Key Moments In Time: Lasker’s Last Stand

Key Moments In Time: Lasker’s Last Stand

IM Silman
Dec 1, 2016, 12:00 AM |
22 | Other

Most of us know that the legendary Emanuel Lasker was a philosopher and a world class mathematician — he earned his doctorate in math in 1902 and published a theorem which, even today, is critically important for the ins and outs of algebra and algebra geometry (you can look up “zeros of simultaneous polynomials,” but your head might explode if you do). 

We also know (of course), that Lasker took the world chess championship from Wilhelm Steinitz in 1894 and kept it until 1921, when, at the age of 52, he succumbed to the much younger Capablanca. 

Lasker via Wikipedia. 

Looking at his tournament and match records, one might think that it was all clear sailing for Lasker. But there was one moment when that 27-year reign (a record that will almost certainly never be broken) was in serious jeopardy. His opponent was the extremely strong Austrian player, Carl Schlechter.

Schlechter was born in 1874, and it was clear that he was a solid master in the 1890s (a tie match against David Janowski, another tied match against Simon Alapin), and a world class grandmaster from 1900 onwards (he showed the world that he was the real deal when he crushed Janowski in 1899 with a score of six wins, one loss, and three draws).

Though Schlechter, a very kind gentleman, was a great player, he wasn’t very exciting. In fact, he was known as a draw master.

Schlechter via Wikipedia. 

Since the world champion has to (now and then) accept challenges, Lasker decided to give Schlechter a shot at the title. I’m sure Lasker wasn’t worried since their record was three wins for Lasker and one win for Schlechter (with a few draws). However, Lasker wisely arranged the match to be a battle of 30 games, which would pretty much toss luck out the window. 

Unfortunately, nobody believed that Schlechter had a chance, so funding fell through and Lasker had to accept a 10-game match instead of the desired 30.

The first four games were drawn. The fifth game, though, turned the chess world on its head!

In game six Lasker had a superior position, but Schlechter did what he does best — he defended and managed to draw.

Game seven saw Lasker, playing Black, emerging from the opening with an edge. Schlechter desperately sacrificed a bishop in a multi-piece endgame. Lasker missed the best continuation, Schlechter brilliantly offered a rook (which couldn’t be taken), Black still had an advantage, Lasker botched it and was even a bit worse, then Lasker was a bit better, and when the smoke cleared Schlechter had escaped with another draw.

I don’t know why, but this Schlechter was anything but dull. It seems that he went into this match with a do-or-die mentality. I think Lasker was stunned, and it took him a while to realize that his opponent wanted buckets and buckets of blood.

Game eight was also a battle, but it too ended in a draw.

Game nine was another Sicilian (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 e5 6.Nb3 Bb4 7.Bd3 d5) and another advantage for Lasker (who was playing Black). However, the “drawing master” continued to play like a man who just ate 20 pounds of sugar, and he went after Lasker with all his might. Lasker didn’t break, though, and he tried everything possible to win. However, a draw was agreed on move 65.

And now Lasker had to face the fact that he might lose his title. Many historians think that Schlechter had to win by two points to take the world championship. However, I don’t believe it. I think that Schlechter felt that his win in game five was pure luck and, since he didn’t want to win the title in such a “shameful way“ (most players, even in those days, would not think like that, but Schlechter would), he decided to go all out to win so he could take the championship in a honorable manner.

My view that the “two-point advantage“ is rubbish seems to be proved by a letter Lasker wrote to the New York Evening Post two days before the final game: “The match with Schlechter is nearing its end and it appears probably that for the first time in my life I shall be the loser. If that should happen, a good man will have won the world championship.”

And so the 10th and final game was played, with Schlechter wanting to win “honestly” and Lasker having to win to save his title. Both players were exhausted, stressed, but completely ready to fight to the last pawn.

Lasker retained his title by the skin of his teeth!

They played two more times (both games were played in 1918). Lasker won one and drew the other. Unfortunately, Schlechter died on December 27, 1918. At that time food was hard to come by due to the World War. Poor Schlechter had no food to eat and no coal to heat his house. He starved to death, too proud to ask for help.

If you want to know more about Emanuel Lasker, please check out my four-part study of Lasker's life and games.

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