A review of Capablanca by Edward Winter

Reviewed by P.P.O. Kane

A Compendium of Games, Notes, Articles, Correspondence, Illustrations and Other Rare Archival Materials on the Cuban Chess Genius Jose Raul Capablanca, 1888-1942
By Edward Winter 
McFarland, 2011
ISBN: 9780786466344

Edward Winter states in his preface that this book ‘is less a biography than a compilation of documents and data’; nonetheless one can glean from it a vivid picture of the great champion’s life and chess career.

In the first chapter Winter gives in full Capablanca’s article, ‘How I Learned to Play Chess’, wherein he describes how he beat his father in his very first game of chess. He was then just 4 years of age. Further articles by Capablanca and others are quoted later in the same chapter and indeed throughout the book. There are also interviews conducted at various crucial points in Capablanca’s life, and transcripts of his broadcasts and lectures. Several games are included, many with annotations by Capablanca himself, and there’s a generous helping of rare photographs. Included also is the chess column where Capablanca introduced the now famous game Ortueta-Sanz to a waiting world.

Winter provides a linking narrative, but he does more than that, especially in his discussion of the negotiations for various world championship matches. Capablanca negotiated with Lasker and Alekhine as challenger (after he lost the championship in 1927) and as champion he received challenges from Rubinstein, Alekhine and Nimzowitsch. The protracted and ultimately unsuccessful exchanges for a rematch with Alekhine take up a fair amount of the book.

One small detail as an indication of the character of Capablanca: when he sends a letter of challenge to Alekhine via a friend, it is unsealed, out of courtesy. It is a signal of respect and regard to his friend; he naturally trusts him not to read the letter. On the whole, Capablanca comes across as a person of impeccable manners. He was a great champion and also – considering his many simultaneous displays, his writing for newspapers and chess magazines, his broadcasts and lectures – a great populariser of the game. A perfect ambassador for chess.

We follow his chess career from prodigy to young pretender to world champion; and even though the loss to Alekhine took the wind out of his sails for a bit, renewal and revitalisation followed soon after. He continued to show his calibre at Carlsbad 1929, Moscow 1936, Nottingham 1936 and elsewhere.

He was an admirable man and, though he died at the relatively early age of 53, his life was by no means a tragic one. Purdy’s summation seems fair: ‘Let us rejoice that here was one genius who was fully appreciated in his lifetime.’

No admirer of Capablanca should be without this book.

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