Hardcore pawn: playin' Chess

New York City. 1900s. Think a sprawling city expanding rapidly. Think streetcars. Think skyscrapers growing taller and taller. Think chess great, Jose Raul Capablanca.

In 1906, an 18-year-old Capablanca entered Columbia University to pursue an engineering degree. By the end of his second year, Capablanca had decided study was not for him – having spent his summer playing chess daily, Capablanca concluded it was far more interesting.

And it turned out all right for him too! Three years later, he challenged Emmanual Lasker to a world championship game. Whilst the match never took place as the match conditions couldn’t be agreed on, there is no doubt Capablanca was one of the strongest players worldwide at the time.

The lesson is, you don’t need a degree to be a world-class chess player!!

The match for this edition took place in March 1909, just after Capablanca had left university. His opponent, the New York club player and later Grand Master Jacob Rosenthal, was no slouch either. However, after accepting Capablanca’s ingenious sacrifice, he is rapidly dispatched.  The game is from a rapid transit tournament, which means decisions are made quickly and time is always short. It makes for a good game, though!

Jose Capablanca v Jacob Rosenthal (1909 Rapid Transit Match)

1. e4 e5

2. Nf3 Nc6

3. Bb5 Nf6

4. O-O Be7

Again, all a very standard Ruy Lopez.

5. d3 d6

6. Re1 O-O

7. Nbd2 Bg4

8. c3 Kh8

Black prepares to advance his f-pawn by removing his king from the a2-g8 diagonal where it may be targeted by the light-square bishop

9. Nf1

A move favoured by Capablanca. White intends to plant his knight on g3 and eventually f5.

9. … Nh5

10. h3 Bxf3

Retreating with Be6 or Bd7 losses a pawn after 11. Nxe5 dxe5 (or Nxe5) 10.  Qxh5.

11. Qxf3 Nf6

Black has traded his good light-square bishop for a knight which wasn’t doing much at all!

12. g4

White begins the aggression by taking space on the kingside.

12. …a6

13. Ba4 b5

14. Bc2 d5

Black counters with play in the centre.

15. Ng3 dxe4

16. dxe4 Qc8

White’s pieces are all pointed at the black king! By contrast, Black’s pieces are tripping over themselves. Black’s knight on c6 blocks the backward c7 pawn, black’s bishop is hampered by his pawn on e5, black’s queen has no good square where she is free from harassment. Black isn’t looking too happy!

17. Nf5

Be3 also looks strong, giving the black bishop, removing the only good square for the black bishop. Or perhaps that square is to be the lure?

17. … Bc5

White to move and blast open the black kingside!

Tactics arise in only one of three circumstances: Where the king is exposed, where a piece is undefended or where a piece is poorly defended (with only one defender).

Here, black’s king is well-hidden. His king is hidden, so no luck there. Undefended pieces on c5 and c6 suggest there might be something there – but with nothing to attack these pieces, white’s out of luck.

But what about the knight on f6! Its sole defender is the pawn on g7. If that can be removed, the f6 knight is defenceless!

18. Nxg7 Kxg7

Got it! Black must take the knight, or else he’s down a pawn for nothing! Black can’t even try to recoup his losses with 18. … Nxe4 because of 20. Bxe4,creating nasty threats on the long diagonal

19. Bh6+! Kg6

Pulling black’s king out of his hiding place. If 19. … Kxh6 Qxf6#. Black struggles to hold on with Kg6

20. g5 Nh5

This loses immediately. Then again, 20. … Ng8 isn’t much better, for example 21. h4 (threatening 22. h5#)  Nxh6 22. Qf6+ Kh5 23. Bd1+ Kxh4 24. Qxh6# 

21. Qf5+ Qxf5

22. exf5#


Capablanca in his finest form. A great game by a great player!

Stephen Priest isn’t a particularly strong chess player, but that doesn’t stop him from writing! He currently plays, on-and-off, for the ANU Chess Club which meets weekly, 7:30pm on the bottom floor of the Baldessin Precinct Building