Lasker and his 'Ivory Tower'. 'Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.'
Marshall-Lasker. !907.

Lasker and his 'Ivory Tower'. 'Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.'

Mar 30, 2018, 5:58 AM |

'Man has an invincible inclination to allow himself to be deceived and is, as it were,
enchanted with happiness when the rhapsodist tells him epic fables as if they were true,
or when the actor in the theater acts more royally than any real king.' 
On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense. Friedrich Nietzsche.

This is a post that many people will argue with! Why? Because 'Everybody Knows'!!

All POLITE comments are welcomed. Please keep your comments ' on topic'! have no objection to anyone disagreeing with me - opinions are opinions - and hopefully some people will point out some factual evidence that I am not aware of, and increase my knowledge. (I am not a 'facts and figures' type of historian) So let us begin!

As mentioned in my last post, I think that there has been a huge amount of total tripe written about Lasker. Not just about his approach to chess, but also about him as an individual. In that sense he is a 'victim' of a well known phenomena - somebody writes a good story about someone else, regardless of the facts. The story gets copied by others, because, well, it's a good story! A good story normally has 'good guys' and 'bad guys', as mentioned below. The story gets copied to the point where 'everybody knows'. This point was made recently by the outstanding and extraordinary chess historian  A.J. Gillam.

In an article here:- attention is drawn to the latest of many published statements on the same theme - Lasker avoiding playing his most dangerous rivals. The quote.


Russell Miller (Vancouver, WA, USA) notes a remark by Mihail Marin on page 82 of the Spring 2017 issue of the American Chess Magazine:

‘For 11 years Lasker avoided any new challenge to his title. He only abandoned his ivory tower in 1907 when he defeated Frank Marshall rather convincingly. 

This is just one of many similar lines that you can find in badly researched books.

For example, this is what Ludek Pachman has to say on page 43 of his book 'Decisive Games' ( I have only the German edition, so have downloaded an English version.)


O.K.  Before I attempt to refute the concept, I have to say that Lasker did himself no favors in one respect. ( he would never have written a book with the title 'Chess is my Life'!!) In the period from the end of his second match with Steinitz - i.e. early 1897 - up to 1903, he played just two tournaments. At the time he was doing other things, in the field of mathematics. As the results of those two tournaments demonstrate, he was not only the World Champion, but clearly the strongest player in the World, by some distance. (Although Tarrasch did not take part in those two events, Lasker had twice previously finished ahead of him in tournaments) It is understandable that the chess public would not have been too happy about that.

To balance that out, in the context of the subject at hand, there is the question of what was involved in organising a match for the World Championship. As title holder, arranging the match was pretty much down to Lasker. ( bear in mind that with all the modern resources - instant global communication, corporate sponsorship, international air flights, F.I D.E to do the work, etc, we have recently had a match of just 12 games for the title, with a quickplay play-off) The finances had to be raised, venues organised, terms and conditions agreed - no agents in those days - etc. Sometimes it was easy - a prosperous club would take care of the whole thing - but often it was a mammoth task. Lasker himself gave the time spent on a single title defence as eight months.

Also we can discount the period 1914-1919. I think that can be taken as read.

Let's add to that a somewhat overlooked point - In order to play a match for the title in those days, a player actually had to issue a formal challenge to the title holder! End of; - no candidates tournaments in those days! I believe it was Lasker who first promoted the idea of an internaational chess organisation to organise such things.

So, we have Lasker, chess champion of the world, sitting in his ivory tower, avoiding risking his title against his most dangerous rivals - supposedly. lets get down to the facts, rather than the 'good story'.

Here are two lists of the top ten players in the world at different times, from the excellent chessmetrics site.

Firstly Janurary 1899.


Secondly, moving on 10 years, for December 1909.


So, lets make a list of Lasker's most dangerous challengers, in the order they appear in the above lists, and deal with them one by one.
















Tarrasch - Lasker defended the title against him. First things first - They really, really didn't like each other. They knew each other frrom Lasker's earliest days as a chess player - Tarrasch reportedly giving Lasker odds, and in 1892 Lasker had challenged him to a match, and been rebuffed as an unworthy challenger. Lasker would hadly have gone to him saying ' Hey mate - how about me and you playing a match for my world championship!'

  Prior to the actual match, there was also a title match with him arranged in 1903. when Tarrasch first issued a challenge. Tarrasch withdrew due to having had a fall whilst iceskating, and asked for a postponement of the match. Lasker, who had bills to pay, declined to put everything on hold for a year. 

Pillsbury. One that fascinates me! 

Bill Wall here:- Says that Pillsbury challenged Lasker in 1901, but that nothing ever came of it. Having gone through the whole of Wiener Schachzeitung for 1901, and a number of other sources, I can find no documented evidence of such a challenge! Hopefully, someone reading this will have uncovered details that I do not have. If so, please post them in the comments! Information on that may refute this whole article, but that's fine with me!

Janowsky - Lasker defended his title against him.

Steinitz  - Lasker defended his title against him.

Chigorin. I have not been able to find any mention of him ever challenging Lasker for the title. Apart from a match in 1903 to test out a line of the 'Rice Gambit', he won one game against Lasker, at Hastings in 1895.

Charousek. Never issued a challenge. He died prematurely of tubercolosis. A tragic loss to chess - Lasker himself saw him as someone that he would have to defend his title against - but his health situation meant that a challenge for the title was never forthcoming. 

Burn. Never issued a challenge that I am aware of. Lost all of his games against Lasker that I know of. 

Maroczy. A serious challenger if ever there was one!

The chessmetrics list from jan 1905 - before his two best results.


