Friday, January 13, 2017

José Raúl Capablanca: a chess biography

José Raúl Capablanca: a chess biography

Written by Miguel A. Sánchez. Published August 2015, 568 pp. ( - 800-253-2187)

I knew I made the right choice in getting this book for two quotes I read in the beginning, one quite profound by Botvinnik

"it is impossible to understand the world of chess, without looking at it with the eyes of Capablanca."
And the second quote, which I loved, for the reason that it dispelled the myth many amateurs have, mainly because they never study chess history. This myth is relative to Capablanca never studying chess, and being so good and talented. As we know from Kasparov, talent is studying chess 12 hours a day!

But the quote I want to mention comes from another great player of those long forgotten times Jacques Mieses, who said: "Capa practically gave all of his time to chess, from the fourth to the 22nd year of his life"

This would also explain the extreme, deep preparation Alekhine undertook in order to beat Capablanca, and detailed in the book: "On the road to the World Championship 1923-1927."
Let's return for a moment to Botvinnik's quote: "... looking at it with the eyes of Capablanca..." well let me show you what Botvinnik meant! While reviewing a Chessbase DVD on Capablanca,

 I met the following position, in the tactic training section:

This is the 9th game of the Match against Marshall. Capablanca played many times against Marshall, but I found this position quite important in showing how deep was Capablanca's thought.

Marshall just played 16.Ra4, and Capablanca continued with 16...c5; and Marshall pins the Pc5 with 17.Qa3, but there is a problem, now the White rook in A4 is trapped.

How can Black exploit it? How can Black find a way to win some material?

Please take your time, position the pieces on a chessboard, and think as long as you like.

I must admit that I didn't see the solution. I didn't see how to trap the Ra4. But Capablanca did, and here his original solution!

Capablanca plays 17...Bd7; but this is not the idea behind since White can block the attack to the Rook in A4 playing 18.Bb5,

can you see how Capablanca continued? The beautiful and aesthetically pleasing idea that Capablanca found in order to take advantage of the trapped Ra4?

He continued with 18...Bf5; leaving the D7-A4 diagonal for attacking on the F5-B1 diagonal.

Thanks to this move he won a vital tempo. But can you see what Black does after White plays 19.Rb2.

19...a6; 20.Be2,Bd7 and Black wins the exchange, because White cannot put anymore the light squares bishop in B5.

Now, if you saw all of this congratulations, you can see with Capablanca eyes. I didn't, and I was pleasantly surprised when I realized how deep Capablanca was.

Now let's return to review this great book.

In chapter 1, entitled: Havana the El Dorado of Chess, the author does an amazing job in outlining Cuba as a golden place for playing chess. He begins showing Morphy's games in Cuba, passing then to other players like Zukertort who sojourned on the island, and then of course the famous matches between Steinitz and Chigorin, in 1889 and 1892. This is an important background, because Capablanca the chess player didn't come out from a country which didn't play chess, but from a country which loved chess so much to guest two world championships. And then of course there would be the world championship of 1921, which would crown Capablanca. Practically it's impossible to create a champion out of a vacuum. This is confirmed always in the book at page 69, on the third chapter when Alekhine thoughts on Capablanca are paraphrased by GM Pomar from Spain: "Alexander Alekhine was justified in thinking that many years of chess promotion in Cuba, and in particular the Steinitz-Chigorin matches, had created an environment very conducive to the emergence of a first rate champion."  

Chapter 2 outlines the ancient past origins of Capablanca's family from Spain. A good work on genealogy, which must have been quite complicated to find, since we are speaking of the 1800, and all the wars between Spain, France, and other European imperialist powers, must have destroyed many records.

In chapter 3: "the boy prodigy," we can find what is considered the first game published, which was played by Capablanca when Capablanca was 4 years and 10 months old. It is a game Capablanca wins, but White gave him the advantage of the queen.

This chapter is quite interesting because portrays the first years of Capablanca playing chess, what were the conditions, or how his parents were afraid it would damage his health to play chess. Just this chapter contains 20 games played by Capablanca, many early pictures. Then pictures of the academic results by Capablanca, and the house where he lived.

Chapter 4 is Champion of the Americas.

This chapter begins to tell us the sad story of Marshall, whose career unfortunately coincided with the raise of two of the best players of all times, one is obviously the main character of this book: Capablanca, and the other, as you can imagine was Alekhine.

