José Raúl Capablanca y Graupera (November 19, 1888 – March 8, 1942) was a Cuban chess player who was world chess champion from 1921 to 1927. He is often referred to as a candidate for the greatest chess player of all time.
According to Capablanca, he learned the rules of the game at the age of four by watching his father play. He said he noticed his father make an illegal move with his knight, accused him of cheating, and then demonstrated what he had done. Capablanca was taken to the Havana Chess Club when he was four. He was given queen odds and defeated a leading player, but his level of play was astonishing for a four year old, even given the queen odds. In December 1901, just turned 13, he defeated the leading Cuban player, Juan Corzo, by the score of four wins, three losses, and six draws. But later in April 1902 he only came fourth in the National Championship. Capablanca later began a semester as an undergraduate student of chemical engineering at Columbia University in New York City, but did not complete it, and chess became his profession.
Capablanca won the New York State Championship in 1910. Then, in a tournament at New York 1911, Capablanca placed second, with 9½/12, half a point behind Marshall, and half a point ahead of Charles Jaffe and Oscar Chajes. Marshall insisted that Capablanca should be allowed to play in a tournament at San Sebastián, Spain in 1911. It was one of the strongest tournaments of the time. All of the world's leading players except world champion Emanuel Lasker were in attendance. At the beginning of the tournament Ossip Bernstein and Aron Nimzowitsch objected to Capablanca's presence because he had not won a major tournament. But after Capablanca won his first round game against Bernstein, capturing the tournament's brilliancy prize, Bernstein quickly acknowledged Capablanca's talent and said that he would not be surprised if Capablanca won the tournament. Nimzowitsch took offense when Capablanca made a comment while watching one of his blitz games, and remarked that unproven players should hold their tongue in the presence of their betters. Capablanca quickly challenged Nimzowitsch to a series of fast games, which he won "with ridiculous ease." The assembled masters soon concluded that Capablanca had no equal at fast chess, a distinction which was to remain his until virtually the end of his life. Capablanca went on to win his tournament game with Nimzowitsch as well, using an opening setup much admired by Mikhail Botvinnik. By tournament's end, Capablanca had astounded the chess world by taking first place at San Sebastián, with a score of +6 -1 =7, ahead of Akiba Rubinstein, Carl Schlechter and Siegbert Tarrasch. The one game he lost was against Rubinstein, one of the most brilliant chess creations of the latter's career.
In 1911, Capablanca challenged Emanuel Lasker for the world championship. Lasker accepted his challenge but proposed seventeen conditions for the match. Capablanca disapproved of some of the conditions and the match did not take place. Capablanca won the New York National tournament of 1912 with 11/13, half a point ahead of Marshall.
In 1913, Capablanca played in his hometown of Havana where he came in second to Frank Marshall, with 10/14. He lost one of their individual games after having a much better position. Reuben Fine claimed that Capablanca had the mayor clear all the spectators so they would not see him resign, and this story has uncritically circulated in books and around the Internet. However, Winter documents that Fine's story has no basis whatsoever. Instead, there were 600 spectators present, who naturally favored their native hero, but sportingly gave Marshall "thunderous applause". Marshall's own notes corroborated this—when he heard the roar, he thought that the crowd was going to kill him, and he asked for security escort "and quickly rushed over to my hotel. Afterwards I was told they were cheering for me.
Then Capablanca scored +13 -0 =0 in a 1913 tournament in New York (Rice), although Oldrich Duras was the only International Grandmaster class opponent; IM-strength players Oscar Chajes and Abraham Kupchik also played. This was one of only a handful of perfect scores ever in high-level chess tournaments. Capablanca was again perfect in a second tournament at Havana 1913 with 9/9.
In September 1913, Capablanca secured a job in the Cuban Foreign Office. He appears not to have had any specific duties other than playing chess, but what he had he was reported to have carried out conscientiously. For many years, he was the most famous Cuban alive.
