Chess Archaeology HomeChess is a scientific game and its literature ought to be placed on the basis of the strictest truthfulness, which is the foundation of all scientific research.W. Steinitz

One Man’s Mind
by Quentin Reynolds
(submitted by John S. Hilbert)

[The following article about José Raul Capablanca appeared in the March 2, 1935, issue of Collier’s magazine.  Quentin Reynolds, the author of the piece, obviously knew little about chess or its then recent history.  Yet overlooking this unfortunate fact, so often present in terms of popular media coverage of the game, his piece is entertaining enough, and certainly represents how the non-chess playing public was provided a glimpse of the Cuban superstar.  There are errors of fact that appear below, and so the piece should be read with extreme caution.  The most transparent, for anyone knowing something about chess history, is perhaps the third to the last paragraph: “When Capablanca was the champion he put his crown jauntily upon his head and cried joyously to the chess world ‘Come and get it!’  He’d play anyone any time for anything.  He was in truth a fighting champion.  He beat them all time after time.”  Reynolds’ reference, no doubt an honest error by someone unfamiliar with the history of the game, implies that Capablanca played numerous matches in defense of his title, which obviously was not the case.  As is well known, or should be, Capablanca never defended his title between the time he won it from Lasker in 1921 until the time he lost it to Alekhine in 1927.  Reynolds in all likelihood confused Capablanca’s enthusiasm about his willingness to meet Alekhine for a return match with the Cuban’s bitterness over Alekhine’s failure to meet him in a return match, even eight years after Alekhine defeated him.  Such cautions aside, the reader is invited to see the making of a legend in the popular mind.—JSH]

    José was a very inquisitive kid who was constantly asking questions with his eyes.  He was more quiet than the youngsters with whom he played, but there was nothing else to distinguish him from his playmates.  I mean until that day when his father sat in his office playing chess with a friend.
    They were old friends, these two, and often when the sun was very hot—and the sun can get very hot in Havana—they would sit in the office with a chessboard between them and now and then they would send a clerk out to get them glasses of rum.  Now, if the truth be known, José’s father was not a very good chess player.  He was in fact un jugador muy malo—but no matter.  On this day he sat there studying the pieces intently.  The game was going against him.  Then he moved a knight from one white square to another white square.  There was a childish squeal from five-year-old José and for the first time the two men were conscious of the fact that the boy had been there watching, wide-eyed and quiet.
    “Run along and play,” the father grumbled to the boy.
    “Please, Father—let me watch!” the youngster pleaded.
    The father looked at his son in amazement. What manner of child was this that begged to be allowed to watch two grown men play chess?
    “Stay, then, but be quiet,” the father said, and the game went on.
    The father won the game and he chuckled at the discomfiture of his old friend.  Then he was astounded to hear his son say: “You won, Father, but not fairly.  You moved a knight from one white square to another.  That is not fair.”
    Both men looked at the child in amazement.  José’s father was not conscious of the fact that he had inadvertently cheated.  His opponent, too, had missed the play.  Oh, but truly they were poor chess players.  However, they went back over the game and found the place where Capablanca senior had made that false move.  His annoyance over his clumsy mistake was overshadowed by the discovery that his five-year-old chico could play chess.
    “Who taught you to play?” the father demanded.
    “Nobody,” José Capablanca, Jr., said calmly.  “I have watched you play many times, Father. And now I can play.  It is easy to play chess, isn’t it?”
    “Sit down, my little cabbage,” the puzzled father said, “and we’ll see if you can play.”
    “Okay, Pop,” the kid said, only he said it in Spanish, for it was not until many years afterwards that he learned English.  And he defeated his father very easily and that father was the proudest man in Havana.
    He took the youngster around to the Havana Chess Club to meet the real players.  They laughed when he sat down to the chess table, but soon their laughter changed—you know the rest of it.  The best players could beat him but not one there could give him a queen and beat him.  And so genius was discovered.
    Now there are three great chess players in the world: the Russian lawyer, Alexander Alekhine; the German, Dr. Emanuel Lasker, and José Capablanca, who is no longer a five-year-old child prodigy.  At present Alekhine holds the world title, but those who know a Hampe Allgaier Thorold gambit from a queen’s pawn tell me that Capablanca is the greatest of them all and that over a period of years he has demonstrated his superiority again and again over the other masters.
    I had always thought that a chess master was a cross between a logarithm table and an adding machine and that such a master would have a long white beard, large hypnotic eyes and would sing nothing but a strictly intellectual bass.  Capa (sure, we chess experts call him Capa) was a rude shock to me.  He is just on the wrong side of forty but looks as though he were just on the right side of thirty and he is dapper and handsome and he is actually interested in only one thing—baseball.
