Defense in the Endgame, Part 2

Defense in the Endgame, Part 2

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  • Endgames

For the second part of this series, we will turn to the classical master of defense - Emanuel Lasker. Lasker had an unusual skill for hanging on in the most difficult of positions while simultaneously goading his opponents into the abyss. Each move he played in these kinds of positions balanced defense and counterthreats, holding the position steady, creating small worries for his opponent and leaving various ways for them to go wrong. Ultimately, not only did he usually succeed in defending passive and prospectless positions, but he often won them.

We will be looking at two such examples from Lasker's play. To understand his peculiar art, you need to take more than a superficial glance at the games. By looking deeper, you can see how each of Lasker's moves set confusing problems for his opponents even in the most difficult of positions. Somehow Lasker seems to put the onus of solving problems on his opponents rather than himself. Finally, you see his opponents self-destruct as a result of the tough problems they have been set. It almost looks like Lasker manages to mess with their minds in order to alter their perception of the position.

Emanuel Lasker gracing a German stamp| Image Wikipedia

The Spanish Opening was played in both of these games and in neither did Lasker show himself to be an opening expert. Here is how his game with Fyodor Dus-Chotimirski, from the Moscow 1925 tournament, began:

In Lasker's previous visit to Russia, at the St. Petersburg 1909 tournament, Dus-Chotimirski had sensationally upset the then-world champion. Perhaps he was having fond memories of that game from sixteen years earlier and was hoping to repeat the accomplishment.

White's position is not enviable. Far from achieving any advantage from the opening, White simply stands much worse. He has less space, the bishop on c2 is terrible, Black has the makings of an initiative on the queenside due to the b4-pawn, Black also has access to the d4 square and some threats along the long diagonal.

In short, White's problems are enormous. It is amazing how Lasker managed to balance on the edge of this cliff, set constant problems for his opponent, found tricky resources, and eventually took over the game.

It had to be very disconcerting for Dus-Chotimirski to suddenly see the counter-threat of Ne2 arising from White's seemingly hopelessly passive position. There is a certain magic to a player who simply cannot be caught, no matter how bad the position seems.

Now let's see Lasker's mysterious win against David Janowski. Janowski was a strong master who played two matches with Lasker for the world championship. However, in those days, who got to play for the world championship was dictated not solely by their strength of play but also by economic factors (i.e. who could find the sponsorship). Lasker won those matches handily and showed that his understanding of chess - and also psychology - was on another level. This game, however, was played later, in the New York 1924 tournament, when Lasker was no longer world champion (although he did win this tournament very decisively ahead of Capablanca and all the other top players in the world).

Janowski was famous for his love of the two bishops, as well as his optimism. So perhaps it is no coincidence that Lasker handed him the two bishops in this game, even if that operation was clearly wrong from an objective point of view. The fact that the use of the two bishops was Janowski's forte made it even stranger how he was outplayed by Lasker in this game. Perhaps the best explanation is by looking at the game - you will see that at all the key moments, Janowski refused to trade off one of his bishops to secure the advantage! Once again, knowing how - and being willing - to transform advantages is crucial.


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