No doubt it was unbeknownst to the players, but besides the tournament, a lot was happening in Moscow. After the second half of the 1920s, Joseph Stalin had set the stage for gaining absolute power by employing police repression against opposition elements within the Communist Party. The murder of Sergei Kirov, a prominent early Bolshevik leader, on December 1, 1934, set off a chain of events that culminated in the Great Terror of the 1930s.
Over the next four-and-a-half years, millions of innocent party members and others were arrested, many of them for complicity in the vast plot that supposedly lay behind the killing of Kirov. During the Great Terror, which included the notorious show trials of Stalin's former Bolshevik opponents in 1936-1938 and reached its peak in 1937 and 1938, millions of innocent Soviet citizens were sent off to labor camps or killed in prison. By the time the terror subsided in 1939, Stalin had managed to bring both the party and the public to a state of complete submission to his rule. In Soviet society people were so fearful of reprisals that mass arrests were no longer necessary. Stalin ruled as absolute dictator of the Soviet Union throughout World War II and until his death in March 1953. Even the organizer of this tournament got caught up in the purges.
The year 1936 marked two great victories by former World Champion Jose Capablanca, who by then has been relegated to the ranks of players whose best days were behind them and no longer capable of great accomplishments. Speaking of Capablanca's results, which of course did of fall off towards the end of his career, Samuel Reshevsky once told an interviewer that he didn't think Capa's play deteriorated, but the level of play was, in general, higher and so his results were not as spectacular.
According to Chessmetrics, in 1921 after winning the World Championship he was ranked number 1 with rating of over 2800. By the end of 1927 after losing his match against Alekhine, Capa was ranked number 2 with rating of 2789. His rating slipped in 1936 and at one point he was ranked number 9 with a 2679 rating. But, by the end of the year his rating was back up to 2755 and he was back to the number 2 spot. Shortly before his death in March of 1942, on Chessmetrics September, 1941 rating list Capa was rated 2670 and ranked only number 14. By that time Botvinnik, Fine, Reshevsky, Keres, Euwe, Alekhine, Stahlberg, Smyslov, Eliskases, Flohr, Lilienthal, Boleslavsky and Najdorf all ranked ahead of him.
But in 1936 Capablanca's critics were silenced after after two great triumphs: Nottingham where he tied Botvinnik for first place and lost only one game, to 7th place finisher Salo Flohr. This tournament in Moscow was a 10-player double round affair and Capa finished undefeated ahead of Botvinnik against whom Capa scored a win and a draw. It was Botvinnik's only loss. After these two tournaments nobody could deny that Capablanca was still one of the world's greatest players.
In the 1936 event organizer Nikolai Krylenko wanted an even more rigorous test for the Soviet players. The lineup was impressive with Capablanca and Lasker being invited back to Moscow for a third time as well as the previous year's winners, Botvinnik and Flohr. At the age of 67 Lasker, started out strongly, but his performance suffered during the second cycle when fatigue began taking its toll.
The tournament was held during May and June to commemorate the birth of Wilhem Steinitz. Five foreign masters and five Soviet masters were invited. Capablanca, Lasker, Flohr, Lilienthal and Eliskases were the foreign contingent while Botvinnik, Kan, Levenfish, Riumen ans Ragozin were the Russian players.
Capablanca's first place was to be one of the last successes against the Soviet hegemony until Bobby Fischer arrived on the scene 36 years later. It was also the last success for Krylenko. He was arrested in January 1938, tried and shot later that year. For complete details see Kevin Spraggett's article HERE.
There was a lot of enthusiasm as evidenced by the turnout of over 2,000 spectators on opening day. The first round began on May 14 and in a surprise result, Kan held Capa to a draw; in fact, all five games were drawn. After six rounds the leaders were Capa and Botvinnik with 4.0 followed by Lasker with 3.5.
In the seventh round the paring was Botvinnik vs. Capablanca and Botvinnik completely outplayed Capa only to lose because of an unsound sacrifice. In the next round Capa tightened his hold on first when he downed Lilienthal and Botvinnik could only draw Ragozin. After nine rounds the tournament was half over and the leading scores were: 1) Capa 6.5, 2-4) Botvinnik,, Lasker and Ragozin 5.0, 5-6) Kan and Levenfish 4.5.
In round 10 action Lasker blundered a piece against Botvinnik and lost in 21 moves and Capa beat Kan. After that, Capa kept his lead for the next several rounds and he and Botvinnik were paired again in round 16. Botvinnik nearly lost in trying to win, but managed to salvage a draw. Capa was still in the lead by a full point.
In the 17th (next to last) round Capa drew with Lilienthal in 21 moves and Botvinnik defeated Ragozin to come within a half point of Capa.
The final round pairings were: Capa vs. Eliskases and Botvinnik vs. Levenfish. If Botvinnik won and Capa only drew they would tie for first place. It seemed Botvinnik had the better chances because Levenfish was in bad form. Levenfish opened with 1.e4 and Botvinnik played the Sicilian and a hard battle ensued. Capablanca was also playing for a win and defeated Eliskases in a magnificent game. Botvinnik could only draw and so Capa finished first by a full point.
The following game is his last round win which demonstrates his classic style. The position after black's 41st move is quite an odd one.