He did indeed challenge Lasker for the title. Lasker went through the process of organising the match, but Maroczy withdrew, citing the political situation in Hungary and his involvement in it. All this is well documented in 'Lasker's Chess Magazine' at the time, and a quick internet search will turn up other reports/comments.

L.C.M. has an interesting addendum to the whole affair, which I give here.


Schlechter. Lasker defended the title against him. A lot of stuff has been written about this match, and Lasker's 'unfair conditions'. If you take the time to read the research work of E.A.Apps, for 'Chess' magazine, and Goldman, in his book 'Carl Schlechter! Life and Times of the Austrian Chess Wizard', as well as Lasker's own writings , there is very little doubt that, had he lost the 10th game, Lasker would also have lost the title.

That is another debate! But for the purposes of this article, it is enough to say that Lasker defended his title against Schlechter. As to the idea that Lasker never allowed Schlechter a rematch, if anyone produces evidence to show that Schlechter issued a further challenge, or that the match conditions provided for such an eventuality, I would love to see it!! In that regard, I do know of a tantalising line from the American Chess Bulletin1910, pg.138. After their match Lasker felt that he needed a rest, and took a kind of chess professional's holiday to the Americas. A.C.B. says that Lasker indicated that Schlechter might be able to visit the United States in the fall to lay the groundwork for a match in 1911.


Rubinstein. Another very serious challenge to the title. Chessmetrics has him ranked as either number 1 or number 2 in the world from Jan 1908 through to Jan 1914. Personally, as a big fan of his, I would love for there to have been a match between Lasker and Rubinstein, but,sadly, it was not to be. He did indeed issue a challenge, and the whole thing is covered in some detail in 'Akiba Rubinstein: Uncrowned King', by Donaldson and Minev. So why was there no match?

It would appear that from the start there was a problem with finance. The same problem had seen the Schlechter match reduced to just 10 games. From page 215 of the book.


There was the added complication of the Capablanca challenge being ongoing at the same time - perhaps  that affected any possibility of clubs in the U.S.A. supporting a match with Rubinstein. The players agreed terms for a match of 30 games, but by late 1913 hosting had only been forthcoming for 14.


Then came Rubinstein's failure at St. Petersburg followed by W.W.1., and the match never took place. A great loss to chess history.


Capablanca. The only contentious one!! Let's not write a full 'War and Peace' scale novel here, which would go outside the idea of this article!!

An interesting precursor is to be found in A.C.B. 1910, page 88 paraphrased by Bob Dudley in 'Lasker and his Contemporaries, issue 1. 'While in Europe he had found there existed much curiosity concerning reports of the young master's exploits. So often were the enquiries directed at him, that Lasker said the subject ''got on his nerves''.

Dudley also gives the following interesting paragraph - bear in mind that Lasker had previously played in Cuba.



O.K. The story of the Lasker- Capablanca match negotiations can can easily be found on the internet. It is not a story that shows either player in a particularly good light - and, incidentally, as mentioned, had repercussions for the Lasker - Rubinstein negotiations which were in progress. Whilst,  with reference to the above paragraph from Bob Dudley, a certain understanding of Lasker's standpoint with regard to some of his original conditions - open to negotiation -  can be come to, his terminating relations with Capablanca and Shipley, when the latter took the diplomatic course, rather than siding with him, casts Lasker in a very poor light indeed. He later initiated reconciliations with both of them, and a match with Capablanca eventually took place, after he had resigned the title in Capablanca's favor. 


Duras. Never challenged for the title as far as I know.

Teichmann. Never challenged for the title as far as I know.

Vidmar. Never challenged for the title. Am working on a translation of the chapter of 'Goldene Schachzeiten', 'The Death of a World Championship Dream', which recounts the story of the 1922 'London Rules'. Will get it finished and posted one day!

Marshall. Issued 2 challenges for the title, which are fully recounted in Lasker's Chess Magazine. The first one fell through, for reasons discussed there. Here is the second one. L.C.M. July 1906. pg 133.


As both players were in the U.S.A. at the time, the preliminaries were taken care of quite quickly, despite the need for arrangements being made with 6 different clubs! 

nullSo there we have it! Lasker, his most serious challengers, his official challenges, and the outcome. 

In my objective opinion, the 'Ivory Tower' type allegations are unfounded and unfair. As noted, there is the fact that, on occasion, Lasker did his reputation no favors, but, to say that he avoided threats to his title is, in my opinion, unfair.

There is a legal case going on at the moment where a Hollywood actress is claiming to have been falsely and unfairly portrayed in a film. The response of one film screenplay writer was that it is impossible to write a good story about real life events without distorting the facts for 'entertainment purposes'. ( The film 'The Imitation Game', and it's portrayal of  the extraordinary Cdr Alistair Denniston is one that personally annoys me hugely.) See  ) Perhaps one day I will post on the chess activities of those incredible people who were at Bletchley Park. But that is my mind doing a Dylanesque train of thought!. To the point of this post.

All good stories need a bad guy. See the 'good story' concept mentioned at the start of this article.

'Man has an invincible inclination to allow himself to be deceived and is, as it were,
enchanted with happiness when the rhapsodist tells him epic fables as if they were true,
or when the actor in the theater acts more royally than any real king.' 
On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense. Friedrich Nietzsche.

So, did Lasker ever avoid a match with a serious rival? The answer is - yes he did, but he is not mmentioned here! Although, like the wonderful Walter Penn Shipley, I am not one to take sides, I agree with him in that particular case.  If anyone wishes to hazard a guess at the prospective opponent, circumstances, etc, please post it in the comments!. I will be back with that particular story as soon as I put it all together.

Take care everyone.