Emanuel Lasker, Tactical Monster - Part 4
In this series, and especially in this particular article, I’m trying to instill a love of chess history with Chess.com members. For those who simply don’t like to read, or those who hate chess history, just go right to the puzzles. However, others might discover that there is indeed more to chess than pieces and a board. Many chess greats lived lives full of color and drama, joy and trauma, epic failures and unbelievable successes. You’ll get a small taste of this here.
In this final discussion of Emanuel Lasker, I want to look at his play right after he lost his title, and also point out something that many chess fans don’t think about very often: how non-chess factors often lead to some bumpy results.
In Lasker’s case, his result at Hastings 1895 was marred by his run in with typhoid fever, and his play in his match with Capablanca was influenced not only by Capablanca’s magnificent play (Lasker praised his opponent’s genius after the match) but also by the stifling Cuban heat, which Lasker wasn’t able to deal with (illness is a common result killer!).
Of course, age also reared its ugly head – Lasker was 52 years old and past his prime, while Capablanca, being 20 years younger, was at his very best. It must be admitted that, at that time Capablanca was slightly the stronger player. (As the old saying goes, “time and tide wait for no man”.) To me, the fact that a prime Capablanca was only slightly the stronger player says volumes about Lasker’s level during his peak years.
Another “illness” that can rip the wings off a high-flying chess professional is, unsurprisingly, love. Unlike Capablanca, who was a renowned ladies’ man, Lasker didn’t appear to have much to do with women. This changed in 1902 when he visited a gentleman by the name of Ludwig Metzger (he was an editor of a well known newspaper). Mr. Metzger and his wife were famous for their parties, which usually featured poets, writers, musicians, painters, and other creative people.
In this case a young lady named Martha Kohn was also invited (she wrote for Metzger’s paper), and was told by Mrs. Metzger that she would introduce her to a gentleman that had just won the World Chess Championship. Martha was unimpressed, and said: “Your enthusiastic recommendations of this person rouse in me nothing but deep ingratitude. I understand nothing of mathematics, and I think chess must be terribly boring. No, my dear, he is not for me and my tastes, and so I would not be to his taste, either.”
According to Martha’s memoirs, she had just finished saying these things when Lasker appeared, walked up to Mrs. Metzger, and was introduced to Martha. She thought him withdrawn, but quickly realized that there was far more to Mr. Lasker than she had supposed. Indeed, Lasker wasn’t “dry” at all – his humble nature and his deep knowledge of many subjects won her over and they quickly became close friends. It turned out that Martha and her husband, Emil (who was an invalid and quite ill), were also big party givers, and after their initial meeting Lasker became a regular guest at their home.
We get a clear understanding of just how enamored Lasker was of Martha when, right before he left for a tournament in America, he introduced his new friend to his mother (Rosalie Lasker), saying: “It is my hope that these two beings, whom I love more than anything on earth, should become friends!”
When left alone with Rosalie, Martha said: “Honored lady – he really does not know me all that well; if he did, he would not have presented me to his mother, but to the devils themselves!”
Rosalie replied: “Oh, Emanuel knows exactly what he’s saying; if he says it, then that’s what he thinks!”
After that we get something akin to an old Hollywood movie. Lasker would write Martha fawning letters (one letter read: “I need only to think of Europe, for your face to appear before me. For me, Europe and yourself are one and the same.”), but since she was married, and since he was friends with her husband Emil, he kept his desires hidden as best he could. He was madly in love with Martha, but he could never out and out say it.
The Hollywood movie scenario got more heated when Emil’s health got worse and worse. She remained by her husband’s side, Lasker was supportive and continued to visit, and life went on.
I bring all this up because such long-lived emotional turmoil has to take its toll on one’s chess. Indeed, we can see Lasker crack a bit when a World Championship match vs. Siegbert Tarrasch finally was arranged. Lasker dominated the match, but at one point his play worsened. It turned out that being so close to Martha (the match was held in Munich and Dusseldorf while Martha, and Lasker’s brother Berthold, lived in Berlin) and not being able to see her had driven him into a deep depression. Finally he cracked and wrote, “Do come at once, come as my guardian angel, or I might lose the whole match!”
