11 May 1914
[...] I was nearly home when I realised to my horror that it was a quarter to eight and the simultaneous match with Capablanca was at eight. Like a lunatic, I tore off my tails, put on a jacket and without eating, got to the Tournament in a car which happened to be going there. Saburov had been talking about my graduation performance and lots of people came up to congratulate me. Lasker asked me what they were congratulating me for and I answered in German “You got first prize the day before yesterday and I got first prize today”, and then explained what it was all about. (1)
Lasker said that he didn’t know much about music but that, as I was such a nice young fellow, he was sincerely glad for my success. The session began. Dranishnikov, Borislavsky and Budarina came to watch and stood behind me in a group, in a state of anxiety. Capablanca made his moves incredibly quickly. He started many of the games with the King’s Gambit and I was afraid that he wouldn’t play this opening with me but I was lucky. It was a good game. I became immersed in what was happening on the board and tried not to pay attention to the people around and the game went well. Soon Casablanca began to apply pressure on me, but then the match evened out. Dranishnikov and Borislavksy followed the game nervously and from time to time tried to give advice, however bad. At the end of two hours’ play the match evened out and the game was heading for a draw. Unfortunately, there were five or six other games still going on and, therefore, Capablanca played so fast that I didn’t have time to think. Somehow or other he broke the line of my pawns and won the game. They announced the results of the session: 27 games won, 1 lost, 2 drawn and, of the draws, one was out of kindness to the elderly Saburov. Bashkirov finished the last game. He arrived late, played supported by Rubinstein and Marshall, and still lost. I was a bit annoyed with losing – till then, I had never lost a simultaneous game. I signed on for Thursday for a return game. On my way out, I said goodbye to Lasker, who is leaving tomorrow. He was very kind and invited me to visit him when I was in Berlin. I was very proud of this invitation. My mark, compared with Mozart and Bach, may not yet be evident, but someone is already aware of it and looking on me with approval.
15 May 1914
I worked at my English. In the evening I went to the Chess Tournament for Capablanca’s second session; Dranishnikov, Borislavsky and Budarina again came to watch the contest. At his fourth move Capablanca fell into a kind of trap that I had perfected in one of my games by correspondence: 1. d4, d5; 2. Ktf3, Bf5; 3. c4, Ktc6 with a threat of Ktb4. He was standing in front of the board for two or three minutes, wiping his brow and pulling at his hair. I was thrilled that I had caused Mister Champion a problem. He really was losing the exchange but he recovered and caught up with me so that I had to resort to all sorts of tricks to save the game. In this way two hours passed. The game was becoming serious and I was holding my own, but then with the Queen he took a Rook which was defended by my King and when I took the Queen with the King, then of course I checked the King and the Queen. I couldn’t prevent myself saying “You devil” just like Dranishnikov and Borislavsky who were totally involved in the game.
– ”But why didn’t you check him two moves ago, when your queen was in another position?”
– ”It’s really a shame, but wait, we’ll make a move, perhaps he’s forgotten...”
– ”What are you doing ?” Dranishnikov said in horror.
But I made my move and when Capablanca made his move, I checked. Capablanca wanted to respond but then he noticed that I had moved my piece and smiled. And then he showed that even with this check he would win by almost the same method. This time I was less disappointed by losing than on the last occasion, but I made up my mind to return the following day. I had little hope of saving my honour but it was very interesting to play.
16 May 1914
[...] in the evening once again to the Chess Tournament, to play Capablanca.
The game began like yesterday but things were a bit tougher – Capablanca didn’t lose the exchange but he didn’t win any pieces. He attacked, which made things very difficult for me but I resisted energetically. Capablanca moved his other pieces with style, leaving them open to attack but just try and take them and you’ll lose. Budarina, in a terrible state, was on my right; on my left, Iakhontov, Bashkirov’s beau-frère, ever the impeccable gentleman. After two hours of hard play, I suddenly saw a combination and said to Iakhontov: “I’m going to win the game”.
He looked up and I showed it to him but, to be absolutely certain, I asked Capablanca to do another circuit. When he came round again, I was quite nervous because I had worked out a trap to mate in three moves. I made my move. Capablanca was about to respond but then stopped and seeing the trap, after reflection, sacrificed a piece, otherwise he wouldn’t have been able to rescue himself. So I had an extra piece and now I had to use it. There was a moment when I was really afraid and it looked as though Capablanca would escape, but he couldn’t and lost. I celebrated my victory and was congratulated. Dranishnikov was ecstatic and shouted “Give him the bumps!” Bashkirov invited me home for tea and I said that it was late but, knowing that Capablanca was going, I accepted the invitation. The result of the session today was: of 24 games, 20 won, 2 lost and 2 drawn.
We got in the car and drove to the Kalashnikov Quay. Bashkirov took us right into the garage in order to show off his other two cars. Then the three of us had tea. I watched Capablanca and it was interesting to see how unaffected he was. But having gone to bed at eight in the morning and got up at noon, he looked absolutely exhausted and for most of the time said nothing, staring down into his glass. Bashkirov launched into a flow of rhetoric on Russian history and we listened. Then he asked me to play Tannhäuser. Normally I wouldn’t have, but I was curious to know what Capablanca thought. He listened with obvious pleasure but displayed total ignorance, saying that he’d heard the piece somewhere but didn’t know what it was. He approved of my Prelude for harp. We left the house together. I said that I was going to walk and he did the same. After we had exchanged a few words about the dawn, I decided to keep quiet, like him. We walked quickly and I had difficulty keeping up. After walking for about twenty minutes or so, Capablanca started to talk and asked if it was true that I was going to London via Switzerland and when; his French accent was not absolutely true but he spoke the language correctly. I answered him in some detail but he didn’t say whether he was going. Further on, we started to chat spontaneously about the things around. He was much taken with the people out at night on the Nevsky Prospekt. We walked briskly to the corner of Sadovaya and Voznesenskaya, where we parted – he to the Astoria, I to the First Rota. It was three in the morning and quite light.
(1) On 11 May 1914 Prokofiev had conducted Shcherbachev’s Procession (Shestvie) and then been the soloist in his own First Piano Concerto (conductor Nikolai Tcherepnin) on his graduation from the St Petersburg Conservatory. This was a brilliant finale to his studies at the Conservatory, where he won major awards for piano (22 April) and for conducting (11 May).
Bashkirov, Boris Nikolaevich (1891–?) – poet under the name of Boris Verin, friend of Prokofiev.
Borislavsky – a friend through sporting activities.
Budarina – a fellow student at the Conservatory.
Dranishnikov, Vladimir Alexandrovich (1893–1939) – a fellow student at the Conservatory and conductor. [Dranishnikov conducted the first Russian performance of Love for Three Oranges in Leningrad on 18 February 1926. Ed.].
Capablanca, José Raoul (1888–1942) – chess-player, world champion, consul for Cuba in St Petersburg in 1914.
Larionov, Mikhail Fedorovich (1881–1964) – artist and designer of several Diaghilev ballets.
Lasker, Emanuel (1868–1941) – chess-player, world champion.
Marshall, Frank (1877–1944) – American chess-player.
Rubinstein, Akiba Kivelevich (1882–1961) – chess-player, international Grandmaster.
Saburov, Petr Petrovich (...–1932) – President of the St Petersburg branch of the All-Russia Chess Society.
Tcherepnin, Nikolai Nikolaevich (1873–1945) – composer and professor at the St Petersburg Conservatory.
Shcherbachev, Vladimir Vladimirovich (1889–1952) – composer, teacher. Back
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