12/03/2008 20:27

Why Lasker Matters"






To his contemporaries Emanuel Lasker was an enigma.  Seigbert Tarrasch considered him to be a perpetrator of black magic and Richard Reti compounded this in an article following the 1924 New York tournament (largely re-produced in his book "Masters of the Chess Board" first published in 1929)  by suggesting that Lasker played psychologically.  He wrote that Lasker avoided the many drawn games that were being played because of the "far reaching development in the technique of chess" by risking "theoretically unsound moves."  He goes on "And while he himself is hardly able to hold on, he finally manages, thanks to his great staying power, to emerge victoriously while his opponent who seemed safe enough falls into the gulf.  In this way Lasker wins a victory which he would never have achieved by simply playing a correct, steady game."  

This about a player who won the World Championship in 1894, successfully defended it until 1921 and then continued to be one of the foremost players in the world until his death in 1941!

Although this appreciation has become tempered with age, the general belief that Lasker's success was brought about by employing a somewhat mystical style has remained.

Andrew Soltis has set about redressing this belief in his new book "Why Lasker Matters" published by BATSFORD CHESS.  

He uses 100 well annotated games to demonstrate that there were no mysteries in Laker's games, rather there was a lack of understanding by his critics and poor play on the part of his opponents.  The major force of his arguments are set out in a foreword to each game which gives some background to the circumstances under which the games were played and de-bunks the critiscms levelled by Lasker's protagonists.   

Tarrasch in particular considered that Lasker was "lucky" and in his book on the Nuremburg tournament of 1896, he even set out a lucky score table to indicate the extent of Lasker's "luck".    Soltis admits that Lasker could have been lucky, but his luck came about through the bad play of his opponents!  In one particular game against Schiffers, Soltis demonstrates that Lasker won because his opponent beat himself!  Luck maybe, but such things do happen in chess and is not confined to the games of weak players.

Tarrasch was particularly susceptible to Lasker's play and his rather wicked sense of humour.  In his book on the 1914 St. Petersburg tournament he makes the following comment in the course of his notes to the critical Lasker - Capablanca game played in the Finals:-

""Why have you only chosen the Exchange Variation?" I asked Lasker in the noon break, "You must play sharply for a win."

"I had nothing else," retorted Lasker. "I have found nothing against your defence which you employed against Bernstein and me." The prospects for attack and defence have changed just so radically in a few years in the formerly so greatly feared Spanish Game."

One can imagine Tarrasch preening himself with this comment, but what Soltis reveals is that Capablanca  never played Tarrasch's Open Defence to the Ruy Lopez in his whole career! 

Another reason Soltis offers for Lasker's "mystical" play is that he was well ahead of contemporary theory and his approach was very modern, despite the fact that the Hypermodern School was still well in the future when he won the World Championship.  The game following is a fine example of such play, and the nature of the comments that Soltis sets about correcting.  It has been chosen to illustrate Soltis' arguments and technique as it is a well known game and has had many annotators.  Incidentally, this is the game that Napier declared to be the finest he had ever played!

Lasker's involvement in chess was not so professionally based as that of his contemporaries.  His attitude was  very mercenary and needed to be following his departure from Germany before the onslaught of early Nazism.  He had to make a living and in chess that required just financial rewards that weren't readily forthcoming.  There were long periods of his career during which he played little or no chess.  Consequently, when he did venture into tournaments he had to adopt a pragmatic attitude to counter new theories and new blood.  As Soltis points out, this meant that he had to play to win at all costs and sometimes the end justified the means. 

Soltis never strays far from his main objective of purging common belief that there was something surreal about Lasker's success.  In addition to his erudite notes preceding a game, his annotations are liberally sprinkled with explanations of the play of Lasker's opponents that led to their own downfall.

Here is a typical example.

Lasker's last game with Tarrasch was at Moravska - Ostrava in 1923.

In his foreword to the game, Soltis writes:- 

"Lasker's opponents often attributed their reverses to a single move  ........  This thinking served Lasker well by leading his rivals to mistaken conclusions about what they did wrong.  They didn't recognize how many little mistakes, how many minor turning points were hidden in the game.  

In the following game ......... Tarrasch obtains a huge edge by move 14, which he slowly enlarges.  Then something goes horribly wrong.  But it is difficult to say what.  Most annotators can find only one of Black's moves to criticize ("24. ....Qf5?") and only a few good moves by White."