As it turned out, Martha very much would have liked to help her friend, but didn’t want to leave Emil alone. In the end, it was Emil himself who took command and told Martha: “We can’t leave him in the lurch, Martha. You get on the next train to Munich, and Berthold had better go too. It will make all the difference for Emanuel.”
The next day she was in Munich, Emanuel’s depression vanished, and he went on to win the match 8 wins to 3.
Beat Tarrasch like a drum!
This kind of emotional roulette repeated itself in his World Championship match with Carl Schlechter (held in Vienna and Berlin). Lasker was looking forward to seeing Martha, but instead of a joyous reunion he was immersed in horror – Emil had died. Martha was, of course, grieving, and Lasker made a point of staying away while she dealt with her loss. A year later he proposed, and after pondering whether she could actually handle a chess player’s lifestyle of non-stop travel, she accepted and they were married.
Returning to Lasker’s chess, we left off with Lasker’s triumphant first place finishes in Saint Petersburg (1895-1896 ahead of Steinitz, Pillsbury, and Chigorin) and Nuremberg (1896 ahead of Maroczy, Pillsbury, Tarrasch, Janowski, Steinitz, Schlechter, and many others).
- A World Championship rematch vs. Steinitz, which he dominated 10 - 2 with just 3 draws.
- London 1899 – first place (4.5 points ahead of the 2nd place finisher!).
- Paris 1900 – first place (2 points ahead of Pillsbury, who took 2nd place).
After this Lasker didn’t play in many tournaments, and he would take long periods of time away from chess.
- Cambridge Springs 1904 – tied for 2nd place behind Frank Marshall (Marshall’s greatest success).
- Trenton Falls 1906 – first place.
- 1907 World Championship match with Frank Marshall, which was a wipeout (8 to 0 with 7 draws).
- 1908 World Championship match with Tarrasch (8 to 3 with 5 draws).
- 1909 mini-match with Speijer (2 to 0 with 1 draw).
- 1909 mini-match with Janowski (2 to 2, no draws).
- 1909 match with Janowski (7 to 1 with 1 draw).
- 1910 World Championship match with Janowski (8 to 0 with 3 draws).
- Saint Petersburg 1909 – tied for first with Rubinstein.
- 1910 World Championship match with Schlechter (1 win, 1 loss, 8 draws).
- Saint Petersburg 1914 – first place ahead of Capablanca, Alekhine, Tarrasch, Marshall, Rubinstein, Nimzowitsch, etc.
- 1916 rematch with Tarrasch (a blowout – 5 wins, no losses, 1 draw).
- Berlin 1918 – first place ahead of Rubinstein, Schlechter, and Tarrasch.
- 1921 World Championship match with Capablanca (no wins, 4 losses, 10 draws).
It’s interesting to note that after winning the World Championship, Lasker won every tournament and match except Hastings 1895, Cambridge Springs 1904, and finally the Capablanca match.
And here, in the twilight of Lasker’s career, we see something remarkable.
After Lasker’s defeat, the chess world felt that he was more or less “done” due to age and the advent of a new kind of chess player that advocated a hypermodern approach. Lasker took some time away from the game, instead concentrating on math, philosophy, bridge, and other pursuits. Then, at the age of 54 he accepted an invitation to play at the extremely strong Maehrisch Ostrau event, which was stacked with young talent like Reti, Gruenfeld, Euwe, Tartakower, Bogoljubow, and Spielmann (Tarrasch, Rubinstein, and others were also present). Could the old warhorse deal with this “new” kind of chess?
When the smoke cleared, Lasker had confounded his critics once again by taking clear first, a full point ahead of second place Reti. His score: 8 wins, no losses, 5 draws.
Reti was having an incredible tournament, and in the end the game between them decided everything. I’ll quote from Emanuel Lasker: The Life of a Chess Master:
Frau Martha Lasker, as usual, sat in a quiet corner not too near the board but within her husband’s sight, busy with her knitting. From time to time she would send Emanuel a cup of coffee or a cigar, for ever since, at a certain great tournament, a stranger had offered him an opium-scented cigar Lasker would never touch one unless it was handed him by his wife. From time to time, while his opponent was thinking, he would walk over to his wife for a brief whispered chat. He did so as his momentous game against Reti was reaching the critical stage.
