Emanuel Lasker - Assesment of his chess strenght and style




Chess strength and style

Lasker is often said to have used a "psychological" method of play in which he considered the subjective qualities of his opponent, in addition to the objective requirements of his position on the board. Richard Réti even speculated that Lasker would sometimes knowingly choose inferior moves if he knew they would make his opponent uncomfortable. However Lasker himself denied this, and most modern writers agree. According to Grandmaster Andrew Soltis and International Master John L. Watson, the features that made his play mysterious to contemporaries now appear regularly in modern play: the g2-g4 "Spike" attack against the Dragon Sicilian; sacrifices to gain positional advantage; playing the "practical" move rather than trying to find the best move; counterattacking and complicating the game before a disadvantage became serious. Former World Champion Vladimir Kramnik writes, "He realized that different types of advantage could be interchangeable: tactical edge could be converted into strategic advantage and vice versa," which mystified contemporaries who were just becoming used to the theories of Steinitz as codifed by Siegbert Tarrasch.

The famous last round win against Capablanca (St. Petersburg, 1914), which Lasker needed to in order win the tournament, is sometimes offered as evidence of his "psychological" style; but Kramnik argues that his play in this game demonstrated deep positional understanding, rather than psychology. Fine describes Lasker's choice of opening, the Exchange Variation of the Ruy Lopez, as "innocuous but psychologically potent." However an analysis of Lasker's use of this variation throughout his career concludes that: Lasker used the variation only 14 times in his career, from the 13th game of his 1894 match against Wilhelm Steinitz (who won that game) to his final-round win against Frank James Marshall in the 1924 New York Tournament (Lasker already had a winning lead in the tournament); almost all his uses of it were against top-class opponents; he was very successful with it (in serious events: 10 wins, 3 draws and the one loss to Steinitz); early in his career he apparently used it as a safe option with little risk of losing the game; later he gained confidence in the variation and even used it in a couple of "must-win" situations, including against Capablanca at St. Petersburg in 1914. Lasker also won the 3 recorded games in which he played the variation as Black; one was against Alekhine, in the 1914 St. Petersburg Tounament, the day before Lasker, playing as White, beat Capablanca with it.

Many commentators write that Lasker paid little attention to the openings. However Capablanca wrote that Lasker knew the openings very well, although he often disagreed with a lot of contemporary opening analysis. In fact before the 1894 world title match Lasker studied the openings thoroughly, especially Steinitz' favorite lines. Capablanca also wrote that, in his opinion, no player surpassed Lasker in the ability to assess a position quickly and accurately, in terms of who had the better prospects of winning and what strategy each side should adopt. Even when Lasker was in his late 60s, Capablanca considered him the most dangerous player around in any single game.

In addition to his enormous chess skill Lasker had an excellent competitive temperament: his bitter rival Siegbert Tarrasch once said, "Lasker occasionally loses a game, but he never loses his head." Although very strong in matches, he was even stronger in tournaments, for example Capablanca could not finish ahead of him until 15 years after their 1921 match, and by this time Lasker was 68 years old. Lasker enjoyed the need to adapt to varying styles and to the shifting fortunes of tournaments.

In 1964, Chessworld magazine published an article in which future World Champion Bobby Fischer listed the ten greatest players in history. Fischer did not include Lasker in the list, deriding him at page 59 as a "coffee-house player [who] knew nothing about openings and didn't understand positional chess." However, Pal Benko said that Fischer later reconsidered, telling Benko that "Lasker was a truly great player."

Statistical ranking systems place Lasker high among the greatest players of all time. "Warriors of the Mind" places him 6th, behind Garry Kasparov, Anatoly Karpov, Bobby Fischer, Mikhail Botvinnik and José Raúl Capablanca. In his 1978 book The Rating of Chessplayers, Past and Present, Arpad Elo gave retrospective ratings to players based on their performance over the best five-year span of their career. He concluded that Lasker was the joint 2nd strongest player of those surveyed (tied with Botvinnik and behind Capablanca). The most up-to-date system, Chessmetrics, is rather sensitive to the length of the periods being compared, and ranks Lasker between 5th and 2nd strongest of all time for peak periods ranging in length from 1 to 20 years.