Emanuel Lasker (1868-1941) was the world chess champion from 1894 to 1920, and is widely regarded as one of the greatest players of all time.
Born in Berlinchen, Prussia on December 24, 1868, Lasker was the son of a Jewish cantor. When he was 11 years old, he was sent to Berlin to study mathematics. In Berlin, he lived with his older brother, who taught him how to play chess to pass the time. The brothers were poor, but Lasker soon found that he could make a little money by beating other players at the local chess clubs. His favorite place to play was the Cafe Kaiserhof, where he soon began winning tournaments.
In 1889, Lasker went to Breslau and won first place in one of the tournament's divisions. Later that year, he traveled to Amsterdam, where he came in second against very highly regarded players. He went to London in 1890, returned to win tournaments there in 1892, and then emigrated to the United States.
World Chess Champion
In 1894, Lasker won the world chess championship, beating the famed player Wilhelm Steinitz. His victory shocked the world, since he was only 25 years old. As Harold C. Schonberg wrote in Grandmasters of Chess, "Steinitz probably felt that the inexperienced, relatively untried Lasker would pose no problems." The match took place over three weeks, and involved three games a week, with 15 moves an hour; the first player who won ten games would win the match. The match began on March 15, 1894 at the Union Square Hotel in New York City; Steinitz lost the first game. For the next eight games, Lasker was in the lead. Steiner claimed this was because he, Steiner, had taken a wrong position at the beginning by mistake, and that this had affected his performance. For the ninth game, the action was moved to the Cosmopolitan Club in Philadelphia; Lasker won the next three games.
The players then took a break. Steinitz, who said he was suffering from insomnia, went back to New York and received massages to combat it. Lasker went to Quebec and spent a week relaxing. After this, both players went to Montreal, where Steinitz's massage treatments at first seemed to be working: he cut Lasker's lead to three games. But this was not enough: on May 26, 1894, Lasker won the championship ten games to five, with four games being inconclusive, or "draws."
Incredulous observers, unwilling to admit that such a young man had beaten the greatest player in the world, rationalized that although he had indeed beaten Steinitz, it was because Steinitz was old and his abilities were failing. Steinitz himself said that he his insomnia had continued during the match, and that was why he lost. He demanded a rematch, but Lasker was not about to risk losing his title so quickly. Steinitz did not get his rematch one until two more years had passed.
At the rematch, held in 1896, Lasker won ten to two, with five draws. Lasker later agreed with some observers that Steinitz's age might have been a factor in the outcome. According to Schonberg, he said, "That Steinitz at the age of 59 was defeated by me and later by others is due to no defect of his theory. His theory is and forever remains the classical expression of the idea of chess."
Changed the Economics of Chess
In 1895, despite the fact that he was recovering from typhoid, Lasker came in third in a tournament at Hastings. According to Schonberg, a Hastings observer wrote that Lasker was "a modest and intelligent gentleman, but frail and delicate in health. Lasker, unlike many experts, has first-class business qualities. Like his great rival [Steinitz] he takes chess and life generally in a very serious way, and there seems to be but little fun in either of their natures."
Lasker did indeed have an acute business sense. Even in 1895, he considered himself a professional. Since he was the best player in the world, he expected to be paid accordingly. When he played, he let sponsors of the tournaments know that they would have to pay at least $2,000 for his appearances. However, this business sense extended only to chess; he failed at other business ventures. Attempts at farming and pigeon breeding ended in failure. Of this last venture, Schonberg remarked, "He finally understood that he was in the wrong business when he tried to mate a pair of pigeons, not realizing that both were males."
Because of his insistence on receiving money for playing chess, Lasker was considered money-hungry by other players. However, most of them soon realized the sense of his attitude and adopted it, too. Lasker said that he did not want to die impoverished, as Steinitz did. He wanted to copyright all of his games. (He was not successful in this, but many years later, in the 1960s, player Bobby Fischer managed to do just that.) Other players refused to allow the moves of the game to be published. This annoyed chess editors all over Europe, but according to Schonberg, Lasker wrote, "Have these writers ever thought that even a [chess] master must pay his board bill all the year round? And that it might be unfair to ask the master to deliver the proceeds of his activity without compensation? [The editors have] neglected to pay the chessmaster for the game produced, and have pocketed the entire profit of his labor." Lasker's attitude revolutionized the economics of chess. Current-day chess masters, who make money from their games and from teaching, can thank him for paving the way.
Between 1896 and 1899, Lasker took a break from chess to study mathematics. In 1902, he received a doctoral degree from Erlangen University for his research on abstract algebraic systems. In 1904, Lasker began publishing Lasker's Chess Magazine which he continued for the next four years.
