Sports News

The Chess Corner by Dulan Edirisinghe: Capablanca, the natural feel for the pieces and small combinations



Capablanca in 1919

Jose Raul Capablanca, the third World Chess Champion, is considered by many as the spiritual predecessor of the reigning champion Magnus Carlsen. In many ways, Capablanca was the first global superstar of chess. A child prodigy with a natural talent for positional play, “Capa” destroyed his contemporaries in a seemingly effortless manner. The charismatic Cuban was known to be invisible and lost very few competitive games throughout his career.

Long before computers, Capablanca was called “The Chess Machine” due to his precise calculations and natural understanding of what was required in a given position. Alexander Kotov recounts an incident from the 1935 Moscow International tournament when a group of masters were analysing an endgame and trying to find a way to win. Capablanca entered the room and looked at the position for a brief moment. Then instead of showing variations, he redistributed the pieces to fresh squares to show the correct setup that was needed to win. All of a sudden, finding the winning moves became a trivial task. This clearly shows why he is considered the first great endgame expert and also a pioneer of schematic thinking in the final phase of the game.

Time and again in his games, Capablanca managed to create incredible opportunities from dry positions. The common factor in all these games was that everything appears so logical after you see the outcome of the game.

Here’s how Capa dealt with a world class player who was eager to swap as many pieces as possible to secure a quick draw with white.

Bogoljubov – Capablanca (1928)

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 b6 4.Nc3 Bb7 5.Bg5 Be7 6.e3 Ne4 7.Bxe7 Qxe7 8.Nxe4 Bxe4 9.Nd2 Bb7 10.Be2 Qg5 11.Bf3 Bxf3 12.Qxf3 Nc6 13.Qg3 Qxg3 14.hxg3 Ke7

After 14…Ke7

How can black create something from this position? If anyone can, Capa can.

15.g4 h6 16.a3 a6 17.Ke2 Rhb8 18.Ne4 b5 19.c5 d5 20.cxd6+ cxd6 21.f4 Rc8 22.f5 Na5 23.Kd3 Nc4 24.Rab1 d5 25.Nc3 (25.Nc5 e5!) Rc6 26.fxe6 fxe6 27.g5 hxg5 28.Rh5 Kf6 29.Rh3 Rac8 30.Na2 a5 31.Rf3+ Kg6 32.g4

After 32.g4 – An incredible transformation

Now Capa sees e4 as the natural square for the knight. With it comes checkmating threats and a near Zugzwang.

32…Nd6 33.Nc3 b4 34.axb4 axb4 35.Nd1 Rc2 36.Rf2 b3  37.Ra1 Ne4 38.Re2 R8c6

After 38…R8c6

It’s almost a Zugzwang. White can’t move the knight (39…Rc3+ and mates) nor the e2 rook (39.Re1 Rd2#, 39.Rxc2 Rxc2 and 40…Rd2# is forced).

39.Rb1 e5 40.Ra1 R6c4 41.Ra5 Nc5+  and black resigned in view of 42.dxc5 e4#.

Capablanca was famous for such elegant tactical strikes to cap off positional play. Those “small combinations” remain a part of his legacy.

Here’s another instructive game. Once Capablanca starts to move his pieces towards their “natural” squares, everything happens like clockwork.

Capablanca – Fonaroff (1918) – White to play (after 12…Nf6-d7)

The position looks innocuous. For the next four moves,  Capa simply improves the positioning of his pieces. Then with his fifth, he strikes with a “small combination”. 

13.Nf5 Bf6 14.Qg3 Ne5 15.Bf4 Qc7 16.Rad1 Rad8

White to move

17.Rxd6! Rxd6 18.Bxe5 Rd1. Black managed to stave off immediate disaster with this cute move. Unfortunately, he runs headfirst into another delightful small combination. 19.Rxd1 Bxe5.

White to play

 20.Nh6+ Kh8 21.Qxe5 Qxe5 22.Nxf7+ 1-0