José Raúl

New York
— 1918 —

One of the most celebrated games in the history of chess between José Raúl Capablanca of Cuba (White) and Frank Marshall from the United States (Black). Marshall, nicknamed 'the great swindler' for his ability to recover seemly lost games was one of the strongest players in the first half of the twentieth century. Capablanca, who reigned as world chess champion from 1920 – 1927 is recognized as one of the greatest players of all time.

The Ruy Lopez

also called the Spanish Opening, is named after the first (unofficial) world chess champion, 16th-century Spanish priest, and darling of the court of Phillip the Second, Ruy López de Segura. In 1561 he literally wrote the book on it.

Characterized by the opening moves:
1. e4 e5
2. Nf3 Nc6
3. Bb5
it is one of the most studied and commonly-used openings in the game.

Not their first Match

In 1909 the 20-year-old Capablanca routed Marshall, then reigning U.S. Champion, 8-1 with 14 draws at the Manhattan Chess Club. Marshall took it in stride becoming an active supporter of Capablanca and instisting on his inlcusion in the illustrious 1911 San Sebastian, Spain tournament where Capablanca shocked the chess world and took first place.

But Marshall was not prepared to give in to Capablanca on the chess board. He spent the next nine years preparing a new attack against the Ruy Lopez that would eventually bear his name.

8 …d5?!
The Marshall Attack

A gutsy move designed to suprise Capablanca with a previously unstudied line of play. Although disputed, the legend states that despite its strength, Marshall avoided playing this line in tournaments for nine years so he could spring it on the unsuspecting Capablanca.

To accept the pawn sacrifice is to commit to a brutal onslaught. But as Fred Reinfeld in "The Immortal Games of Capablanca" reports, Capablanca "felt that to decline the offer would be a pusillanimous course, unworthy of the players and of the occassion."

It has become one of the most-played and most-feared lines of the Ruy Lopez. Many consider it the most important opening innovation of the century.

The great tactitian

Frank Marshall was well known for sharp tactical skills. This game is no exception. The opening leads to a quick exchange of material leaving black with strong open lines leading directly to white's king side. Meanwhile white's forces are hemmed up on the queen side with little possibility of quick development.

A trap

Black exposes his knight to attack from white's king-rook pawn. A good trade for white in other circumstances, but here it's a trap for which the the wary Capablanca is too smart. To take the knight leads to a quick black win by opening white's king-rook column to attack from the black queen. Capablanca instead throws his queen into breach at once defending all three king pawns, claiming the important long diagonal, and bearing down on black's queen side rook.

A calm defense

Chess is not a game for the timid. While tactics and strategy are of preeminent importance, there is room for psychological combat. Faced with a whithering attack in an unfamiliar line of play, an exposed king on the run, and black's strongest pieces firmly in white territory, many players would panic and jettison any hope of their own attack to defend their seiged king.

Cabablanca, however, is just not any player; he's one of the greateset defensive geniuses of the game. Faced with one of the masters of the tactical assault, he remains calm and slowly, but systematically, exposes black's overeaching.

Breaking down the attack

Although his king is still exposed, Capablanca is able to begin consolidating his position while trading away black's attack. In the process he trades a rook for black's attacking knight and bishop. Faced with the cool, smart defense, Marshall is left with no choice but to allow white's king access to the defenseive blockade on the queen side that only a few moves ago looked like a logjam hampering Capablanca's offesive prospects. The brilliant lines of attack setup in the opening gradually fade to a new structural reality defined by white's pawns.

Positional Play

Dr. Emanuel Lasker was reigning world champion at the time of this match. Marshall made an attempt at the title in 1907 losing eight games to Lasker without a single win. Negotiations between Capablanca and Lasker for a title match had been ongoing and unsuccesful since 1911. Capablanca would eventually claim the title but not before Lasker left a legacy as an eloquent writer about the game, one of the strongest players in history, and world champion for 27 years.

Lasker was a strong proponent of "positional play." Unlike tactics that look for quick winning combinations, positional play is about understanding the basic structure of the board and making claims on territory in the name of building a structural superiority even without immediate tactical benefits. For Lasker it was almost an act of faith—if the position was strong, the tactical combinations would make themselves available. Although often dismissed as the weakest and most expendable of the pieces, the pawn is foundation of positional play.

Capablanca’s Turn

With Marshall's attack deflated, Capablanca's sublte positional advantage begins to bear fruit. Black's queen has been marginalized to an ineffective slot behind white's still-standing and strongly-defended king-knight pawn. Capablanca is able to finally develop the resources patiently waiting on the queen side. Although not as flashy as Marshall's full assualt in the opening, Capablanca's pawn attack comes at a better time and is much more devastating. A slow-motion invasion of black's deserted queen side.

Passed Pawn

Because of its ability to be promoted to a queen when reaching the far end of the board, a pawn that has escaped the confines of its oponent is one of the most dangerous threats of the end game. With the help of the rook, white's isolated pawn begins advancing, pressuring Marshall to trade away pieces in the hope of once more exposing the white king. But although his king is still in a precarious spot, white's position is too strong in the hands of a player like Capablance to allow black a second chance at claiming the initiative.

Marshall is often quoted saying, "The hardest part of chess is winning a won game." While few can ever claim a won game against an openent like Capablanca, a game like this one reinforces Marshall's idea. Converting a winning attack into a lasting victory is one of the more difficult tasks a player has and one of the more profound lessons that chess, a game rich in life metaphors, offers.

Mate in 5

Capablanca announces checkmate in five moves begining with BxPch.

Three years after this match Capablanca would claim the world title. He held the title until 1927 when he lost in an upset to Russian master Alexander Alekhine, who would hold the title until 1946 (with a brief interuption between 1935 and 1937 when he lost it to Max Euwe).

Although Frank Marshall was the U.S. champion for 27 years, he was never able to claim the title of world champion. Because of his brilliant tactical style, he is well-loved among chess enthusiasts even today, but his lasting claim to fame may turn out to be his contribution to opening theory first displayed in this game. Although the Marshall Attack did not prevail in this instance, it is still feared among players of white who have developed lines of play eniterly devoted to avoiding the possibility of facing it.


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