José Raúl Capablanca: a chess biography, by Miguel A. Sánchez

Published August 2015, 568 pp.

By Davide Nastasio

I knew I made the right choice in getting this book for two quotes I read in the beginning, one which was quite profound by Botvinnik: “It is impossible to understand the world of chess, without looking at it with the eyes of Capablanca.”



GM Mikhail Botvinnik


The second quote I love because it dispels the myth many amateurs have, mainly because they never study chess history. This myth is relative to Capablanca never studying chess, and being so good and talented. As we know from Kasparov, talent is studying chess 12 hours a day!  The quote I want to mention comes from another great player of those long forgotten times: Jacques Mieses.  He said, “Capa practically gave all of his time to chess, from the fourth to the 22nd year of his life.”



GM Jacques Mieses


This would also explain the extreme, deep preparation Alekhine undertook in order to beat Capablanca, detailed in the book On the Road to the World Championship 1923-1927.





Let’s return for a moment to Botvinnik’s quote: “… looking at it with the eyes of Capablanca.”   Well, let me show you what Botvinnik meant! While reviewing a Chessbase DVD on Capablanca,




I came across the following position in the tactic training section:




This is the 9th game of the Match against Marshall. Capablanca played many times against Marshall, but I found this position quite important in showing how deep Capablanca’s thought was.  Marshall just played 16.Ra4, and Capablanca continued with 16…c5; and Marshall pins the Pc5 with 17.Qa3, but there is a problem.  Now the White rook in a4 is trapped.




How can Black exploit it? How can Black find a way to win some material?  Please take your time.  Position the pieces on a chessboard and think as long as you like.  I must admit that I didn’t see the solution. I didn’t see how to trap the Ra4. But Capablanca did, and here his original solution!  Capablanca plays 17. … Bd7; but this is not the idea however, since White can block the attack to the Rook in a4 playing 18.Bb5.




Can you see how Capablanca continued?  The beautiful and aesthetically pleasing idea that Capablanca found in order to take advantage of the trapped Ra4?  He continued with 18. … Bf5, leaving the d7-a4 diagonal for attacking on the f5-b1 diagonal.




Thanks to this move he won a vital tempo. But can you see what Black does after White plays 19.Rb2?




19. … a6; 20.Be2,Bd7 and Black wins the exchange, because White can no longer put the light-square bishop in b5.




Now, if you saw all of this, congratulations.   You can see with Capablanca’s eyes. I didn’t, and I was pleasantly surprised when I realized how deep Capablanca was.

Now let’s return to review this great book.

Chapter 1: Havana the El Dorado of Chess

The author does an amazing job of outlining Cuba as a golden place for playing chess. He begins by showing Morphy’s games in Cuba, going on then to other players like Zukertort, who sojourned on the island.  He then covers the famous matches between Steinitz and Chigorin, in 1889 and 1892. This is an important background, because Capablanca didn’t come from a country which didn’t play chess, but from a country that loved chess enough to host two world championships. And then of course there would be the world championship of 1921, which would crown Capablanca. It’s practically impossible to create a champion out of a vacuum. This is confirmed in the book on page 69 when Alekhine’s thoughts on Capablanca are paraphrased by GM Pomar from Spain: “Alexander Alekhine was justified in thinking that many years of chess promotion in Cuba, and in particular the Steinitz-Chigorin matches, had created an environment very conducive to the emergence of a first rate champion.”

Chapter 2

This chapter outlines the origins of Capablanca’s family from Spain. A good work on genealogy which must have been quite complicated to find, since we are speaking of the 1800s.  All the wars between Spain, France, and other European imperialist powers must have destroyed many records.

Chapter 3: The Boy Prodigy

In this chapter, we find what is considered to be Capablanca’s first published game, which was played when he was 4 years, 10 months old.  It is a game Capablanca wins, but White gave him the advantage of the queen.  This chapter is quite interesting because it describes the first years of Capablanca playing chess, and how his parents were afraid it would damage his health to play chess. This chapter alone contains 20 games played by Capablanca, as well as many early pictures.