In October 1913 to March 1914 Capablanca traveled to Europe on his way to the Consulate at St Petersburg to play matches or exhibition games against their leading masters. In serious games, he scored nineteen wins, four draws, and one loss during that period. First, he defeated Jacques Mieses and Richard Teichmann in Berlin. Then in St. Petersburg, he played a six-game series, two games against Alexander Alekhine, Eugene Znosko-Borovsky and Fyodor Dus-Chotimirsky, losing once to Znosko-Borovsky and winning the rest—his first encounters with Alekhine, who was outclassed;, next he beat Nimzowitsch in an elegant opposite colored bishops endgame in Riga. In 1914, he beat Bernstein in Moscow in a game listed in many anthologies as a brilliancy for winning move 29...Qb2!! and for the new strategy with hanging pawns. In Kiev, he won among others against Fedor Bogatyrchuk. Then in Vienna he won one game from Richard Réti and defeated Savielly Tartakower 1½-½. Capablanca also gave many simultaneous exhibitions noted for their speed and very high winning scores.
At the great 1914 tournament in St. Petersburg, with most of the world's leading players (except those of the Austro-Hungarian empire), Capablanca met the great Emanuel Lasker across the chessboard for the first time in normal tournament play (Capablanca had won a knock-out lightning chess final game in 1906, leading to a famous joint endgame composition). Capablanca took the large lead of one and a half points in the preliminary rounds, and made Lasker fight hard to draw. He again won the first brilliancy prize against Bernstein and had some highly regarded wins against David Janowsky, Nimzowitsch, and Alekhine.
However, Capablanca fell victim to a comeback by Lasker in the second stage of the tournament, including a famous victory by Lasker. Capablanca finished second to Emanuel Lasker with a score of 13 points to Lasker's 13½, but far ahead of third-placed Alexander Alekhine. After this tournament, Tsar Nicholas II proclaimed the five prize-winners (Lasker, Capablanca, Alekhine, Tarrasch, Marshall) as "Grandmasters of Chess".
In short, Capablanca was unrivaled as a fast chess player, even by the very best players of his own time (and perhaps of later times as well).
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. They played a match in Havana in 1921, and Capablanca defeated Lasker +4 -0 =10. This feat of winning the world title without losing a game to the incumbent went unequaled for almost eight decades, until Vladimir Kramnik's win over Garry Kasparov +2 -0 =13 in 2000.
The new world champion, Capablanca dominated the field at London, 1922, with 13/15, ahead of Alexander Alekhine (11½), Milan Vidmar (11), and Akiba Rubinstein (10½). 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 had been done in the past. At this tournament, some of the leading players of the time, including Alexander Alekhine, Efim Bogoljubov, Geza Maroczy, Richard Reti, Akiba Rubinstein, Savielly Tartakower and Milan Vidmar, met to discuss rules for the conduct of future world championships. Amongst other things, one of the conditions proposed by Capablanca was that the challenger would have to raise at least ten thousand dollars for the prize money. These were the so-called 'London Rules'. That same year, Capablanca gave a simultaneous exhibition against 103 opponents, the largest in history up to that time, and scored 102 wins and one draw, losing none.
In the following years, Rubinstein and Nimzowitsch challenged Capablanca, but were unable to raise the stipulated funds. Alekhine's subsequent challenge, in 1927, was backed by a group of Argentinian businessmen and the president of Argentina who guaranteed the funds.
Capablanca was second, with 14½ points, behind Lasker's 16, at the elite New York 1924 tournament, one of the greatest ever staged, and again ahead of third-placed Alekhine. In this tournament, his loss to Reti was his first in eight years. His performance was still a superb 2792. At Moscow 1925, Capablanca scored 13½ for third place, behind Efim Bogoljubov (15½) and Emanuel Lasker (14). Capablanca won at Lake Hopatcong 1926 with 6/8, ahead of Abraham Kupchik (5) and Geza Maroczy (4½).
