Chess in the Turbulent Era – vol. 3

Twenty years after Lasker, whom we meet in the previous article of the series, became the World Champion, the First World War begun. With Europe being in the center of this turbulent time of history, a young chess player in Central America distinguished himself as a promising chess player. Meet Capablanca. 

Entanglement after the First World War

Cuba, Havana

Expanding Austro-Hungary and burgeoning Germany became impregnable allies, stretching their powers to the Balkans and threatening the sovereignty of the colonies of Britain and France. Britain and France, who had long occupied the dominant positions in Europe, were unhappy to see Austro-Hungary and Germany became so powerful; in the eastern half of Europe, Russia longed for the control of the Balkans on the excuse of the unity of the Slavic people, and thus Russia was sick of Austro-Hungary and Germany as did Britain and France. After the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo, Austro-Hungary and Germany formed the Central Powers and declared war against Britain, France, and Russia.

Imperialism and Colonialism Cartoon

In 1918, the war ended. The Central Powers were defeated. As punishment for provoking the war, Austria-Hungary was divided into Austria, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia; Germany was forced to give away all its colonies and a large amount of its wealth to Britain and France. The war had a devastating effect on the German economy, and most people faced serious economic problems. As a Prussian (later German), Lasker lost almost everything. This was one reason why Lasker’s chess level began to decline since the First World War.

Remains in Germany after the First World War
Remains in Germany after the First World War
People waiting in a long queue for relief funds
People waiting in a long queue for relief funds

While the whole of Europe suffered from bullets and death, a lot of countries in Latin America enjoyed tranquility and prosperity. Cuba, an island country in Central America, experienced a rapid economic upswing due to its development of the tourism industry. In such a peaceful environment, young Capablanca distinguished himself as a promising chess player.

Villa Stuck
Colonial architecture in the early 20th century Cuba

Capablanca was born in 1888. He was a prodigy of chess, and becoming the world champion was an easy task for him. At the age of four, he learned to play chess by watching his father’s games, while no one had ever seriously taught him chess before. He never finished reading a single chess book, and he never worked hard like other prominent players. Nevertheless, he improved quickly, and at the age of 13, he became the champion of Cuba. In 1911 he was invited to participate in the International Open in San Sebastian, where only the most prominent players were qualified. The Russian grandmaster Nimzowitsch scoffed at Capablanca, claiming that “Capablanca had not achieved anything special and should not qualify for this tournament”. But to his surprise, Capablanca defeated him easily and won the championship.

Jose Raul Capablanca

Had it not been for the First World War, the match between Capablanca and Lasker for the world champion should have been held much earlier, perhaps after 1914, but the war postponed the match to 1921, which was played in Havana, Cuba.

Havana street
Havana, Cuba

Young, talented, and energetic, Capablanca was confident of his performance, while Lasker, who had already aged and whose morale had been weakened by the war, had to take a long flight from Europe to Cuba, which depleted almost all his remaining strength. As expected, Capablanca defeated Lasker with great ease and took the title of a world chess champion. His most outstanding ability was that he mastered very complex positions, taking his opponents into endgames in his favor and amplifying even the smallest advantages with remarkable technique, which wore down his opponents all their willpower.

Capablanca played against Lasker

Capablanca not only made remarkable achievements in chess, but he was also successful in his life. He was handsome and friendly, which made him popular among girls. Many women went to watch Capablanca’s tournaments, not because they were enthusiastic chess lovers, but they hoped to witness Capablanca’s attractive looking and have an opportunity to talk to him. He studied at the University of Columbia with distinction, and he worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Cuba, which not only offered him abundant salaries but also provided him chances to go abroad and play tournaments.

Continue reading about chess in the turbulent era of the 19th century in vol. 4 of the series. Learn even more in vol. 1vol. 2 and vol. 5



Young and active tournament player with excellent results including a 1st place at the BSSZ Aranytiz International Master, 1st place at the Chinese Youth Chess Championship G16, and part of the top 10 contenders in two World Chess Championships for girls G16 and G18.

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