The Endgame Cunning of Emanuel Lasker, Part 1

  • GM BryanSmith
  • | Mar 11, 2014

It has been said that the second World Champion, Emanuel Lasker, was unique among the top players of his time period in that he didn't create a chess school of thought. Others have said that he did create a school - the "psychological school." It is strange, as a person who had ambitions as a mathematician and as a philosopher, that he would be the one to approach chess as a pure game.

I guess you could say that Lasker kept chess as it was meant to be. In the earliest days of chess, before there were even real tournaments, it was natural to think of chess as a game of cunning - where you try to out think your opponent - rather than as a science where you can discover some new principle and defeat everyone as if by a magic bullet. Lasker, of course, accepted and used the new (at the time) conceptions of chess - for example, those of Steinitz. He set his mind to finding the truth in each position - but at the same time, he understood that every game is ultimately decided by cunning and trickery.

One hundred years ago, Lasker competed in the St. Petersburg 1914 tournament after an absence from serious chess of four years. Having been world champion for already twenty years, you wonder how Lasker maintained the ambition and will to fight. But in fact, for one of the first times he was beginning to face real challengers - there was Akiba Rubinstein, the young Russian player Alexander Alekhine, and - most of all - the Cuban player José Raúl Capablanca, with whom Lasker was not on good terms due to disagreements about negotiations for a world championship match.

José Raúl Capablanca | Image Wikipedia

The St. Petersburg 1914 tournament consisted of two phases. First, a round robin tournament between the eleven players, after which the top five would play a double round robin (each player plays the others twice) among themselves. Although the preliminary part was a qualifier for the second, the scores that each player made would carry forward to the final. This format was supposed to provide the clearest test of who is the strongest player, as well as create the most drama - at the end of the tournament, the situation would not arise where the leaders ended up playing 'outsiders;' instead, they would be facing each other head to head near the end of the tournament.

Lasker began quite poorly, and after his unexpected blunder in a better position against Osip Bernstein, had only four out of seven. It was not clear whether he would even be able to qualify for the final.

By defeating David Janowski and Isidor Gunsberg in the last two rounds of the preliminary, Lasker just managed to qualify. Akiba Rubinstein - although many saw him as a heir apparent to the world championship - tragically started the tournament poorly and was unable to qualify.

Akiba Rubinstein | Image Wikipedia

Nevertheless, the chances of Lasker winning this important tournament seemed slim. At the start of the final, Capablanca led the field with eight points. Lasker and Siegbert Tarrasch were his nearest pursuers, with six and a half each. A lead of one and a half points seemed insurmountable, especially with Capablanca playing stellar, machine-like chess.

Lasker began his battle for first place in the final with a win against Alexander Alekhine. The young master chose the Albin counter-gambit, and was soundly beaten. In the following round Capablanca nearly managed to put the tournament away with a victory against Lasker himself. However, Lasker managed to dig in and finally hold the draw after 100(!) moves.

Despite this close call, Lasker was playing to his full abilities in the final. In the next game he won a subtle positional game against Tarrasch; in the round after he defeated Marshall in a sharp and modern-looking game. This does not fit my subject matter, since the queens (at least, Marshall's queen!) stayed on the board until the end. However, I will show it here without notes. With the exception of the choice of the rather unpopular Old Indian Defense (which was at the time considered to be a highly irregular and modern opening), you can easily imagine this game played by today's young masters:

And yet, despite these fine games, Lasker had only managed to creep one half-point closer to Capablanca, who now had 11 points against Lasker's 10. Meanwhile, four rounds had gone by, and there were only four left.

In the following round, Lasker once again defeated Alexander Alekhine. In the exchange variation of the Spanish, Lasker (Black) seemed to have a precarious position - but this was an illusion. With subtle tactics Lasker managed to clarify the position with a small advantage. Nevertheless, Alekhine had excellent chances to hold, especially considering the limited material on the board. But in a manner similar to Magnus Carlsen nowadays, Lasker used every available tactic to keep white under pressure, eventually managing - with a clever and surprising move - to win the exchange. That was not the end, however, as Lasker had to use all of his persistence to extract a win in the resulting ending.

An enormous battle, in which Lasker's will to win finally brought him the point. But even after this, he still had not drawn level with Capablanca. Although both players had eleven points, Capablanca had already had his bye, and thus had four more games to play, while Lasker only had three. So in effect, Capablanca was still ahead by at least half a point. Their meeting on the following day would prove crucial - for that, check out next week's article.



  • 3 years ago


    I am having a great time at home playing through many of Lasker's games. His moves have great power!

  • 3 years ago


    thanks spektrowski

  • 3 years ago



    If you want to improve your endgame technique, study Capablanca, Rubinstein or, say, Smyslov. But if you want to improve the psychological side of your playing at any stage of the game, study Lasker.

  • 3 years ago


  • 3 years ago


    now, this article has confused me !!! whose games should i study if i want to develop a better understanding of endgame--lasker's or capablanca's ?

  • 3 years ago


    Seems like everybody in the world liked Capablanca. Except his opponents.

  • 3 years ago


    like it

  • 3 years ago


    very nice read ty good work m8

  • 3 years ago


    genius Lasker

  • 3 years ago


    You possess a wonderful knack for building & undoubtedly recreating the drama and suspense felt by the players 100 years ago. You left us cliff hanging ;')! Very nice job! I'm anxiously anticipating the follow-up Bryan! Thank you so much! Note, if you can build this much excitement in so few words, within the body of chess players here, have a real future in dramatically recreating such key moments in historic tournaments, within a series of short suspenseful & fun (readable) books; ..."Reviving & Reliving the Finest Moments of Our Game", by GM Smith :). Again, Nice job! The Lawdoginator said it best: "This guy can spin a yarn!"

  • 3 years ago


    I knew this stuff lasker was a bad dude Jew from Germany during Nazi years lol

  • 3 years ago


    Nice article. But it was very short.

  • 3 years ago


    This guy can spin a yarn! 

  • 3 years ago


    What a great article!

  • 3 years ago


    I do get tired of the same old psychology cliche when one talks about Lasker. If there was psychology it wasn't in the analysis of his opponents by Lakser, it was just his superior play and resourcefulness in troubled waters.

  • 3 years ago


    they all suck

  • 3 years ago


    Nice games to study Bob...and you're quite a story teller! Good concepts covered as advantage and inducing weakening moves...Bravo!!

  • 3 years ago


    Haa, those were the days.

  • 3 years ago


    100 moves. Wow.

  • 3 years ago


    Nice article!  I really enjoy the annotations!

Back to Top

Post your reply: