe5 27.f4 Qb5 28.Nxg7!! (Shattering Bernstein’s apparently solid defences: after 28…Nxg7 29.Nf6+ Kg6 30.Nxd7 and if then 30…Rd8 31.f5+ Kh7 32.Nf6 is mate) Nc5 29.Nxe8 Bxe8 30.Qc3 f6 31.Nxf6+ Kg6 32.Nh5 Rg8 33.f5+ Kg5 34.Qe3+ and Bernstein resigned, not wishing to endure the execution: 34…Kh4 35.Qg3+ Kg5 36.h4 checkmate.

This was not the only revenge Capablanca exacted on Europeans who slighted him during the event. As he recorded: “Nimzovitch, who considered himself very superior to me and others in the tournament, became very arrogant during the course of one of his lightning games against Bernstein, saying, because of a remark that I made, that I should not interfere in their game, as they were reputed masters, and I had not yet become one. The outcome of this discourteous remark was a series of quick games for a side bet, which I won with ridiculous ease, and ended by his retracting his previous statement. Many more games were played, until all the masters agreed that I had no equal at this kind of chess.”

This might seem almost comically conceited of Capablanca himself-but he was speaking nothing less than the truth: he really did have no equal. He learned the moves shortly after his fourth birthday, just by watching a single game played by his father, a cavalry lieutenant. This four-year-old soldier’s son had already become fascinated by armies, and somehow also had a mind instantly attracted by the military symbolism of chess. The truly astonishing thing was that the four-year-old could also play well enough to beat his father in their very first game. The boy was then taken by his amazed parents to “a brain specialist”: Capablanca recalled that “this bespectacled and bewhiskered individual, after making an examination, announced in oracular manner that I was possessed of mental powers unusual for a boy of my age, and advised that I should be prohibited from playing chess.”

Four years passed before Capablanca’s father allowed him to play again, and it is clear that the family wanted him to have a normal life. It was only while he was at Columbia University reading engineering and chemistry that he abandoned his studies to concentrate on chess, at which point his financial support was withdrawn. A few months later Capablanca turned up in Spain to lay waste to the might of European chess, winning the first prize of 5,000 francs, thus proving a point to his family as well as his disrespectful rivals. 

The chess theorist Richard Réti, who played Capablanca on eight occasions, observed that he was unique in that chess was “his mother tongue”: for him visualising chess moves was as simple as it is for the rest of us to speak. Capablanca was not averse to pointing this out himself. In an interview in 1939 he said: “I recall that during the 1925 Moscow tournament…various famous chess players had been studying a particular position for three hours, without being able to reach a conclusion. I was passing by at that moment and they asked me my opinion. I was not in doubt for a single second, and I told them: ‘This is won; and it is won like this, and this.’ And I was not mistaken.” 

Capablanca also claimed to have attained “perfection in reasoning”. It was probably this serene faith in his own unique genius which lost Capablanca the crown of world chess champion in his first defence of the title in 1927. His challenger, Alexander Alekhine, had never taken so much as a single win from Capablanca during their 12 previous encounters. The ferociously hardworking Russian prepared for the match in obsessive detail, analysing every game his rival had played, searching for the weaknesses that no one else could see. The complacent Capablanca was caught unawares, and to universal astonishment lost the gruelling, two-and-a-half-month-long encounter.

For the rest of his life, Capablanca fought to secure a rematch with Alekhine, but in those days the world title was essentially the personal possession of the champion, and the Russian skilfully evaded every attempt to organise one. The strain of such an event might in any case have been too much for Capablanca; though pure chess calculation itself was absurdly easy for him, he suffered increasingly from hypertension. In 1942 at the age of 53 he suffered a fatal cerebral haemorrhage while observing a friendly game at the Manhattan Chess Club.

It might seem strange that he had been casually watching ordinary mortals play — shouldn’t it have been the other way around? Part of the answer to this question is provided by the memoir of his widow Olga. She described how during the Buenos Aires Olympiad of 1939, “A few chess players…begged me to ask Capa why he didn’t pay more attention to chess. I promised to do my best. That evening Capa and I had dinner alone…he was in one of his best moods…only then did I venture the question: ‘The players would like to know why you don’t pay more attention to chess.’ Instead of cutting me short, as I half-expected, Capa smiled. ‘You, too, would like to know?’ As I nodded, he said slowly and clearly: ‘Because if I did, there would be nothing left for them.'”

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