When Emanuel Lasker beat Wilhelm Steinitz in their World Championship Match of 1894 to become the second World Champion, he would embark on a reign that lasted twenty-seven years, the longest in chess history.
He would also carve what is arguably the most impressive chess career, one that interspersed dominant match performances with stunning tournament victories. At the end of its nearly fifty-year span, Lasker never lost his astonishing strength and his perch in the chess hierarchy. He had crossed swords and bested the greatest masters of two succeeding centuries.
Lasker - The Chess Genius
What made Lasker one of chess’ most celebrated champions? He was not the devastating force that Paul Morphy was, whose genius was all too apparent at the outset.
Neither was he the deep theoretician that was Wilhelm Steinitz, who gave a new generation a whole new chess foundation. Without any particular all-defining, outstanding quality, he was, quite simply, a fantastic player who made a habit out of winning.
Emanuel Lasker was born on December 24, 1868 in Berlinchen, a town that is now known as Barlinek in Poland. The Laskers were Jews. Emanuel’s father was a cantor in a local synagogue, while his grandfather was a rabbi.
At the age of eleven Emanuel was sent to Berlin for schooling, and there joined his elder brother Berthold who was studying to become a doctor. Berthold was the first chess player of the family, and as the Laskers were poor he augmented his allowance by teaching chess in a city tea shop.
Berthold was a very strong player who rose among the world’s top ten players in the 1890s, and not long after it was Emanuel who became his student in the tea shop.
This set Emanuel’s routine in his early days in Berlin — his studies in the morning and chess in the evening. Soon Emanuel was playing for stakes and himself earned his keep at chess.
Emanuel was fortunate to have a strong player for a brother and his chess rapidly improved. By the 1880’s he had risen as was one of the top players of Café Kaiserhof, the main chess haunt of Berlin, and won its annual winter tournament of 1888.
The following year he also won the second division of the Sixth German Chess Congress held in Breslau. This victory earned him the German master’s title and convinced him that he was fit to become a chess professional, notwithstanding that he had already earned his degree in Mathematics.
The winner of the Congress’ main division, limited only to players renowned internationally, was Siegbert Tarrasch, the illustrious master who was to become Lasker’s most bitter rival.
In 1892, Lasker participated in his first international tournament in Amsterdam, finishing second but ahead of Isidor Gunsberg, who had challenged Wilhelm Steinitz in the World Championship of 1891.
He then traveled to London where he won two tournaments, then to the United States where he won the New York Tournament of 1893 by a clean sweep of his thirteen games. On top of these, Lasker had been playing matches and had beaten leading masters from both sides of the Atlantic.
From 1889 up to 1893 he beat the Germans Curt von Bardeleben and Jacques Mieses, the Englishmen Henry Bird and Joseph Henry Blackburne, the Austrian Berthold Englisch, the American Jackson Showalter, and the Cuban Celso Golmayo.
All these merited a challenge for the world championship, and when Lasker found his backers Steinitz accepted. The match was set for March 1894, with the first to score ten victories as winner.
The match’s odds were heavily in favor of the reigning champion. Although Steinitz was already fifty-eight, he had been unbeatable at matches. The stakes, in fact, were reduced from $5000 to $2000 a side because Lasker had difficulty finding backers willing to wager on his success. It was with great surprise then that Lasker emerged victorious 10-5.
Steinitz immediately pressed for a rematch. Lasker returned the favor, and the match materialized in 1896 under the same terms as the first match. Lasker duplicated the result, but this time more decisively, 10-2.
Lasker had seemingly risen to the throne so suddenly. It had only been five years since his first appearance at the German Chess Congress, and he had become world champion before the chess world could blink.
Many thought him untested, especially that he hadn’t won yet a truly strong tournament. Tarrasch wasn’t impressed, and in a bid to detract some luster to Lasker’s achievement, scoffed: “The old Steinitz is no longer the Steinitz of old.”
Lasker responded by buckling down to work and proving his worth as World Champion. Between winning the title in 1894 and the turn of the new century, he would turn in his most dominant tournament performances and leave no doubt that he was the world’s strongest player.
The start of this six-year stretch did not augur well for Lasker. It began with Hastings 1895, one of the most celebrated tournaments of all time and the equivalent of the modern-day “super tournament. Lasker finished only third.
The winner was Harry Nelson Pillsbury, the phenomenal American who was always a difficult opponent for Lasker and who loomed ever as a threat to his title until Pillsbury’s early, unfortunate death.
