How Great Was Lasker?

How Great Was Lasker?

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This is almost an impossible question to answer! I have spent the last 4 weeks thinking about this, and came to one conclusion: he is immeasurably great! I know, in a time of ratings and chessmetrics, we feel that we can measure everything: "I can tell you what was Lasker's rating at 8am on July 24, 1923".....really? And does it really matter? Not to me!

Titles and rating, they are fine and useful in the world of professional chess. But many of the world's greatest chess players did not regard chess as only a sport, but also as a science and and an Art.

Thanks to Simaginfan, I have become aware of great players of whom I knew nothing or even very little about! Many of them were never awarded the GM title, although they were obviously Grandmasters! They are so many! Players about whom not much is written, but when you look at their games, oh my God!

Players like Vilner and Sozin, to name two......

How great was Lasker?

Again, who am I to say? Let me quote some of the greatest players in their words about Lasker:

Capablanca: "Lasker, a natural genius, who developed thanks to very hard work in the early period of his career, never adhered to the type of play that could be classified as a definite style. None of the great players has been so incomprehensible to the majority of amateurs and even masters, as Emanuel Lasker."

Alekhine: ""Lasker has been my teacher all my life. But for him I would not be what I am. His book on the Petersburg tournament of 1909 has been a sort of catechism for me all my life. I have studied again and again, every one of the ideas with me day and night. The very idea of chess as an art form would be unthinkable without Emanuel Lasker."

Tal: "The greatest of the champions was, of course, Emanuel Lasker. At the chess board he accomplished the impossible!......He was an amazing tactician, winning games that were apparently quite hopeless."

And here are Kramnik's comments about Lasker, from an interview in which he talks about the World Champions:

Kramnik – "In my view, Lasker was a pioneer of modern chess. When you look through Steinitz’s games you understand they were played in the century before last whereas Lasker had a lot of games that modern chess players could have had. Lasker is the first link in the chain of “global” chess where various fighting elements are taken into account. Steinitz mainly concentrated on individual positional elements. For instance, if he had a better pawn structure along with a promising attack on the enemy’s king, he thought his advantage was almost decisive. But Lasker understood that different positional components could offset each other. He realized that different types of advantage could be interchangeable: tactical edge could be converted into strategic advantage and vice versa.

I think that Lasker had a more extensive knowledge of chess than Steinitz. By the way, it is significant that the World Chess Championship in 1894 (not to mention the return) was a total mismatch.

My impression is that two completely different players in terms of insight met over the board. In present day Elo, we would say that a player with a rating of 2700 played against another rated 2400. That’s why Lasker’s victory was very convincing; he almost tore his opponent apart. I knew that Steinitz was a great player but in that match he was badly beaten, which came as a cultural shock to me. I have never seen such an enormous gap between the participants of a World Championship, as if it was more like a simultaneous exhibition than a match for the title. At that time Steinitz must have already been over the hill. But I could not have imagined he was that weak because he kept on getting decent results in tournaments.

Lasker was an impressive person. He managed to understand a lot in chess. I was looking through his games again some time ago and was astonished: his knowledge was incredibly extensive for his time! He was the first to understand the importance of psychological factors and started to pay attention to them. He began to adapt his strategy and, to a certain extent, his style to different opponents. Whereas Steinitz kept to one concept because he thought: this is correct and that is not.

Lasker comprehended an idea that was pretty difficult for a time when people saw chess only in black and white. Chess is a very complicated game and it can be absolutely unclear what is right or wrong. It is possible to act in different ways. Lasker was very flexible and undogmatic. He was the first undogmatic player in the history of chess. He did not think in terms of “this is good and this is bad”. For example, if you manage to occupy the centre, that’s good, if not, that’s bad”. That was a great step forward for chess development.

In my opinion, when Lasker was stripping Steinitz of his title, he was head and shoulders above all the others. Since that time chess history has not seen such a yawning gap. Lasker had surpassed everyone until a new generation grew up and his opponents, namely Tarrasch, got stronger."

Interviewer – "We can hardly say that Tarrasch represented the new generation because he was six years older than Lasker …"

Kramnik – "I think that Tarrasch started playing stronger later. At the time Lasker was fighting for the title, Tarrasch’s play was not impressive."

