One Hundred Years of Accuracy: José Raúl Capablanca
In the summer of 1922, a century ago, London was home to a galaxy of international chess stars, including
, Akiba Rubinstein and Efim Bogoljubov. But the most incandescent among this stellar congregation was the Cuban genius, José Raúl Capablanca. The previous year, Capa, as he was widely known, had crushed the incumbent world champion, Emanuel Lasker, by a score of four wins to nil, with ten draws. It was one of the few world title clashes in which the winner did not lose a match. Indeed, Capa earned a reputation for invincibility and precision that remains intact to this day.
London 1922 Complete Crosstab
Jose Raul Capablanca and Graupera (1888-1942) was world chess champion from 1921 to 1927. Besides his accuracy and invincibility, Capa was widely recognized for his exceptional strategic vision, late-game skills, and speed of play.
Frank Marshall’s victory over the dominant American champion, Frank Marshall, in a 1909 match, earned him an invitation to the 1911 San Sebastian tournament, which he won, against all initial expectations, in front of players such as ‘Akiba Rubinstein, Aron Nimzowitsch and Siegbert Tarrasch. Capa received his invitation only at the generous insistence of Marshall and over the objections of the established grand masters, Aron Nimzowitsch and Ossip Bernstein. This masterful duo complained about the inclusion of a relative neophyte, but in an almost inevitable stroke of poetic justice, Capa bested them both in their one-on-one encounters.
, contributing to an extraordinary record as Capa was undefeated from February 10, 1916, to March 21, 1924, a period that included the World Championship match against Lasker. To go eight years unbeaten, including several standard international tournaments, a world title match and
a century ago, is a record that is likely to stand until chess as we know it is no longer played.
Capablanca lost the title in 1927 to Alexander Alekhine, who surprisingly had never beaten Capablanca before that match. Following failed attempts to arrange a rematch over the next few years, relations between the two colossi soured. Capablanca continued his strong tournament results, including first prizes in Moscow and Nottingham, but he also suffered from symptoms of high blood pressure. He died in 1942 of a cerebral hemorrhage.
Capablanca excelled in simplified positions and endgames; Bobby Fischer, employing his easy-going transatlantic vernacular, described him as possessing a “real light touch”. He could play tactical chess if necessary, though he rarely invited complications, and possessed an iron defensive technique. He wrote several chess books, including Chess fundamentals was considered – somewhat controversially, I might add – by Mikhail Botvinnik to be the best chess book ever written.
Despite his books, Capablanca preferred not to indulge in detailed analysis but focused on the critical moments of a match. His chess style influenced the game of future world champions such as Vassily Smyslov, Tigran Petrosian, Bobby Fischer and Anatoly Karpov. A major difference, however, was Capa’
his reluctance to seek and innovate openings and his trust in his own instincts, talent and genius to support him in any predicament or predicament.
Five years after his triumph in London, Capa undertook his most arduous challenge since his fight with Lasker for the world scepter. The New York Chess Tournament, held from February 19 to March 23, 1927, involved six of the world’s strongest masters playing a quadruple round robin, the others being Alexander Alekhine, Rudolf Spielmann, Milan Vidmar, Aron Nimzowitsch and Frank Marshall.
Before the tournament, Capablanca wrote that it had “more experience but less power” than in 1911, that it had peaked around 1919, and that some of its competitors had gained strength in the years that followed. Despite these pessimistic forebodings, Capablanca enjoyed overwhelming success, finishing unbeaten with 14/20, winning the micro-matches with each of their rivals, 2½ points ahead of second-placed Alekhine.
Since Capablanca won the 1927 New York Chess Tournament by a landslide and never lost a game to Alekhine, most pundits considered the Cuban the undisputed favorite in their World Chess Championship match. of 1927. But Alekhine won the match, played from September to November 1927 in Buenos Aires, by 6 wins, 3 losses and 25 draws – the longest world championship match ever, until the aborted contest in 1984 -1985 between Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov.
Alekhine’s victory surprised almost everyone in chess. After Capablanca’s death, Alekhine himself expressed surprise at his own victory, as in 1927 he had not really believed he was superior to Capablanca, and he suggested that Capablanca had been overconfident. Capablanca entered the fray with no technical or physical preparation, while Alekhine trained in good physical condition and had studied Capablanca’s game closely, during which thorough investigation he convinced himself that he had found promising flaws in the champion’s armor.
