World Chess Federation - FIDE

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Next in the series - Chess Champs Part II

Here is the next in the series of the "Chess Champs" from Steve M ... 

Emanuel Lasker was the 2nd official chess world champion and held the title for a staggering 27 years, winning the title from Steinitz in 1894. Born in Berlinchen in Prussia in 1868, events shortly after his birth mean that Lasker is now referred to as German. Whether or not he saw himself as German or Prussian is an interesting tangent (indeed at the time many Prussians regarded ‘Germany’ as simply the new name for the Prussian empire) and I’d recommend a little Wikipedia action looking up the 1871 unification of Germany and the Franco-Prussian war. At the very least we can all get a little chuckle out of good ol’ fashioned French military incompetence.

Anyway......Having won the title from an ageing and increasingly desperate-for-cash Steinitz, Lasker set about meticulously avoiding the most serious challengers to his crown. Lasker was dismayed at the poverty in which Steinitz had found himself after losing the title and was determined to avoid the same fate. Consequently, he demanded high fees for his matches and appearances and made the best use of the perks which came with being the champ.....the odd cruise, stays in the best hotels, etc. Having high fees for matches also had the effect of keeping the dangerous younger generation at bay, as they were not yet famous enough to raise the sponsorship they would need. Even so, he came perilously close to losing his title to a chap called Schlechter, only retaining his title by scraping a win in the last game, drawing the match overall and so keeping his crown.

Before I give the impression that I’m sceptical of Mr Lasker’s talents, I should mention that his tournament performances were second to none. Lasker won major tournaments throughout the 1900s and early 1910s, including the London 1899 and Paris 1900 events. A true polymath, Lasker was also a tireless publisher of chess works, mathematical treatises and philosophical booklets. In 1914 Lasker won the exceedingly strong St Petersburg tournament and had the inaugural title of ‘Grandmaster’ bestowed upon him by Tsar Nicholas II who, like Lasker, was in for a few shaky years. In early 1914, Lasker was facing increasing pressure to defend his title against a real heavyweight and discussions were held with both Akiba Rubinstein (one of the great players who never got a title shot) and Capablanca (more on him later). Nonetheless, the outbreak of the Great War put a stop to any thoughts of gentlemanly pursuits and proved to be largely responsible for the decline of many a great player, including Lasker himself.

In the aftermath of the assassination of a certain Mr Hapsburg in Sarajevo, Lasker displayed a Steinitz-esque sense of financial intuition and invested every penny he had in German war bonds. Needless to say, this did not turn out well. By the end of the war, Lasker was a largely broken man and was unable to stop Capablanca from wresting the world championship from him in 1921. Although Lasker continued to win the odd tournament here and there, his loss to Capablanca was essentially the end of his great career. Unfortunately, Lasker did not get a particularly peaceful retirement however. Lasker fled Germany after Hitler’s ascension in 1933 and took up Soviet citizenship, only to have to run away again as Stalin began his own purges in 1937. This movement cost Lasker both financially and physically and despite his strongest efforts to avoid Steinitz’s fate, Lasker died in relative poverty in New York in 1941 leaving a wife and sister behind.

A bit depressing all that, but I’ll leave you with a quote from some scientist or other:

“Emanuel Lasker was undoubtedly one of the most interesting people I came to know in my later years. We must be thankful to those who have penned the story of his life for this and succeeding generations. For there are few men who have had a warm interest in all the great human problems and at the same time kept their personality so uniquely independent” (A. Einstein, 1952).
Cheers all ......
Steve

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