Chapter 4: Champion of the Americas

This chapter begins to tell us the sad story of Marshall, whose career unfortunately coincided with the rise of two of the best players of all time, one is obviously the main character of this book: Capablanca.  The other, as you can imagine, was Alekhine.  This is also part of what I call luck or fate in chess. There are some historical periods in which one could be the best, but there are other periods during which two or three other chess stars destroy whatever hopes one has to achieve greatness. In some cases, historical events can be quite damaging.  For example, Alekhine was hindered by WWI and WWII. Lasker was definitely helped by WWI in keeping his reign for so long. Rubinstein is another player whose chess career was hurt by the Great War.

However, this chapter shows that by 1909 Capablanca was more famous in the Americas (especially U.S.) than Marshall was.  I’m briefly outlining most of the chapters, because I think the reader of the book shouldn’t be deprived of all the surprises that can be found in the book.
If you take something from this chapter and you’re really fond of learning about Capablanca, then you should also read the book My Chess Career, written by Capablanca.  It is an out-of-print book that I found a copy of for 88 cents! But the average price was around $3.   The advantage of this book, compared to My Chess Career, is that the games are in algebraic notation.  Also, there are more annotations in this book than in Capablanca’s.






This chapter mentions Marshall’s book My Fifty Years of Chess, which I bought for writing another article.  It was more expensive, around $13.

Chapter 5: The Prodigal Son

The title of the chapter is pretty self-explanatory. At this point in his life, Capablanca is at the top of the chess world.  He returns to Cuba where they celebrate his achievement. The chapter also shows a mature Capablanca playing against Corzo, the local champion. This is quite an interesting point, because one can compare the way Capablanca played 8 years before. In this sense the author makes this important comparison for those who don’t have a database, and shows the most important games.

For those who are interested in more than just the biographical work, I’d like to show an example of an annotated game from this chapter to show the quality of the games.





Chapter 6: The New Conquistador

The chapter begins describing the numerous simultaneous exhibitions Capablanca played in many different places: Paris, Frankfurt, Nuremberg, Munich, and Buenos Aires. The chapter also discusses the correspondence relative to his challenging the world champion, Emanuel Lasker, and the many tournaments Capablanca played and won.  The cross table below is an example.




Chapter 7: In Morphy’s Footsteps

I find most of these chapters of extreme interest both at a human and historical level.  The end of the chapter discusses the beginning of WWI and how Capablanca luckily escaped by taking a ship to the Americas.  The chapter also covers what he had to do to become the challenger to the world champion. The chapter also shows the many games Capablanca played in that period.

The book continues with 11 more chapters. They are all fascinating.

Chapter 8, A King in Waiting,  tells us about the romantic life of the gifted Cuban!




Both chapter 9, which covers the world championship of 1921, and chapter 13 on the world championship of 1927 can be of interest to chess players who don’t like chess history.  Please note also how the author digs deep into different historical sources, and even found caricatures with Capablanca.




Chapter 13, Smiling Again, begins by showing the Moscow tournament in 1936, where Capablanca beats Botvinnik, Lasker, Flohr and other strong players of that period!

The author was very thorough in his research into Capablanca’s life.  He mentions Capablanca’s many travels to Moscow: 1925, 1935, and 1936.  The rumored FBI investigations into his activities (although the FBI denied ever investigating Capablanca). This can sound strange for us in this modern period, but even Fischer and his mother were investigated by the FBI, both of whom had an FBI dossier and agents actively following them.

Appendix I shows Capablanca’s ideas on four of his predecessors.

Appendix II can be interesting for those suffering from high blood pressure, because the neurologist who wrote this chapter did a good job of outlining the problems of hypertension, and inserted a lot of images of the brain. Capablanca likely died of a massive hemorrhagic stroke.

In conclusion, I counted around 170 games in this book, making it a good book for those who are more interested in games than a biography. However, the book is supreme for the biography section, because in the biography we can see the huge amount of research the author has done. Throughout the book it is possible to find images of the period, satirical cartoons, and old documents whose access is generally given only to scholars.




In the end the book shows the scholarly level with the indexes. There is an index for everything! Opponents, Openings, Images! This is quite important for me because I write many articles during the year, and these professional indexes help me find the material I’m looking for in the over 500 pages of this great book–in seconds!

Clearly this is the book an amateur interested in chess history wants to have in his own library. I’m quite proud of this volume, because I wanted to know more about Capablanca’s life and to have some of his games in book format.  This book satisfied both these desires.
By the way, for those interested in Capablanca, McFarland also published another book by the famous chess historian Edward Winter:




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