Lessons from Capablanca

Peter Lane, 22 January 1997

On Studying Master Games - a short digression

Polugayevsky, in the beginning of his book `Grandmaster Performance', quotes some advice he was given when a young player:

  "If you want to play well, in the first instance study games. Your own and other peoples'. Examine them from the viewpoint of the middlegame and the endgame, and only then from the viewpoint of the opening. This is more important than studying textbooks."

  This advice can be found in many sources, and, as an aspiring player, I am happy to follow it. But how exactly should we "study games"? How to derive the maximum benefit from watching somebody else, given our own knowledge and preferences? A useful start might be the players' own analysis. However, I find John Nunn opaque at best, Bobby Fischer more teasing than explanatory, and try Capablanca:



[Capablanca-Alekhin, St.Petersburg 1913]
His explanation of 18. Be4 is that it exchanges:

  "the almost useless B for a most valuable Kt. It would take a good many lines to explain this move properly, and then I might not be clearly understood, so I leave the student to work it out by himself".

  Analysis seems more accessible when by the lesser lights: Irving Chernev springs readily to mind, and also writers more involved with teaching, such as Dvoretsky and co. Why is this?

  Obviously, the mental makeup of a great player is different to that of a teacher, and their combination is a great rarity. Capablanca's comment "where you guess, I know" points very clearly at the existence of a gulf in understanding between the average player and the genius. This is all very well, but I still want some guidance on techniques of self-study, especially as printed analysis cannot be all things to all readers.

  What we need (any psychologists listening?) is a method to help the individual identify, not only the crucial points of a game, but more those points from which the individual can learn. And this requires a skill at self-evaluation, which the injunction to study your own games is designed to develop. One method I use, with which I invite argument, is derived from a rule in the computer study of intelligence known as Martin's Law: "You cannot learn anything unless you almost know it already". In the games below, I have tried to pick out those where it is possible to almost follow what is happening, and it is these where most can be learnt. At each point we must ask: - how does Capablanca assess the features in a position? - how do these features get drawn into a plan for the game?

Game 1 : Stages in an attack J.R.C. - D. Janowski (Manhattan, 1918)

1. d4 d5 2. Nf3 Nf6 3. c4 e6 4. Bg5 Nbd7 5. e3 c6 6. Nbd2

  This is an interesting idea of Capablanca's: aiming after ... dxc4 to play Nxc4-e5. It has the downside of taking away pressure from d5, a move white often makes after ...c5.

6. ... Be7 7. Bd3 dxc4 8. Nxc4 O-O 9. O-O c5 10. Rc1 b6 11. Qe2 Bb7 12. Rfd1



This is a fairly typical position for white in the Queen's Gambit, with the exception of the N on c4. Any 1.d4 player should take note of the disposition of forces.

12. ... Nd5 13. Nd6!



As black is not going to play 13. ... Bxg5 14. Nxb7 Qc7 15. Nxg5 Qxb7 16. Bxh7+ Kh8 17. Qh5 with a quick win for white, 13. ... Bc6 is forced. What is the purpose of this? To drive the B into the firing line of the Rc1! Capablanca comments: "Later on it will be seen how this little advantage now acquired is largely the cause of Black's defeat."

13. ... Bc6 14. Ne4 f5 15. Bxe7 Qxe7 16. Ned2 e5

  Forced in many ways, as else Nc4-e5 follows.

17. dxe5 Nxe5 18. Nxe5 Qxe5 19. Nf3 Qe7



If instead 19. ... Qf6 20. Bc4 Rad8 21. e4 fxe4 22. Qxe4 Rfe8 23. Rxd5! Rxe4 24. Rxd8 'mate. 19. ... Qe6 looks better, though 20. Bc5 leaves white the edge.

20. Nd4! cxd4 21. Rxc6 Nb4



White's Rxc6, made possible by move 13, gives him a comfortable position from which to work up an attack.

22. Bc4+ Kh8 23. Re6 d3 24. Rxd3 Qc5 25. Rd4 b5 26. Bxb5 Nxa2 27. Bc4 Nb4



The scattered black forces can offer no resistance. White now creates some tactical threats.

28. Qh5 g6 29. Rxg6 Rad8 30. Rg7 1-0

  if 30. ... Kxg7 31. Qg5+ Kh8 32. Rxd8 when 33. Qf6 'mate can only be stopped by 32. ... Nd5 33. Rxf8+ Qxf8 34. Bxd5 winning easily.

