Emanuel Lasker; The Greatest Player of All Time?

Emanuel Lasker

Considered one of the strongest players of all time, Emanuel Lasker had an incredible playing career which spanned five decades.

He was the second ever world champion, and held the title for an impressive 27 years between 1894 and 1921.  This reign made Emanuel Lasker the title holder for the longest time in history, and although he was challenged for his title five times, he successfully defended it five times too.

So let’s find out what it takes to become a champion of this calibre.

Emmanuel Lasker

The Early Life of Emanuel Lasker

Emanuel Lasker was born in Berlinchen (in what is now Poland) on the 24th December 1868. When he was eleven years old Lasker was sent to live with his older brother Berthold who lived in Berlin so that he could study mathematics. Berthold, who was eight years older than his brother, was among the world’s top ten chess players in the 1890’s and he taught Emanuel how to play.

When Emanuel started to show some chess skills he began to supplement his brother’s income by playing both chess and card games for small stakes, often at the Café Kaiserhof. It was here than he had his first important win at the Café Kaiserhof’s annual Winter tournament of 1888/89.

He followed this with a second win at the Hauptturnier A, which was a “second division” tournament held in Breslau. Winning the Hauptturnier earned Lasker the title of “master”. This enabled Emanuel to play in master-level tournaments and thus launched his chess career.

Emanuel Lasker’s Chess Career

Emanuel Lasker began competing in major tournaments, and his results went from strength to strength. He took part in an international tournament in Amsterdam and finished second place, ahead of several of the big names of the time,Mason and Gunsberg.

In the spring of 1892, Emanuel won two tournaments in London, and at the second of these he didn’t even lose a single game against a very strong field of competitors. Then in 1893 he won all thirteen games at a tournament in New York, which became one of the few times in chess history that a player has achieved a perfect score in a significant tournament.

In Berlin in 1890, Emanuel Lasker drew a short playoff match against his brother Berthold, but aside from this he won every other match he played between 1889 and 1893, against a range of top-class opponents. Chessmetrics has calculate that Lasker became the world’s strongest player in the middle of 1890, and that he was in fact in the top ten players ever since the very beginning of his recorded career in 1889.

Lasker was not just a great player, he did great things for the chess world in the form of a number of published works over the years. In 1892 he founded the first of his chess magazines, The London Chess Fortnightly.

Emanuel Lasker

Emanuel Lasker challenged the reigning World Champion, Wilhelm Steinitz, to a match for the title, which was played in 1894 at venues in New York, Philadelphia and Montreal. Steinitz went into the match confident, declaring that he would win without doubt, but it wasn’t to be, and Lasker won the first game. so it came as a shock when Lasker won the first game.

In fact Lasker went on to win the entire match with ten wins, five losses, and four draws, therefore becoming the second formally recognised World Chess Champion. Many players at the time thought that Lasker winning was a fluke, or even blamed Steinitz’ loss on his old age, but Lasker confirmed his title when they had a rematch in 1896-97.

Between 1900 and 1904, Emanuel Lasker didn’t play any serious chess. At least until the famous 1904 Cambridge Springs tournament, where he finished in second place behind Frank Marshall. This impressive result from Marshall earned him the right to challenge Lasker for the world championship title.

But unluckily for Marshall, Lasker defended his title when they played for the world championship in 1907. It was a stunning victory with Lasker leaving with 8 wins and 7 draws.

In 1908, Lasker faced another opponent for the world championship, Siegbert Tarrasch from Germany. These two competitors had vastly different techniques, Tarrasch believed that chess had positional rules and laws, that could not be broken. Lasker on the other hand was able to defy Tarrasch’s logic and once again defended his title with a great score of 8 wins, 3 losses, 5 draws.

In 1909 Emanue Lasker was challenged again, this time by Dawid Janowski, a Polish expatriate known for his attacking style. They played two separate matches in 1909, with Lasker winning the first and Janowski demanding a rematch. But Lasker went on to win the second match too, and by an even bigger margin. At this point in his career it really did seem like he was unbeatable.

Then, in 1910,  Carl Schlechter was the next person to face Lasker for the world champion title. This match was closely fought and ultimately ended in a draw, meaning Lasker retained his title.

After this match it was 10 years until Emanuel Lasker would play to defend the title again.

In 1911, Lasker began negotiations to play against José Raúl Capablanca, but they couldn’t agree to match terms.  The the following year in 1912, Lasker agreed to play a match against Akiba Rubinstein, but this never took place as the Polish challenger could not raise the required funds, despite being on a winning streak.

In 1914, Emanuel Lasker used his abilities to change the style of his play at will, resulting in winning the historical 1914 St. Petersburg tournament ahead of a field of incredibly strong competitors, including Capablanca. Unfortunately after this World War 1 put a stop in international chess competition for a while.

So it wasn’t until 1921 that Lasker and Capablanca finally came head to head for the world champion title. The original plan was for the match to consist of 24 games, but with Capablanca taking an early lead, Lasker made the decision to resign after game 14. And thus was the end of Emanuel Lasker’s 27 year long reign as chess world champion.

Emanuel Lasker

Emanuel Lasker’s Life After

At the time of his loss to Capablanca, Emanuel Lasker was in his early fifities. Although he made the decision to retire from serious game play, he still remained active and successful in tournaments. In 1923, he won the 1923 Moravska Ostrava tournament, and  in 1924, Lasker won the famous New York tournament, ahead of World Champion Capablanca amongst others. He finished in second place in the 1925 Moscow tournament before taking a long break from tournament chess.

In 1933, Lasker and his wife were forced to leave Germany due to Hitler’s increasing campaigning against Jews. They ended up living in the USSR and Lasker returned to competitive chess to make some money, finishing fifth in Zürich 1934 and third in Moscow 1935. His strong performance in Moscow at the age of 66 was called a “a biological miracle” by many.

Martha and Emanuel Lasker decided to leave the Soviet Union and move to the United States in 1937. In the United States, Lasker, now too old to take part in serious competition, gave chess and bridge lectures and exhibitions to support his family. He sadly died of a kidney infection on the 11th January 1941, at the age of 72.

Quick Facts

  • Lasker was the first chess master to demand high fees, strengthening the financial status of professional chess players from then on.
  • His book Common Sense in Chess, which was written in 1896, is now considered a classic.
  • Lasker was not just a great chess player, but he was also a fantastic mathematician.
  • Lasker was a good friend of Albert Einstein, who even wrote the introduction to the posthumous biography Emanuel Lasker, The Life of a Chess Master.
  • Lasker’s 27 year reign is the longest in history, and he successfully defended his title five times.