Saturday, 19 June 2010

Chess Reviews: 143

Jose Raul Capablanca
3rd World Chess Champion
by Isaak and Vladimir Linder
272 pages
Russell Enterprises

This is the first in a new series featuring the World Champions of chess. Capablanca, the third holder of the title, is the first recipient of the Linder treatment.

The life of J.R. Capablanca is covered from his first steps in chess, watching and learning as his father played chess (in Havana, 1892 - the same year, coincidentally, that Havana hosted a World Championship match between Steinitz and Chigorin) to his untimely death in 1942.

The material is arranged in the following chapters:

''Viva Capablanca!''

Challenger Number One

On Mt. Olympus

Match of the Titans

In the Hope of Recovering the Title

Regaining His Former Strength

Capablanca's Place in Chess History

There are 87 illustrative games (or game snippets), with mainly prose annotations, making them very accessible. Numerous quotes are included from other sources.

In fact, one of the great strengths of this book is the very good use of research. The authors have used some little-known sources and had access to various item of Capablanca's correspondence, including a note he wrote for his three-year-old son before setting off to the Moscow tournament 1925. He provides some very sound advice:

'If you can avoid it, never play cards, smoke or drink alcohol of any kind. these are things which greatly shorten life and weaken men physically as well as intellectually and morally'.

The previously unpublished material is most welcome. As this is from Russian sources, the major beneficiaries are the sections on St. Petersburg 1914 and the Moscow tournaments of 1925, 1935 an 1936. The course of these events is really brought alive for the reader.

There's some excellent background detail to the big events. In the section on the fateful 1927 World Championship match - in which the Cuba lost his title to Alekhine - a letter is quoted which Capablanca wrote to Julius Finn of the Manhattan Chess Club. After 12 games, he wrote:

'I am not doing as well as I expected'. He goes on to ask Finn to '...take an interest and to do your best to arrange for me a return match in January, February, or March of 1929. I have spoken to Alekhine about this, and he says he would be very glad to play'.

That a rematch never took place seems to us unthinkable these days, but future generations will say the same about Kasparov and Kramnik. How could a way not be found?

Capablanca kept on hoping to win back his title. It's a recurring theme in the latter part of the book. In 1935, he announced:

'I am now studying topical opening variations...and striving to regain my skill in the middlegame. After completing these studies, I am convinced I will not lose a match to anyone'.

He also suggested that a World Championship match should consist of 16 games, a number which some experts - including Grandmaster Raymond Keene - believe holds true today.

There's plenty to read. Although the book seeks to combine a biography with a collection of games, the emphasis is firmly on the former aspect. That's not to say there isn't some great chess on display...

Reti - Capablanca
Berlin 1928

'17 ...Bf3!!

Not wasting time on 17 ...Rxh8, which gives White a chance to prolong the game by 18 Nd2 Rg8 19 f3 Qh3 20 Qe2.

18 gxf3 Qh3 19 Kh1 Nxf3 20 Qxf3 Qxf3+ 1 Kg1 Rg8+ 0-1'

There are numerous photographs throughout the book. Some are oft-seen classics but others were new to me. I particularly liked the ones from Moscow (1935). There's a snap of Capablanca giving a simultaneous display, showing his opponents in a state of deep concentration, and the a couple showing him action at the tournament.

This fine book concludes with a Match and Tournament Record, Player Index, Opening Index and just over four pages of Bibliography.

I enjoyed reading about the Third World Champion and I'm looking forward to the forthcoming volume on Lasker.

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1 comment:

G. Ames said...

I agree with your general assessments of the first paragraph and the distinction made in the second. Some minor points, however: (1) the Berlin is extremely popular - strong and super-GMs use this all the time. It's not at the level of the Slav or Najdorf, but it's a major opening nowadays. (2) The Tromp, Grand Prix and Chigorin are all very rare birds at the top. There was a brief flurry of interest in the Chigorin thanks to Morozevich, but I can't remember the last time I saw it. Also, the Schliemann seems to have passed its day as well: Radjabov seemed to show that it was viable, but only as a way to suffer for a draw, nothing more. Black desperately needs some new ideas if he wants to play it as anything more than a poor man's Petroff against a well-prepared opponent