We will pick up play when Lasker has survived the storm of the opening and fortune begins to swing to his favour.  Incidentally, Tarrasch replied to Lasker's 1.e4 with Alekhine's Defence!

This is the position reached after White has played 31.Kf1.  Soltis now writes:-

"White signals that he has survived.  this move says that he can just try to improve the placement of his pieces (Nd4-e6) and wait for Black to prove that he is winning.

31...... Nbc8?

Tarrasch didn't respond well when confronted with unexpected obstacles.  His best games were linear - an opening advantage grew logically and steadily until, by move 30 or 35, it had become overwhelming.

In this game his edge was growing until move 22 or so and seemed to be only a few good moves away from becoming unstoppable.  But now he sees he'll need more than a few good moves.  He needs a pawn-break, either from ....b5 or ....c6.  and he sees that 31.....c6 can be answered with 32.d6! after which 32....Rxd6 33.c5 Rxd3 is dubious (31.Rdxd3 Nbd5 35.Bd4)   Nevertheless 31. ....Na4! and then ....c6! would get him closer to a win, e.g. 322.Nd4 c6 33.Ne6 Nb2.  


This stops 32....b5/33.....Nb6 and discourages 32....c6.  On the other hand, 32.Nd4 c6! 33.Ne6 Rd7 would have been difficult for White again.    


Black insists.  He would still have a serious edge after 32....Nb6 33.Nd4 Na4 or 32....Nd6 and ....Ne4.  For example, 32....Nd6 33.Nd4 Ne4 34.Bxe4 fxe4 35.Ne6 Rd7 36.Re3 Nf5! and then 37.Nxe4 h3 38.Kg1 Nd6.  

33. bxc6     bxc6

34. Rb1+   Ka8

Black loses this game because he is too concerned with keeping a material edge ..........."

Tarrasch did in fact lose after another 13 moves.  

Andrew Soltis is a much respected chess author and this book maintains his high standard.  There is evidence that it has been very carefully researched as there are many references to works of other authors both contemporary to Lasker and modern.  It is natural that Tarrasch figures greatly in the references as he was a prodigious author and was the main person responsible for spinning many myths concerning Lasker.  It is also possible that Lasker did nothing himself to dispel these myths as this gave him an aura of invincibility.  Soltis puts forward  very convincing arguments to bring these criticisms under control and place Lasker's position in the chess world in the right perspective.  The 100 games that he selects are well chosen and  annotated  leaving the reader in no doubt of the point he is making.  His previous book, "Fischer revisited" was favorably received and there is little doubt that "Why Lasker Matters" will get similar acclaim.

Batsford Chess Books consistently produce books of high quality and this is no exception.  In particular I like the new livery that has been used over the last few books.  A subdued grey colour is used on the covers  of this 320 page volume and a price of 15.99  makes this a welcome addition to chess players book shelves.   

(1) Lasker,Emanuel - Napier,William Ewart [B72]
Cambridge Springs Cambridge (3), 1904

The following is one of the two or three best known Lasker games and probably the most misunderstood. Since Reti's widely copied comments in Masters of the Chess Board, readers have been bewildered by the conclusion that: a) White played the opening atrociously - intentionally so. b) Black responded brilliantly - yet he was barely hanging on until c) He found a great defensive resource at move 21 - which loses by force. Does any of that make sense? And what really happened? Let's see.

1.e4 c5 2.Nc3 Nc6 3.Nf3 g6 4.d4 cxd4 5.Nxd4 Bg7 6.Be3 d6 7.h3 Nf6 8.g4

Reinfeld/Fine said the only thing that is certain about White's last two moves is that they are "objectively bad."

8...0-0 9.g5 

White's play is in "violation of all rules of chess" Reti said. He is not fully developed, the centre isn't closed and White has no discernable advantage that justifies attack. OK, that was an arguable point of view, even in 1929 when he wrote Masters. The reason White chose such an outrageous policy, he explains, is "psychological". Lasker could determine, based on 1....c5 that Black couldn't defend well. Playing the Sicilian is a "very tedious and difficult" chore, Reti wrote. The player who adopts it wants to reach the endgame and is therefore not inclined to handle sharp positions (!).


