Chess Classics – Learn from Capablanca Meeting Amateurs

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This is an article written by the RCA guest coach FM Zaur Tekeyev.


One of the best ways to get better at chess is to learn from the best players. In this article, I would like to show you a few interesting games of one of the most impressive players of the past, Jose Raul Capablanca.

The third World Champion Jose Raul Capablanca is considered to be a genius of the intuitive play, his style was very clear and simple but yet very difficult to imitate. He had a brilliant technique and so he had no need to go into wild complications. Instead, he could make the right exchanges and win the game in a slightly better endgame without any nerves.

There are really a lot of things that we could learn from him and recently some of his games caught my attention. The reason was that Capablanca’s opponents were some unknown amateurs and it seemed like a good sign to me. When a strong opponent meets another strong opponent they usually don’t allow each other to implement their plans and it becomes difficult to learn from such games. But if nobody stops a strong player’s ideas then we can get very instructive examples.

So here’s the first game I wanted you to see. I suggest that you, at first, go through it yourself and only then read my annotations. Try to guess White’s moves and see if you can understand the ideas behind them.

Hopefully, you liked the game and now let’s try to learn from it. White got some advantage from the opening because Black didn’t try to take control over the center with pawns. But we can also notice that Capablanca considered having pawns e4 and d4 to be enough. No f2-f4 or c2-c4 ­– just quick development and castling! After 8 moves he developed all the minor pieces so he started finding active places for his major pieces – Qh5 and Rad1.

Can you guess what would be next? I am sure that would be f2-f4-f5 so the rook on f1 could participate in the game even without moving and White would get a dangerous attack. Black was afraid of this plan and decided to play e6-e5 to prevent f4-push. But it weakened a lot of squares in the center so Capablanca started getting control over them with moves like Bc4, Rd6 and Rfd1. Now all of his pieces were very active and he first provoked a weakness in Black’s position with 16.Bg5 and then sacrificed a queen to checkmate in a very beautiful way.

I find this game very interesting and instructive. And Capablanca’s brave queen sacrifice was quite impressive. But actually Black could defend a way better and get even a winning position! You can challenge yourself and find an improvement for Black. I’m sure that careful analysis of the arising variation could help you improve your calculation.

Now let’s take a look at the game that was played 8 years ago. After move 12 you can stop for a while and think how you would place your pieces.

Here Capablanca’s opponent made the same mistake at the beginning of the game – he gave up the center. And you can see that all of Black’s pieces were very passive because of that. I would like you to pay attention to the 14th move of Capablanca. Firstly, he wanted to activate all of his pieces so a1-rook had to enter the game. Secondly, even though Black’s king’s shelter seemed pretty shaky, the Cuban decided to focus on the queenside weaknesses.

It’s easy to imagine a situation when Black’s pieces are tied down to the defense of the c6-pawn and then White quickly switches to the kingside thanks to the space advantage. But in this game, Black didn’t manage even to save the c6-pawn. So Capablanca won the game more or less easily. He occupied the center, found very nice squares for all of his pieces and outplayed his less-experienced opponent.

Actually, such a mistake is very common among amateurs. They opt for a passive strategy aiming to risk less but it just gives free hands to their opponents. Black could try 5…c5, trying to challenge White’s center and so the knight could be developed on c6 and the c8-bishop wouldn’t get stuck behind the c6-pawn. And now we can see why Capablanca played 7.a3 and 8.b4 – he wanted to prevent Black’s activity!

Now let’s try to learn from the third game. It was played the same day as the first one, but the seems like knowing Black’s mistake from the previous game (played 8 years ago) could help to Capablanca’s opponent this time.

Here we see that Black fought for the center with pawns at the beginning but then the move 7…Nc6 left them with no counter play. It was necessary to play 7…c5! to challenge White’s center and open the position so Black’s pair of bishops could get some fresh air. Capablanca made use of that mistake and immediately closed the center and started active actions with the move 9.h4. Greek gift sacrifice was coming so Black prevented it with the move 9…g6 but gave White to open the h-file for the rook and start a strong attack.

Of course, exchanging White’s light-squared bishop reduced White’s attacking potential to some extent but on the other hand, Black’s queenside was left undeveloped, and as you could see the World Champion sacrificed his queen on g6 twice in a day. Black didn’t take it though and he gave it up for the rook on g7 creating unavoidable threats. So Black had to give it back and end up in a losing endgame.

So these were three very different games but they had something in common and I hope you learned enough out of them.

About the author

Zaur Tekeyev is a FIDE Master (FM) from Russia with URS rating 2422. He is the winner of the Russian Student Chess League’s Championship (Moscow, 2017), and the Champion of NCFD in rapid chess (2019). He likes more human-like approach in chess rather than computerish, and so he tries hard to find some logic behind the moves. 

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