79 years ago: Capablanca beats Botvinnik

11/29/2015 – Jose Raul Capablanca (1888-1942), third World Champion, was a child prodigy and a legendary figure. The Cuban genius influenced many successors, from Botvinnik to Carlsen, with his positional understanding and endgame play. In this report by Prof. Nagesh Havanur we see him in a different role, as an astute chess psychologist. It includes some amazing analysis.

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79 years ago: Capablanca beats Botvinnik

By Prof. Nagesh Havanur

22nd May 1936. The Hall of Columns in Moscow is packed to capacity. There are crowds outside anxiously watching demonstration boards. It’s the 7th round of the International Chess Tournament. The game of the day is between Botvinnik and Capablanca who have shared the lead so far with four points out of six.

After his loss of title a decade before Capa has participated in one tournament after the other to prove his claim to a return match with Alekhine. Meanwhile younger talents, Keres, Reshevsky and Fine have emerged on the scene to cross swords with the old guard. But it’s Botvinnik among them all who presents the most formidable challenge. Indeed, it was he who came first in Moscow 1935 Tournament pushing Capa to the fourth place. In spite of the relative failure in the previous year the Cuban’s admirers are legion and his primer of chess sells like hot cakes outside the tournament hall. He is of course aware of public adulation and plays to an appreciative crowd.

Botvinnik is brimming with confidence. It’s true, Capa has been his idol all these years. But he has held his own against the old master in their previous encounters. This time he intends to overtake the Cuban.

As luck would have it, he outplays the old master and Capa is on the verge of defeat. Meanwhile Botvinnik has used up most of his time and there is barely a minute left before the time control.

The suspense is unnerving for the public even as he unveils a complex combination threatening checkmate. He has reckoned without his adversary…

