79. 21 January 1996 [ES] (St. Albans boar: Capablanca and other chess champions)

previously unpublished; © the estate of eric sams and beatrice cazac (Mrs. Mathew’s letters)

Dear Hayat,


   Thanks for your kind and helpful letter. [...]

   I haven't come across any further references to the St. Albans boar, which seems a reasonable enough subject for a 1590s mural. But I've seen plenty about the Vassar bore Prof. Donald Foster, who is still banging on about the poem he attributed to Shakespeare in a 1989 book. He's generally reckoned to be even more tiresome on that topic than I am about Ironside, which is also saying plenty, and indeed telling people far more than they actually wish to know. I sometimes wish that I could Shakespearhead, so to speak, some needful crusade, such as bringing home the Bacon to the common reader. But that category seems to have been invented by Virginia Woolf, or else, if it ever existed, perished with her.

   I'm glad to have located your Spanish grandfather in Cuba, apparently with fair accuracy. The young Capablanca, who would be 10 or 11 in 1897-8, began his documented international career in 1901 by beating the Cuban champion Juan Corzo in an informal match. He's matched by our little Luke McShane, who recently beat a grandmaster in the British Championship. That feat was repeated by the 11-year-old Reshevsky who beat the great master Janowski in 1922. Chess, like music and mathematics, has always had its prodigies (including my son Richard), which poses the interesting question of what those three great disciplines have in common. Intervals, perhaps? But we also have to find a reason for which your chess-playing grandfather found himself pitted against the young José Raul, the Mozart of chess, who had learned the moves and vanquished his own father at the age of 4, and was no doubt fortunate not to have his ears boxed by the deposed leader of the herd, who was not alone in savouring that bittersweet taste of mingled pride and despair. It so happens that Capablanca senior was an army officer. But what sides were he and your grandfather on? Perhaps the issue of independence was decided by single combat over the chessboard, no doubt with the Ruy Lopez or Spanish Opening? That sounds suitably Quixotic.

   I hope we can meet in May for lunch (my turn) and a chat; I'll look forward to that.

   Best, as ever,

   Yours Eric