  My introduction made the point that we must begin looking at a master's game when we almost know what is going on, but perhaps we are missing some key feature of the position, or merely uncertain about whether we would make the moves ourselves. My tactic is to work backwards. Take the game above where I have supplied a number of diagrams. Beginning from the opening, we may wonder which of many plans would be most relevant, and despair of finding the answer. Beginning from the end, we should all see the tactics which lead black to resign ... so we have our opening into understanding the game. Go back one stage further, and ask whether we understand how to generate the position in which those tactics are playable. As our understanding improves, we can work back further in the game, and begin to see the various elements of strategy leading to the final assault as potentialities out of the opening.

Game 2 : Schematic thinking J.R.C. - Ragozin (Moscow, 1936)



This position, with a clear pawn extra and no worrying counterattack, looks like a trivial win for white, and indeed it should be. But ... how many times have such positions ended in draws? The simplicity leaves each move transparent: we do not have to worry about the `why' of each move, only the `how do we think of it in the first place'. Have you seen the long detailed plans Alekhin gives of some of his endgames (the one against Znosko-Borovsky, Paris 1933 is a case in point)? Ever wondered what happens to the plan if the opponent deviates slightly? What is actually needed is something simpler, confined to the concerns of the present position, and with sufficient flexibility to allow for change. Capablanca has the following to say about this position:

  "White's plan is to prevent the advance of the c-pawn (after which the b-pawn could become weak) and to control the entire board up to the fifth rank. This is achieved by moving the king to e3, and by placing the rook at c3, the knight at d4, and the pawns at b4 and f4. After he has attained such a position, White will be able to advance his Q- side pawns".

  This is what is known as endgame technique, and involves thinking schematically: a concrete assessment of the position, a desired piece configuration, and no variations. I give the sequel in brief. The point is to watch the improvement in piece position - once the pieces are superior, the pawns can move up.

1. Nd4 Rb7 2. b4 Bd7 3. f4 Ke7 4. Kf2 Ra7 5. Rc3 Kd6 6. Rd3 Ke7 7. Ke3 Ra4 8. Rc3 Kd6 9. Rd3 Ke7 10. Rc3 Kd6

  White has his desired position. To advance the Q-side pawns, he moves the king to their aid.

11. Ne2 g6 12. Rd3+ Ke6 13. Kd4 Ra6 14. Re3+ Kd6 15. Nc3 f5 16. b5 Ra8 17. Kc4 Be6+ 18. Kb4 c5+ 19. bxc6 Bg8 20. Nb5+ Kxc6

  Black's king-side `advance' has left the pawns weak. Capablanca now uses this, and not the a-pawn, to force a decision.

21. Rd3 g5 22. Rd6+ Kb7 23. fxg5 hxg5 24. Rg6 Rf8 25. Rxg5 f4 26. Nd4

  stopping any counterplay with ... f3.

26. ... Rc8 27. Rg7+ Kb6 28. Rg6+ Kb7 29. Nb5 Rf8 30. Nd6+ Kb8 31. h4 1-0

  Note the passed a-pawn is still on a3! And so what part did the extra pawn play? The potential of its advance led black to abandon the K- side, which allowed Capablanca to step in and win the game there instead. This is otherwise known as the "principle of two weaknesses".

Game 3 : Tactical resolution J.R.C. - B. Villegas (1914)

1. d4 d5 2. Nf3 Nf6 3. e3 c6 4. Bd3 Bg4 5. c4 e6 6. Nbd2 Nbd7 7. O-O Be7

  Black might have tried ...e5

8. Qc2 Bh5 9. b3 Bg6 10. Bb2



White obviously has a good development. He has placed his pieces on good squares, and been left alone to do just that! Black played a little passively, in not trying for ...c5/...e5 as quickly as possible, and has wasted time with the bishop. White is now intending to play e4 and open the position up.

10. ... Bxd3 11. Qxd3 O-O 12. Rae1 Qc7 13. e4 dxe4

  Black feels obliged to exchange in the centre, as else white may play e5 or exd5 at his leisure.

14. Nxe4 Nxe4 15. Rxe4 Bf6

  The rook is in an imposing position, and black wants to frighten it with the idea of ...Nc5 : dxc5 Bxb2 and a good position. Note that 15. ... Nf6 would have encouraged 16. Rh4 and d5 with a sharp attack.

16. Qe3 c5

  Black at last makes his bid for freedom ... What is white intending to do about it?

17. Ne5 cxd4



Black is now expecting 18. Bxd4 Nxe5 19. Bxe5 Bxe5 20. Rxe5 Rfd8 with control of the d-file in a major piece ending, but ...

18. Nxd7!

  A surprise queen sacrifice: if now ...dxc3 19. Nxf6+ gxf6 20. Rg4+ Kh8 21. Bxf6 'mate ... Kh8 20. Rh4 h6 21. Rxh6+ gxh6 22. Ne8+xc7 with two pieces for a rook.