This is also part of what I call luck or fate in chess. There are some historical periods in which one could be the best, but there are two or three other stars who obfuscate, and destroy whatever one can achieve. In some case historical events, can be quite damaging. For example Alekhine was damaged by WWI and WWII. Lasker was definitely helped by WWI in keeping his reign for so long. Rubinstein is another name of a player, who was damaged by the Great War.

However, this chapter shows that by 1909, Capablanca was more famous in the Americas, and especially US, than Marshall was.

I'm briefly outlining most of the chapters, because I think the reader of the book shouldn't be spoiled all the surprises he can find in the book itself.

But if one can take something from this chapter, and is really fond of learning about Capablanca, then one should also read the book: My Chess Career, written by Capablanca. It's an out of print book, I found a copy for 88 cents! But the average price was around 3$. However the advantage of this book, compared to "my chess career" is the games are in algebraic, and in my opinion there are more annotations in this book, than in Capablanca's one.

Also in this chapter is mentioned the book written by Marshall: "My fifty years of chess" which I bought too, for writing another article, and it was more expensive, around 13$

Chapter 5: the prodigal son

The title of the chapter is pretty self-explanatory. Capablanca is now top of the chess world famous, and returns to Cuba, where they are waiting for him to celebrate. The chapter also shows a mature Capablanca playing against Corzo, the local champion. This is quite an interesting point, because one can compare the way Capablanca played 8 years before with now. In this sense the author makes this important comparison for those who don't have a database, and shows the most important games.

I'd like to show an example of annotated game from this chapter, to show the quality of the games, for those who are not interested only in the biographical work:

Chapter 6: the New Conquistador

The chapter begins describing the numerous simultaneous exhibitions Capablanca played in many different places: Paris, Frankfurt, Nuremberg, Munich, and shows some games played Buenos Aires. The chapter also discusses the correspondence relative to challenging the world champion Lasker, and the many tournaments Capablanca played and won, like the following one:

Chapter 7: In Morphy's footstep

I find most of these chapters of extreme interest both at human historical level, here for example, at the end of the chapter is described the beginning of WWI, and how Capablanca luckily escaped, taking a ship which will bring him back to the Americas. But also at historical chess level, what he had to do to become the challenger to the world champion. The chapter also shows the many games Capablanca played in that period.

The book continues with 11 more chapters. They are all fascinating.

Chapter 8, a king in waiting, also tell us about the romantic life of the gifted cuban!

Obviously chapter 9, on the world championship of 1921, and chapter 13, on the world championship of 1927, can be of interest also to chess players who don't like chess history.

Please note also how the author dig deep into different historical sources, and found even caricatures with Capablanca.

Chapter 13 "Smiling again," begins showing the tournament in Moscow 1936, where Capablanca beats Botvinnik, Lasker, Flohr and other strong players of that period!

By the way, I'd like to show the thoroughness of the author in his search upon Capablanca's life. For example, Capablanca traveled many times to Moscow: 1925, 1935, and 1936, but the FBI denied they ever investigated Capablanca. This can sound strange for us in this modern period, but also Fischer and his mother were investigated by the FBI, which had dossier, and agents actively following them.  

Appendix I shows Capablanca's ideas on four of his predecessors.

Appendix II can be interesting for those suffering of high blood pressure, because the neurologist which wrote such chapter, did a good work in exposing the problems of hypertension, and inserted a lot of images of the brain. Capablanca likely died of a massive hemorrhagic stroke.

In conclusion: I counted around 170 games in this book, making it a good book also for those who are more interested in games than a biography. However, the book is supreme for the biography section, because in the biography we can see the huge amount of research the author has done. Throughout the book is possible to find images of the period, satirical cartoons, quite ancient documents whose access is generally given only to scholars.

In the end the book shows the scholarly level with the indexes. There is an index for everything! Opponents, Openings, Images! This is quite important for me, because I write many articles during the year, and these professional indexes, help me find the material I'm looking for in the over 500 pages of this great book, in seconds!

Clearly this is the book an amateur interested in chess history wants to have in his own library. I'm quite proud of this volume, because I wanted to know more about Capablanca's life, and to have some of his games in book format, and this book satisfied both these desires.  

By the way, for those interested in Capablanca, McFarland also published another book, by the famous Chess Historian: Edward Winter:

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