Black prepares ....Nc7/ ....d5. Modern players would prefer 9...Nh5 in order to exploit the White weaknesses after say, 10.Qd2 Nxd4 11.Bxd4 Bxd4 12.Qxd4 Qa5 ; or 9...Nd7 10.h4 Qa5 11.f4 Nxd4 12.Bxd4 e5 as in Reti-Saemisch, Kiel 1921. That's right. The same Reti who denounced White's opening moves in 1929 had played them himself - in fact more than once.

10.h4 Nc7 11.f4

  Lasker had taken an hour and 25 minutes so far, exceptionally slow for him. White can't afford too much kingside play (11.h5 d5!) so he prepares to meet 11....d5 with 12.e5. But 11.Bg2 serves better.


A counter-intuitive alternative is 11...Bxd4! giving up the bishop that is the heart of Black's game. Black is better after 12.Bxd4 d5 13.e5? Bf5 ; and stands well after 11...Bxd4 12.Bxd4 d5 13.Bc5 dxe4 14.Nxe4 b6  


On 12.fxe5 Black's best may be 12...Nxd4 13.Bxd4 Ne6  


After choosing such a boring opening, Black had shown a "surprising" understanding of how 7.g4 had altered matters, Reti wrote. But now Black defended "nervously and hastily" with this move instead of 12...Bg4 ; A modern Dragon player would naturally look at 12.....exf4 and 13.....Ne5 and have some doubts about the bishop move. Zak argued that 12...Bg4 could be met strongly by 13.f5 gxf5 14.exf5 Bxf5 15.Ng3 Be6 16.Bd3 d5 17.Qh5 e4 18.Ncxe4 dxe4 19.Nxe4 ; It's more in the Dragon DNA to play ....d5 rather than grab a pawn. True 12...Bg4 13.f5 d5 doesn't work ( 14.exd5 Bf3 15.f6! Bh8 16.Rh3 Bxd5 and now 17.Bc5 -- threatening 18.Rd3 ) However, Black seems to be doing well with; 12...Bg4 13.f5 gxf5 14.exf5 d5  

13.exd5 Nd4!  

A modern player would take it for granted that 13...Nd4 14.Bxd4 exd4 15.Nxd4 Nxd5 gives Black good compensation for a pawn.

14.Nxd4 Nxd5  

13. Nxd5 Black would have played 13. ....exf4! And here he would have met 14...Nxd5 15.Nxd5 with 15...exd4 e.g. 16.Bxd4 Qxd5 17.Bxg7 Qxh1 18.Bxf8 Qxh4+ (Marco). The next two moves are forced.

15.Nf5 Nxc3 16.Qxd8 Rxd8 17.Ne7+  

Common sense tells us that 17.Nxg7 cannot be right, and Reti tried to confirm that be saying 17...Nd5 18.0-0-0 Bg4 favours Black. But as the game shows, that bishop on g7 is extraordinarily valuable. After; 17.Nxg7! Nd5 White keeps matters unclear with 18.Bd2 exf4 19.c4!  


This is a mild surprise but 17...Kf8 attacking the knight, can be answered by 18.Bc5 After 18...Ne4 19.Ba3 Nd6 White wins with 20.Nxc8 -- and 21.0-0-0 ; Better is 17...Kf8 18.Bc5 Ne4 19.Ba3 Bg4 but 20.Nxg6+ Kg8 21.Nxe5 still favours White.


This is the kind of move, not that difficult for one of today's Sicilianistas to find, that marvelled Lasker's contemporaries. Clearly 18.bxc3? exf4! favours Black ( 19.Bd4 Bxd4 20.cxd4 Re8 ; ) as does 18.Nxc8 exf4 19.Bxf4 Raxc8 ; The real question is whether the text, which threatens 18.h5 -- 19.hxg6 fxg6 20.Nxg6+ Kg8 21.Bc4+ is stronger than 18.f5. The answer is that ; 18.f5 is good but Black can stay in the game with 18...Ne4 19.f6 Bf8  


Traditional defensive policies, such as trading pieces ( 18...Nd5? 19.Nxd5 Rxd5 20.Bc4 )or trying to keep lines closed(; 18...gxh5? 19.f5! Ne4 20.Rh4 Ng3 21.f6! ) will fail.