“How is it?” she asked. “People say your position is not so good.”
“Do they?” said Lasker with a smile. “Well, I’m not particularly worried about it; in fact, I rather like it.” And, of course, he did win the game.
One year later, at the age of 55, Lasker decided to give it another go. This time the tournament (the legendary New York 1924 event) was outrageously strong, with Capablanca, Alekhine, and Reti being the favorites. This was a double round robin with 11 players (thus 20 games in all). One would think that such a long, strong, grueling tournament would be much too much for the event’s old man. Yet, another miracle: Lasker dominated the tournament with 13 wins, 6 draws, and only one defeat (to Capablanca)! Capablanca came in second, 1.5 points behind the old lion, followed by Alekhine, Marshall, Reti, Maroczy, Bogoljubov, Tartakower, Yates, Edward Lasker, and Janowski.
In 1925 the 56-year-old Lasker played in Moscow. This was Bogoljubow’s greatest victory, but Lasker came in clear second, once again ahead of Capablanca (who was third) and a lineup of the world’s best players.
This event was his last serious tournament, and he probably wouldn’t have played again if the rise of the German fascists hadn’t stripped him of every penny he had (both he and his wife were Jewish). Broke, he played in four more tournaments: Zurich 1934, Moscow 1935, Moscow 1936, and Nottingham 1936.
I must add that his result in Moscow 1935 stunned the world. The 66-year-old Lasker (who was undefeated) came in third behind Botvinnik and Flohr (he drew them both), ahead (again!) of Capablanca (whom he beat) and many other top players. (Unfortunately Lasker wasn’t the same superman in his final two events. Both tournaments were very, very strong. He was 6th out of 10 in Moscow 1936, and 8th out of 15 in Nottingham 1936. Realizing that he no longer had the magic juice, he never played in another tournament.)
Emanuel Lasker – Jose Raul Capablanca
1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.Nge2 dxe4 5.a3 Be7 6.Nxe4 Nf6 7.N2c3 Nbd7 8.Bf4 Nxe4 9.Nxe4 Nf6 10.Bd3 0-0 11.Nxf6+ Bxf6 12.c3 Qd5 13.Qe2 c6 14.0-0 Re8 15.Rad1 Bd7 16.Rfe1 Qa5 17.Qc2 g6 18.Be5 Bg7 19.h4! Qd8 20.h5 Qg5 21.Bxg7 Kxg7 22.Re5 Qe7 23.Rde1 Rg8 24.Qc1! Rad8 25.R1e3 Bc8 26.Rh3 Kf8 27.Qh6+ Rg7 28.hxg6 hxg6
There is so much more to tell – including the many adventures and hardships that brought about his move to Russia and then, his final move to New York. Emanuel Lasker died 1941 in New York City at age 72. He was a charity patient at the Mount Sinai Hospital. After his death, Martha told his friends: “The world of chess has lost much; I have lost all.”
Martha died a year later.
I’ve made it clear that I’m not by any means impartial on the subject of Lasker. So let’s end my Lasker series by looking at the opinions of others:
“That he was a great master of the endgame is an indisputable truth; in fact, I have never known a more skilled master. But he was also the deepest and most resourceful of any I have ever met.” – Jose Raul Capablanca
“Lasker’s mastery precisely in the endgame – especially in a complex, rather than a purely technical endgame – stood for at least two decades at an unreachable height.” – Alexander Alekhine
“The greatest champion ever was Emanuel Lasker, of course. He was an amazing tactician, who could win what seemed like completely hopeless games.” – Mikhail Tal
“The kings of the past – Lasker and Capablanca especially – almost never studied openings. They were such geniuses – and they knew it – that they could deal with any unpleasantness over and board, and they showed this in practice.” – Anatoly Karpov
“In my view, it was Lasker who invented contemporary chess. When you look at Steinitz’s games, you understand: they reek of a bygone age. Whereas with Lasker, there are a lot of games where you might say an absolutely contemporary chessplayer played them.” – Vladimir Kramnik
For those that are interested, I’m presenting Albert Einstein’s Foreword to the book, Emanuel Lasker: The Life of a Chess Master:
Emanuel Lasker was undoubtedly one of the most interesting people I came to know in my later life. We owe a debt of gratitude to those who have troubled to acquaint contemporary and future generations with his life-story. For few indeed can have combined such a unique independence of personality with so eager an interest in all the great problems of mankind.
