November 19, 1888, is one of the most important dates in chess history. On this day, one of the greatest natural talents, the Cuban genius Jose Raul Capablanca, was born.
Capablanca was a prodigy in every sense of that word. He himself claimed he learned the rules of chess at the age of 4, by observing his father play. His ascent was meteoric; at the age of eight he was taken to the local Chess Club and beat everyone in there. In 1901, he became the Cuban National Champion by beating the current champion Juan Corzo convincingly in a match (before the 13th birthday) .
Although Capablanca distinguished himself already in 1906 by winning a rapid tournament in New York ahead of Emmanuel Lasker, only in 1909 did he achieve his first major international success. He beat the American champion and former World Championship Challenger Frank James Marshall in a match with a convincing +8=1-14 result. From this moment he would devote himself entirely to chess. Even though he entered university next year, he quickly withdrew in order to pursue the career of a chess professional. In 1911 he took the second place in the 1911 National Tournament in New York, half a point behind a Marshall. Despite that „failure“, he was invited to the strong 1911 San Sebastian tournament (mostly because Marshall, who has been invited himself, insisted that Capablanca should play there).
You might recall that back in 1910 Lasker played matches against Schlechter and Janowsky. After his victories, it wasn’t entirely clear who the next challenger should be. The name of polish master Akiba Rubinstein most often came into fore. The tournament of San Sebastian was supposed to clarify this situation. In all probability, the winner of the tournament would gain moral right to be the next World Championship Challenger.
All top players in the world participated apart from Lasker. But nobody, including Capablanca himself, expected the young Cuban prodigy to take convincing first place, ahead of Rubinstein, Vidmar, Marshall, Schlechter and Tarrasch. For his rival Rubinstein, victory in their individual encounter proved to be a small consolation.
Immediately after the tournament, Capablanca issued a formal challenge to Lasker. The Champion responded with a letter in which he formally accepted the match, but proposed a long list of conditions there were supposed to be met. The most controversial demand revoked ghosts of the Lasker- Schlechter World Championship Match 1910: Lasker demanded that the challenger should win the match by a two-point margin. Capablanca was dejected and criticized all Lasker’s demands, especially the two-point rule. Lasker was offended by Capablanca’s reply and the negotiations came to nothing.
With hindsight, it would appear that Lasker was deliberately confronting Capablanca with difficult match conditions. By abusing champion’s powers, he avoided Capablanca’s challenge. Most people, including Capablanca, consider this move by Lasker to be a decisive mistake. In 1911, he was still superior to Capablanca. Had he beaten him then, it would be much harder to organize another match in 1921.
It would appear that he was more willing to play Akiba Rubinstein at a time and that he feared Capablanca, as his own letter testifies:
“If this match (with Capablanca) should come to pass it will be the hardest struggle that ever…I will take some time to work out terms and conditions upon a basis of justice to all concerned, but I do not hesitate that in principle I am ready to defend the title.”
This speculation gains in strength when we know Lasker entered negotiations with Rubinstein in 1912. The players agreed to play a match in 1914, should Rubinstein manage to acquire necessary funds. Rubinstein was unable to raise the money and the match never took place. Then, the First World War intervened and killed his chances of a match challenge.
After the war, in January 1920, Capablanca reentered negotiations with Lasker. This time, the situation was radically different. During the war, Lasker invested his life savings into German war bonds and lost his complete fortune. His poverty and post-war depression told both during the negotiations and the very match.
After agreeing to a match on January 23, 1920, Lasker suddenly published an astonishing letter in July in which he resigned the title of the world champion in Capablanca’s favour, the main reason being: „that the chess world doesn’t like the conditions of our agreement.“ However, it would appear Lasker was concerned about the financial side of the match; he wasn’t certain whether there was enough financial backing to justify devoting nine months to a single match. In August, Capablanca visited Lasker in Netherlands and explained how chess enthusiasts in Havana had raised 20.000 $ for the match (an unprecedented sum at a time). Upon hearing this, Lasker agreed to play in the match but insisted he should be regarded as the challenger.
In any case, after eleven long years, chess world got to see another World Championship Match. The players sat down in Havana on 15 March 1921. The first player to win eight games, draws not counting, would be declared the champion. The number of the games was limited to 24. In the case neither player reached eight games after 24 games, the player in the lead would be declared the champion. The time limit was customary – 1 hour for 15 moves.
The match itself was dominated by Capablanca from the start to finish. Already after 14 games, he had established a dominating +4=0 lead. Lasker resigned the match without continuing and Capablanca became the third World Champion ahead of schedule. It would appear that multiple factors influenced the course of the match. Apart from the post-war depression and difficult financial situation Lasker was in, the tropic climate of Havana played an important role. Lasker, already well into his 50s, simply couldn’t adjust to the heat and was in unusually poor form during the whole match. In the subsequent years, he would win the New York 1924 chess tournament and take the second place in Moscow 1925, both times finishing ahead of Capablanca.