1921 World Chess Championship
Jose Capablanca y Graupera (Cuba) vs. Emanuel Lasker (Germany)
Havana, Cuba
March 15 - April 28, 1921

Conditions:  Best of 24 Games OR 8 wins.  
Champion retains title in the event of a 12-12 tie.

Cuba, 1921 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 Score
Capablanca 1 1 1 1 9
Lasker 0 0 0 0 5
Result:  Lasker resigned the match prematurely.
Jose Capablanca retains the World Championship*
* Most sources list this as the final title defense for Emanuel Lasker. In actuality, Lasker resigned the World Title in 1920, in a dispute over match conditions. Convinced to play the match by one of the biggest prize funds in history, he agreed to do so only on condition that his resignation be accepted, and he be regarded as the Challenger in the match. Most people don't take this seriously, which may be just as well, and regard this as the match in which Capablanca became champion.

See the Games of the Match!

  • This match was 10 years in the making, thanks to a dispute over match conditions that is worth recounting, as it involves principles still argued about today, such as the value of the Pure Wins match system, the appropriateness of 2-point tie clauses, the procedure for forfeiting a champion, and the right of a champion to bestow his title on anyone he wishes. Read on, MacDuff...

  • Capablanca is, of course, one of the strongest players in the history of the game, who has more legends about him than a politician has no-comments. A man who only lost 25 tournament games in a 30 year career, he had first attracted public notice by beating the champion of Cuba in a match at age 12 in 1900, then annihilating Frank J. Marshall in a match for the US Championship in 1909 that later turned out not to have been for the US Title at all. His first international tournament was at San Sebastian in 1911, a tournament which he won, although his very entry had been sharply criticized by some beforehand (particularly Bernstein and Nimzovich). The tournament had been, what would be called today, a Grandmasters only tournament, one of the strongest ever held, with all participants required to show at least two 3rd prizes in strong master tournaments to be allowed entry. Capablanca had no prizes at all, but was admitted on the basis of his match with Marshall.

  • The buildup to this match begins at this time. After Capablanca's victory at San Sebastian, his supporters immediately began pushing for a championship match with the then-17 year champion, Emanuel Lasker. Lasker was sounded out on the possibility immediately after the tournament, and had this to say in his newspaper column:

    New York Evening Post, March 15, 1911
    Capablanca's compatriots have a desire to see him contest the world's championship. Today (February 28th) I received a letter from Senor Paredes of the Habana Chess Club, asking me to play with Capablanca in the Cuban city a match of ten games up, draws not to count. This proposition is not acceptable. In the present period of draw-making, such a match might last half a year and longer. I am, of course, deliberating upon my reply, but I do not think that I shall care to play in a semi-tropical climate more than a few games.

    (For those following the negotiations to the 1975 Championship Match, it's interesting to see how far back a fear of Pure Wins systems really goes. See Steinitz's notes to the 1889 match for another example.)

  • Several months later, Lasker drew up a list of terms for a possible match with Capablanca. Some of the most important of these were:

  • 6 Wins OR Best of 30
  • Match to be considered drawn in the event of a tie match OR if one player were to lead by one point only.
  • Champion decides the match venue and stakes.
  • Challenger must deposit $2000 forfeit money.
  • Time limit to be 12 moves per hour.
  • The Champion has an exclusive right to publish the games.
  • Play conducted no more than 5 days per week, no more than two 2 hour sections per day.
  • Capablanca disputed several of Lasker's conditions, including time limit, the stakes, the short playing time, the 30 game limit, and especially the requirement that the Challenger must win by 2 points to win the title. The unfairness of this condition is obvious", said Capablanca, perhaps a bit too undiplomatically. Capablanca wrote the following letter to Lasker:

    December 20, 1911

    Dr. Emanuel Lasker:

    Dear Sir - I am in receipt of your communication of November 21, enclosing conditions for a match with me, and asking whether I maintain my challenge. In reply I will say that I do maintain my challenge, but that I take exception to some of the conditions that you have seen fit to impose.

