Capablanca - Master of the Attack

Peter Lane, 23 March 1998

"...go back a quarter of a century and look for the culmination of the art of the attack on the king in the play of Alekhin and Capablanca"

-- Vladimir VUKOVIC, The Art of Attack in Chess (1965).

  Alekhin's attacking prowess is well known, but what about Capablanca's? Here, to redress the balance, are some examples from Capablanca. The first two games show a surprise knock-out from what may look a fairly balanced position, and a shock sacrifice leading to an overwhelming positional bind. The last two games show sustained attacking play, with sacrifices to open up the king, relying on relative piece mobility to force the checkmate. All the games are taken from The Unknown Capablanca by Hooper and Brandreth (H&B) -- notes are based on their comments.


84) Capablanca,J - Funaroff,M [C66]

  New York, 17.06.1918

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 d6

  The Scotch opening aims for open play, and black's attempt to keep the game closed can only be a temporary measure.

4.Nc3 Nf6 5.Bb5 Bd7 6.0-0 Be7 7.Re1 exd4

  This move is now forced -- after white's defense of his e-pawn he is threatening Bxc6 Bxc6: dxe5. The pressure on e5 is a recurring theme in e-pawn openings.

8.Nxd4 Nxd4

  Trying to simplify, but encouraging white's better centralisation. Best is 8... O-O.

9.Qxd4 Bxb5 10.Nxb5 0-0 11.Qc3

  "Instead of applying the old principle of developing his pieces as quickly as possible" RETI -- Capablanca puts each piece to optimum effect. Thinking about the position we might be attracted by a 'mate on g7: the N is bound for f5, and the Q for g3. Subtle ...


  This move weakens d6 and encourages the Nb5 to move as planned. Maybe ...Ne8 with ...Bf6, but white maintains a space advantage.

12.Nd4 Nd7 13.Nf5 Bf6 14.Qg3 Ne5 15.Bf4 Qc7 16.Rad1 Rad8

"Playing on the basis of a spatial advantage is in a sense a question of blind faith." STEAN

  White's pieces exert maximum impact, but it is hard to see how this could be increased. Indeed, black's only weakness is at d6 -- put the c-pawn back to c7 and all is perfect -- but who would dream of a decisive combination in this position? The key is the inter-relation of g3, f5 and e5 with d6 and g7. Even when you know, the next move is stunning.


  "As usual, tactics flow from a positionally superior game." FISCHER

17...Rxd6 18.Bxe5

  The bishop strikes through to c7 and g7 -- note now white has taken over black's e5 strong-point.


  A spirited counterblow. 18...Bxe5 19. Qxe5 with 'mate on g7 or an extra piece after Qxd6. 18...Qa5 was best, when 19. f4 Bxe5 20.fxe5 Rg6 21.Ne7+ leaves white an extra pawn, but many problems in converting it.

19.Rxd1 Bxe5

  And now white moves his queen, and either h2 or b2 falls, with equality... Not likely!

20.Nh6+ Kh8 21.Qxe5 Qxe5 22.Nxf7+

  A beautifully clear theme: back-rank 'mate.




85) Capablanca,J - Chase,A [C33]

  New York, 23.02.1922

1.e4 e5 2.f4 exf4 3.Qf3

  Surely the queen is in the way here?

3...Nc6 4.c3 Nf6 5.d4 d5 6.e5 Ne4 7.Bxf4 g5 8.Be3 h5

"The one inconvenient feature of this position is the awkward situation of his queen in the centre of the board. This can be easily removed, if the queen is sacrificed." TAL

  I wonder whether Tal would say the same about this position?


  "Is that sound?" CHERNEV

  "Wait and see." JRC

9...Bg4 10.Nxe4 Bxf3 11.Nf6+ Ke7 12.Nxf3 Bh6 13.Nxg5 Bg7 14.Bd3 Bxf6 15.0-0

  White's position is quite secure, with pressure on the f-file. If now 15...Bxe5 16.Nxf7 with a winning attack.

15...Qg8 16.Rxf6 Rf8 17.Raf1 Nd8

  Black's pieces are powerless. White begins a Q-side break.

18.b4 Qg7 19.h4 Ke8 20.b5 b6 21.Be2 Ne6 22.Bf3 Nxg5 23.Bxg5 Qh7 24.Bxd5 Qd3 25.Bc6+

  If 25...Ke7/d8 26.Rxf7+ Kc8 27.Rxf8+ Rxf8 28.Rxf8 'mate.




83) Capablanca,J - Anon [D37]

  New York, 11.01.1916

1.d4 d5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.c4 e6 4.Nc3 Bd6

  This bishop is mis-placed, better 4...Be7

5.Bg5 c6 6.e3 0-0 7.Rc1 dxc4 8.Bxc4 Nbd7 9.Bd3 Be7

  If 9...e5 10.Ne4, see move 4!

10.0-0 b6 11.Qc2 Bb7 12.Ne5 g6

  White threatened Nxd7 Qxd7: Bxf6 Bxf6: Bxh7+, but 12...h6 looks less weakening.

13.Bh6 Re8 14.Rfd1

  Capablanca loves piece play: 14.f4-f5 looks strong.

14...Nxe5 15.dxe5 Nd5 16.Nxd5 exd5

Not 16...cxd5 17.Bb5 winning the exchange. White is well centralised, looking at some holes on black's K- and Q- sides. The dark squares around the black king look especially tender, but how to get at them? Here we see the pre-conditions for an attack, and can now watch Capablanca exploit them.