[Event "Moscow"] [Site "?"] [Date "1936.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "Botvinnik, Mikhail"] [Black "Capablanca, Jose Raul"] [Result "0-1"] [ECO "A30"] [Annotator "Nagesh Havanur"] [PlyCount "98"] [EventDate "1936.??.??"] 1. Nf3 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. g3 b6 4. Bg2 Bb7 5. O-O c5 (5... d6 {followed by..... Be7,...Nbd7 and...0-0 would be the flexible Hedgehog System.}) 6. b3 Nc6 $6 { Subsequently both Capablanca and Botvinnik considered this a weak move.} ({ They preferred} 6... Be7 {If} 7. Bb2 d5 {(Capablanca)} (7... O-O {Botvinnik's suggestion seems to give White a free hand in the centre.})) 7. Bb2 Be7 8. Nc3 O-O (8... d5 $6 9. cxd5 exd5 10. d4 {is good for White according to both players, as Black's d-pawn would be weak.}) 9. d4 Nxd4 10. Nxd4 Bxg2 11. Kxg2 cxd4 12. Qxd4 Qc7 ({After the more active} 12... Bc5 13. Qd3 d5 14. cxd5 Nxd5 15. Nxd5 Qxd5+ 16. Qxd5 exd5 {it is not easy to defend the isolated pawn (Capablanca). Now, too, this pawn is weak, as pointed out by Botvinnik.}) 13. e4 Rad8 {The wrong rook. It should have been reserved for the c-file.} ({ Botvinnik prefers} 13... Rfd8 {Apparently Capablanca needed it on the f-file for kingside operations.}) 14. Rad1 Qb7 15. f3 Ne8 {An awkward retreat.} ({ Capablanca did not want to play} 15... d6 {as the pawn on d6 would be a target. As it turns out, it was the lesser evil.}) 16. Rd2 f5 {Seeking counterplay on the kingside and also allowing the rook to come to f7 defending the second rank.} 17. Rfd1 Bg5 $6 {A waste of tempo as it does nothing to lessen the pressure on d-file.} ({Capablanca prefers} 17... Bf6 {But after} 18. Qd3 fxe4 19. Qxe4 Qxe4 20. Nxe4 $18 {the weakness of the d-pawn becomes fatal according to Botvinnik.}) (17... fxe4 18. Qxe4 Qxe4 19. Nxe4 {also favours White.}) 18. Rd3 Bf6 $2 {A serious error that concedes the centre and condemns Black to passive defence.} (18... fxe4 19. Qxe4 Qc8 {is the lesser evil.}) 19. e5 $16 Be7 20. Qf2 {Black was threatening...Bc5.} Rf7 ({Capablanca commends} 20... g5 $5 {After} 21. Qd2 g4 22. Qf4 {a hand-to-hand combat is in prospect, though White should prevail in the end on account of his domination of the d-file.}) 21. Qd2 Bb4 22. a3 Bf8 23. Ne2 Nc7 24. Nf4 g6 25. h4 $1 {A bold move threatening 26.h5 gxh5 27.Nxh5 and 28.Nf6.} b5 $2 {This move allows the white queen and rook to penetrate the queenside and it should have lost.} ({ Capablanca commends the resilient} 25... Qc8 {But after} 26. a4 $1 {Black has few good moves.}) 26. cxb5 Qxb5 ({Not} 26... Nxb5 $2 27. Nxe6 $18) 27. Rc1 Qb7 28. Rxc7 $5 {A sharp sacrifice characteristic of young Botvinnik's play.} ({ He could have clinched the issue with} 28. Qa5 $1 d5 29. exd6 Bxd6 ({Or} 29... Rxd6 30. Qe5 Bg7 31. Qxd6 $18) 30. Be5 $18) 28... Qxc7 29. Nxe6 $1 {The point.} dxe6 30. Rxd8 {White is a pawn up in a superior position.} f4 $1 {Complicating the position as best as he can.} 31. g4 Qe7 32. Kh3 Qb7 33. Qd3 Kg7 34. b4 a5 { Trying to activate the bishop.} 35. b5 a4 36. g5 Bc5 37. Rd6 $5 {By now Botvinnik was in dire time trouble. So perhaps this was the wrong move to make. } ({Capablanca recommended} 37. Kg4 $1 $16 {exerting pressure.}) (37. Kg2 $16 { Hugh Myers' suggestion is perhaps simpler.}) 37... Bxd6 38. exd6+ Kf8 $2 { He is anxious to get away the king. But this prevents the rook from going to f8 and defending the king.} ({Both opponents missed} 38... Kg8 $1 39. Qc3 e5 40. Qc6 Qd7+ 41. Kg2 (41. Qxd7 Rxd7 42. Bxe5 Kf7 43. Bxf4 Ke6 44. b6 Kd5 45. Kg4 Kc6 46. Be5 Kxb6 47. f4 Rf7 48. f5 gxf5+ 49. Kf4 Kc6 50. h5 Kd5 $11) 41... Qe6 42. b6 Qb3 43. d7 Qxb2+ 44. Kh3 Qe2 45. d8=Q+ Kg7 $1 $11 {It's remarkable that White cannot prevent perpetual check in spite of having two queens.}) 39. Bf6 $2 {Closing in for the kill. But the prey can escape.} ({He had a win with } 39. Qc3 $1 Ke8 (39... e5 40. Qc6 e4 41. fxe4 f3 42. Bd4 $1 $18 Qxc6 43. bxc6 f2 44. Bxf2 Rxf2 45. c7 Rc2 46. d7 $18) 40. Qc6+ Qd7 (40... Rd7 41. Be5 Kd8 42. Kg4 $18 {The king picks up the f-pawn and marches on to capture the a-pawn as well.}) 41. Bf6 $1 e5+ 42. Kg2 Kf8 43. Qa8+ Qe8 44. Qd5 Rd7 45. Be7+ Kg7 46. Qxe5+ Kf7 47. Qf6+ Kg8 48. Qe6+ Kg7 49. Kh3 $18) 39... Ke8 40. Be7 $2 {The decisive error.} ({There was a draw with} 40. Kg2 $1 Kd7 41. Qc4 Rf8 42. Qxa4 Ra8 43. Qxf4 Qxb5 44. Bc3 Qf5 45. Qd4 $11) 40... Rf5 41. Qc3 Kd7 (41... Rxb5 { also wins, but allows quite a few spite checks after} 42. Qh8+ Kd7 43. Qd8+ Kc6 44. d7 Qxd7 45. Qa8+ Qb7 46. Qe8+ Kd5 $19) 42. b6 Qc6 {This move, plugging the third rank and activating the queen, is strong, but allows the white invasion from another direction.} ({In his annotations Capablanca gave the even better} 42... Rb5 $1 {threatening both ...Rxb6 and...Rb3 as decisive. His judgement is vindicated by Hugh Myers.} 43. Qc7+ Qxc7 44. bxc7 Rb2 $1 $19 {Black threatens both the capture of a-pawn and also advance of e-pawn.} ({Thinking Capablanca was wrong, Botvinnik only gave} 44... Rb3 $2 45. Kg2 Rxa3 46. c8=Q+ $1 Kxc8 47. d7+ Kxd7 48. Bxa3 $18 {in his notes to the game.})) 43. Qg7 Qxf3+ 44. Kh2 Qg3+ 45. Kh1 Qxh4+ 46. Kg1 Qe1+ 47. Kh2 Kc6 48. Qb2 ({Not} 48. Bf6 Qd2+ 49. Kh3 Qxd6 $19) 48... Rd5 49. Qc2+ Kb5 0-1

