In which I muse about the strengths of players from different eras, and take a look at one of the Nimzowitsch-Capablanca games from New York 1927, where according to Ken Regan's Intrinsic Performance Ratings Capa played chess like a 2936-rated player.
Entries in Capablanca (6)
Magnus Carlsen only won two games in the just-completed 2012 Tal Memorial, but both, especially his early-round win over Teimour Radjabov, were of instructive value. About the win over Radjabov, I had a feeling of deja vu when I replayed it that the fundamental outline of his winning plan was very similar to an old victory of Jose Capablanca's. When I read Carlsen's comments in the post-game press conference to the same effect I had to find the game in question, and it wasn't too difficult: Ilya Kan-Capablanca from the same city (Moscow) in 1936.
So in this week's ChessVideos show I present both games, hopefully with enough clarity and depth to help you pressure and (generally) defeat your opponents from similar structures. If Kan and especially Radjabov failed to hold, our everyday opponents at the club level are really going to be in trouble!
The show is free, as always (one-time only free registration is required) and will be available on-demand for the next month or so.
Chess historian par excellence Edward Winter has translated a 1939 interview with Jose Raul Capablanca. (HT: Brian Karen) In it he speaks very favorably about Emanuel Lasker, Mikhail Botvinnik, Alexander Alekhine (though only in passing) and Paul Keres (but with some relatively minor and insightful reservations). To the surprise of no one who is familiar with Capablanca's autobiographical writings, he had some high praise for himself as well, acknowledging that he wasn't the player he was in 1918 (he rates his play then even higher than when he won the title in 1921) but fairly plausibly downplaying his failure at AVRO in 1938 to high blood pressure problems that were mostly under control at the Olympiad in 1939. (His last event, unfortunately, due to the outbreak of World War II and his premature death in 1942.)
Worth a read.
Alexander Alekhine, New York 1927 (Russell Enterprises 2011). 168 pp. $19.95. Reviewed by Dennis Monokroussos.
Unlike Alexander Alekhine's justly renowned tournaments books on New York 1924 and Nottingham 1936, his book on 1927 is harder to find and less well-known. But why should this be? It was an important tournament with only first-class players. It could have been stronger, had Emanuel Lasker, Efim Bogoljubow and Akiba Rubinstein been present, but even in their absence it was a tremendous lineup:
- Jose Capablanca (the world champion and tournament winner)
- Alekhine (second place, and world champion just a few months later)
- Aron Nimzowitsch (the future author of My System was a genuine contender then)
- Milan Vidmar (a world class player who was also a notable engineer)
- Rudolf Spielmann (a great attacking player - see his The Art of Sacrifice in Chess)
- Frank Marshall (another great attacker and lover of complications)
60% of the games were drawn, which may have been high by the standards of the day, but then again, most tournaments then were of mixed strength. Some great games were played there too, so that's not a very good reason.
Perhaps there are three reasons for the book's rarity. First, it was originally written in German, not English. This is odd, considering that it was an American tournament, and Alekhine wrote tournament books in English both before and after this one. Second, as GM Andy Soltis notes in his foreword, there wasn't much drama in the contest, as Capablanca won going away. (Indeed, the victory was so easy that he [allegedly] went out of his way to avoid winning at least one game, slipping his opponent a note through the arbiter telling him to play better!) And perhaps there is a third reason, one that cuts both ways, and that's Alekhine's repeated, over-the-top bludgeoning of Capablanca in the introduction and throughout the text.
Alekhine only wrote the tournament book after his successful world championship match with Capablanca, and it reads like an "IN YOUR FACE!!!" to a chess world that thought Capablanca was invincible. Alekhine's introduction begins like this:
We know that the year 1925 brought Capablanca the biggest disappointment he had experienced up until then in his international tournament career: in the Moscow tournament, he took third only with great effort, lost two games to players of a relatively lesser class, and escaped defeat in some other games (as against Reti or Loewenfisch, for example), mainly thanks to the kindness or carelessness of the opponents....