17.e6 f5

  Avoiding 17...fxe6 18.Bxg6 hxg6 19.Qxg6+ Kh8 20.Qg7 'mate.

18.Bxf5 gxf5 19.Qxf5 Bf6

  Averting the threat of Qg4/f7+ - g7 'mate.

20.e4 Qe7 21.exd5 cxd5

  Perhaps 21...Rac8 is sounder, when white has compensation for the piece, e.g.22.Rc4 cxd5 23.Rf4 Bxb2 24.Qg4+ Kh8 25.Rf7 Qxe6 26.Rf8+ Rxf8 27. Qxe6. White's next move is not too obvious -- forcing black to surrender his dark-square control.

22.Rc7 Qxc7 23.Qxf6

In this game we have a `real' rook sacrifice, i.e. there is no forced sequence leading to 'mate, and so the evaluation depends on our feel for combinations. They say two connected passed pawns on the 6th are worth a rook, and I think one on the 6th is worth an out-of-play piece!


  Most natural. H&B give 23...Re7 24.Rd3 Rg7 25.Rc3 (25.Bxg7?? Qc1 and 'mate!) Rxg2+ 26.Kxg2 d4+ 27.f3 dxc3 28.e7 and wins, e.g. 28...Bxf3+ 29.Kxf3 Qb7+ 30.Kf2 with Qf8+.

  Tarrasch claimed the sacrifices as unsound due to: 23...Rac8 but then 24.Qg5+ Kh8 25.Re1! (Qf6+ draws for the nervous) when a) 25...Re7 26.Qf6+ Kg8 27.Bf4 and b) 25...Qe7 26.Qe5+ Kg8 27.f4 each give white a strong attack. Worth a rook? Think about f4-f5-f6.

24.Qe5 Rf8 25.Rd3 Qf6 26.Rg3+ Kh8 27.Bg7+

  Brilliant -- and part of a 32-board simultaneous display!



Capablanca,J - Stahr,J [D05]

  Chicago, 26.03.1915

1.d4 d5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.e3 e6 4.Bd3 c5 5.c3

  "For his less serious encounters Capablanca often played this opening. It was later invented by Colle." B&H

  White plans Nbd2:O-O:Qe2 and e4. The delayed punch in the centre often causes Black problems.


  Black should never release the central tension -- it gives white a free hand to attack. Better are ...Nc6 or ...Be7

6.Bc2 Bd6 7.Nbd2 Nbd7 8.Qe2 Qc7 9.e4 dxe4 10.Nxe4 Nxe4 11.Qxe4 Nf6 12.Qh4 h6

  If 12...O-O 13.Bg5! Black's knight exchange on e4 has brought the white queen out, and castling is impossible. The first game shows a similar mis-timed exchange, with catastrophic consequences.

13.0-0 b5 Now if 13...O-O 14.Bxh6! 14.a4 b4 15.cxb4 Bxb4 16.Bf4 Bd6 17.Be5 Bb7

  Black begins a nearly successful counterattack -- "the best policy against a simultaneous player" B&H.

18.Bxf6 gxf6 19.Qxf6 Rg8 20.a5 Bxh2+ 21.Kh1 Bd6 22.Rfe1 Bxf3

Not 22...Qd8 23.Rxe6+ fxe6 24.Ba4+ or 22...Rg6 23. Rxe6+ fxe6 24.Ba4+ etc. But 22...Qe7 with an ending was sound. Black's king is stuck in the centre, and Capablanca treats us to a long attack leading to a central breakthrough -- always careful, as his own king is none-too-safe.

23.Qxf3 Qd8 24.Kg1 Rc8 25.Ba4+ Ke7 26.d5 Rg6 27.dxe6 fxe6

  And not 27... Rxe6 28.Rxe6+ fxe6 29.Re1 when black has lost a defender of e6 and the g-file. e.g. 29...Rc5 30.Qg4 or 29...Qg8 30.Qe3.

28.Rad1 Qxa5 29.Qe4

  Prepares the combination, now that all the pieces are in play. If immediately 29.Qb7+ Qc7.

29...Rcg8 30.Qb7+ Bc7 31.Rd7+ Kf6 32.Qf3+ Qf5

Black has defended well, and the anticipated 33.Qxf5+ exf5 34.Rxc7 Rxg2+ 35. Kh1 Rxf2 or even 33. Qc3+ Be5 34.Rxe5 Rxg2+ (...Qxe5 35.Rf7+ Kxf7 36.Qxe5 wins) lead to draws. But look again for Capablanca's heart-stopper.

33.Rxe6+ Kxe6 34.Qc6+ Ke5 35.Rd5+ 1-0

  "As 35...Kf4 36.Qxc4+ Qe4 27.Qc1+ Kg4 38.Bd1+ Kh4 39. Rh5 is 'mate."

  "Yet another rook sacrifice to open up a king, this time into the centre of the board. The backward moves of the Q and B should be noted, they are often the ones missed when calculating a combination. Capablanca's breakup of the black king's pawn-shelter is instructive, especially in the face of threats to the white king down the g-file."



What we have seen is a genius at play -- admiration is natural. But a lot can be learned from such games. Our combinations may not be as deep or as imaginative, but we can play for sound positional advantages and keep an eye out for the odd brilliancy. Capablanca's sacrifices are unnerving, but if we try to understand the judgement that stands behind the sacrifice -- the trade-off between material value and activity -- we will learn a lot about the dynamics of chess combat. Above all, Capablanca's games are about the initiative -- once he has the initiative, he will attack whatever weakness exists to force a resignation.