As World Champion, Capablanca also underwent major changes in his personal life. In December 1921, he married Gloria Simoni Betancourt. They had a son, José Raúl Jr., in 1923 and a daughter, Gloria, in 1925, but the marriage ended in divorce. Both his parents died during his reign, his father in 1923 and mother in 1926.
Capablanca had overwhelming success at New York 1927, a quadruple-round robin with six of the world's top players. He was undefeated, with 14/20, and 2½ points ahead of the second-placed Alexander Alekhine. Capablanca also defeated Alekhine in their first game, won the first brilliancy prize against Rudolf Spielmann, and won two games against Nimzowitsch.
This made him the clear favorite for his match with Alekhine, who had never defeated him, later that year. However, the challenger had prepared well, played with patience and solidity, and the marathon match, held in Buenos Aires, proved to be Capablanca's undoing. Capablanca lost the first game in very lackluster fashion, then took a narrow lead by winning games 3 and 7 — attacking games more in the style of Alekhine — but then lost games 11 and 12. He tried to get Alekhine to annul the match when both players were locked in a series of draws. Alekhine refused, and eventually prevailed +6 -3 =25.
In a tribute to Capablanca after his death, Alekhine wrote:
Alekhine refused to play a return match, even though doing so had been a pre-condition of the match. Despite the collapse of the financial markets in 1929, Alekhine continued to insist on the London conditions, with a $10,000 purse to be secured by the challenger. Capablanca found it difficult to satisfy this condition, because the world's economy was mired in what became known as the Great Depression. Edward Winter explored this failed rematch situation further on chessbase.com in 2007. Instead, Alekhine played two matches against Efim Bogoljubov, a fine player, but one who posed no great threat in a long match (Capablanca had a 5-0 lifetime record against him). Throughout Alekhine's first tenure as champion (1927-1935), he refused to play in the same tournaments as Capablanca, and indeed was able to prevent Capablanca's participation in events which Alekhine himself wanted to play.
From 1929 to 1931, Capablanca maintained his exceptional standard, with seven tournaments played, resulting in five first places, one second place, and one shared second/third place. At Ramsgate 1929, Capablanca claimed first with 5½/7, ahead of Akiba Rubinstein and Vera Menchik. Then at Carlsbad 1929, one of the great tournaments in chess history, with 14 of the top 17 competing, Capablanca shared second/third places with Rudolph Spielmann on 14½/21, half a point behind Aron Nimzowitsch. Capablanca dominated a middle-range field at Barcelona 1929 with 13½/14, two points ahead of runner-up Savielly Tartakower. At Budapest 1929, Capablanca won with 10½/13 , a point ahead of Akiba Rubinstein. Capablanca won at Hastings 1929-30 with 6½/9, ahead of Milan Vidmar and Frederick Yates. At Hastings 1930-31, Capablanca finished second with 6½/9, half a point behind Max Euwe. Then at New York 1931, Capablanca won with an excellent 10/11, 1½ points ahead of Isaac Kashdan. Also in 1931, Capablanca defeated the outstanding Dutch player Max Euwe, who was ranked #6 in the world, according to chessmetrics.com ratings, in a match at Amsterdam by 6-4 (+2 -0 =8).
In 1934, Capablanca resumed serious play. He had begun dating Olga Chеgodaeva (Russian: Ольга Чегодаева), whom he eventually married in 1938, and she inspired him to play again. Capablanca's first event in more than three years was Hastings 1934-35, a very strong tournament, where he placed fourth with 5½/9, a point behind the three joint winners Max Euwe, Salo Flohr, and George Alan Thomas, but ahead of Mikhail Botvinnik and Andor Lilienthal. At Margate 1935, Capablanca placed second with 7/9, half a point behind Samuel Reshevsky. Capablanca took part in the elite Moscow 1935 event, which had eight of the top 18 players, and ended fourth with 12/19, as Botvinnik and Flohr tied with 13, half a point ahead of the 65-year-old Emanuel Lasker. Later in 1935, Alekhine, later claiming that he was plagued by problems with alcohol, lost his title to Euwe. Capablanca had renewed hopes of regaining his title, and he achieved tremendous results in 1936. First he won Moscow 1936, a double-round robin event which had five of the top ten players, with 13/18, unbeaten, ahead of Botvinnik (12), Flohr (9½), Lilienthal (9), and Emanuel Lasker. Then he won at Margate 1936, with 7/9, half a point ahead of Flohr. Then he tied with Botvinnik in the super-tournament of Nottingham 1936, with 10/14, ahead of Euwe, Lasker, Alekhine, and the leading young players Reuben Fine, Samuel Reshevsky (avenging a defeat here) and Salo Flohr.
