A century later, a chess champ in his prime still inspires awe


This month we had the spectacle of a world champion walking out on a tournament, when Norway’s Magnus Carlsen dropped out of the 9th Sinquefield Cup after three games under still controversial circumstances.

Exactly 100 years ago this summer, we had another world champion sticking it out to the end and scoring one of the most impressive tournament wins of his remarkable career.

Cuban-born champ Jose Raul Capablanca had defeated longtime titleholder Emanuel Lasker in 1921, and the great London invitational tournament of 1922 was his coming-out party as the new champion. The British Chess Federation organized the event as one of the first great tournaments of the post-World War I era, and two future world champs — Russia’s Alexander Alekhine and Holland’s Max Euwe — were in the 16-player field, along with such great challengers as Akiba Rubinstein, Milan Vidmar, Efim Bogoljubov and Richard Reti.

The result: an overwhelming affirmation of Capablanca’s greatness, as he was undefeated at 13-2 (11 wins and four draws), 1½ points clear of Alekhine.

To see a great champion at the very peak of his powers, check out Capablanca’s win in London against well-known Russian master and author Eugene Znosko-Borovsky. Black commits a few minor positional transgressions in this classic Queen’s Gambit Declined line — a squandered tempo here, a misplaced piece there — and quickly, inexorably finds himself hopelessly lost.

Things go from OK to much worse in just a few moves: 14. Rfe1 Qd8?! (an odd retreat that does nothing to advance Black’s development or positional needs; simply 14. Qd6 was better) 15. Qa4 a6?! (another dubious idea to meet the “threat” of 16. Ba6, while only managing to create targets for White on the queenside) 16. Bf5 g7 17. Bxd7! (removing what will prove to be a badly missed defender) Qxd7 18. Qb3! — the always alert Capablanca induces new weaknesses in the Black position as he tries to deal with the idea of 19. Na4 b5 20. Nc5, settling into a magnificent outpost.

White gets there anyway on 18 … b5 19. Ne5 Qd6 20. Na4!, another of Capablanca’s signature “petite combinaciones” — tactical touches in the service of harmonious positional whole. Now, on 20 … axb4?! 21. Qxb7 Rab8 22. Qd7, Black’s queenside is a disaster and a queen trade will cost him the exchange.

With all of his pieces magnificently posted, White cashes in with another cute little trick: 23. Nc5 Bc8 24. Nxa6! Bb7 (Bxa6 25. Rxc6 Qb8 26. Rxa6 is dominating) 25. Nc5 Bc8 26. Ncd3 Bb7 27. Rc2 Rc8 28. Rec1 Rfe8 29. a4!, and the Black position is collapsing. Like many of Capablanca’s best wins, there’s no spectacular brilliancy here, but a world-class opponent is still rendered helpless in less than 30 moves.

Znosko-Borovsky has to surrender a second pawn just to get his bishop a little oxygen, but just as he does so, White hits him again with 33. axb5 Bxb5 34. Nxd5! Qe6 (Qxd5 35. Qxd5+ cxd5 36. Rxc8) 35. Rc3 cxd5 36. Qxb5 Rb8 37. Rc7+ Kg8 38. Qd3, and Black has had enough. Play may have continued 38 … Qe4 39. Qxe4 dxe4 40. R1c2, with an elementary endgame win.


Znosko-Borovsky was a fine player (his 1931 manual “How Not to Play Chess” remains one of the wittiest and insightful introductions to chess principles for the ambitious beginner), but he managed a rare, ignominious double at the 1922 London tournament, losing to the winner (Capablanca) and to the tournament’s last-place finisher, Italian champion Davide Marotti. It was Marotti’s only win in 15 games — to go with a lone draw and 13 losses — but he carried it off in style.

Black’s 5 … Be7 is an unusual sideline in the now-trendy Petroff’s, where 5 … d5 is the much more popular choice. Once again, Znosko-Borovsky’s positional gyroscope seems off, as he stages an odd retreat with moves like 12 … Bc8?! after generating some promising early pressure. Handed the initiative after the long string of losses, White doesn’t miss his chance.

Thus: 17. Ne5 Ne4 18. Bd3 (already White’s bishop pair are training their sights on the naked Black kingside) f6 19. Nxe4 fxe5?! (see diagram: 19 … dxe4 20. Bxe4 fxe5 21. Qh5 looks scary, but it appears Black could have survived with 21 … exd4! 22. Qxh7+ Kf8 23. Bg6 Be6! 24. Bxe8 Nxe8 25. Rae1 Qd7 26. f5 Bg8, with chances for both sides) 20. Nd6!, opening up the center for White’s bishops.

After 20. Bxd6?! (tougher was 20 … e4 21. Nxe8 Qxe8 22. Be2 b6 23. Rc1 Bf6, though White retains a sizable edge) 21. cxd6 Qxd6 22. dxe5 Qh6 23. f5, Marotti’s mobile central pawns backed by the raking bishops prove lethal.

