Jose Raul Capablanca (1888-1942) is perhaps the greatest natural chess player to have ever lived. He was world champion from 1920 to 1927 and went for eight years without losing a single match while competing very actively in tournaments. His predecessor as world champion, Emanuel Lasker, once said of him, "I have known many chess players, but only one chess genius," and his successor, Alexander Alekhine, described Capablanca as "a very great genius whose like we shall never see again."
Capablanca was born in Havana, Cuba, on November 19, 1888. His father was an officer in the Spanish Army, from whom he learned to play at a very early age. At the tender age of 13, in 1901, Capablanca defeated the strongest chess player in Cuba at the time (a J. Corzo) four games to three with six draws. He played at an average speed of 92 moves per hour, an insanely fast pace for anyone familiar with chess, and he won the match due to his literally perfect play in the endgame. Years later, Alekhine would wax nostalgic about Capablanca's "unsurpassed endgame technique": "Neither before nor afterwards have I ever seen such flabbergasting quickness of chess comprehension ... his speed was incredible; what others could not discover in a month, he would see at a glance."
He went to study in the United States at Columbia University in 1906, but he gave up his studies for chess after a year. Instead, Capablanca played chess at every opportunity, but was noted for not studying the game at all, something very unusual among high-level players. He played his first significant match in 1909, defeating one of the world's best players. In 1911, he won a tournament that featured all of the world's best players besides the champion, Lasker. The chess world has never before and not since seen such a rapid ascent of a player.
Immediately following the tournament, Capablanca, with his usual flair, gave a public challenge to Lasker. The champ managed to evade the challenge for nearly a decade.
In September 1913, the Cuban government made him an attache, meaning that he could focus his attention on representing Cuba internationally in chess competition. He was a great representative of Cuba, quite attractive and always had a lady on each arm. He was a simple man with great charm and charisma, and as a result he was a positive representative of both Cuba and the game of chess.
After this appointment, Capablanca began to tour Europe, challenging the champions in each nation as he arrived. This tour helped to build his legend, because during his European years from 1914 to roughly 1922, he was nearly unstoppable. He entered a tournament in 1914 in St. Petersburg and finished second, half a point behind Lasker. It was to be his final significant loss for many years. From 1916 to 1924 Capablanca did not lose a single match in public competition. In 1920, Lasker resigned his title to Capablanca, and in 1921, they made it official, with Capablanca crushing the former master without losing a game. This is the only time a sitting champ has been defeated so thoroughly.
Capablanca utterly dominated chess throughout the early and middle 1920s, rarely losing a match and annihilating his closest competitors, Emanuel Lasker and Alexander Alekhine. With his stature secure and brimming with confidence, he agreed to a match in 1927 against his closest competitor, Alexander Alekhine, for the title.
It was perhaps the greatest upset in chess history. Alekhine defeated Capablanca in 1927 six wins, three losses, and twenty five draws. The chess world was shocked, and none more than Alekhine; he realized that he had beaten a truly great player. As a result, Alekhine refused in subsequent years to defend the title against Capablanca, instead defending it against lesser competitors.
Capablanca continued to dominate the rest of the chess world throughout the 1920s and 1930s, and when Alekhine lost the title to Max Euwe in 1935, Capablanca hoped to return to the top. In 1936, at the age of 46, he won several top tournaments and hoped to regain the title. Unfortunately, he never got the chance. He began to grow older and in 1939 played his last public exhibition, dominating at the Buenos Aires Chess Olympiad. He had a stroke while watching a match at the Manhattan Chess Club in 1942 and died the next day.
Jose Raul Capablanca was most likely the greatest natural chess player of all time and a wonderful ambassador for the game.