Divinities and the Herd

“There could hardly be a greater contrast in temperament, style of play, even appearance, than exist between the Cuban and his challenger. Capablanca, of middle height, olive-complexioned, self-contained and dignified as a Spanish grandee, sits almost motionless at the board , with a single trick of pinching his nostril-tips when he is slightly puzzled – which is not often. Watch him when his opponent is in difficulties; he rises from his chair, gives a final backward glance at the position – and the player – and performs a stately constitutional between the ropes that hedge off divinities from the vulgar herd.

Alekhine, tall,  fair, with piercing eyes – it comes as a surprise to learn he is short-sighted – a true Russian of the Russians, controls his immense agitation by a palpable effort. He is a ‘chain’ cigarette smoker, and surely the gentle gasper never suffers so cruelly as in his restless fingers; two or three puffs, and shapeless, twisted mess is discarded in the ash-tray. Capablanca, on the other hand, is a true Jacobean in his hatred of tobacco.

It follows that Alekhine plays chess romantically, in direct opposition to the severe classicism of the champion. He is a ‘Hyper-modern’ of the ‘Hyper-moderns’ , beginning combinations at the earliest possible moment. He must always have a Grand Plan; and so we get those long, elaborate schemes, that start with a series of quiet-looking moves and burst out at last into amazing brilliancy. This sort of thing is, of course, also found in Capablanca’s games, but more rarely, and usually when the position forces him to call out his utmost reserves.

To sum up the comparison between the two, as it appears to me, Capablanca plays chess with a scientist’s deep interest, and Alekhine for the sheer joy of battle.”

 Brian Harley, Chess and its stars (Leeds: Whitehead & Miller, 1936)

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