This was Capablanca's first game with Alekhine since their great match, and the Cuban did not miss his chance to avenge that defeat. He had the worse position, but caught Alekhine in such a deep trap, luring him into giving up three pieces for two rooks, that none of the other players could work out where Alekhine had gone wrong except for Lasker, who immediately saw the mistake. Capablanca recounted this episode in Capablanca's Legacy: Capablanca's Last Chess Lectures, pp. 111–112, expressing his admiration for Lasker's insight even in his sixties. But Capablanca did not mention that his opponent was Alekhine. 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 around.
In 1937, Euwe, unlike Alekhine with respect to Capablanca, fulfilled his obligation to allow Alekhine a return match. Alekhine regained the title. Thereafter there was little hope for Capablanca to regain his title, and Alekhine played no more world championship matches until the time of his death in 1946. 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 tied for third/fourth places at the elite Semmering/Baden tournament with 7½/14, behind winner Paul Keres.
Capablanca won Paris 1938 with 8/10. But then his health took a turn for the worse. He suffered a small stroke during the AVRO tournament of 1938, to which he had rushed right after his wedding, and had the worst result of his career, seventh out of eight, with 6/14, as Keres and Fine tied for first. This was the only minus score of his career, and his only placing out of the top four. But even at this stage of his career he was capable of producing strong results. At Margate 1939, Capablanca shared second/third places with 6½/9, a point behind Keres. In the 1939 Chess Olympiad in Buenos Aires, Capablanca made the best score on top board for Cuba, with an unbeaten 11½/16, to win the gold medal, ahead of Alekhine and Paul Keres. More drama was missed because he refused to play Alekhine in Cuba's match with France. This was his last tournament; World War II started during the Olympiad.
On 7 March 1942, he was happily kibitzing a skittles game at the 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. The autopsy showed that there were numerous haemorrhages in his heart tissue related to the stroke. Remarkably, the Cuban's great rival, German-born Emanuel Lasker, had died in that very hospital only a year earlier.
His bitter rival Alekhine wrote in a tribute to Capablanca:
He was later buried in Colon Cemetery in Havana.
In his entire chess career, Capablanca suffered fewer than 40 losses in serious games. He was undefeated for over eight years of active, world-class competition, from February 10, 1916, when he lost from a superior position against Oscar Chajes; to March 21, 1924, when he lost to Richard Réti in the New York International tournament. This was an unbeaten streak of 63 games, and included the strong London tournament of 1922, as well as the world championship match against Lasker.
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 (Capablanca beat Marshall +20 -2 =28, Lasker +6 -2 =16, Alekhine +9 -7 =33), except for Spielmann who was level (+2 -2 =8). Of top players, only Keres had a narrow plus score against him (+1 -0 =5), and that win was when Capablanca was 50 and Keres 22.
The site chessmetrics.com, which specializes in historical chess ratings, rates Capablanca's three-year peak, from January 1919 to December 1921, at 2857, the third highest of all time, just behind Gary Kasparov and Bobby Fischer. Capablanca debuted on the chessmetrics ratings at #3 in the world in May 1909, and he stayed continuously in the top ten until September 1940 (except for a short two-month period, January and February 1935, when he was coming off a stretch of inactivity). He was #1 in the world from April 1919 until December 1923, as well as for several other periods, totaling 81 months. Capablanca was ranked as the #5 player of all time, in the statistical study of top players, Warriors of the Mind, written by Nathan Divinsky and Raymond Keene.