It’s all over on 25. e6 d4 (trying to blunt the long diagonal, but the bishop has another route to the attacking front) 26. Bc1! Qf6 27. Qg4 Nd5 28. Bg5 Ne3 (desperation, but already White’s attack is irresistible; on 28 … Qe5, White can win with 29. Rae1 Nf6 30. Qh4 Qc7 31. Bxf6 gxf6 32. Qxf6 Qg7 33. Qxg7+ Kxg7 34. f6+ Kh8 35. f7 Rf8 36. e7) 29. Qh5 g6 (Qf8 30. f6 gxf6 31. Qxh7 is mate) 30. fxg6 hxg6 31. Bxg6 Qg7 32. Bf7+, and the Black king is doomed in lines such as 32 … Kf8 33. Bxe8+ Nxf1 34. Rxf1+ Kg8 35. Bf7+ Kf8 36. e7 mate; Znosko-Borovsky resigned.


Just about the time we were putting this column to bed, we had more breaking news Monday in the white-hot chess feud of the moment: Norwegian world champion Magnus Carlsen played one move and then logged out in apparent protest in his game against young American rival GM Hans Moke Niemann at an online tournament Monday.

The abrupt resignation in a strong online tournament came just weeks after Mr. Carlsen withdrew from the 9th Sinquefield Cup tournament in St. Louis a round after losing to the much lower-rated Mr. Niemann, heavily insinuating that Mr. Niemann somehow received help — human or computer-based — during their game.

Sinquefield tournament officials said they could find no evidence of foul play — which Mr. Niemann heatedly denied — but also announced there would be a 15-minute delay before moves were posted to the internet for the remainder of the tournament, a sign that there were doubts about the integrity of the play.

A highly anticipated rematch between the two elite grandmasters was set for Monday’s second day of online play in the Julius Baer Generation Cup. Both players could be seen on the video link during the live broadcast on as play began.

But Mr. Carlsen, playing Black, moved his knight for the first move and then shut down his video feed and logged off after Mr. Niemann made his second move, effectively resigning the game. The game score: 1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 1-0.

Chess24 commentator and GM Tania Sachdev appeared stunned by the champion’s “unprecedented” gambit, which she said suggested the controversy, despite no hard evidence so far that Mr. Niemann had cheated, was far from resolved in the champ’s mind.

Magnus [is] just refusing to play against Hans,” she said on the videocast Monday. “He will play the tournament, but he is saying, ‘I will not play the game against him.’ That’s making a very big statement.”
Stay tuned…

Capablanca — Znosko-Borovsky, London, 1922

1. d4 d5 2. Nf3 Nf6 3. c4 e6 4. Bg5 Be7 5. e3 Nbd7 6. Nc3 O-O 7. Rc1 c6 8. Qc2 b6 9. cxd5 exd5 10. Bd3 Bb7 11. O-O h6 12. Bh4 Nh5 13. Bxe7 Qxe7 14. Rfe1 Qd8 15. Qa4 a6 16. Bf5 g6 17. Bxd7 Qxd7 18. Qb3 b5 19. Ne5 Qd6 20. Na4 Rae8 21. Nc5 Bc8 22. Ncd3 Bb7 23. Nc5 Bc8 24. Nxa6 Bb7 25. Nc5 Bc8 26. Ncd3 Bb7 27. Rc2 Rc8 28. Rec1 Rfe8 29. a4 f6 30. Nxg6 Kf7 31. Ngf4 Nxf4 32. Nxf4 Ba6 33. axb5 Bxb5 34. Nxd5 Qe6 35. Rc3 cxd5 36. Qxb5 Rb8 37. Rc7+ Kg8 38. Qd3 Black resigns.

Marotti — Znosko-Borovsky, London, 1922

1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nf6 3. Nxe5 d6 4. Nf3 Nxe4 5. d4 Be7 6. Bd3 Nf6 7. O-O Bg4 8. Nbd2 O-O 9. b3 Nc6 10. Bb2 Nb4 11. Be2 Nbd5 12. Ne1 Bc8 13. Nd3 c6 14. c4 Nc7 15. f4 d5 16. c5 Re8 17. Ne5 Ne4 18. Bd3 f6 19. Nxe4 fxe5 20. Nd6 Bxd6 21. cxd6 Qxd6 22. dxe5 Qh6 23. f5 b6 24. Qe2 c5 25. e6 d4 26. Bc1 Qf6 27. Qg4 Nd5 28. Bg5 Ne3 29. Qh5 g6 30. fxg6 hxg6 31. Bxg6 Qg7 32. Bf7+ Black resigns.

• David R. Sands can be reached at 202/636-3178 or by email at [email protected].


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