Next up for Lasker was St. Petersburg of 1896. This tournament invited the top five finishers of the Hastings tournament and put them in a match of six games against each other. It turned out to be a spectacle, what with the world champion in Lasker, the deposed champion in Steinitz, a former world championship contender in Mikhail Chigorin, and a potential world champion in Pillsbury all gathered for the ultimate test of skill and stamina.
Tarrasch was supposed to be the fifth player, but declined for reasons of his medical practice. Lasker won the event, a clear two points ahead of the runner-up, Steinitz. Lasker finally claimed the “super tournament” everyone looked for him to win.
Lasker would win three more tournaments of this strength before and shortly after the 19th century finally closed.
These were Nuremberg 1896, London 1899, and Paris 1900. London 1899 in particular was one of the greatest tournaments ever held on British soil, where champions of many countries participated. Lasker won it by a margin of 4.5 points, a tournament victory that has remained one of his greatest and most memorable.
The first decade of the new century proved eventful for Lasker, wherein a ten-year stretch he would defend his title four times. The first of these was against Frank Marshall.
Marshall was a formidable player who arranged the World Championship of 1907 on the strength of his victory in the great Cambridge Springs of 1904. He was champion of the United States from 1909 to 1936, and has some of the most admired games in the annals of chess. A ferocious attacker, he excelled foremost in tournament play. Matches, however, weren’t his cup of tea, and Lasker’s superior class, in match play at least, showed. Lasker thrashed him 8 to 0 with 7 draws.
The following year, 1908, came the match against Tarrasch. This was the World Championship the chess world had been clamoring for, one between two prodigiously strong masters. If Lasker’s colleagues gave him flak for choosing the outmatched Marshall the previous year, their appetites this time were all whetted.
Tarrasch always shone brightly. He was six years Lasker’s senior and had impressed himself ahead of him. His most glorious period, particularly, was the last two decades of the 19th century when he terrorized the international chess scene and collected five titles — Nuremberg 1888, Breslau 1889, Manchester 1890, Dresden 1892, and Leipzig 1894.
He was widely regarded as the rightful successor to Steinitz throne, but in 1892 he unwisely declined an invitation by the Havana Chess Club to play a world championship match against the aging champion.
Lasker himself, as a young and rising player, had challenged Tarrasch, but the doctor haughtily replied that Lasker should first prove himself in a major tournament, implying that Lasker wasn’t yet in his class. This ended all cordialities between them and made match arrangements extremely difficult before 1908.
The great match that took so many years in the making was a letdown of sorts, because Lasker thumped Tarrasch 8-3. Many thought Tarrasch was way past his best years, but with hardly a noticeable decline in his play the truth probably was that Lasker had become too strong for him.
Lasker would play his next match in 1910, which turned out to be the most challenging yet. This was against the Viennese Carl Schlechter, an extremely tough master who had a string of titles under his belt, notably Munich 1900, Ostende 1906, Stockholm 1906, Vienna 1908, and Hamburg 1910.
Lasker found Schlechter’s solid and careful play very difficult and trailed 5-4 at the end of nine of their ten-game match. What the match conditions were at the start of the tenth game has been one of the lasting mysteries of chess. Was Schlechter required to win by at least a two-point margin or was a solitary point enough? There have been no clear answers.
In any case, if Schlecter’s drive in the last game was any indication, it seems indeed the condition was for a two-point win because he played with all abandon. He achieved a winning position, but then tragedy struck and Lasker scored a complete reversal. Match conditions and all, the drawn match was another successful title defense for Lasker.
Lasker’s last match of the decade came a few months later against David Janowski of Poland. Janowski never really had anything except a few important tournament victories under his name such as Monte Carlo 1901, Hanover 1902, Vienna 1902, and Barmen 1905. He lost horribly 8-0 in just eleven games, prompting a chess publicist to remark humorously that only two things happened in every game — either Lasker won or Janowski lost.
The next decade from 1910-1920 was a quiet one for chess as in 1914 World War I broke out, putting a halt to all international chess activities. Before the great war, however, Lasker would turn in another performance for the ages.
After Lasker’s four title defenses, three great players emerged who were sure to succeed him one day. They were Akiba Rubinstein, Alexander Alekhine, and Jose Raoul Capablanca.
Two years earlier, in 1912, Rubinstein won five straight international tournaments, a feat unheard of at the time. Capablanca, on the other hand, won the great San Sebastian 1911 on his maiden international appearance and defeated anyone who dared cross path with such simplicity and ease that he was clearly a genius in the mold of the great Paul Morphy.
