The endgame genius of José Raúl Capablanca

by ChessBase
6/24/2008 – Moscow 1936. Soviet master Ilya Kan had drawn his first game against former world champion Capablanca, and things were looking very peaceful in their second encounter. But, as our Playchess lecturer Dennis Monokroussos shows, the great "Capa" was able to wring out a win in a "drawn" position, with deep strategic technique. Be there and learn – the show is free.

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Dennis Monokroussos writes:

The great Cuban world chess champion, José Raúl Capablanca, was renowned for his endgame technique, and rightly so. Like every other player, he committed the occasional lapse in the final phase of the game, but overall he gained many, many more half points in the ending than he lost. Indeed, his endgame technique was so good that it helped lead to the sobriquet "The Chess Machine". As developing players, all of us can learn a lot from a careful examination of Capablanca's endgame play, and this week's ChessBase show is offered as a step in that direction.

Cuban World Champion José Raúl Capablanca, 1888–1942

Our game is from Moscow 1936, a major double round-robin event won by Capablanca ahead of (then) future world champion Mikhail Botvinnik and a number of other stars including Salo Flohr, former world champion Emanuel Lasker and the still-living Andor Lilienthal. Another participant was the strong Soviet master Ilya Kan, best known today as the founding father of the eponymous variation of the Sicilian Defense (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 e6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 a6). While not in Capablanca's class, Kan was a respectable player in his own right, and managed to defeat the third-placed Flohr 1.5-0.5 in the event and split a pair of games with Lasker. He also drew his first game with Capablanca – with black, no less – and so with white the second time around it would seem he had reasonable chances to split their match.

Nothing about the opening suggested he'd have any difficulties in this regard. The players traded pieces as if they had prearranged a draw and wanted to make it look good for the audience. Yet despite reaching a double rook ending by move 23, the game was not yet drawn. While best play would surely result in a drawn outcome, Capablanca possessed a number of very small advantages. The difficulty for Kan was twofold: first, he was probably psychologically unprepared to fight for a draw, and may have just hoped it would fall into his lap with "normal", "good" moves. Second, there wasn't any way for him to force a draw. Capablanca could do this and that, improving his position on one side of the board, then the other side, and Kan needed to react – sometimes prophylactically, but sometimes with activity of his own. In short, Capablanca's position still had play, and Kan still had enough rope to hang himself.

The game is a model in several respects. "Capa" illustrates how to utilize a small advantage from both the practical and the psychological point of view. Conversely, we can learn from Kan's errors how to better prepare ourselves for a long defense. And concretely, there are various techniques Capablanca uses that we can adopt: play on both wings, using the minority attack in the endgame, the proper timing of pawn breaks, combining horizontal and vertical attacking ideas with rooks, and more. It's a beautiful game by one of chess's all-time greats, and you can watch it, live and for free, on ChessBase's server tomorrow (Wednesday) night at 9 p.m. ET. Directions for watching the show are here.

Hope to see you then!

Dennis Monokroussos' Radio ChessBase lectures begin on Wednesdays at 9 p.m. EST, which translates to 02:00h GMT, 03:00 Paris/Berlin, 13:00h Sydney (on Thursday). Other time zones can be found at the bottom of this page. You can use Fritz or any Fritz-compatible program (Shredder, Junior, Tiger, Hiarcs) to follow the lectures, or download a free trial client.

You can find the exact times for different locations in the world at World Time and Date. Exact times for most larger cities are here. And you can watch older lectures by Dennis Monokroussos offline in the Chess Media System room of Playchess:

Enter the above archive room and click on "Games" to see the lectures. The lectures, which can go for an hour or more, will cost you between one and two ducats. That is the equivalent of 10-20 Euro cents (14-28 US cents).

Monokroussos in Mexico: World Championship 2007

Dennis Monokroussos is 41, lives in South Bend, IN, where he teaches chess and occasionally works as an adjunct professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame and Indiana University-South Bend.

At one time he was one of the strongest juniors in the U.S. and has reached a peak rating of 2434 USCF, but several long breaks from tournament play have made him rusty. He is now resuming tournament chess in earnest, hoping to reach new heights.

Dennis has been working as a chess teacher for ten years now, giving lessons to adults and kids both in person and on the internet, worked for a number of years for New York’s Chess In The Schools program, where he was one of the coaches of the 1997-8 US K-8 championship team from the Bronx, and was very active in working with many of CITS’s most talented juniors.

When Dennis Monokroussos presents a game, there are usually two main areas of focus: the opening-to-middlegame transition and the key moments of the middlegame (or endgame, when applicable). With respect to the latter, he attempts to present some serious analysis culled from his best sources (both text and database), which he has checked with his own efforts and then double-checked with his chess software.

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