Among the points of Black's last move are that 19.hxg6 Rxe7 20.Bc5 Rd7 offers good survival chances, as does ; 19.f5! gxf5 20.Nxc8 Nd5! By protecting the knight and removing the bishop from ....exf4 attack, White has almost eliminated the tricks. that's important because once the position is defused tactically, the normal rules of chess should return and White's material will win. For instance,; 19.Bc5 Ne4 20.Bb5! If Black keeps the shots coming - 20...Bg4 21.hxg6 fxg6 22.Bxe8 Rxe8 23.Nxg6+ Kg8 24.Ne7+ Kh8 25.Ba3 exf4 he eventually runs out of bullets ( 26.Rh4 ) and wins.


It's easy to like this game. Whoever makes the last surprising move seems to have the edge. It was once claimed that 19...exf4! would have been refuted by 20.hxg6 fxg6 21.Bc4 But then 21...Bf5 was found to lead to an unclear situation in which Black's winning chances were significant ( 22.Bf7 (22.bxc3 Rac8 23.Bf7 Rxc5! ) 22...Ne4! ; Better is 19...exf4 20.Bc4 so that 20...Bf5? is beaten by 21.Bxf7 Ne4 22.hxg6 ; And after 19...exf4 20.Bc4 gxh5 21.Bxf7 Ne4 all that Black has accomplished is to transpose into the lost game continuation ( 22.Bxe8 Bxb2 23.Rb1 ).; But Black has one more improvement and it is 19...exf4 20.Bc4 b6!! (Sergi Dolmatov), which saves Black and puts the onus on White following 21.Bxf7 Bb7 after which anything can happen.


This was given an exclamation point by several annotators. they agreed that Black has compensation if White tried 20.bxc3 Bf8 21.Bb5 Rxe7 22.Bxe7 Bxe7 so the text had to be better. But Black deserves compensation. White may not be able to win after 23.Rxh5 Bf5 (or 23...Bg4 24.Rh4 Bf5 ) 24.fxe5 Bxc2 But he is the the player with winning chances. The same is true of ; 20.Rxh5 Ne4 21.Bd3!  


Black has been waiting for the chance to play this. It was a major factor in why White had to reject alternatives earlier in the game, such as 18. Nxc8 exf4! Besides, 20 .....exf4 seemed to fit in with the tactical theme of the last several moves. Black kept the annoying knight at c3 where it couldn't be taken [20...exf4 21.bxc3?? Bxc3+ However,; 20...Ne4! was right. Tartakower regarded it as not "altogether satisfactory". But he grossly underestimated Black's chances after 21.Bxf7 Bg4 22.Bxe8 Rxe8 White may be lost after 23.Ba3 (or 23.f5 Nxc5 24.f6 Bf8 ) 23...exf4  

21.Bxf7 Ne4?!  

.Ng6+ hxg6 24.Bxg6+ Kg8 25.Bxf8 wins.; 21...Rf8 But 22.Bxh5 Ne4 23.Ng6+ Kg8! is a magical resource. The game can have any of three outcomes after 24.Bxf8 Bxb2 The fairest result would be; 21...Rf8 22.Bxh5 Ne4 23.Ng6+ Kg8 24.Ne7+! Kh8 25.Ng6+ drawing.

22.Bxe8 Bxb2 23.Rb1 Bc3+ 24.Kf1 Bg4  


"Dr Lasker amazed me by playing the nine moves from 21 to 30 within three minutes," Napier wrote. But there are no medals for finding the easiest moves of the game. White will have the winning edge in three moves (e.g. 25.Bxh5 Ng3+ 26.Kf2 Nxh5 27.Rh4 ).



26.Rxh5 Ng3+  

The only other tree branch is 26...Nd2+ 27.Ke2 Nxb1 when White wins with 28.g6 Kg7 29.Rxh7+ Kf6 30.g7  

27.Kg2 Nxh5 28.Rxb7  

White pieces dominate ( 28.Rxb7 Ng7 29.Nd5 Ne6 30.Be7 -- and 31.Bf6+ )


The active 28...Rd8 29.Rxa7 Rd2+ 30.Kf3 Rxc2 would shorten matters since 31.Nf5! mates.

29.Rb3 Bg7 30.Rh3 Ng3 31.Kf3 Ra6 32.Kxf4  

The rest was

32...Ne2+ 33.Kf5 Nc3 34.a3 Na4 35.Be3 1-0