Held World Title for 26 Years
Lasker held the world title for 26 years, but defended it only six times. This annoyed other players, who claimed that he found outlandish excuses not to play because he did not want to take the risk of losing. Schonberg noted that in the British Chess Magazine, American player William E. Napier wrote, "If Dr. Lasker insists for the remainder of his life on selecting the time and place of meeting, it would seem that any bona-fide challenger would be disqualified by the champion's whim. Dr. Lasker might prefer to play in a balloon, or in the nether recesses of a coal mine, or at Archangel or Timbuctoo."
Marshall finally got to play Lasker in 1907, and lost. Lasker won by eight games to zero, with seven draws. In 1908, Lasker played the German Siegbert Tarrasch. The two men detested each other; Lasker thought Tarrasch had a gigantic ego, and Tarrasch thought Lasker was a money-grubber. Before the match, Tarrasch came into the room, looked at Lasker, clicked his heels in the German manner, and said, "To you, Dr. Lasker, I have only three words: 'check and mate."' Despite this defiant little remark, Tarrasch lost to Lasker, three games to eight, with five draws. Tarrasch later claimed that this was because the championship was held close to the sea, and he was sensitive to the presence of the ocean. This brought on some ridicule from the press, who noted that Dusseldorf, the scene of the challenge, was 170 miles from the coast.
In 1909 and 1910 Lasker defeated the Polish player David Janowski. Later in 1910, however, he played a ten-game match against Karl Schlechter, and won by a narrow margin. Perhaps it was too narrow for his comfort; he never played Schlechter again.
In 1914, Czar Nicholas II of Russia sponsored a large chess tournament, contributing 1,000 rubles to the prize fund. Lasker, who had not played in a tournament since 1909, participated. He played against brilliant players including Jose Raul Capablanca from Cuba, the Polish player Akiba Rubinstein, American Frank Marshall, German Siegbert Tarrasch, and Alexander Alekhine from Russia. Lasker won by a half-point over Capablanca, in the 18th of 21 rounds. At a banquet after the match, the Czar named Lasker and the four players closest to him in points, "Grandmasters of Chess," the first known use of the term. The other players were Capablanca, Alekhine, Tarrasch, and Marshall.
Lasker was a strong player in matches, but he was even better in tournaments. Schonberg summed up his career by writing, "Lasker gloried in the shifting fortunes of tournaments, where different opponents had different styles, and different problems had to be faced every day. In a tournament career that lasted some 40 years, Lasker entered 20 major tournaments. Of these he won ten outright, tied for first twice, came in second twice, tied for second twice, and was below third place only three times, two of these when he was 67 years old."
Changes in Chess
During Lasker's lifetime, the game of chess changed enormously. More players and strategists wrote about the game, and chess columns appeared in newspapers and magazines. More books were published about chess and the number of openings, variations and ploys discussed increased rapidly. According to Schonberg, Lasker said that "when I was young, all a player needed was talent and common sense. But in twentieth-century chess, a player had to have memorized thousands of variations. One slip and he was in a lost position, the prey of a player who had more book."
Chess is a very mathematical game, and requires elegant, clear thinking. It is impossible to lie or become confused on the board. Lasker noted this in his book, The Art of Chess, in which, according to Schonberg, he wrote, "On the chessboard, lies and hypocrisy do not survive long. The creative combinations lays bare the presumption of a lie; the merciless fact, culminating in a checkmate, contradicts the hypocrite."
Lasker's personal life was nowhere near as clear and orderly as a chess game. His first wife died in the early 1900s, and he remarried in 1911. In addition to playing and teaching chess, he taught mathematics and wrote three philosophy books, but he did not keep regular hours. He did not carry a watch, was rarely in bed before 3 A.M., ate when he was hungry, and slept when he was tired. He was interested in everything, loved to argue, and even argued with Albert Einstein about relativity (apparently, Einstein listened with respect and interest to his arguments.)
Lasker announced his retirement from chess early in 1931, and chose to spend it in Berlin. His retirement was rudely interrupted by the rise to power of the Nazis, and Lasker fled to England with his wife. The Nazis seized all their property, and Lasker was without funds again. He turned to chess, participating in some tournaments, teaching in several countries, and eventually moving to New York, where he taught, gave exhibitions, and wrote. Most of his income, surprisingly, came from playing the game of bridge: he was a professional player of the card game. On January 11, 1941, Lasker died in New York City, the acknowledged superman of the chess world.
Further Reading on Emanuel Lasker
Golubek, Harry, Golubek's Encyclopedia of Chess, Crown, 1977.
The New Encyclopedia Britannica, 1997.
Schonberg, Harold C., Grandmasters of Chess, W.W. Norton and Co., 1981.
Winter, William, Kings of Chess, Carroll and Nicholson Ltd., 1954.