Interviewer – "Tarrasch regarded Lasker as an “upstart” because when Tarrasch was already “the Teacher of Germany”, Lasker was nobody. Steinitz challenged Tarrasch for a match, but the latter evaded it."

Kramnik – "I was not impressed with Tarrasch’s play. He had imaginative ideas but like all players of that time he was prone to rigidity. And Lasker was not, that’s why he stood out."

Interviewer – "Lasker became World Champion in 1894 while Pillsbury won the famous Hastings Tournament of 1895 where Chigorin was second and Lasker took only the third place. He did have worthy opponents …"

Kramnik – "I won’t argue. This is my personal view and I think that in the early 1890's Lasker was head and shoulders above the others in understanding, capacity and strength of play. That period did not last for long, two to three years, then the others started to catch up, having learned from him.

At the same time Lasker is to some extent an underrated figure. Legend has it that Steinitz was a super strategical player while Lasker was mainly a psychologist … I would like to dispel this myth."

Interviewer – "By the way, not everyone knows that Lasker denied exerting “psychological influence” on his opponents by saying: “My success is primarily based on the understanding of the pieces’ strength, not on the opponent’s nature”.

Kramnik – "I think that due to his flexibility he was able to have a deeper understanding of chess. He broke with dogmas and everyone thought he did it with regard to his opponent’s character. But Lasker started to call dogmas into question. Let’s remember his famous move f4-f5 against Capablanca.

Lasker realised that the e5-square could be weakened because it was difficult to exploit. And then they started talking about his psychological approach! It had nothing to do with psychology. Lasker grasped a deep concept, which is being automatically employed now: he gave up the e5-square and “fenced in” the c8-bishop. That’s why it was not a matter of psychology; Lasker had a very deep positional understanding.

Of course, he had worthy opponents. We should not forget Rubinstein, an incredibly talented and fantastic chess player. It is a pity that with his extensive knowledge of chess, he was not a World Champion. Sometimes he created true masterpieces and was way ahead of his time. To understand this, you should just go through the collection of his best games. Why didn’t he become a World Champion? That’s a mystery to me. His nerves might have played a role or he might not have been very good in practice. Anyway, he was a man of great talent.

Lasker had been holding the title for 27 years. He really was a great chess player. However, at that time not all worthy challengers had an opportunity to play for the title and those who participated in the World Championship were not always the strongest players."


Lasker's greatness as a player is so great, and his life is so rich, that it is nearly impossible to do him justice in one humble blog post.

It was Alekhine's quote that sparked my current attention towards Lasker. I have Lasker's book about the St. Petersburg tournament, and it is a masterpiece!

There is also a great book about Lasker, written with love and admiration, by Dr. J. Hannak.

The book is rich with human stories; stories about how important it was for Lasker to have his wife, Martha, in the room while he played. Stories about how he lost everything he had when he had to leave Germany in the 1930's; stories about how, when he was a young boy who moved in with his brother Berthold in Berlin, they were so poor, they had only one pair of pants for both of them. One of them had to wait for the other one to come home, so he could use the pants to go out!

How great was Lasker?

Not only was he the Chess World Champion in chess for a longer time than any other Champion, but also he was Dr. Lasker! He had a doctorate in Mathematics; a brilliant man, a genius!

Lasker held the World Champion title for 27 years!

Great players are great at every aspect of the game: Art, Science and Sport.

With Lasker, perhaps one of his main defining qualities is his fighting spirit. Time and again we see him in difficulties in a game, and suddenly he springs a surprise on the opponent.

His rivalry with his main rivals is legendary. You could beat Lasker in a game, yes, but make no mistake, Lasker will find a way to beat you!

As an example of this, I will post now two games between Lasker and Rubinstein. Now, Rubinstein was famous for his endgame skill, but what many of us are not aware of is that Lasker was regarded as perhaps the best endgame player of his time!

These two players were so good!

In the first game, from St. Petersburg 1909, Rubinstein becomes Lasker! At the critical moment, he has a great move that gives him a winning game.

Rubinstein-Lasker, St. Petersburg 1909

In their next meeting, Lasker became Rubinstein! He outplays Rubinstein slowly and steadily, achieving a favorable endgame in which White's 3 vs. 2 pawn majority on the kingside gets mobilized quicker than Black's. White's pawns are connected; Black's pawns get split when they advance...the rest if history!

How great was Lasker? Immeasurable!

To be continued.......