Mozart and Capablanca: playing jokes on the amateur

I am not the first person to compare José Raúl Capablanca (1888-1942), the third chess World Champion, with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791), the Classical composer. They were both child prodigies; they are both thought by many to be the greatest exponents of all time in their fields. Emanuel Lasker, the second World Champion, and Alexander Alekhine, the fourth World Champion, both rated Capablanca higher than any other chess player. Beethoven and Haydn both rated Mozart similarly as a composer.

The comparison between Capablanca and Mozart is most seductive, though, as a comparison of style. Capablanca’s style of play seemed effortlessly simple: he had a liking for simplifying positions, exchanging pieces until there seemed to be too few left for either side to win. Capablanca would then, time and again, proceed to win the apparently drawn game. His play was so precise that there was a period of over a decade (1914 to 1925) when he lost only two games (one of them to Richard Réti, of whom perhaps more in another post). In one tournament, in New York in 1916 against thirteen other top players, he won his first twelve games in a row.

Mozart’s harmony and sense of musical timing give a similar impression of effortlessness and brilliancy combined. Much of his music is constructed from phrases and chord progressions which are, quite literally, just like those found in thousands of other works from the same period; and yet Mozart’s music is unmistakably different, because it always seems just right. It often sounds simple; it never sounds amateurish.

To conclude this first attempt (there may be others to follow) at illustrating the similarities between these two epitomes of classical grace, I am going to turn to one of Capablanca’s games and one of Mozart’s works. The game by Capablanca is not one of his best by any stretch of the imagination; neither is Mozart’s piece one of his best. But they serve my purpose because they both show the encounter between the Master and the amateur.

The Capablanca game was played in a simultaneous exhibition given in 1918 in New York. His opponent’s name is not known; in this story, he stands for the spirit of amateurism. We can stand around the virtual chessboard and admire as an audience.

Capablanca started with the most popular first move in chess, moving the King’s Pawn two squares forward (1.P-K4 or 1.e4 in chess notation). His opponent did the same (1…P-K4 or 1…e5). Then each player moved a knight, and then the other knight; each castled, moved a bishop, then a pawn. The following symmetrical position had been reached.

diagram (1)
Position after move 6

This position has probably been seen thousands of times. But at this point, the true amateurism of Capablanca’s opponent showed itself. He reasoned that, if he simply repeated the Grandmaster’s every move symmetrically, then the game would remain equally balanced and end in a draw. The next moves saw the other bishops move out, then knights move to the centre, then queens move a single square each:



At this point, Capablanca took a piece (a knight), daring his opponent to stick to his plan. He did:

Capa game m7 (1)
Position after move 10

And here, Capablanca showed his classical brilliance: a check (which of course could not be copied with another check), the sacrifice of a bishop with another check, two checks from the queen, and it was checkmate:

Capa game mating attack
The mating attack

Less of a chess game than a chess joke: a lesson in the dangers of slavishly imitating a master craftsman without understanding the craft.

The piece by Mozart I want to put next to this game is his “musical joke”, Ein musikalische Spass (K.522). No-one is quite sure why Mozart wrote this piece, but it demonstrates a very similar spirit to Capablanca’s “joking” game. Imagine the scene: Capablanca sitting opposite his amateur opponent; we are standing among the onlookers, at first puzzled by the apparently amateurish play, then at the end marvelling at the grandmaster’s brilliance. And now imagine Mozart, deliberately writing a piece which conjures up the image of an amateur composer, who slavishly copies musical phrases from other pieces without understanding how they ought to fit together; we are the audience, at first puzzled, then marvelling at how the composer of genius can portray a composer of platitudes without becoming platitudinous himself.

Capablanca’s game finishes with a swift, brutal mate-in-four. Mozart’s piece ends with the instruments playing a final cadence, but in four different keys at once. Enjoy the video below.


Author: Robert Samuels

I teach music for The Open University and play chess for Cowley Chess Club in the Oxfordshire Chess League.

4 thoughts on “Mozart and Capablanca: playing jokes on the amateur”

  1. I have frequently been struck by TV’s use of Mozart’s piece as title music for equestrian sport broadcasts. You suggest that Capablanca’s “joke” might not have been universally understood: neither was Mozart’s contrived motivic dullness!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s