Chess history: Capablanca played the game!

11/4/2006 – That's the power of the Internet for you. Just days after we had speculatively published a 1909 game in which the great Capablanca had lost to an unknown player with the white pieces, our readers had dug up all the relevant information, proving that the game had actually occurred. And, reacting to an earlier article, one reader sent us a better picture of young Fischer before the move of the century.

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In our original article we provided a newspaper article from the Nebraska State Journal of March 7th 1909. It showed a game that was purported to have taken place between the Cuban world champion José Raúl Capablanca and a player named F. D. Cornell, who won it with the black pieces. It did not look very plausible, but it was actually given with full notation in the 1909 article. We speculated whether it might have been played in a simultaneous exhibition and submitted by Cornell, from whom we could find no relevant information in our chess archives.

Within a few days we had an answer: the game appears to be genuine, it was from a simultaneous exhibition given by Capablanca in Lincoln, Nebraska, and was played on January 29, 1909. One readers even dug up details on F. D. Cornell, giving his full name, age, marital status, occupation and shoe size (almost). We rest our case: the game was actually played.

Here is a selection of feedback, in the order in which the letters were received.

Dr. Hilmar Ebert, Aachen, Germany
If this is at all a real game then from a simultaneous exhibition. But even that is hard to believe. Capablanca would never have played 19.g3?? (19.f4!), unless he was distracted by one of his gallant encounters outside the chessboard. And 28.Nxf5?? (28.Rf1!) would only draw a smile from a problem composer like myself. Finally, the thought that Capa would allow the game to continue from 43.Nxc5?? up to 44...d1D goes against my academic training as a psychologist.

Dave Maynard
After playing out the moves, it seems unlikely that even in a simultaneous exhibition, Capablanca could have blundered as badly as in this game. It might also be useful to determine whether Capablanca played any other games using this variation of the Ruy Lopez. In the 1908 Lasker-Tarrasch match, this variation was used several times, so that one would assume that Capablanca would have known how to play the white side more effectively.

Tom Lombard, Lincoln, Nebraska USA
I am the current President of the Nebraska State Chess Association and recently received an email from a Canadian chess player directing me to your article on the Capaplanca/Cornell game. I took a look at our limited information from that era in Nebraska chess and see that F.D. Cornell is listed as our state champion in 1911. I'll contact a few people that may have some additional information on Cornell and/or this game.

Harold Kjallberg, Sussex, WI, USA
According to the book, "The Unknown Capablanca" by David Hooper & Dale Brandreth, Capablanca's first US tour of simultaneous displays including the following displays in Nebraska:

  • January 29, 1909 - Lincoln - 13 wins - 4 losses
  • January 30, 1909 - Lincoln - 25 wins
  • January 30, 1909 - Lincoln - 15 wins - 1 draw

I suggest you search the Lincoln newspapers of that era for a confirming story. Also, Nebraska census records for 1910 should confirm if a F.D. Cornell was a Nebraska resident.

Russell Miller, Chelan, WA USA
Cornell might be the following person from the 1910 Federal Census: living in Lincoln Ward 5, District 74, Lancaster County, Nebraska, Fred D. CORNELL, age 39, married to Eliza M., occupation Passenger agent. Living next to a bank examiner and a lawyer.

Some of the information from an article I found on Ancestry.com in The Nebraska State Journal Newspaper of Lincoln Nebraska dated 30 Jan 1909. It has an article about "the chess tournament (sic) held last night at the city hall under the auspices of the the (sic) Capital City Chess club Capablanca, the noted Cuban chess player, was defeated four times by Lincoln men....." Fred Cornell was among the players listed as taking part in the simul. Capablanca lost 4 won 12 with no draws. Before coming to Lincoln Capablanca had played 250 games and lost only 1 and drawn 1.

"Capablanca is a Cuban of small stature and rather slight build. He is dark of complexion and has a black, comprehensive eye. He moves with tirmness and deliberation but not slowly. He is twenty-two years of age and is at present studying in the Columbia university where he is an engineering student. He has been in America four years and a half during which time he has devoted to chess and his made many exhibitions. He is not freak, according to Dr. Leonhardt, but simply a genius at grasping and holding in mind situations such as chess involes."

Eli Hiltch, Ramat Gan, Israel
The game J.R. Capablanca vs. F. Cornell was known to me before. I am a Pillsbury researcher and "en passant" my research I have encountered several games by other chess greats. The aforementioned game is from a simultaneous exhibition at Lincoln, Nebraska and was played on January 29, 1909. Capa met 16 opponents, who were allowed consultation. He had a very unusual poor score (for him) – he won twelve games and lost four. Hooper and Brandreth, The Unknown Capablanca, p. 181, mentions briefly three simultaneous displays by JRC in Lincoln, NE. On the following two (on January 30, 1909) he scored 100 percent from a 25 and a 15 boards display.

The definite source for the first part of my report is from the Nebraska State Journal, January 30, 1909, p. 2, col. 5. The latter article does not give any game scores and I hereby give a few short extracts from it:

"WIN FOUR FROM CAPABLANCA.
HOLBEN, JACKWAY, HARDY AND CORNELL BEAT NOTED CUBAN.
Lincoln Players Break Charm Under Which He Has Been Traveling, Losing One Game in 250.

At the chess tournament held last night at the city hall under the auspices of the Capital City chess club Capablanca, the noted Cuban chess player, was defeated four times by Lincoln men after he had played two hundred and fifty games throughout the United States and had lost only one and played another to a draw. The first game won last night was by Elmer Holben after the first hour of playing and the other three games were won during the following hours. The second game which Capablanca lost was won by W.E. Jakway on a slip move of the Cuban's which was granted a mismove, and which the Lincoln players were willing he should be granted another trial, but this he would not sanction. W.E. Hardy won game number three on a Ruy Lopez and Fred Cornell won number four.

.. Capablanca is a Cuban of small stature and rather slight build. He is of dark complexion and has a black, comprehensive eye. He moves with firmness and deliberation but not slowly. ... Before coming to Lincoln he had played a series of games at Sioux City."

In summary, it is my opinion that this game is genuine. I hope this information proves helpful.


On October 17th we published an article commemorating the 50th anniversary of the young Bobby Fischer's remarkable "Game of the Century". We included a very indistinct picture of Fischer pondering the position immediately before the queen sacrifice, which made the game immortal. Now we learn that the picture was on the cover of a US chess magazine.

Above is the cover page of the magazine Chess Review of December 1956, with Bobby Fischer playing the Game of the Century. The scan of the magazine was sent to us by Romein van Brandwijk, 11 years old, of Holland, who is a great fan of Fischer.

The position that the 13-year-old Bobby Fischer is pondering. After a while he played 17...Be6!! and entered his name in the history books. However, we must assume that the photographer did not actually take the picture during the game, but set it up later for Chess Review. The coincidence would be too great.



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