Lasker Becomes World Champion



Chess 1894-1918

Lasker then challenged reigning World Champion Wilhelm Steinitz to a match for the title. Initially Lasker wanted to play for US $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, and the final figure was $2,000, which was less than for some of Steinitz' earlier matches (the final combined stake of $4,000 would be worth over $495,000 at 2006 values). 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. Lasker won convincingly (10 wins, 4 draws, 5 losses); the scores were even after 6 games but Steinitz lost the next 5 in a row. 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 (10 wins, 5 draws, 2 losses).

Influential players and journalists belittled the 1894 match both before and after it took place. Lasker's difficulty in getting backing may have been caused by hostile pre-match comments from Gunsberg and Leopold Hoffer, who had long been a bitter enemy of Steinitz. One of the complaints was that Lasker had never played the other two members of the top 4, Siegbert Tarrasch and Mikhail Chigorin although Tarrasch had rejected a challenge from Lasker in 1892, publicly telling him to go and win an international tournament first.

Emanuel Lasker answered these criticisms by creating an even more impressive playing record. Before World War I broke out his most serious "setbacks" were third place at Hastings 1895 (where he may have been suffering from the after-effects of typhoid), tie for second at Cambridge Springs 1904, tie for first at the Chigorin Memorial in St Petersburg 1909 and a drawn match against Carl Schlechter in 1910. He won first prizes at very strong tournaments in St. Petersburg (1895-1896), Nuremberg (1896), London (1899), Paris (1900) and St. Petersburg (1914), where he overcame a 1½ point deficit to finish ahead of the rising stars José Raúl Capablanca and Alexander Alekhine, who later became the next two World Champions; for good measure he also took first prize in a weaker tournament at Trenton Falls (1906). For decades chess writers have reported that Tsar Nicholas II of Russia conferred the title of "Grandmaster of Chess" upon each of the five finalists at St Petersburg 1914 (Lasker, Capablanca, Alekhine, Tarrasch and Marshall), but chess historian Edward Winter has questioned this, stating that the earliest known sources that support this story were published in 1940 and 1942.

Lasker's match record was as impressive between his 1896-1897 re-match with Steinitz and 1914: he won all but one of his normal matches, and three of those were convincing defenses of his title, against Marshall ( 1907; 11½−3½), Tarrasch ( 1908; 10½−5½) and Dawid Janowski ( 1910; 9½−1½). He also played several exhibition matches, potentially lucrative entertainments for well-off enthusiasts. A 1909 match against Janowski has sometimes been called a world championship match, but contemporary references indicate it was not.

However Lasker only scraped a draw in the 10-game match against Schlechter in 1910 by winning the last game that was played, creating a mystery that has not yet been solved. This match was originally meant to consist of 30 games, but was cut to 10 when it became obvious that there were insufficient funds to meet Lasker's demand for a fee of 1,000 marks per game played. It is generally regarded as a World Championship match, but one post-match press report cast doubt on this. It is also difficult to explain Schlechter's decision to play for a win in the 10th game, when he could have forced a draw quite easily and thus won the match. Some commentators have argued that there was a secret clause that required Schlechter to have a 2-game lead in order to claim victory. However Lasker himself wrote 2 days before the 10th game, "The match with Schlechter is nearing its end and it appears probable 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," which appears to remove the suspicions that it was not a world title match and that there was a secret "2-game lead" clause. Another report shortly after the end of the match appears to speculate that Schlechter threw the last game because a narrow victory for him would not have been in the financial interests of either player, as they would have had to play another match if Schlechter won narrowly, but they had not been able to get adequate financial backing for the 1910 match. It has even been suggested that Schlechter played to win the last game because he was too honorable to win the title by a fluke, having won the 5th game by a swindle in a lost position.

In 1911 Lasker received a challenge for a world title match against the rising star José Raúl Capablanca. Lasker was unwilling to play the traditional "first to win 10 games" type of match in the semi-tropical conditions of Havana, especially as drawn games were becoming more frequent and the match might last for over 6 months. He therefore made a counter-proposal: if neither player had a lead of at least 2 games by the end of the match, it should be considered a draw; the match should be limited to the best of 30 games, counting draws; except that if either player won 6 games (and led by at least 2 games) before 30 games were completed, he should be declared the winner; the champion should decide the venue and stakes, and should have the exclusive right to publish the games; the challenger must deposit a forfeit of US $2,000 (equivalent to over $194,000 in 2006 values); the time limit should be 12 moves per hour; play should be limited to two 2½ hour sessions per day, 5 days a week. Capablanca objected to the time limit, the short playing times, the 30-game limit, and especially the requirement that he must win by 2 games to claim the title, which he regarded as unfair. Lasker took offence at the terms in which Capablanca criticized the 2-game lead condition and broke off negotiations, and until 1914 Lasker and Capablanca were not on speaking terms. However at the 1914 St. Petersburg tournament Capablanca proposed a set of rules for the conduct of world championship matches, which were accepted by all the leading players including Lasker.

Late in 1912 Lasker entered into negotiations for a world title match with Akiba Rubinstein, whose tournament record for the previous few years had been on a par with Lasker's and a little ahead of Capablanca's. The two players agreed to play a match if Rubinstein could raise the funds, but Rubinstein had few rich friends to back him and the match was never played. The start of World War I put an end to hopes that Lasker would play either Rubinstein or Capablanca for the world championship in the near future.

Throughout World War I (1914-1918) Lasker played in only two serious chess events. He convincingly won (5½−½) a non-title match against Tarrasch in 1916. In September to October 1918, shortly before the armistice of 11 November 1918, he won a quadrangular (4-player) tournament, ½ point ahead of Rubinstein.

Lasker was shocked by the poverty in which Steinitz died and did not intend to die in similar circumstances. He became notorious for demanding high fees for playing matches and tournaments, and he argued that players should own the copyright in their games rather than let publishers get all the profits. After winning the 1904 Cambridge Springs tournament Marshall challenged Lasker to a match for the World Championship but could not raise the stakes demanded by Lasker until 1907. Other players resented Lasker's "hunger for money" but most of them soon realized that his attitude was sensible.