I am no chess player myself, so I am not in a position to admire his mental powers in the sphere of his greatest intellectual achievements; indeed I have to confess that I have always disliked the fierce competitive spirit embodied in that highly intellectual game.
I met Emanuel Lasker in the house of my old friend Alexander Moszkowski, and I came to know him well during the many walks we took together, discussing ideas on a variety of subjects. It was a somewhat unilateral discussion in which, almost invariably, I was in the position of listener for it seemed to be the natural thing for this eminently creative man to generate his own ideas rather than adjust himself to those of someone else.
Whenever we met I seemed to detect a somewhat tragic note in his personality, in spite of a fundamentally optimistic inclination to always seek some positive meaning in life. His mind which had that exceptional elasticity characteristic of chess players was imbued with chess to such an extreme that he could never quite rid himself of the spirit of the game, even while dealing with philosophical and human problems. Nevertheless, I had the impression that to him chess was a means of livelihood rather than the real object of his life.
What he really yearned for was some scientific understanding that beauty peculiar to the process of logical creation, a beauty from whose magic spell on one can escape who has ever felt even its lightest influence. Spinoza’s material life and economic independence were based on the grinding of lenses; in Lasker’s life chess played a similar part. But Spinoza was luckier, for his business was such as to leave his mind free and independent; whereas master-chess grips its exponent, shackling the mind and brain, so that the inner freedom and independence of even the strongest character cannot remain unaffected. This I became aware of whenever I talked to Lasker or read one of his philosophical books. Of these I was most interested in his Philosophie des Unvollendbar, a highly original work and very revealing of its author’s personality.
Finally, I should like to add a word of explanation as to why I never attempted, either in writing or in conversation, to deal with Lasker’s criticism of the theory of relativity. Since even in this biography, with the emphasis on the man and the chess player rather than the scientist, a slight reproach seems noticeable in the passage mentioning that essay, I had better say a word about it.
Lasker’s keen analytical brain had immediately and clearly recognized that the entire problem hinged on the constancy of the velocity of light in empty space. He clearly saw that, once such constancy was admitted, the relativisation of time was unanswerable, whether one liked it or not (and he did not like it at all). What then was to be done? He tried to emulate what Alexander the (so called) ‘Great’ did when cutting through the Gordian knot.
Lasker’s argument could be summarized thus: No one has any direct and immediate knowledge about the velocity of light in absolutely empty space; for even interstellar space contains a certain if infinitesimal quantity of matter, and this applies even more to space from which the air has been pumped by imperfect human agencies. Who then can presume to deny that the velocity of light in absolutely empty space would be infinite?
This is the gist of Lasker’s argument, and it could be answered in this way: True enough, no one can tell from any direct and experimental knowledge precisely how light would move in absolutely empty space. But it is virtually impossible to think of any reasonable theory of light based on the notion that infinitesimal traces of matter, while influencing the velocity of light to a remarkable extent, would yet remain almost independent of the density of such matter.
Pending the proposition of such a theory, which, incidentally, would have to accord with well known optical phenomena in almost empty space, any physicist must consider this particular Gordian knot to be still unraveled and unravellable, unless he is content with the existing extent of the unraveling. And the moral? A keen brain and a powerful mind is no substitute for the deft touch of nimble fingers. However, I rather liked Lasker’s stubborn intellectual independence, a most rare quality in a generation whose intellectuals are almost invariably mere camp-followers. And so I let the matter rest.
I am glad that the readers of this sympathetic biography will get to know a man who was so strong a personality and yet so sensitive and lovable a person. As for myself, I shall remember with gratitude the pleasing conversations I enjoyed with that incessantly eager, truly independent and yet most modest of men.
Princeton, N.J., October 1952