José Raúl Capablanca; The Genius known as the Human Chess Machine

José Raúl Capablanca

José Raúl Capablanca, or to give him his full name, José Raúl Capablanca y Graupera was a Cuban chess player. Widely regarded as a prodigy, he was world chess champion from 1921 to 1927 and was renowned for his exceptional endgame skill and the speed of his play.

Nicknamed “The Human Chess Machine,” it’s no wonder Capablanca made it in the chess world hall of fame, and we are about to dive into his story and find out how he learned to play so well and became a champion..

The Early Life of José Raúl Capablanca

José Raúl Capablanca was born on the 19th November 1888 in Havana. He learned the game of chess from the young age of four by watching his father, José María Capablanca play. Apparently one time he was observing the play and he pointed out an illegal move made by his father, and then went on to play against, and beat him.

Capablanca spent his childhood perfecting his skills. From the age of eight he was taken to the Havana Chess Club where many important contests were held and began to play semi-regularly.

Known in many circles as simply “Capa”, he was only 13 years old when he defeated Cuban champion Juan Corzo.

José Raúl Capablanca

The Chess Career of José Raúl Capablanca

José Raúl Capablanca attended Columbia University, where he joined the Manhattan Chess Club. It wasn’t long before he became their strongest player. In fact he was so talented that he eventually decided to withdraw from Columbia to focus on chess full time.

Capablanca soon became known for his high level of skill in rapid chess. This reputation lent itself to carrying out a number of simultaneous exhibitions. In 1909 he took part in a nationwide tour of 27 US cities, and achieved a whopping winning score of 96.9% over 607 games. This was just the beginning of his success; Chessmetrics actually rated Capablanca the world’s third strongest player from 1909 through 1912.

In 1911, José Raúl Capablanca qualified for the 1911 World Chess Championship, where he was due to play against World Champion Emmanuel Lasker. Despite the odds being in Capablanca’s favour as he had previously beaten Lasker in 1906, he was unsatisfied with the terms of the match and decided not to compete.

In September 1913, Capablanca was offered a job in the Cuban Foreign Office, thanks to his chess skills, which he accepted, making him financially secure for life. This job required him to represent Cuba at international events, and led to him holding exhibitions in London, Paris, and Berlin. His ultimate destination ended up being Saint Petersburg in 1914, where he finally played Lasker again, but unfortunately lost by a narrow margin.

For a few years following this, international competition ground to a halt due to World War I. Despite this Capablanca continued to compete where he could, mainly in New York, and he dominated the game for years. In fact he lost only one game in the years between 1914 and 1924.

José Raúl Capablanca

In 1920, Capablanca challenged Lasker once more and they agreed to compete in the 3rd World Chess Championship the following year in 1921. Lasker was world champion at the time of this agreement, but he actually resigned the title to Capablanca on the 27th June 1920, saying, “You have earned the title not by the formality of a challenge, but by your brilliant mastery.”

When the game was actually played the following year Lasker was now considered the challenger, and he resigned to Capablanca after losing four straight games. José Raúl Capablanca then held the title until 1927, when he lost to Alexander Alekhine.

Since Capablanca had never previously lost a game to Alekhine, most people regarded the Cuban as the clear favourite to win the World Chess Championship 1927 match. Unfortunately for José Raúl Capablanca, it wasn’t to be. The match was played from September to November 1927 at Buenos Aires, making it the longest formal World Championship match to be played, right up until the contest in 1984–85 between Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov. 

Alekhine actually beat Capablanca by 6 wins, 3 losses, and 25 draws, and the victory surprised almost the entire chess world. José went on to play in several more tournaments in an attempt to regain his title, but despite performing well, he could never match his former greatness.

José Raúl Capablanca’s Retirement

In the years following the loss of his title, Capablanca’s game play began to show the signs of decline. His play slowed down from the speed of his youth, and he experiences occasional time trouble. Whilst he continued to produce many superb games, and was still ranked as the second strongest player in the world, he began to make some gross blunders.

Capablanca retired briefly in 1931 before rediscovering his hunger for success and returning to the game later in the 1930s. During World War II, International competition was again halted, and it was during this hiatus that he sadly passed away in 1942.

It turned out that Capablanca’s high blood pressure was not correctly diagnosed and treated early enough, which could have been what caused him to lose his train of thought towards the end of his playing sessions. On 7 March 1942, Capablanca was attending a skittles game with friends at the Manhattan Chess Club when he suffered a stoke and passed away the next day.

Many tributes were made to the chess champion after his passing. Alekhine said “Capablanca was snatched from the chess world much too soon. With his death, we have lost a very great chess genius whose like we shall never see again.” Lasker said: “I have known many chess players, but only one chess genius: Capablanca.

José Raúl Capablanca

Quick Facts

  • José Raúl Capablanca was nicknamed “The Human Chess Machine”.
  • Throughout his adult career, Capablanca lost only 34 serious games.
  • In 1922, José Raúl Capablanca gave a simultaneous exhibition in Cleveland against 103 opponents, which was the largest in history up to that time. He won 102 and drew one, setting a record for the best winning percentage ever in a large simultaneous exhibition.
  • Capablanca wasn’t just known for being a great technical player, he was also popular due to being a handsome and elegant man.
  • José Raúl Capablanca wrote a book entitled “My Chess Career”.
  • An annual Capablanca Memorial tournament has been held in Cuba, most often in Havana, since 1962.