A cut and thrust duel worthy of both players! Botvinnik’s sacrificial play deserved a better fate than it met. But then Capa showed admirable sangfroid in meeting an apparently irresistible attack. As it turned out, this encounter proved decisive in determining the final result. Capa came first with 13/18 points. Botvinnik was placed second with 12/18.

Final table from Grigory Yakovlevich Levenfish's Moscow 1936 International Chess Tournament book

When they met again in Nottingham 1936 they shared first place with 10/14 points, but their individual encounter was a only a draw. He got his opportunity in AVRO 1938. While he did not do too well in the tournament he succeeded in beating Capa in an encounter that he called “The Game of My Life”. Capa bore no grudge for his defeat and said, “It was a battle of ideas.”

[Event "AVRO"] [Site "?"] [Date "1938.11.22"] [Round "?"] [White "Botvinnik, Mikhail"] [Black "Capablanca, Jose Raul"] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "E49"] [Annotator "Andy Soltis"] [PlyCount "81"] [EventDate "1938.??.??"] 1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nc3 Bb4 4. e3 d5 5. a3 Bxc3+ 6. bxc3 c5 7. cxd5 exd5 8. Bd3 O-O 9. Ne2 b6 10. O-O Ba6 11. Bxa6 Nxa6 12. Bb2 $2 ({The modern preference is for} 12. Qd3 $1) 12... Qd7 13. a4 Rfe8 $6 (13... cxd4 14. cxd4 Rfc8 { followed by...Rc4 should be level.}) 14. Qd3 c4 $2 {This move gives White a free hand in the centre. In turn Black intends to target the a-pawn and activate his queenside pawn majority. A similar strategy was seen in Game 9 of Anand-Carlsen World Championship Match 2013. Black won, inaugurating the Carlsen era! – NSH} (14... Qb7 {is preferable.}) 15. Qc2 Nb8 16. Rae1 Nc6 17. Ng3 Na5 18. f3 $1 {Abandoning the pawn to his fate.} Nb3 19. e4 Qxa4 20. e5 Nd7 21. Qf2 g6 22. f4 f5 23. exf6 Nxf6 24. f5 Rxe1 25. Rxe1 Re8 26. Re6 ({Not} 26. fxg6 $2 hxg6 27. Qxf6 Rxe1+ 28. Kf2 Qe8 $19) 26... Rxe6 27. fxe6 Kg7 28. Qf4 Qe8 29. Qe5 Qe7 30. Ba3 $3 Qxa3 31. Nh5+ $1 gxh5 32. Qg5+ Kf8 33. Qxf6+ Kg8 { At this point Botvinnik was immersed in thought, calculating a precise sequence of moves to win. Capablanca, the actor that he was, calmly walked along the stage. When Euwe asked him how he stood he waved his hands indicating anything could happen. That this "performance" was for his benefit was not lost on Botvinnik!} 34. e7 (34. Qf7+ Kh8 35. g3 $1 {giving White an escape route to h3 also wins.} (35. e7 $2 {allows the swindle,} Qc1+ 36. Kf2 Qd2+ 37. Kg3 Qg5+ 38. Kf3 Nxd4+ $1 39. cxd4 Qg4+ $11 {Capablanca, optimist as ever was waiting for something like this to happen.})) 34... Qc1+ 35. Kf2 Qc2+ 36. Kg3 Qd3+ 37. Kh4 Qe4+ 38. Kxh5 Qe2+ {Still trying for perpetual check!} ({ Not} 38... Qg6+ $4 39. Qxg6+ hxg6+ 40. Kxg6 {followed by 41. e8=Q mate}) 39. Kh4 Qe4+ 40. g4 Qe1+ 41. Kh5 {and Capablanca resigned to the thunderous applause of spectators.(source:"Mikhail Botvinnik,The Life and Games of a World Champion", McFarland 2014)} 1-0