Boris Spassky, world champion from 1969-1972, considered Capablanca the best player of all time.
Capablanca loved simple positions and endgames, and his judgment of positions was so good that most attempts to attack him came to grief without any apparent defensive efforts on his part. However he could play great tactical chess when necessary — most famously in the 1918 Manhattan Chess Club Championship tournament (in New York) where Marshall sprung a deeply-analyzed "prepared variation" on him and he refuted it while playing under the normal time limit (although ways have since been found to strengthen the Marshall Attack). He was also very capable of using aggressive tactical play to drive home a positional advantage provided he considered it safe and the most efficient way to win, for example against Spielmann in the 1927 New York tournament.
A study found that Capablanca was the most accurate of all the World Champions when compared with computer analysis, although this study received some criticism. For more detail see Comparing top chess players throughout history.
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 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 as the best chess book ever written. In it, Capablanca pointed out that while the bishop was usually stronger than the knight, queen and knight was usually better than queen and bishop – the bishop merely mimics the queen's diagonal move, while the knight can immediately reach squares the queen cannot. Botvinnik credits Capablanca as the first with this insight. (However, modern research does not support this.)
As a chess writer Capablanca did not present large amounts of detailed analysis, but focused on the critical moments in a game. His writing style was plain and easy to understand.
Earlier, Capablanca had received some criticism, mainly in Britain, for the allegedly conceited description of his accomplishments in his first book, My Chess Career. So Capablanca took the unprecedented step of including virtually all of his tournament and match defeats up to that time in Chess Fundamentals, together with an instructive group of his victories. Nevertheless his preface to the 1934 edition of Chess Fundamentals is confident that "reader may therefore go over the contents of the book with the assurance that there is in it everything he needs."
However, J. du Mont, in his foreword to Golombek's book Capablanca's 100 Best Games, wrote that he knew Capablanca well and could vouch that he was not conceited. Rather, critics should learn the difference between the merely gifted and the towering genius of Capablanca, and the contrast between a British tendency towards false modesty and the Latin and American tendency to say "I played this game as well as it could be played" if he honestly thought that it was correct. Du Mont also said that Capablanca was rather sensitive to criticism. And the chess historian Edward Winter documented a number of examples of self-criticism in My Chess Career.
"Morphy and Capablanca had enormous talent, Steinitz was very great too. Alekhine was great, but I am not a big fan of his. Maybe it’s just my taste. I’ve studied his games a lot, but I much prefer Capablanca and Morphy. Alekhine had a rather heavy style, Capablanca was much more brilliant and talented, he had a real light touch. Everyone I’ve spoken to who saw Capablanca play still speak of him with awe. If you showed him any position he would instantly tell you the right move. When I used to go to the Manhattan Chess Club back in the fifties, I met a lot of old-timers there who knew Capablanca, because he used to come around to the Manhattan club in the forties — before he died in the early forties. They spoke about Capablanca with awe. I have never seen people speak about any chess player like that, before or since. Capablanca really was fantastic. But even he had his weaknesses, especially when you play over his games with his notes he would make idiotic statements like 'I played the rest of the game perfectly.' But then you play through the moves and it is not true at all. But the thing that was great about Capablanca was that he really spoke his mind, he said what he believed was true, he said what he felt." – Bobby Fischer, Icelandic Radio Interview, 2006
Despite his achievements Capablanca appeared more interested in baseball than in chess, which he described as "not a difficult game to learn and it is an enjoyable game to play.
His idea was that the added pieces and board size would increase the complexity of chess and allow the strongest player more opportunities to turn the game in his favor. Contrary to the assertion of some critics, Capablanca proposed this complicated variant while he was world champion, not as sour grapes after losing his title. He played a few games of this variant against Edward Lasker. Lasker stated that Capablanca won them.