But Chess Isn’t Important
    It was difficult to get Capablanca to talk about the great matches in which he has engaged, for, as he says, “When a match is over I forget it. You can only remember so many things, so it is better to forget useless things that you can’t use and remember useful things that you can use. For instance, I remember and will always remember that in 1927 Babe Ruth hit sixty home runs.”
    Yes, it was difficult to get Capablanca to talk about chess and when I would ask him some penetrating question such as “Do you owe your success to clean living, right thinking and giving up your lunch hour to study?” the master would meditate for a moment, a faraway look would come in his eyes and he would say, “Yes, I know Charlie Gehringer is a swell second baseman, but did you ever see that Eddie Collins when he was very, very hot?”
    Finally, by offering such alluring bait as the hint that an introduction to Mickey Cochrane might be arranged I managed to get him talking about chess and eventually the entire story of his amazing career unfolded itself.
    Capablanca is one of the very few child prodigies who manage to outstrip their early fame. He is actually better now than he was when he was five years old. It is a story, I think, of—but listen to it, my friends and neighbors; it isn’t long, the hay is all in, the cows are bedded down for the night and there’s tobacco at your elbow.
    We left our little wonder boy sitting in the Havana Chess Club playing the best men there on even terms. Don Celso Golmayo, champion of the club, was the only man there who could give the boy a rook and beat him. 
    When Don Celso grew old he would sit at one of those tables at the open-air cafés on the Prado and perhaps someone would mention Capablanca, who by then was listed with sugar and Adolph Luque as being one of the most important Cuban exports.
    “Capablanca?” Don Celso would muse. “Let me see. Oh, yes, I remember him well. A bright lad. Yes, indeed, I used to play chess with him. I always gave him a rook.” Then Don Celso would chuckle and perhaps order another daiquiri
    When José was twelve, no one could give him even the handicap of a rook. He was a slim, wide-eyed boy still, and not too strong. That amazing mind of his apparently drained and took unto itself some of his physical strength. At this time Juan Corzo was the chess champion of Cuba. A match was arranged between Corzo and Capablanca. Capablanca had never taken a chess lesson in his life. He was a genius, but genius untrained is apt to achieve nothing but brilliance, and brilliance seldom survives when pitted against capability. Until now Capablanca had played sheerly by what, for want of a better word, we’ll have to call instinct.
    Some friend of his father’s gave him three books on chess to read before the Corzo match. A chess game, generally speaking, is a mathematical symphony in three movements. There are the opening, the middle and the end, and each has a technique of its own. One of the books was on endings. Capablanca read it and his mind, like a thirsty plant absorbing water, took it all in eagerly. He had no time to read the other books.
    Everyone acknowledged the uncanny ability of the boy, but those Cubans had a very great respect for chess; they felt that it was a game that had to be learned, not a game that was part of one, even a gifted one such as the wide-eyed boy. So they gave the boy no chance at all against the veteran champion, who, by the way, was twenty-eight, the age, Capablanca now says, when a man should be at the height of his game.
A Move a Minute
    Now Corzo was an excellent player whose chief forte was his opening play. He won the first two games from José without any trouble, but in winning them he lost the match. The man who won four matches first was to be declared the champion; drawn games were not to count.
    Those two games which he lost taught young Capablanca a great deal. Until then he had known nothing of openings. He was like a tennis player who serves only to put the ball into play and who has no hope of acing his opponent. But now Corzo was showing the twelve-year-old tyro that openings were important. Capablanca absorbed the technique used by Corzo and then turned it against him. Corzo did not win another game. Five were drawn and then Capablanca won the necessary four.
    “I look back now,” Capablanca says, “and I’m amazed at the general soundness of my opening in the last game which I won. Were I to replay the match game I might well use the same opening.”
    This was in 1900, and it was the first title that he had won. Before he finished he was destined to win every single title that the chess world has to offer.
    In 1904 Capablanca went to New York to learn English, and he wanted to learn English—so help me—so that he could play baseball. Did you ever?
    It was like this: Columbia University had very good ball teams in those days and Capablanca wanted to play for Columbia. To play for Columbia he had to be a student. To be a student he had to know English. So he set to work learning English. Then he took his entrance examinations.
    I don’t know why Capablanca is the world’s greatest chess player any more than he does. He certainly followed no success formula and he was never really a student of the game in the sense that he arduously studied  the work of other masters. Probably his success was due to a certain cerebral quality lacking in the rest of us. That quality manifested itself when he took those difficult entrance examinations. The algebra examination, for instance, was scheduled to last three hours. At the end of an hour Capablanca handed in his paper.
    “Poor kid,” the instructor said, “I guess it was too tough for him. He just gave up.”
    But he was wrong. When he marked the paper he found that Capablanca had attained the high mark of 99 per cent, highest of any who had taken the test.
    “Mathematics always came easy to me,” Capablanca said thoughtfully.