A terrific performance that Capa would have loved to give himself! He remained Botvinnik’s idol to the end. The master and the “disciple” are no more in our midst. We can only cherish their legacy.

Master Class Vol. 4:
José Raúl Capablanca

By Dr. Karsten Müller, Mihail Marin, Oliver Reeh, Niclas Huschenbeth

He was a child prodigy and he is surrounded by legends. In his best times he was considered to be unbeatable and by many he was reckoned to be the greatest chess talent of all time: Jose Raul Capablanca, born 1888 in Havana. At the age of 13 he became Cuban champion; in 1909 he sensationally defeated Marshall by 8:1 and was thus catapulted into the world elite. It was only after some time, since sparse amounts of information made it across the pond, that in 1911 Capablanca achieved well-deserved recognition by leaving the elite of world chess trailing in his wake in San Sebastian. It would however take another ten years before the Cuban defeated the reigning world champion Emanuel Lasker in their match and wore the crown himself.

On this ChessBase DVD a team of experts gets to the bottom of Capablanca’s game. Niklas Huschenbeth presents the openings of the third world champion. Oliver Reeh has assembled a select choice of little combinations (Capablanca’s famous “petite combinaison”) and prepared them in interactive format. Mihail Marin looks into Capablanca’s strategic performances and finds astonishing parallels in the games of Bobby Fischer. Our end game expert Karsten Müller had a multiplicity of examples from which to choose, since Capablanca liked to liquidate into an endgame, being well aware of his particular strength and creating numerous masterpieces of the art of the endgame. The DVD also contains all of Capablanca’s games, many of them annotated and is rounded off by a biographical section, tables and both a tactics and an endgame database.

  • Video running time: 6 hours (English)
  • Interactive tactics test with video feedback
  • All Capablanca’s games, tables, background knowledge, short biography
  • “Capablanca Powerbook”: The opening repertoire of the third world champion as a variation tree
  • Tactics training with 103 Capablanca Games; 14 Capablanca endgames, with detailed commentary by Mihail Marin
  • ISBN: 978-3-86681-467-7
  • Delivery: download, post
  • Price: €29.90; €25.13 without VAT (for customers outside the EU);
    $26.81 (without VAT)


Master Class - José Raúl Capablanca: a review

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Pieces in Motion Pieces in Motion 3/27/2017 10:59
Good article, it was a changing of the guard but Capa gave way fighting.
Emil Cabagay Emil Cabagay 11/30/2015 12:44
love to see some of the greatest games of the greatest masters. Thanks.
Anthe Anthe 11/30/2015 09:46
The commentator s comments make me think he has a low or no rating at all... no otb fighting experience. Does he have ?
Logos Logos 11/30/2015 01:24
Great article, thank you.

Capablanca's talent never ceases to amaze. What he achieved in 1936 while competing with the giants of the next generation was amazing. It reminds of Lasker's similar accomplishments when he was past his prime - NY 1924 for example and Moscow 1935 (undefeated and half a point behind winners Flohr and Botvirnnik).
RaoulBertorello RaoulBertorello 11/29/2015 07:39
Another great piece. Thanks.