18. ... Qxd7 19. Bxd4 Bxd4 20. Rxd4 Qc7



Black has now been forced into a major piece ending with WHITE controlling the d-file! White additionally has a Q-side majority, and has a simple plan: push the pawns, create a passed one, and queen it. This is the kind of game I find most instructive and impressive: white has an obvious way of playing for a win, but how can he be sure of winning? How to stop black counterattacking? The schematic play is rather like the ending given above, but here the advantage is maintained by short tactical sequences, involving definite calculations. (The difference is that the single advantage here is sufficient to win, whereas above, a second was required.)

21. Rfd1 Rfd8 22. b4 Rxd4 23. Qxd4 b6

  Black must defend the a7 pawn, and also tries to cover c5, so that white's b4-c5 push leads to a weaker pawn earlier. Notice how white now: creates a hole for his king, and then puts his rook behind the (potential) passed pawn.

24. g3 Rc8 25. Rc1 Rd8

  Where does the queen go?

26. Qe3!

  One of those important moves to focus on. What does it do? It covers the rook on c1, it stops black playing Rd2, and still aims at c5. Note that white is now happy to give up the d-file, the action will be on the c-file.

26. ... Kf8 27. c5 bxc5

  if now 28. bxc5 Qc6 stops the pawn

28. Qe4!

  Another delightful queen move. Now controlling c6, the next port of call for the c-pawn.

28. ... Rd5 29. bxc5 g6 30. c6 Kg7 31. a4!



And the final piece of genius. White's plan is Qb4-b7, but if played now, after ...Qxb7 : cxb7 Rb5 stops the pawn (which is why black played Kg7 and not Kg8, the latter allowed Rc8+). So, Capablanca covers the b5 square in advance!

31. ... Rd6

  ... puts the pawn under lock and key, but out comes the dynamite.

32. Qe5+! f6 33. Qxd6 Qxd6 34. c7 1-0

  Simple, clear and logical. Notice the queen moves: Qd4-e3-e4-e5xd6, and the prophylactic a4. It is this careful attention to detail which made many balanced postions look a forced win in Capablanca's hands.

  "Against Alekhin you never knew what to expect; against Capablanca you knew what to expect, but you couldn't prevent it!" Sir George Thomas


Game 4 : Switching the attack J.R.C. - Allies, (Buenos Aires, 1914)

1. f4 e5 2. e4 Bc5 3. Nf3 d6 4. Nc3 Nc6 5. Na4 Bb6 6. Bb5 Bd7 7. Nxb6 axb6 8. d3 Nge7 9. O-O O-O 10. f5

  Capablanca has played a forthright opening, and his intentions are securely set on the king-side. If black could at all achieve ...d5 he would break out of the grip, but Capablanca maintains a close hold on the position.

10. ... f6 11. Bc4+ Kh8 12. a3 Be8 13. Be6 Bh5 14. Qe1 Qe8 15. Qh4 Nd8 16. Ba2 Bf7 17. c4 c5 18. g4



The king-side attack gathers momentum. The g-pawn's threat to move to the sixth rank will lead to an open file.

18. ... Ng8 19. Bd2 b5 20. g5 fxg5 21. Nxg5 Nf6 22. Rf3 bxc4 23. Nxh7!

  A sacrifice out of the ordinary. There can be no conception of an immediate win, or forced sequence. Instead, Capablanca realises that, in his attempts to stave off immediate loss, black will bring his pieces into a tight knot around his king. Once this has been achieved, white's superior mobility will enable him to create some other threat.

23. ... Nxh7 24. Rh3 Bg8 25. Bxc4 Rf7 26. Kh1 b5 27. Bd5 Raa7 28. Rg1 Rf6 29. Bg5 Raf7


Now we have the `tight knot' discussed above. Obviously, Capablanca is not about to release the pressure by taking one of those rooks. In fact, black is approaching a state of Zugzwang, where any move would lead to disaster, but still white needs to apply some extra pressure - but where?

30. b3!

  This is almost an underhanded move ... The endgame principle of two weaknesses is known as `switching the attack' in the middlegame, and you couldn't find a clearer example of it than this. The a-pawn's freedom is the fruit of the pressure down the h- and g-files.

30. ... Qf8 31. a4 bxa4 32. bxa4 Qe8 33. a5 Nc6 34. a6 Nb4

  ... and now a grand liquidation - even though a piece down. Capablanca's handling of relative piece dynamics makes a mockery of any absolute scale of values.

35. Bxf6 Nxd5 36. Bxg7+ Rxg7 37. Rxg7 Kxg7 38. Qh6+ Kh8 39. Qxd6

  ... and white won in a few more moves.

