Emanuel Lasker - The Complicated Master

Emanuel Lasker (December 24, 1868 - January 11, 1941) was a German chess master and second World Chess Champion, taking the title from William Steinitz in 1894. He was born in Berlinchen on Christmas Eve of 1868.

He went to live in Berlin at the age of 11 to study mathematics. He was gifted in this field and later in life he would make some noteworthy contributions. He learned to play chess and he also soon proved to be extremely talented at this.

Lasker became one of the top players in Germany while still in his teens. He became a Master at the age of 21 following good results in Breslau and Amsterdam.

He accepted Steinitz's theories on the significance of positional strategy. He understood the interchangeable relationship between tactics and strategy. He became renowned for leading opponents into complications by not playing book moves. He was very strong in the ensuing tactical battles.

Young Emanuel

Emanuel Lasker studied mathematics in Berlin.

Young Emanuel Lasker

When Lasker moved to Berlin in 1880 to study mathematics, he stayed there with his brother Berthold. Berthold was a fine chess player who would later reach the top 10 in the world. He taught Emanuel how to play chess.

Emanuel took to chess with the same consummate ease with which he had taken to mathematics. He was born to play the game and by the age of 20 was challenging the best players in Germany.

He was granted the title of German Master in 1889 after winning the Cafe Kaiserhof's Winter tournament and a minor tournament in Breslau. He followed that up by finishing second ahead of Isidor Gunsberg who would push Steinitz close (6-4) the following year in a World Championship match. Lasker was certainly starting to make waves.

Shooting for the Stars

Emanuel Lasker was soon shooting for the stars.

Emanuel Lasker was shooting for the stars

Lasker was now a top 10 player and his self-belief and ambition began to grow. He began to see himself as a potential World Champion. He needed matches against credible top class opponents to bolster his case for a shot at Steinitz.

Tarrasch was probably the strongest player in the world circa 1890. His performances in tournaments where he tended to get the better of Steinitz and everyone else certainly suggested this. He did not challenge Steinitz to a match for the title due to work commitments.

Tarrasch had a serious ego and when the upstart Lasker had the audacity to challenge him to a match he was almost offended. The reply was something along the lines of 'you had better win a couple of tournaments before presuming the cheek to challenge me'.

Lasker vs Steinitz

Emanuel Lasker finally dethrones Wilhelm Steinitz

Emanuel Lasker dethrones Wilhelm Steinitz

Lasker challenged Steinitz for the World Championship on a match fee of $5,000 in 1894. As it turned out Lasker struggled manfully to raise the cash. He had to renegotiate the contract with Steinitz several times.

The fee was in fact cut to $2,000 in the end, significantly less than Steinitz had received in earlier encounters. Ordinarily this would have led to Lasker's challenge crumbling but Steinitz was a disaster with money and no doubt needed an injection of capital pretty badly.

Steinitz did not recognize the threat that Lasker carried and never considered the possibility that he wouldn't win. Lasker wasn't expected to prevail by the chess fraternity in general. Shockwaves reverberated throughout the chess world when he triumphed 10-5 with 4 draws. He ended Steinitz's career in a rematch three years later by crushing him 10-2 with 5 draws.

Lasker vs Tarrasch

Emanuel Lasker faced Siegbert Tarrasch in 1908.

Emanuel Lasker and Siegbert Tarrasch

Tarrasch was none to pleased about Lasker's ascension to the summit. He and others questioned Lasker's credentials as a challenger to begin with. The objections were on the grounds that Lasker was unproven against Tarrasch or Chigorin.

This was a bit much considering Tarrasch had earlier declined a match against Lasker. He had put work commitments ahead of his own title ambitions and now he had a problem with someone else challenging. Chigorin had challenged unsuccessfully, Tarrasch had turned down the chance and now Lasker had seized the title.

Tarrasch did not think much of Lasker's playing style or indeed Lasker himself. He had designs on putting him in his place. Lasker had been champion for more than a decade and had successfully defended twice before Tarrasch finally challenged him in 1908. The match did not turn out as Tarrasch had hoped. He blamed the wet weather when Lasker comfortably beat him 8-3 with 5 draws.