We may say without exaggeration that for Capablanca, the somewhat negative impression of his qualitiative results during his Moscow performance cast a much more perceptible shadow over his reputation than his lost games - because even Lasker, the unsurpassed tournament fighter, was third in Hastings 1895 and shared second and third place with Janowski in Cambridge-Springs 1904.... But during the entire, very long period of his world championship, Lasker was never so defeated as Capablanca was by Verlinsky. It was especially this impression on the part of the general public - that he, although extremely rarely, could play absolutely weakly - that Capablanca had to try to obliterate sometime soon.
In other words, Capa had to win an event to save his reputation. This led to the formation of the New York 1927 tournament, and here Alekhine hastens to note and dwell on the fact that none of Capablanca's European competitors (i.e. everyone but Marshall) had never won even a single game against him, and Marshall had a lousy record as well. Indeed, Alekhine suggests that some of Capa's opponents in the event played as if commanded to make second- or third-rate moves, others were afraid, and still others were only peaceably inclined against him.
Alekhine spends four pages in the intro going recapping Capablanca's games, to see if the Cuban's sporting achievement rose to the same level in qualitative terms. (You'll never guess what he concludes.) Shockingly (not really), he's not impressed. In his four games with Alekhine, only the first one was real (after losing the first, Alekhine played only for a draw), and he says of his own play that it was so bad that "the refutation of [my inferior moves] would have been easy even for an average master" (p. 17).
Of Capablanca's games with Nimzowitsch, he only praises Capablanca's play in the third game, but hastens to say this: "But what a helpless impression Nimzovich's posiitonal play makes! Move 16.g4, for example, is unworthy of even a mediocre amateur. By the way, in this game Capablanca's play is not even consistently flawless...and only the final part is impressive in its logical simplicity" (p. 18).
This continues with the remaining players, but you get the point. Capablanca's play (but not just his) is critiqued vociferously in the games section as well, but Alekhine does offer a retraction of sorts:
But I have to state specifically that this...is directed solely toward the half-mythic Capablanca ...[the superplayer]. For when one takes the trouble to rid his thinking of this anesthetizing legend, then one comes, of course, to the belief that Capablanca is entirely a first-class master, whose ability lies much more in intuition than in critical thinking. (Page 20)
Alekhine then analyzes Capablanca's strengths and weaknesses in the opening, middlegame and endgame, most famously concluding about his predecessor's play in the last stage of the game that "one will have to come to the realization that Capablanca is no remarkable endgame artist, that his proficiency in this phase of the game is decidely of a more technical nature, and that there are other masters (like Rubinstein, for example, in rook endgames) who in some variations certainly are or were superior to him....in the endgame he is not to be feared by a first-class master, for here he succeeds only in exceptional cases to rise above the mediocre" (p. 25). Wow. Alekhine does make a case for this conclusion, but whether it is successful is a debate for another day.
While the chief historical interest of the book is in Alekhine's commentary on Capablanca, it's worthy in its own right as a purely chess book too. Alekhine's notes are very good, especially by the standard of the day, both in terms of their analytical depth, the insight of the text, and the psychologically piquant and sometimes biting comments.
Definitely recommended for chess history buffs, and a good book for chess fans in general.
Isaak and Vladimir Linder, José Raúl Capablanca: 3rd World Chess Champion (Russell Enterprises, 2010). 272 pp. $24.95. Reviewed by Dennis Monokroussos.
José Raúl Capablanca (1888-1942) was one of the all-time greats, obviously, but as his life recedes ever farther into the past, he becomes more a mere name and less a personality of interest to the general chess world. This is a pity not only because of his merits, but because it is our loss. His masterpieces, and there are many, are both beautiful and instructive. Indeed, Capablanca was a major influence on Botvinnik (who in turn helped train Karpov, Kasparov and Kramnik!) and Fischer, so how could we fail to benefit from the study of his games?
There is of course some English-language material on Capablanca that's fairly easy for most of us to find: the section in volume 1 of Garry Kasparov's My Great Predecessors series, along with Fred Reinfeld's 1942 work The Immortal Games of Capablanca and Irving Chernev's Capablanca's Best Chess Endings, published in 1978. Not to be overlooked are Capa's own books, including the primer Chess Fundamentals and his 1920 volume My Chess Career. (There are more books; I'm just listing the usual suspects, to which the access is easiest.) So there's certainly room in the chess marketplace for a new life and games work on the great Cuban.
