Part 2: Dr. Emanuel Lasker World Champion contender.
In part 1, I brought you up to speed on how Emanuel Lasker first came on the chess scene along with his brother Berthold. This took us into the dawn of the 1890’s with a nice finish in Berlin.
He traveled to London and did rather well at a couple of tournaments in the spring of 1892. The first event landed him a seat in the much stronger event, Quintangular Tournament, in 1892 where he met the British contemporary players of the day Bird, Blackburne, Gunsburg and Mason. Bird was a little passed his prime ( at 60) but Blackburne, the Black death ( I prefer the nickname “drunken Master” for his partiality for scotch whiskey and anecdotal tales of his drinking and playing), was still considered rather strong at 51. Regardless, Lasker amazed the chess world winning this stronger event. He had a decisive victory over Blackburne and Bird. Lasker’s placement among the foremost players of the day could not be denied.
He further demonstrated his ability to several individual matches with the strong players of the time. Two in particular, were matches with Blackburne and Bird. In both of these games against Blackurne and Bird in 1892, Lasker demonstrates how to attack the uncastled king quite convincingly.
With this game against Blackburne, on move 5 we see a novelty by the young Lasker. Blackburne, unaccustomed to the new idea, plays a slow move which creates disharmony with the White pieces. By move 10, Black is ready to build an attack. On move 16, Black doesn’t really sacrifice a Bishop. Instead he trades it for 4 connected passed pawns against a king whose pieces can’t coordinate to stop the incoming attack.
In this game against Bird, Lasker plays a novelty against the Bird opening that later became the strongest continuation for Black. As white tries to retain the extra pawn, he gets a weak position that Lasker begins to take advantage of. In this game as well as the previous, I see Lasker intentionally making moves and plans that leave his opponent either immobile or pieces so uncoordinated that he can do WHATEVER HE WANTS! In the later half of this game, he begins a 13 move combination that includes a rook sacrifice, calculated because he had gained so much tempo!
After his head-turning successes in both tournament and match play in England, Lasker heads to America where he continues to shock the world. He plays in the New York 1893 event and wins all 13 games despite the participation of Pillsbury, Showalter, Hodges and Albin.
Here is a game against Pillsbury at this event. It’s a Ruy Lopez where Lasker exchanges the Spanish Bishop on c6 and a long positional closed game ensues. He whittles down Pillsbury by fixing all of Black’s center pawns on Dark squares rendering his Bishop useless. Then, he exchanges his own bishop for a couple pawns on the Kingside that allows him enough of an edge to make a run for it.
At the age of 26, Lasker was now ready to challenge the World Champion. Lasker challenged Tarrasch to a match but Tarrasch refused to play him in a match, stating that Lasker should first prove his mettle by attempting to win one or two major international events.
Fine, the young and up and comer turned his energy to challenging the then World Champion, Wilhelm Steinitz, for his title. Initially Lasker wanted to play for $5,000 a side and a match was agreed at stakes of $3,000 a side, but Steinitz agreed to a series of reductions when Lasker found it difficult to raise the money. The final figure was $2,000, which was less than for some of Steinitz' earlier matches. Although this was publicly praised as an act of sportsmanship on Steinitz' part, Steinitz may have desperately needed the money. The match was played in 1894, at venues in New York, Philadelphia, and Montreal. Steinitz had previously declared he would win without doubt, so it came as a shock when Lasker won the first game. Steinitz responded by winning the second, and was able to maintain the balance through the sixth. However, Lasker won all the games from the seventh to the eleventh, and Steinitz asked for a week's rest. When the match resumed, Steinitz looked in better shape and won the 13th and 14th games. Lasker struck back in the 15th and 16th, and Steinitz was unable to compensate for his losses in the middle of the match. Hence Lasker won convincingly with ten wins, five losses and four draws. Lasker thus became the second formally-recognized World Chess Champion, and confirmed his title by beating Steinitz even more convincingly in their re-match in 1896–1897 (ten wins, five draws, and two losses).
Here is the 11th game of the match played in Philadelphia. Steinitz makes a subtle miscalculation closing in his QB. Had this been any other player at the time, the former World champion could have recovered just fine. Not against Lasker, he saw well into the endgame with this misstep and went into the mode of making sure Black’s pieces could not find harmony. By move 18, Black’s pieces are so badly placed that he could not formulate a plan.
Contemporary critics of the time were very harsh on Steinitz, who in his 1870’s heyday was passing his prime. They were more focused on castigating Steinitz rather than praising the young Lasker. The common thread in these evaluations were that Steinitz had lost the match rather than Lasker won it.
Bardeleben commented on the match “ Lasker lacks Steinitz’s profundity, but he makes up for this by his extraordinary self possession. His play is quite free from oversights, and that is the main cause of his victory over Steinitz. Another interesting characteristic of Lasker’s play is that when he has a bad game he defends himself with serenity and circumspection, thus making his opponent’s task as difficult as possible; whereas most players lose hope in such positions and make blunders which hasten the end. Lasker’s play in the opening is generally correct but never forceful and occasionally he passes by blunders of his opponent without exploiting them.”
Next up, Lasker returns to Europe as the new World Champion.