Clash of Champions: Steinitz vs. Lasker

Clash of Champions: Steinitz vs. Lasker

| 8 | Endgames

As we move along in our exploration of the endgames that defined the battles for the world championship, we come to the 1894 match between Emanuel Lasker and Wilhelm Steinitz, which took place in New York, Philadelphia, and Montreal.

In the years since his 1886 match with Zukertort, Steinitz -- who unlike later champions did not shy away from putting his title on the line -- had won two matches against Mikhail Chigorin, and one against Isador Gunsburg.

I will not be focusing on every world championship match, since that would result in too long a series of articles. Instead I will only cover interesting endgames from some matches, especially ones which resulted in a transfer of the chess crown.

We have already met Wilhelm Steinitz in the previous article. By 1894, he was nearing the end of his career and spoke of retirement, but when Emanuel Lasker challenged him, he agreed to a match -- possibly out of a need for money. 

Emanuel Lasker, the second world chess champion, was born in 1868 in Berlinchen, Germany (now known as Barlinek, and part of Poland). Beginning as a cafe player while a student of mathematics, Lasker soon began to play in master tournaments and became one of the top players in the world. He held the world championship until 1921, when he lost a match to Jose Raul Capablanca.

Emanuel Lasker via Wikipedia

Lasker was known for his incredible cleverness and ability to escape from difficult positions, often outplaying the opponent in mysterious ways. He was considered to be one of the first masters to make psychology a big part of his play.

This was the eleventh game of the match between Lasker and Steinitz. Although the match began evenly, with the players trading two wins followed by two draws, Lasker then won five games in a row. It is hard to imagine a modern world championship match involving a player getting beat five times in a row (with no draws), but back then it was far more common. This is the fifth win. 

A very typical endgame that can result from the Queen's Gambit Accepted, the Tarrasch Defense, and some other openings like the Nimzo-Indian. Earlier, I showed a game where Mikhail Tal convincingly outplayed his lower-rated opponent, who was probably looking for a draw:

One of the differences between this game and the Lasker-Steinitz game that we will soon see is that a pair of minor pieces had been exchanged here -- thus Black's position was far less cramped, while the white position became overextended. In particular, the absence of the black knight on c6 made a big difference, and Tal's position coordinated perfectly.

In this position, with a symmetrical pawn structure, there are few possibilities of any relevant pawn breaks happening. The game will be decided in a fight between pieces for domination of the c- and d-files, the e5 or e4 squares, and the c4 and c5 squares. If either side can manage to conquer space, it could get the upper hand. The presence of several open files, however, means these kinds of structures have a quite drawish nature. But that is not what happened in the game!

This game was an excellent example of the "solid domination" way of winning, which was such a departure from the rapid, romantic attacks of the middle of the nineteenth century, only 40 or 50 years before this game. Lasker had learned well from his opponent -- as had the rest of the chess world -- and used his own sword against him.


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