    So he entered Columbia and received the greatest thrill he had ever received when he made the freshman team as shortstop. And he was a good shortstop too. At this time Capablanca was not the world’s greatest chess player—but he was, and he always remained, the world’s fastest player. Where others, even the masters, took long, agonizing periods to move, Capa seldom took more than a minute.
    The chief feature of his game at that period was his ability to press home a slight advantage. Then, too, he knew when to sacrifice. In all respects he was like the Detroit team of 1934: aggressive, sound, playing a heads-up game—and then a sharp, furious attack when an opponent left an opening. Chess people may shudder at comparing a chess master to a baseball team, but knowing Capablanca, I feel that he’ll consider it a great compliment. His endings (finishing punches), then as always, were superb.
    His most colorful feat (he laughs it off as being a stunt) occurred in Cleveland a couple of years ago when he played 103 men simultaneously. He won 102 matches and drew one. It was the greatest exhibition of its kind ever seen.
    “But I was tired after that match,” he said.
    “I suppose you were brain-weary,” I suggested.
    Capablanca laughed. “No, not at all. But I had been on my feet for seven hours. I had to keep walking from table to table. I must have walked ten miles. In chess, as in baseball, the legs go first. Chess is not an old man’s game.”
    Probably two of the most important chess tournaments played in the past twenty-five years were the San Sebastian tournament held in 1911 and the International Masters tournament held in New York in 1927. Capablanca won both. 
    It was very chilly in Spain during the San Sebastian event and Capablanca caught himself a bad cold. However, he went through the early rounds easily enough. Now Capablanca is not, as we have hinted, the gray-bearded recluse that the word “chess master” brings up. He is a gay, happy-go-lucky caballero and he’ll take a drink or sing a song or sit up all night and talk about anything. He found kindred spirits in San Sebastian that year and, although he devoted his days to playing chess, he felt that the nights were his own. He saw, shall we say, the night life of Spain?
    When the day dawned for his final match (it was with Dr. Vidmar, wizard of engineering and chess) Capa woke up with a temperature of 103. He felt like nothing on earth, but chess matches, unlike prize fights, cannot be postponed at the whim of a participant. He had to go through with it or forfeit. He led the tournament and to win all he needed was a draw with Vidmar. Vidmar on the other hand could win the tournament if he beat Capablanca. It was a tough spot. And the stuffy room where they were to play was crowded with spectators and filled with smoke and unbearably hot. The fever was killing Capablanca.
    Capablanca suggested that the game be removed to a neighboring room which was larger. They moved. The room was encircled by windows which were closed. The Cuban though he’d burn up if those windows weren’t opened.
    “A bit stuffy, isn’t it?” he suggested and he opened one window. They began the match and the fever mounted. Between moves Capablanca arose casually and strode to another window. Eventually he had every window in the place wide open and the breeze almost murdered the sun-loving Spaniards. But it kept that fever from mounting—and Capablanca won the game which he had only hoped to draw.
    The New York International Masters tournament in 1927 gave Capablanca a chance to put on his greatest show. All of the greatest masters were entered: Alekhine, Marshall, Vidmar, Spielmann, Nimzowitsch and the Cuban.
“Come and Get It”
    Capablanca fulfilled his destiny during that tournament. Perhaps no one ever played the inspired chess that he played. He did not lose a single game during the tournament. No one had ever performed such an incredible feat. It made Capablanca the champion of champions. His genius had reached its apotheosis. The other masters were but acquiescent sparring partners—even the great Alekhine who, a few months later, was destined to take the crown away from Capablanca.
    There is, Capablanca says, too much mystery about chess. It is not a difficult game to learn and it is an enjoyable game to play. He is publishing a book shortly, A Primer of Chess, which he hopes will bring chess out of the intellectual clouds and put it within easy reach of all of us.
    But I think that Capablanca is a bit weary of playing chess. There is just one match that he wants—a return match (I almost said return bout) with Alexander Alekhine, the present champion.
    When Capablanca was the champion he put his crown jauntily upon his head and cried joyously to the chess world “Come and get it!” He’d play anyone any time for anything. He was in truth a fighting champion. He beat them all time after time.
    Often he and Alekhine were in the same tournament and always Capablanca prevailed. Then one day late in 1927, in a special match, the brilliant machinery of his mind became clogged for the moment, he lapsed—and Alekhine was the champion.
    Since then many attempts have been made to get the two men together, but to date they have been unsuccessful. That is the one match which Capablanca wants. Oh, very much indeed he wants that match. And when that day comes I’ll give eight to five on the man from the land of rum and rumba. Why? Well, I figure that anyone who can pronounce Alekhine’s name correctly can beat him and I heard Capablanca pronounce it in French, Russian, and English. How can you beat a man like that?
© 1935 Quentin Reynolds.  © 1935 Collier’s.
© 1999 John S. Hilbert.  All Rights Reserved.

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