In his last major appearance, Capablanca played for Cuba in the 8th Chess Olympiad, held in buenos aires in 1939, and won the gold medal for best performance on the top shelf. According to the extensive essay on Capa available on Wikipedia, for which I am grateful for many facts in this column, while Capablanca and Alekhine (France) both represented their countries in Buenos Aires, Capablanca made one last attempt to organize a match world championship. Alekhine refused, saying he was obligated to help defend his adopted homeland, since World War II had just broken out. It was a strange decision, as Alekhine was then in his late forties and an unlikely candidate for heavy military service or even any military service. As fate would have it, Alekhine would have done better to stay in Buenos Aires and play a match against Capablanca there.
Alekhine wrote in a tribute to Capablanca in 1942: “Capablanca was torn from the world of chess far too soon. With his death, we have lost a very great chess genius whose equal we will never see again. Lasker once said, “I have known many chess players, but only one chess genius: Capablanca.”
Capa has been an inspiration for chess in Cuba ever since, culminating in the Havana Olympiad in 1966, where I, as a member of the England team, was even invited to dinner with Fidel Castro. An annual Capablanca Memorial tournament has also been held in Cuba, most often in Havana, since 1962. In 1974, I had the honor of being invited to and winning the Capablanca Masters.
Amazingly, Capablanca lost only 34 tournaments and serious matches during his adult career. Again, according to Wiki stats, he was undefeated from February 10, 1916, when he lost to Oscar Chajes in the 1916 New York Tournament, to March 21, 1924, when he succumbed to the hypermodern revolutionary complexities of Richard Réti. at the New York International Tournament. . During that unbeaten streak, which included his 1921 World Championship match against Lasker, Capablanca racked up 63 tournament or match matches, winning 40 and drawing 23.
In fact, only Frank Marshall, Emanuel Lasker, Alexander Alekhine, and Rudolf Spielmann have been able to win two or more formal games from mature Capablanca, although in most cases their overall lifetime scores are negative (Capablanca beat Marshall +20− 2 = 28, Lasker +6−2=16, Alekhine +9−7=33). Only Spielmann was equal (+2−2=8). Among the best players, Paul Keres alone had a narrow positive score against Capa (+1−0=5). Keres’ only victory came at the 1938 AVRO tournament in Holland. This event was staged on the itinerant principle of organizing different rounds each day in different cities. During this tournament, Capablanca turned 50, while Keres was 22. This was Capa’s worst performance overall and it can certainly be explained, in part, by the age disparity, poor health and constant movement favoring young players, but also by the unfortunate choice of Capa from the French Defense, which did not suit his fluid style.
Statistical ranking systems put Capablanca among the best of all time. Nathan Divinsky and I, in our book Spirit Warriors (1989) ranked him fifth, behind Garry Kasparov, Anatoly Karpov, Bobby Fischer and Mikhail Botvinnik – but immediately ahead of Emanuel Lasker. In his 1978 book The ranking of chess players, past and present, Arpad Elo gave retrospective ratings to players based on their performance over the best five years of their career. He concluded that Capablanca was the strongest of those questioned, with Lasker and Botvinnik sharing second place.
More importantly for my theme, a 2006 engine-based study found Capablanca to be the most accurate of all world champions, when compared to computer analysis of world championship matches. This was confirmed by a 2011 computer analysis of the duo Bratko and Guido, using the powerful Rybka 2 and Rybka 3 engines. In other words, Capa had, up to that time, been the most exact champion of all time, certainly from the champions who trained without a computer in the pre-Carlsen era.
Boris Spassky, world champion from 1969 to 1972, considered Capablanca the best player of all time. As we have seen, Bobby Fischer, who held the title from 1972 to 1975, admired Capablanca’s “light touch” and his ability to see the right move instantly. Fischer reported that in the 1950s veteran members of the Manhattan Chess Club remembered Capablanca’s blitz chess exploits with absolute admiration.
Capablanca excelled in open positions and endgames, and his strategic judgment was remarkable, so much so that attempts to attack him directly almost always failed on his impervious defense. Nevertheless, Capa could also play moving tactical chess if necessary – most famously during the Manhattan Chess Club Championship Tournament in 1918, when , which he refuted while playing under the constraints of a deadline. He was also capable of aggressive tactical play to exploit a positional advantage, provided he saw it as the surest and most efficient way to win – for example against Spielmann in the 1927 New York tournament.
In summary, Capa was a phenomenon, a nerveless sportsman with an incredibly quick view of the board and an almost infallible instinct for the right move in any situation. If, as I believe, mathematics, music, and chess somehow manifest the harmony of the universe, then Capablanca represents chess in the same way that Pythagoras represents mathematics and Mozart exemplifies music.
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