A review of The Unknown Capablanca by David Hooper and Dale Brandreth

Reviewed by Paul Kane

The Unknown Capablanca
Second Revised Edition 
by David Hooper and Dale Brandreth
Dover Publications, February 1994

The Cuban genius Jose Raul Capablanca (1888-1942) is one of the all-time chess greats. This book collects together 208 of his lesser-known games from casual play and minor events, as well as two studies, one composed jointly with Lasker. The games which Capablanca played in major international tournaments and matches are not included.

Capablanca was a prodigy – “chess was his mother tongue”, one writer was moved to say – and his earliest recorded game is given here. It was played against Ramon Iglesias in Havana on the 17 September 1893. Iglesias gave queen odds to the boy, then aged 4 years and 8 months, but lost in 38 moves. Also included are all 13 games of the match that Capablanca won against Juan Corzo, then champion of Cuba, in November and December of 1901.

Chapter 1 is entitled “The Tour of Europe” and it covers the period from October 1913 to March 1914. Capablanca was then attached to the Cuban Foreign Office as a kind of special ambassador, using his chess skill to enhance the standing of Cuba in the world. He visited London, Paris, Berlin and other European capitals and cities, and played against some of the best players of the day: Alekhine, Nimzowitsch, Tartakower and Reti among them. These players would become his serious rivals in the following decades.

Later individual chapters are devoted to match and exhibition games, consultation games (where Capablanca played usually against two opponents, who could consult with each other and discuss the position before making their move), casual games and games played simultaneously with and without clocks (that is: sometimes played to a time limit, sometimes not). These simultaneous games (or at least the ones included here) are, if not masterpieces, then effective first drafts with (usually) many points of interest. Here is an example, a fine passage of play taken from a game (1 of 16 played simultaneously) that took place in New Orleans on 6 April 1915.

23.g4! Played apparently just to undermine the pawn chain, its actual intention is to realise a hidden combinative possibility. 23 … Qd7?! Capablanca remarked that 23 … Ne7 was best, but Black must have thought, Why retreat the knight from its defensive post where it blocks the soon-to-be-opened g-file? 24.exf5 Bxf5 25.Nxd5! And here is the answer; an unexpected sacrifice with some very neat points. 25 … Rxc2 What are Black’s other possibilities? He clearly cannot play 25 … Qxd5 26.Rxc8 Rxc8 27.Rxc8 because the recapture 27 … Bxc8 would be followed by 28.Qxd5: the … Bf5 is pinned along the fifth rank. Suppose, though, Black plays 25 … Bg4; doesn’t this win the Qh5? Against this Capablanca had planned 26.Bh3! Bxh3 (if 26 … Bxh5 27.Bxd7) and now the cute quiet move 27.Rc7! – and the tables are turned. Black’s queen is lost to the pin along the seventh rank. 26.Rxc2 Qxd5 27.Rc7+ Everything now runs like clockwork. 27 … Rf7 Forced. If 27 … Kg8 28.Qxh7 checkmate. If 27 … Bd7 28.Qxd5. 28.Rxf7+ Kxf7 After 28 … Qxf7 29.Qxf5 White is winning. The … e4 pawn will fall soon. 29.Qxh7+ Ke6? 29 … Ke8 30.Qxa7 would be better; but Black is still lost here, of course. The move played loses the queen by force. 30.Qg8+! Alert to the error. 30 … Kd6 31.Ba3+ Kc6 32.Qa8+ And here Black threw in the towel; 33.Qxd5 follows next move. 1-0

Mikhail Botvinnik wrote that “Capablanca had the greatest natural talent. When a pianist plays, we don’t hear separate notes, but we hear a musical picture. So too, Capablanca didn’t make separate moves – he was creating a chess picture. Nobody could compare with him in this.” The games here bear out this insight; and in particular the endgame and the elegant attrition of Capablanca’s incisive positional play are the things to learn from him. David Hooper and Dale Brandreth’s prose is elegant too, as they introduce the games in each chapter, and they are able annotators. Sometimes, though, the authors feel compelled to explain or excuse Capablanca’s losses; they were so rare. Perhaps also they underestimate on occasion the ways in which his opponents could resist. It is not the case that Capablanca wins by force once he has a slight advantage; it just seems that way!

Despite the book’s title – The Unknown Capablanca – quite a few of the games are well known. Amongst them, a couple from the Corzo match, a victory against Nimzowitsch in an opposite-coloured bishop ending and especially one against Bernstein, played in Moscow in 1914, that has 29 …Qb2!! as the final winning move. All are instructive, though, and most games will be new to readers.

Overall, this is an excellently researched book which presents a welcome (and a considerable: 208 games!) selection of Capablanca’s minor masterpieces. There is an index of endgames, along with the usual indices of players and openings: a helpful feature. Also, there is an index of sources and this includes many chess magazines and newspapers from the USA, Cuba, France and Eastern Europe. Capablanca’s full chess record is given too. It is in English descriptive notation (not algebraic), which was the norm when the book was first published in 1975, but don’t let that put you off. The Unknown Capablanca is a valuable contribution to our understanding of the great Cuban genius, and it will allow you to form a more fully rounded view of his achievements as a chess player.

About the reviewer: Paul Kane lives and works in Manchester, England. He welcomes responses to his reviews and you can reach him at ludic@europe.com