On Saturday evening, March 7th, Jose R. Capablanca sat watching a skittles game at New York's Manhattan Chess Club. He was in his usual excellent spirits, seemingly full of life and vigor. He joked and kibitzed with the others surrounding the board. Suddenly the Cuban Grandmaster's voice thickened. "Help me…help me remove my coat," he gasped, and fell to the floor. Carried to a couch, he lapsed into a coma before the arrival of medical help. Rushed to Mt. Sinai Hospital, Capablanca died at 5:30 a.m., never having regained consciousness. A cerebral hemorrhage was the cause of his death.
Thus, with dramatic but merciful swiftness, passed the most famous figure in contemporary chess. To the farthest ends of the earth, Capablanca and Chess were almost synonymous. While the names of other men needed explanation, the magic name of Capablanca was sufficient in itself. The whole world knew that he was a chess genius, a chess champion.
At the time of his death Capablanca was commercial attaché of the Cuban Embassy but had spent most of his time in New York, since his arrival here last May. The Cuban Ambassador, Dr. Aurelio F. Concheso, came from Washington to pay his respects to his friend as he lay in state. The Consular Service was represented by Consul General Roberto Hernandez and New York Consul Alfred Hernandez.
With ceremonies usually reserved for a Colonel killed in active service, Capablanca was laid to rest in Havana on March 14th. General Batista, President of Cuba, took personal charge of the funeral arrangements.
Capablanca leaves a widow, his second wife, the former Princess Olga Chagodalf of Russia; a son and daughter, Jose R. Jr., and Gloria, children of his first marriage; and a younger brother.
As Reti has so well expressed it, chess was Capablanca's "mother tongue" in which he "couched his thoughts in the proper terms with ease." Born in Havana, Cuba, on November 19, 1888, he learned to play the game at the age of four. His father and grandfather, both Spanish Army Officers, played chess. Young Jose was brought up to regard chess as a natural accompaniment of the home. He learned the game in the same subconscious way that a child learns to speak.
Jose Capablanca, however, was not an ordinary child. He was possessed of that mysterious genius for the game which manifests itself in few individuals. Others may look at the chess board and see inanimate pieces of wood on checkered squares but Capablanca saw a living, moving, dynamic picture in which the Queens and Bishops and Rooks and Knights radiated their power. At a glance he saw how their forces were concentrated on certain squares, left others weak. Whereas the ordinary mortal laboriously calculates the outcome of a series of moves and soon becomes befuddled, this boy followed the changing picture of the board with effortless ease. In his mind, the pieces moved from square to square and the final position stood out sharp and clear. Like most chess prodigies, he could not explain this gift. He just "saw" it, that was all.
When Capablanca joined the Havana Chess Club he was by far the youngest member but was soon taking the measure of the older men. At the age of twelve he astonished his countrymen by winning the chess championship of Cuba, in a match with J. Corzo, by a score of 4-0 with six draws.
This early training and experience was reflected in Capablanca's later play. To quote again from Richard Reti: "In one's native language grammar is an unnecessary crutch, which is replaced by one's feeling for the language, the rich experience stored in one's subconscious mind. And Capablanca has the finest possible feeling for chess. Just by referring to that superior pattern in his mind he has succeeded in pointing out errors of exaggeration in many of the old rules."
As a youth, Capablanca attended a finishing school in New York and studied engineering at Columbia University. It was in this period that he developed much of his strength as a chess master. He studied the end-game exhaustively and played thousands of skittle games for money stakes so that he was forced to concentrate. He became a member of the Manhattan Chess Club and at the age of 18 was considered one of the leading players in this country.
It was in 1909 that Capablanca obtained recognition as the outstanding player of Pan-America. In that year, as a young man of 20, he defeated the American Champion Frank J. Marshall in an unofficial match by the remarkable score of 8-1 with 14 drawn games. Two years later he made his first European appearance at the International Tournament in San Sebastian, Spain. It was a brilliant debut. Against such outstanding masters as Rubinstein, Vidmar and other topflight competition, he won first prize with the loss of only one game.
For many years thereafter, the name of Capablanca became increasingly famous. Apart from a string of international chess victories, there was something in his romantic background, his polished manner, his handsome appearance, even the euphony of his name itself, which caught the public's fancy. People who had never played chess in their lives knew his name, respected his talents, admired his accomplishments.
His achievement at San Sebastian, in 1911, stamped Capablanca as the leading contender for the world title. He attempted to arrange a match with Dr. Lasker without success. When the latter won the St. Petersburg Tournament in 1914, defeating Capablanca in a famous game, the aspirations of the Cuban temporarily subsided. Furthermore, war conditions made it impossible to hold a match for the title. During the war, Capablanca competed in three tournaments in New York and won first prize each time.
After the armistice he returned to Europe and again attempted to arrange a match. Dr. Lasker had relinquished the title but Capablanca refused to accept this and insisted that they play for the championship. Finally, the match was agreed upon and was held in his native Havana in 1921. Capablanca won the championship of the world by a score of 4-0 with ten drawn games.
The new world champion then won the great international tournament in London in 1922 with the tremendous score of eleven wins, no losses, four draws. It was around this time that he began to be spoken of as "unbeatable"-a "chess machine" overcoming all opposition with deadly accuracy and precision. As a result of his early training he never got into time-trouble, never committed a serious blunder. From 1916 to 1924 Capablanca did not lose a single game of chess in master play. For twenty years, from 1911 to 1931, he was never lower than third in all the tournaments in which he competed.
Capablanca reigned as world champion from 1921 to 1927. Near the end of his reign, he achieved one of his greatest successes when he won first place in the four-round tournament of six masters at New York. The "coming man" Alekhine competed in this tourney and placed second. A match was arranged between them for the title and everybody expected Capablanca to win with ease. The match was held in Buenos Aires. In the very first game the champion was defeated. He never recovered from the psychological handicap of this initial set-back and lost by a score of 6-3 with 25 drawn games. Endless negotiations for a return match have taken place ever since 1927. Capablanca accused Alekhine of demanding impossible conditions while the new champion claimed that the terms were the same as those he had been called upon to meet. Whatever the reason, no return match could be arranged.
Up to the time of his death, Capablanca was still striving to prove that he could defeat Alekhine. He came to this country last May in order to interest the U.S. Chess Federation in sponsoring a title match in this country. An attempt was made to bring Alekhine here but the champion was unable to obtain passports.
Perhaps it is just as well that this final attempt failed. Of recent years, Capablanca's power had waned. Since losing the title, he had registered many important tournament and match victories, including the famous tourneys at Moscow and Nottingham, 1936, but the young generation of Masters were beginning to outshine the ex-champion. He experienced more and more difficulty in maintaining his position. The man who had never been in time-trouble was no longer able to disregard the clock. He found it increasingly hard to concentrate. When he gave his last simultaneous exhibition at the Marshall Chess Club on November 6th, 1941, the players and audience could not help noticing how laborious he found this once simple task. The "chess machine" was beginning to run down.
Now he is gone. His remains lie buried in his native Havana. But the name of Capablanca and the games of Capablanca will live forever. (End of article)
In a December, 1942 interview Samuel Reshevsky commented on Capa’s play at the end: "You often hear that Capablanca, for instance, fell off and played badly in his last years. Personally, I don't think he fell off much. He played just about the same as he ever did but the younger masters just played stronger and better."
A couple of articles on Capablanca’s widow can be read at: Jack Lummus and US Chess Trust article.
Mt. Sinai Hospital, New York City as seen today