    Frankly, these conditions came as a great surprise to me. I expected that you might ask for somewhat higher stakes, and I was prepared to meet that demand. I also thought you might stipulate that fewer wins would be required. But I took it for granted that the fundamental conditions of the match would be similar to, if not identical with those that have prevailed in practically all the important matches of the past. I had even hoped that your conditions might be such that I would be able to accept them in every detail without comment or objection, and I very much regret to observe that you have made that impossible.

    In preparing my answer I have endeavored to state my case and make plain my objections without being offensive; nor do I mean to jockey you for minor advantages. All I ask is a square deal and an even chance - that the best many may win.

    Sincerely yours,
    J.R. Capablanca

    Accompanying this letter was a more detailed critique of the match conditions, with this being said about the proposed 2-point clause:

    I cannot agree to your provision that should the match be won by a score of 1 to 0, 2 to 1, 3 to 2, it would be declared drawn, and you retain your title. For, in chess, as in all other sports and contests, a win is always a win, and must be so considered, no matter how slight the margin. And should the match end with one of these scores, it would be looked upon by the chess public as a match won and lost, regardless of what we might agree to call it. Moreover, such a match would not be an even match, but would be more in the nature of a handicap contest, wherein I, as the challenger, would be compelled to give you a handicap of one game. I do not presume to be able to do that, nor do I believe that you will insist on my doing it. And to consider this question from the opposite standpoint, what have I to gain by such an agreement? Should you beat me by a score of 3 to 2, for example, I would be beaten, would consider myself beaten, and would be so considered by all the world. Nor would I, in such a case, gain anything whatever, in money, in title or in reputation by your agreeing to call the match drawn, for the fact that I had been beaten would still remain.

    (See also the controversy over the Lasker-Schlecter Match and the 1975 Match again for other disputes involving a requirement for the challenger to win by 2 or more points in order to win the title. In addition, the Schlecter-Tarrasch match of 1911, had a similar requirement, though no title was at stake in that match.)

    Offended by the tone of Capablanca's reply, and particularly by the claim that one of the conditions was obviously unfair, Lasker turned to... a friend of his. Do you want to take a guess who it was? Give up? Well, who else? It was Walter Penn Shipley again, the man who had played such an instrumental part in the US Championship controversies of 1904 and 1909. (This Shipley guy was really the Judge Wapner of his time, wasn't he?)

    Shipley offered the following 2 cents worth:

    From the published correspondence, I do not see that Capablanca intended to charge you with being unfair, or to strike a blow against your professional honor. In fact, it is my belief that he had no such intention, and while the language used in portions of Capablanca's reply may be somewhat undiplomatic, I think such portions are capable of a reasonable and not unfriendly explanation.

    There are many important points where you and Capablanca naturally differ as to the terms of a match, and I can readily understand it will be extremely difficult to draw up a set of resolutions governing a championship match that will be perfectly fair to you both. It is not necessary for me to go further into this matter at this time.

    I will state, as I have stated before, thta while I am not anxious to assume the position of arbitrator in this matter, nevertheless if it is the desire of you and Capablanca that I should so act, and you are willing to leave the matter in my hands, I will do the best I can to draw up a set of rules and regulations to cover the match. If, therefore, you wish that I should so act, I will prepare an agreement to be signed by you both, setting forth the points at issue, as I understand them, that are to be placed before me for my decision. This agreement will provide that my decision on all points will be accepted by you both, with, however, the privilege that any of the rules and regulations named by me may be changed, amended, altered, by the unanimous consent of both you and Capablanca.

    I have forwarded a copy of this letter to Capablanca.

    Yours sincerely,
    Walter Penn Shipley

    Lasker was not satisfied with Shipley's reply and used the dispute to end the negotiations, writing:

    Capablanca has not protested in the proper manner, and I therefore have the formal right to end these negotiations. Of that right, I make use. Capablanca's way of writing may in general have been merely undiplomatic, but in one point it was more than that. He has charged me with having put an obviously unfair condition. Obviously unfair is the same as deliberately unfair. In future I shall consider Capablanca as one who has challenged me with the purpose of raising a quarrel.

