Capablanca's student: María Teresa Mora Iturralde

by Polina Karelina
2/4/2021 – The success of “The Queen’s Gambit” inspired a lot of comparisons between real chess players and Beth Harmon, the hero of the Netflix series. This in turn led to plenty of stories about women players from the previous century. One such player was María Teresa Mora Iturralde, the only student José Raúl Capablanca ever had, and the first woman to win the Copa Dewar, the equivalent of the Cuban National Championship. | Photo: Source

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A Cuban Chess Champion: María Teresa Mora Iturralde

Maria was born on October 15, 1902, in Havana. Her father introduced her to chess when she was very young, and in 1913, when she was eleven years old, she played her first tournament, at the Havana Chess Club. Though it was her first tournament she already must have been reasonably strong because she won it. In 1915 she won the Intercollegiate Championship in Havana, and then continued to achieve numerous successes.

Capablanca was so impressed by Maria’s talent, that he offered to teach her directly, and she became the only person who has ever received lessons from him. In My Chess Career, published in 1920, Capablanca writes:

There was in Habana a young girl of from twelve to fourteen years of age who interested me a great deal. Not only was she intelligent and modest in every respect, but what is more to the point, she played chess quite well (I believe that to-day she probably is the strongest lady player in the world, though only fifteen or seventeen years old). I offered to give her a few lessons before I sailed. My offer was accepted, and I decided to teach her something of the openings and the middle-game along general principles and in accordance with certain theories which I had had in my mind for some time, but which I had never expounded to anybody. In order to explain and teach my theories I had to study, so it came about that, for the first time in my life, I devoted some time to the working of the openings. I had the great satisfaction of finding that my ideas were, as far as I could see, quite correct.

Thus it happened that I actually learned more myself than my pupil, though I hope that my young lady friend benefited by the dozen or so lessons that I gave her. It came about that I thus strengthened the weakest part of my game, the openings, and that I also was able to prove to my own satisfaction the great value of certain theories which I had evolved in my own mind.

Picture of the young Maria Teresa from the "Revista Cubana de Ajedrez", September-October 1923, p 15. Source:

In addition to chess, Maria Teresa also had a great passion and talent for music, mastering the violin and mandolin. She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts and Sciences and later worked for the Ministry of Education, where she also played first board for their chess team in local team tournaments.

In 1922, Maria Teresa won the Copa Dewar, the strongest tournament in Cuba, and the inofficial Cuban National Championship. In 1938, she also won the Cuban Women’s National Championship and defended that title for 22 years until she retired from chess in the 1960s – in all these years no other women player in Cuba could compete with her.


Maria Teresa and Capablanca (center) in Buenos Aires 1939 | Photo source:

In 1939, she participated in the Women's World Championship in Buenos Aires, which was played parallel to the Chess Olympiad 1939.

Chess: A life-long passion | Photo source:

20 women fought for the title and Maria Teresa finished seventh with 11.0/19. Vera Menchik won the title with 18.0/19, two points ahead of Sonja Graf, who finished second with 16.0/19.


Maria Teresa with Mikhail Botvinnik and other players of the 1950 Women's World Championship | Photo source:

During the Chess Olympiad 1939 World War II broke out and for the next ten years there was no Women's World Chess Championship. But in 1950, Maria received an invitation from the president of the FIDE to compete in the Women's World Championship 1950 in Moscow. It was a 16-player round robin which Ludmilla Rudenko from the Soviet Union won with 11.5/15.

Maria Teresa finished 11th with 6.0/15 but with this performance she obtained the Woman International Master title. In the following game, Maria drew against Elisaveta Bykova, who finished third and three years later became Women World Champion.


In 1962 Maria Teresa took part in an international radio match and won against Anita Sanchez from Columbia. It was Maria Teresa’s last competitive encounter before retiring.

Maria Teresa Mora Iturralde died on October 3, 1980 in Havana.


Vera Menchik: A biography

Polina Karelina is the best woman player from the Bahamas. She is currently studying computer science and business, and her chess was inspired by Susan, Judit and Zsofia Polgar.


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