Capablanca was perhaps the greatest natural talent chess has ever known. He grew up in Havana, Cuba and learned the rules at the age of four by watching his father play. At 13 he won a match against the reigning Cuban Champion Juan Corzo. When he moved to New York to study a few years later he quickly became the Manhattan Chess Club’s strongest player, and in 1909 he crushed US Champion Frank Marshall in an exhibition match, claiming eight wins to his opponent’s one. His position towards the top of world chess was cemented in 1911, when he won the San Sebastián tournament ahead of all the world’s top players other than Lasker. In the same year he challenged the World Champion to a match, but arguments over the conditions and then the intervention of World War I meant that he only finally took on and beat Lasker in 1921.
That match came in the middle of an 8-year period when Capablanca didn’t lose a single game, and his intuition, speed of thought and unsurpassed ability to play apparently simple positions made him almost invincible over the course of his whole career. His only real weakness was an unwillingness to work on chess away from the board, but it took a heroic effort to exploit that Achilles’ heel. Alexander Alekhine was the man who ultimately managed, winning a marathon 34-game battle in Buenos Aires in 1927.
Capablanca followed that match with a string of
tournament victories, but his hopes of a quick rematch were dashed and he all
but gave up chess in 1931. When he later returned he proved he was still a
match for anyone, with his late achievements including winning the 1936
tournament in Moscow by a full point ahead of Mikhail Botvinnik, after
remaining undefeated in 18 games. Capablanca’s poor 7th place out of 8 in the
AVRO tournament of 1938, which was intended to find the next challenger to
Alekhine, has been attributed to his problems with high blood pressure. The
Cuban genius died of a stroke in Manhattan Chess Club at the age of only 52.
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