  • Capablanca and Lasker remained at odds for several years, not speaking to each other, until they kissed and made up (metaphorically speaking, of course) at the closing ceremony of the 1914 Saint Petersburg tournament. With this out of the way, it looked like the match would soon happen, after all. After this time, a set of proposed rules for future World Championship matches were drawn up by Capablanca, and approved by the other players at Saint Petersburg, including Lasker, and approved at the Mannheim Congress later that year. These rules included:
  • The champion must defend at yearly intervals.
  • Time limit to be 15 moves per hour.
  • Match should be to either 6 Wins or 8 Wins (champion chooses).
  • The Stake should be not less than a thousand pounds.
  • Unfortunately, as advanced students of history will know (and even some not-so-advanced students), something happened in August 1914, the most important consequence of which was the real damper it put on chess activities for the next 4 years.

  • After this spot of bother was dealt with, the world was able to get back to the more important job of arranging the Capablanca-Lasker match. By January 1920, terms agreeable to both were reached, but the public at large still considered them too favorable to Lasker. Unhappy with being on the short end of things, Lasker resigned the title in Capablanca's favour, writing:

    From various facts I must infer that the chess world does not like the conditions of our agreement. I cannot play the match, knowing that its rules are widely unpopular. I therefore resign the title of the world's champion in your favor. You have earned the title, not by the formality of a challenge, but by your brilliant mastery. In your further career, I wish you much success.

  • This decision didn't sit too well with either Capablanca or the chess world. Capablanca wanted to earn the title by fighting for it, not to take it as a gift, and have to deal with all the fuss Karpov had to deal with in 1975 (though it's doubtful that Capablanca put it to himself in quite those terms). Worse yet, the chess world was not merely unhappy about the situation, but was questioning the whole right of a champion to give the title away, with talk in some quarters of refusing to recognize Capablanca's claim to it. Amos Burn had this to say about the situation in The Field:

    The question now arises as to whether a holder of the world's championship has the right, upon resigning, to transfer it to any nominee at all. The consensus of opinion is undoubtedly in favor of Capablanca's being the ex-champion's greatest rival, but when we divest the Cuban's chess reputation of the glamor which attaches to it and examine his actual record in international tournaments, we find it not only not superior to those of a number of other masters, but in some cases actually inferior, notably so when compared with those of Dr. Tarrasch, Rubinstein and Maroczy. We would therefore suggest that the title of world's champion be for the present left in abeyance, and that it be decided at an early date by a double-round tournament between, say, six of the world's leading masters. most of the best European masters, among them Tarrasch, Rubinstein, Maroczy, Teichmann and Duras, will compete in the international tournament commencing at Gothenburg on August 1; and it might be agreed that the first three prize winners in that contest should be included among the six, one of whom would, of course, be Capablanca, to be selected from the few first-class masters, such as Bernstein, Vidmar and Marshall, the American champion, who have not been able to compete at Gothenburg.

  • With the succession in danger, the credibility of the title was at one of its periodic low points. Capablanca still wanted the match played, probably for both credibility and sporting reasons. He visited The Netherlands in August 1920, with a $20,000 offer from the Havana Club (an enormous sum in those days), and convinced Lasker to play. Lasker agreed, but insisted that his resignation be allowed to stand and that he be considered the Challenger. This was added to the match rules, but virtually no one took it seriously. To the chess world, and to common sense, he was the defending champion in that match. Officially he wasn't. The situation would only have become sticky if the match had ended in a 12-12 tie, with Capablanca "retaining", so take your pick.

  • Capablanca's personal views on whether he regarded himself as champion before the match are unclear. In at least one quote, he did refer to himself that way, saying in the September/October, 1920 issue of the American Chess Bulletin...

    "In case the match with Dr. Lasker is played and I remain [my italics] the champion, I shall insist in all future championship matches that there be only one session of play a day of either five or six hours, preferably six." - Capablanca, August 20, 1920.

  • Why did he say this? Did he believe it? Was he humoring Lasker to get him to play the match? Who knows? But regardless of what the match rules said, the chess world has fastidiously ignored the resignation, both at the time, and afterwards, and even references to it are hard to find.

  • With money he couldn't (and shouldn't) resist on the table, Lasker agreed to give the public what it wanted. But he appears to have approached the match in a really half-a$$ed way (to coin a phrase). Ossip Bernstein, writing in the July 1955 issue of Chess Review, reports this conversation with Lasker, on the eve of his departure.

