Centenary of the Lasker v Capablanca World Championship match

by Polina Karelina
3/19/2021 – A hundred years ago, from March 15 to April 28, the historical 1921 World Chess Championship match between Lasker and Capablanca was played in Havana, Cuba. Conversations to organize the match began in 1911, but World War I got in the way. In the end, the Cuban grandmaster obtained a convincing victory.

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Well overdue

A hundred years ago, from March 15 to April 28, the historical 1921 World Chess Championship match between Lasker and Capablanca was played in Havana, Cuba.

Emanuel LaskerLasker was one of the pioneers of modern chess. Before him, most players tended to focus on a single element of the position. However, Lasker had such a depth of knowledge and understanding of the game that he understood that there are several components in a position that counterbalance each other. This was an innovative idea for the time. It became clear that chess is not a simple game of black and white, where specific methods or ideas decide the game, and that there could be exceptions to rules like controlling the centre. Instead, every game is unique and should be played with a case-by-case approach.

Capablanca was a player of phenomenal natural talent. His style was simple and easy, yet elegant and brilliant, which has prompted many to compare him with Mozart. He tended to simplify positions and exchange pieces until reaching seemly balanced endgames, and yet he would often manage to score victories.

Conversations about organizing a match began in 1911, but the players could not agree on the terms. Along with a large deposit, Lasker also requested to be the only player with property rights of the games, which was unusual, since games typically belonged to both players. That was not all — he also requested for the match to consist of 30 games, where the first player to reach six points, excluding draws, wins, and if no one reaches six points, the challenger would need to have more than a one-point lead over the defending champion to get the title. This would have put Capablanca in a situation where he would need to win at least two more games than Lasker.

Alexander Alekhina, Jose Raul Capablanca

An early photograph of Alekhine and Capablanca

In 1914, the players crossed paths for the first time in a tournament in St. Petersburg. Capablanca played exceptionally well in the preliminaries, which was held as a single round-robin. The top five finishers of this part of the event were awarded the title of Grandmaster. The players were Capablanca and Lasker, along with Siegbert Tarrasch, future world champion Alexander Alekhine and Frank James Marshall.

The players continued to play in the finals of the tournament, a double round-robin, and the results of the preliminaries were carried over into the finals. Capablanca was a favourite to win the event as he began with a 1½-points lead. However, Lasker managed to escape a loss and went on to win a game against Capablanca, which allowed him to overtake the Cuban in the lead. In the end, Lasker won the event with 13½ points, only half a point above Capablanca with 13 points. Alekhine finished third after scoring 10 points.

Lasker, E. vs Capablanca, J. - St. Petersburg Final, 1914


This tournament result showed that Lasker and Capablanca were the strongest players at the time, and once again, conversations to organize a world championship began to take place. However, World War I started shortly after, causing a pause in international tournaments, making St. Petersburg Lasker and Capablanca’s only tournament encounter before the World Championship in 1921.

In early 1920, the players agreed on the terms for the match. However, just months later, Lasker resigned his title and named Capablanca as his successor. As part of their terms for the match, the players had agreed that in the case that Lasker forfeits to play the match, the title would go to Capablanca. Various publications did not seem to accept Capablanca as the world champion.

Right after Lasker’s announcement, Capablanca quickly made his way to Europe to meet with Lasker to renegotiate the terms for the match. The Grandmasters agreed to play in March 1921 for a larger prize fund, and that the winner would be the first player to collect six wins. Capablanca dominated the match, winning four gamesand losign none. Lasker resigned from the match early, after 14 games.

Lasker, E. vs Capablanca, J. - World Ch. 1921 (Game 11)


Undoubtedly, Lasker and Capablanca were two of the most influential players in history. Both champions had an extremely deep understanding of the game, which no other player had in their time.


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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Rikis Rikis 3/20/2021 01:16
Please, mind your words : 'Right after Lasker’s announcement, Capablanca quickly flew to Europe to meet with Lasker to renegotiate the terms for the match.'
In Lithuania, we are too proud of a key national story of two brave pilots Darius and Girenas gloriously crossing the Atlantic in 1933 aboard a small plane 'Bellanca'. In that time, this could have been only a 2nd successful attempt at crossing over the Ocean. This was an important though not the only part of Darius and Girenas mission. They had intended to carry out a non-stop flight New York -Kaunas, as both of them were Americans of Lithuanian origin. The most perilous part of their plan, naturally, was crossing the Ocean. Despite heavy odds they managed to do it, but unfortunately crashed later in some part of Germany, which nowadays is Poland. Despite various investigations, the true cause and circumstances of the crash have never been fully revealed. All in all, it happened at night, during the adverse weather conditions.
calcomar calcomar 3/20/2021 12:23
@OGUSG - Thanks, fixed.
OGUSG OGUSG 3/20/2021 07:23
The photograph of Alekhine and Capablanca was not taken "at the 1914 St. Petersburg supertournament." It had already been published the previous year, as Edward Winter has shown in Chess Notes. See the entry
"Alekhine, Alexander (early photograph with Capablanca) C.N.s 11577, 11581, 11591, 11710" at
Keshava Keshava 3/20/2021 03:14
What made Fischer's request complete unacceptable to FIDE was that in addition to other demands Fischer insisted that the challenger must win by 2 points. FIDE was right to reject this but if they had not then the Soviets would not have let Karpov play under such obviously unfair conditions. Some revisionist has removed this information from the wikipedia article. Fortunately the historian Winter has kept an accurate record:
Panterina Panterina 3/19/2021 11:28
Good eye, RichardEaston! According to Edward Winter's Chess Notes article titled "How Capablanca Became World Champion": "Within a fortnight after his return to New York from Cuba, Capablanca took passage on board the steamship Rotterdam, bound for Holland."

On another note, Bobby Fischer's reasons for renouncing his title were surprisingly similar to what Lasker had said at the time. In the same Chess Notes article: "“From various facts I must infer that the chess world does not like the conditions of our agreement. I cannot play the match, knowing that its rules are widely unpopular. I therefore resign the title of the world’s champion in your favor." Lasker's "unpopular" rule reminded me of Fischer's 9-9 controversial request.
RichardEaston RichardEaston 3/19/2021 09:39
Did Casablanca fly to Europe or go by ship? Commercial airlines were just starting to get organized.