Alekhine was yet to hit his stride, but he already showed his devilish attacking prowess that would make him one of the greatest attackers in history.
What spectacle it must have been for the chess world when Lasker and these three young champions came together for the great St. Petersburg of 1914.
Thrown into the mix were former world title contenders in Marshall, Tarrasch, Janowski and Gunsberg, an icon of the past century in Joseph Blackburne, and a future outstanding theoretician in Aaron Nimzowitsch.
Going into the last two rounds Capablanca held a one-point lead over Lasker and, as if the best game of the tournament were saved for last, they were paired in the penultimate round. In a psychological ploy, Lasker employed a relatively tame opening in an almost must-win situation, complicated the game, and managed to eke out victory in a wildly tense struggle.
Capablanca was so taken aback by this loss that he also lost in the last round to Tarrasch. When all the smoke cleared, Lasker had nicked Capablanca by just a half point. His chase of Capablanca and his mad dash to the tape must have made St. Petersburg 1914 Lasker’s most satisfying victory.
When chess hostilities resumed after the war ended in 1918, Lasker was already fifty years old and was nearing the twilight of his life. Rubinstein was still good, but he lost his dominance and slowly faded out of the world championship picture.
Alekhine continued developing, but Capablanca went from strength to strength. By the 1920s Capablanca had clearly taken the mantle from Lasker, and their World Championship of 1921 was all but mere formality for the crowning of the new king. Lasker resigned the match after trailing 4-0 in their twenty-four game series.
Lasker would have wanted to ride into the sunset after losing his title, for he was a man of giant intellect and had many other interests.
He was a mathematician, philosopher and writer. Chess, however, was his primary means of livelihood, and when he later faced Nazi persecution in the 1930s and lost all his property, he found himself forced to continue playing.
He would have three more spectacular performances before finally closing the curtains — New York 1924, of the same strength as St. Petersburg 1914, which he won; Moscow 1925 in which he placed second behind future world championship challenger Efim Bogoljubov; lastly, Moscow 1935 in which he went undefeated and placed second behind new stars Salo Flohr and Mikhail Botvinnik, and against a whole new generation of strong players and a generally higher level of play. In all of them he placed ahead of his rival Capablanca, and his performance in Moscow 1935 is said to be the greatest ever for a sixty-five-year-old.
Lasker passed away on January 11, 1941 in New York, a champion to the very end.
If the first world champion, Steinitz, was a thinker, Lasker who succeeded him was a player. As one, he has not left behind any lasting theoretical contribution, but his legacy is far greater than anybody of knowledge he might have otherwise shared. Lasker’s significance to history is that he serves as the model of a player who was able to combine his astonishing talents with the necessary competitive character.
He would fight tooth and nail to the very end. He kept his spirit unbroken when he made mistakes, and when saving a difficult, even lost position was the task at hand. He exploited the nerves of his opponents, placing them in positions they most disliked, and tightening the game’s tension until they sunk in their worries. No one ever intimidated him, and he never ever buckled under pressure. He was, in short, was chess’ most complete fighter.
Lasker is the greatest practical player chess has ever seen, and to this day remains an inspiration to many who aspire to be successful at chess.
- Lasker Vs. Bauer – A game in Lasker’s first international tournament illustrating his attacking skills, one of the many facets of his game.
- Lasker vs. Pillsbury – A game against the great Pillsbury illustrating Lasker’s vaunted defense, the most appreciated facet of his game.
- Tarrasch vs. Lasker – A miraculous reversal of a lost game in the 1908 World Championship.
- Lasker vs. Capablanca – Lasker’s dramatic victory over Capablanca to catch him at first place before the final round in the great St. Petersburg 1914.
- Alekhine vs. Lasker – A finely executed win in the great New York 1924 against a future world champion, the legendary Alexander Alekhine.
Lasker Chess Set Reproductions
The Camaratta Collection - The 1885 Lasker Series Chess Pieces - 4.0" King
Sources and suggested readings
- Kings of Chess by William Hartston
- From Morphy To Fischer by Al Horowitz
- The Big Book of World Chess Championships by Andre Schultz
- How to Defend in Chess by Colin Crouch
- Emanuel Lasker : The Life of a Chess Master by Dr. J Hannak
- Counterattack! By Zenon Franco
- Chess Secrets: Masters of Innovation by Craig Pritchett
- Improve Your Chess by Lars Bo Hansen
- Masters of the Chessboard by Richard Reti
- Kings of Chess by Paul Van der Sterren