The Longest Reign in History

Emanuel Lasker was world champion for 27 years.

Emanuel Lasker was world champion for 27 years

Lasker was 25 years old when he became World Champion. He would hold it for almost 27 years, still a record and likely to remain so. Following his rematch victory against Steinitz in 1897 he next defended it against Frank Marshall a full 10 years later winning easily.

The gaps between his defences were a source of contention for some. Lasker set favorable conditions for his matches and insisted on high stakes making it difficult to organize matches. Some thought him unreasonable but he had watched Steinitz die in poverty. He was determined that he was going to see some return for his talent and his status as World Champion.

Further successful defences against Tarrasch (1908), Schlechter (1910) where he was lucky to escape with a draw and an easy win over Janowski (1910) were enough to keep him as champion through to what they used to call the Great War (World War I to us). Finally in Havana in 1921 Capablanca took the title from him.

Lasker vs Capablanca

Jose Raul Capablanca beat Emanuel Lasker in 1921.

Capablanca beat Emanuel Lasker in 1921 to become World Champion

Jose Raul Capablanca was more frustrated than anyone about the difficulty of securing a showdown with Emanuel Lasker. The Human Chess Machine as Capa was known had emerged in the early 20th Century as an almost invincible force.

By 1912 he was in his mid-twentys and approaching the height of his powers. He was winning high profile tournaments with strong fields and beating big names in matches, playing remarkable chess along the way.

Capablanca published a set of rules and regulations to govern the way World Championship matches would be conducted. All of the top players including Lasker accepted the proposals. Eventually in 1921 in Havana, Cuba the match between Lasker and Capablanca went ahead. Capablanca won the title (which Lasker had earlier resigned) on a score of 4-0 with 10 draws.

After Havana

Emanuel Lasker moved to Russia and then the United States.

Emanuel Lasker moved to Russia and then the United States

Lasker was largely inactive after losing to Capablanca. He never played another serious match and was only involved in a couple of tournaments. He won in New York in 1924 and was second in Moscow a year later.

He drifted into other activities playing Bridge and Go for a while. He also invented a draughts variant called Lasca. Due to his Jewish heritage, he was forced out of Germany in 1933 when Adolf Hitler came to power.

He and his wife moved to the USSR for a time before ending up in New York. He was now to old for serious competition. He made a living there giving lectures on chess and bridge. He succumbed to a kidney infection in 1941 as a charity patient in Mount Sinai Hospital, New York. Despite his best efforts he had died penniless just like Steinitz.

Legacy of Lasker

Emanuel Lasker believed in psychological warfare in chess.

Emanuel Lasker believed that the rigors of human emotion played a part in chess along with the powers of human calculations

Emanuel Lasker disagreed with substantial tracts of contemporary opening analysis that he encountered. He found merit in the ideas of Steinitz in terms of the importance of positional considerations.

However he disagreed fundamentally with Tarrasch's contention that chess strategy is governed by precise logic. Lasker believed that every position was a creature in it's own right and sometimes called for a move that was in contradiction of accepted chess principles.

In other words there are times when a knight on the rim is not grim. There are occasions when a rook does not go behind a passed pawn. It's okay to improvise and complicate matters. Over his career he played some amazing chess.

Moving On

Lasker was also instrumental in the development of professional chess. He insisted that chess players should own the copyright on the games they played and that publications should have to pay for the right to print them.

He also demanded large fees for the matches and exhibitions that he played. At first other players thought he was selfish for demanding high stakes for matches but eventually they saw that he believed that masters should be remunerated for their work like any other professional.

When Morphy and Anderssen played the game it was not seen as a career. A man was expected to have a profession of some sort lest he be considered a layabout. Tarrasch even demurred the opportunity to play Steinitz for the title because the day job was a higher priority. Lasker's influence meant that top chess players like Jose Raul Capablanca would be able to make a good living from the game.

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