Enter the Linders, a father-and-son duo of Russian chess historians. What they offer is a book that fills the aforementioned void, and offers something new - at least new to me. There are the games and game fragments (87 of them), the usual accounts that Capablanca played here and then he played there, and neither aspect is new or earth-shattering. What is nice, however, and - importantly - new is that they draw on a lot of information from Russian and Russian-language sources. Capablanca played in four significant tournaments in Russia/the Soviet Union (St. Petersburg 1914 and the Moscow tournaments of 1925, 1935 and 1936), and of course Russian chess players were interested in and wrote about him even when he wasn't playing there. So even readers familiar with the old sources will learn something new and gain a fuller picture of his career. Those of you with no material on Capablanca may want to consider getting the book to fill the gap, but those of us who do have material about him should consider getting it anyway, on account of the Russian perspectives.
I do have some criticisms, as usual. First, the editing and/or copy editing in this book is pretty bad. Here are some examples, which could be easily multiplied:
Page 20: In the second annotation to Capablanca-Marshall, New York m(2) 1909, it should be White, not Black, who has problems developing his bishop. Later on the page, 17.Rae8 is given; it should be 17...Rae8. And likewise, on page 22, in a note to the fifth game of the aforementioned match, we're told "And of course not 33.Kh8??", but it should be 33.Kh1. (Sadly, there are quite a few errors of this sort.) On the same page, a new game from that match begins, also labeled game 5. It's in fact game 6.
A different sort of error: on page 26 (and elsewhere) we have "Nimzovitch" rather than the correct "Nimzowitsch". And here's still another sort of error: On page 146, we learn this about a series of simuls given in Moscow: "He played a total of one hundred forty-six games with the result +106, -25, =16." (Now that's the kind of math only a politician could love.)
That's all minutiae, of course, and I haven't forgotten errare humanum est. But there's far too much of it. My second complaint is more significant: the game annotations are pretty weak. Fortunately, in the Linders' brand-new book on Emanuel Lasker, German GM Karsten Müller handles those duties. Here, however, the annotations are generally pretty light - often too light to be of any real instructional value - and don't (or only barely) take recent commentary into account.
Third, there are some rather goofy comments that just leave me scratching my head. On pages 81, in a note to the fifth game of the Lasker-Capablanca match, we have this note to Black's 7th move, 7...b6 in a Queen's Gambit Declined: "It is interesting that Karpov, too, fianchettoed his queen's bishop in several games of his world championship matches", and there then follows all 20 moves of game 34 of Karpov's 1984 match with Kasparov. Why exactly this is "interesting" and why Karpov is singled out eludes me, as the variation chosen by Karpov in that game (the Tartakower Variation of the Queen's Gambit Declined) has been played in tens of thousands of grandmaster games, and by world champions aplenty: 10 times by Tal, 12 times by Petrosian, 53 times by Spassky, 3 times by Fischer, 28 times by Karpov, 16 times by Kasparov, and 9 times by Kramnik, to pick the most prominent cases.
On page 101, in the comments to Capablanca-Tartakower, New York 1924 (the famous rook ending with 35.Kg3), they suggest that Black pursued exchanges in hopes of a draw, but on move 23 they write that Tartakower could have gone for a rook ending, "but as Tartakower himself noted, 'all rook endings are drawn.'" This statement is bizarre on at least two counts: they had just suggested that Black was playing for a draw, but now, in a worse position, he's not? And second, the game winds up in a rook ending after all, and Capa wins it. If the Tartakower quote was meant ironically, that would be one thing, but there's nothing about the context suggesting that it was. (Perhaps this is a failure of translation?)
For a while these quirks and errors drove me slightly crazy, but the book's pluses eventually won me over. Overall, I think the book is worth getting for those with any interest in chess history in general and Capablanca in particular - especially if this is your first book about him. I do hope that Russell Enterprises puts out a second edition at some point, cleaning up all the errors and perhaps redoing the annotations.
The interview is not new, of course, as the great former world chess champion has been dead for 68 years. But it is newly translated into English, by the famous chess historian and Jose Raul Capablanca biographer Edward Winter. It's interesting on its own merits and especially so for those with even a little knowledge of chess history, so do check it out.
HT: Brian Karen