Game 5 : Zugzwang! F.J. Marshall - J.R.C., (New York, 1918)

1. d4 d5 2. Nf3 Nf6 3. c4 e6 4. Nc3 Nbd7 5. Bg5 Be7 6. e3 O-O 7. Rc1 c6 8. Qc2 dxc4 9. Bxc4 Nd5

  Capablanca's move, leading to freeing exchanges.

10. Bxe7 Qxe7 11. O-O Nxc3 12. Qxc3 b6

  This is very important, and, according to Capablanca, is the key to the variation. Black simplifies as much as possible, and then solves the development of his queen's bishop. He intends continuing with Nf6 ... Rfd8 ... Rac8 ... c5, freeing up the position.

13. e4 Bb7 14. Rfe1 Rfd8 15. d5

  Marshall is not interested in black's freeing operation, and wants to open the game up for an attack ... 16. dxe6 would leave black with an awkward e-pawn.

15. ... Nc5 16. dxe6 Nxe6 17. Bxe6 Qxe6

  Capablanca had thought the attack on a2 would force a defensive move, when ...c5 follows with a better position for black -

18. Nd4!



and if ... Qxa2 : Ra1 wins the queen! ... Qd7 to defend the pawn, and 19. Nf5 f6 20. Qg3 Kh8 (else Rcd1 Qf7 : Nh6+ wins the queen) 21. Rcd1 Qf7 22. h4 with a strong attack.

18. ... Qe5!!

  Capablanca is not interested in defensive play, and instead offers a pawn and the queen exchange, but for what?

19. Nxc6 Qxc3 20. Rxc3 Rd2!

  ... a rook on the seventh! Now, white should play for a draw with 21. Ne7+ Kf8 22. Rc7 Re8 23. Rxb7 Rxe7 24. Rb8+ Re8 25. Rxe8+ Kxe8

21. Rb1 Re8 22. e5 g5!

  if 22. f3 f5 23. exf5 Ree2 with double rooks on the seventh "enough to frighten a man to death" (Chernev). ... but this is a master move: stopping f4, allowing Kg7, and threatening Bxc6...Rxe5.

23. h4 gxh4 24. Re1

  if 24. f4 h3 25. g3 h2+ 26. Kh1 (into the pin) Rc8 (pinning the knight twice) 27. Rbc1 Kf8 28. f5 Ke8 29. e6 (to stop Kd7) fxe6 30. fxe6 Rd6! wins the knight...

24. ... Re6 25. Rec1 Kg7 26. b4 b5

  stopping the support of the knight ...

27. a3 Rg6



Note the focus on g2. White's pieces are totally tied up, and he is heading for zugzwang.

28. Kf1 Ra2 29. Kg1 h3 30. g3 a6

  And now white must lose something ...

31. e6 Rxe6 32. g4

  Knight moves still lose: 32. Nd8 h2+ 33. Kxh2 Rh6+-h1 'mate.

32. ... Rh6 33. f3

  ... trying to close the long diagonal. If 33. g5 h2+ 34. Kh1 Rxc6 35. Rxc6 Rxf2 to f6 wins with the pin.

33. ... Rd6 34. Ne7 Rdd2 35. Nf5+ (watch the mate threat!) Kf6 36. Nh4 Kg5 37. Nf5 Rg2+ 38. Kf1 h2 39. f4+ (and again!!) Kxf4 40. Resigns

  "An ending worth very careful study", says Capablanca.


To finish off, a few points on Capablanca's style. First, rather like Tal, he was no opening theoretician. A number of standard Ruy Lopez or Queen's Gambit Declined positions, but otherwise he plays out of the book fairly quickly. For this reason, his games make good patterns for club players after sound openings, with a minimum of theory. For example, take his game against Tartakover, New York 1924 (yes, with the famous Rook ending!), for a simple and direct way of playing against the Dutch.

  Second, there is a good reason why he is known as an endgame expert: a fine feel for piece coordination and clarity in achieving positional objectives are both brought out most starkly when material is reduced. Finally, thinking in small schemes, and making controlled progress towards a goal, but never afraid of the tactical resolution.

Further reading

Capablanca, R.J. My Chess Career (Try the new algebraic edition, which I believe will expand on the analysis, to make it more informative.)

  Chernev, I. Capablanca's Best Chess Endings

The Most Instructive Games of Chess Ever Played

  Cozens, W.H. Lessons in Chess Strategy (An excellent introduction to long-term planning.)

  Shereshevsky, M.I. Endgame Strategy (One to read after Capablanca's Best Chess Endings. The best way to learn how to handle the pieces!)

Chess Quotes

"If you have any doubt what to study, study endgames. Openings teach you openings. Endings teach you chess."
— Stephan GERZADOWICZ, Thinker's Chess.