    "Have you made any preparations for the match?"
    "Have you taken time out to rest?"
    "At least are you taking along a chessboard in order to study chess on the voyage?"
    "Have you reviewed the openings you will play and studied the games of Capablanca."
    "That is pure madness," I said. There was no answer.

  • The match began on March 15, 1921, but was somewhat less interesting than the pre-game show. After 4 draws, Lasker sacrificed a Pawn, then the exchange, finally blundering on Move 45 to lose a game that probably still could have been drawn. After 4 more draws, won another strong effort with Black, winning an almost textbook endgame after weakening Lasker's pawns. Then again in Game 11, after a minority attack. Game 12 was a wildly unbalanced game in which Capablanca sacrificed two Rooks and a Pawn for three minor pieces, got a won game, but didn't act quickly enough, and had to settle for a draw. After another draw, Lasker's unsound exchange sacrifice in Game 14 left him 4 down with Capablanca only needing another 3 points out of the next 10 games to retain the title.

  • Rather than showing up for Game 15 on Tuesday, April 26, Lasker sent the following letter to Judge Alberto Ponce (apparently the same A. Ponce who had been Steinitz's tag-team partner in those 3 1889 Exhibition Games, or at least a relative):

    Senor Alberto Ponce
    Havana Chess Club

    Dear Sir - In your capacity as referee of the match I beg to address this letter to you, proposing thereby to resign the match. Please advise me if this determination is acceptable to my adversary, the committee and yourself.

    Sincerely yours,
    Emanuel Lasker
    Havana, Apri 27, 1921

    Ponce replied:

    Esteemed Dr. Lasker:

    Replying to your letter, proposing to resign the match you were engaged in with Mr. Capablanca, I am pleased to inform you that, after informing Mr. Capablanca and the comittee of your intention, and inasmuch as neither the committee nor Mr. Capablanca had any objections thereto, I have no hesitation in also accepting your proposition. I remain, sincerely yours,

    Alberto Ponce

  • The match was declared ended that day, with Capablanca either winning or retaining the title, depending on your point of view. Either way, Lasker did ultimately resign the world's title, the only question is when he did it. Despite not playing out the full schedule, he received his full share of the purse. In fact, for all the fireworks of the negotiations, the match itself was virtually dispute-free.

  • The first game was played at the Union Club of Havana. The remaining games were played at the Casino de la Playa de Marianao at Marianao

  • The purse was $20,000, with Lasker to receive $11,000 and Capablanca $9,000, regardless of the final score. After 5 games had been played, the Commission for the Encouragement of Touring Throughout Cuba added an extra $5,000, of which $3,000 went to the winner, and $2,000 to the loser, putting the final prize distribution at $13,000 for Lasker, $12,000 for Capablanca.

  • The time limit was 15 moves an hour, with play 5 days a week, one 4 hour session per day.

  • Four games down, with at most 10 to play, Lasker resigned the match after Game 14, pleading ill health.

  • Match Breakdown
     #    White - Black        Locale  Date        ECO  Result
     1    Capablanca - Lasker  Havana  03-15-1921  D63  -
     2    Lasker - Capablanca  Havana  03-17-1921  D37  -
     3    Capablanca - Lasker  Havana  03-19-1921  C66  -
     4    Lasker - Capablanca  Havana  03-23-1921  D60  -
     5    Capablanca - Lasker  Havana  03-29-1921  D63  1-0
     6    Lasker - Capablanca  Havana  03-30-1921  C66  -
     7    Capablanca - Lasker  Havana  04-02-1921  D61  -
     8    Lasker - Capablanca  Havana  04-03-1921  D12  -
     9    Capablanca - Lasker  Havana  04-06-1921  D34  -
    10    Lasker - Capablanca  Havana  04-08-1921  D61  0-1
    11    Capablanca - Lasker  Havana  04-13-1921  D64  1-0
    12    Lasker - Capablanca  Havana  04-16-1921  C66  -
    13    Capablanca - Lasker  Havana  04-19-1921  D63  -
    14    Lasker - Capablanca  Havana  04-20-1921  C66  0-1

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