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A King in Modest Clothing, or,
by Taylor Kingston
The Collected Games of Emanuel Lasker, by Ken Whyld, 1998 The Chess Player, Hardcover, Figurine Algebraic Notation, 229pp., $35.95 (ChessCafe Price $32.47)
A certain trend in chess scholarship and publishing seems very evident these days: the attempt to amass every known game ever played by noteworthy masters, with publication as the natural outcome once the collection is deemed as complete as possible. In the last few years, massive compilations of the games of Adolf Anderssen, Wilhelm Steinitz, Harry Pillsbury, Rudolf Charousek, J. R. Capablanca, Alexander Alekhine, Paul Keres, and Bobby Fischer, to name only the more prominent players, have appeared. While the subjects of these books generally played very-good-to-great chess, the quality of the books themselves has varied tremendously, ranging from the cheaply produced and laughably bad (e.g. Charuchin's on Charousek) to the extremely impressive (Skinnner and Verhoeven's on Alekhine).
At first glance, The Collected Games of Emanuel Lasker seemed unfortunately closer to the lower end of this wide spectrum. The Chess Player series "Masters of Chess", of which this is the sixth, has consisted generally of small books of undistinguished appearance and less-than-best binding, practically glorified pamphlets. That was perhaps fitting, as until now they have dealt with relatively lesser or at best near-great masters (Vajda, Nagy, Havasi, Teichmann, Duras). In contrast, Lasker (1868-1941) was a truly monumental figure in the history of chess. He had the longest official reign (1894-1921) of any world champion, demonstrated an almost absolute supremacy circa 1896-1914, remained among the world's ten best well into the 1930s, and is among the top half-dozen on most "all-time greatest" lists (and #1 on some). To dress the games of this chessic Caesar in such humble trappings seemed almost an act of lese majeste.
However, Lasker was a scholar who valued substance over form, and it might well have pleased him to be represented by this modest-looking but surprisingly substantial volume. A careful reading shows that Briton Ken Whyld, one of the game's most respected writers (he was co-author of The Oxford Companion to Chess), has packed a good deal of information in a small space.
There are 1,383 games (1,390 had been intended, but the scores of seven known to be played in the period 1890-92 could not be found). This may seem a low total compared to the recent compilations of Keres (1,944 games) or Alekhine (2,543), but keep in mind that Lasker played relatively little, several times refraining from serious chess for years (1902-03, 1911-13, 1926-33). It is a substantial increase over what is available on databases, e.g., the Ultimate Game Collection III has only 680 Lasker entries among its 1.1 million. Whyld's collection begins with an offhand game of uncertain date played by the young student Lasker at a Berlin cafe, and ends with Lasker-Marshall, New York, May 1940, about eight months before Lasker's death. In between is found everything available on him, including early Haupturnieren (candidate master tournaments), offhand games, odds and simul games, even four draughts (checkers) games, plus of course all of Lasker's legendary tournament triumphs, such as St. Petersburg 1895-6, Nuremberg 1896, London 1899, Paris 1900, St. Petersburg 1914, and New York 1924, and world title matches against Steinitz, Marshall, Tarrasch, Janowsky, Schlechter, and Capablanca.
What distinguishes Whyld's work here (besides of course the effort of compilation) are his brief but illuminating comments, and the consistent presentation of crosstables. The latter are given not only for major events, but also for the minor ones, such as a small 1890 Graz tournament (won by Makovetz, with Lasker third), an 1889-90 match with Mieses (won by Lasker +5 =3 -0), or even an insignificant quad at Trenton Falls, New York, 1906, against the obscure threesome of Curt, Fox, and Raubitschek. The crosstables provide context, and help order what might otherwise be an amorphous mass. The comments, though for the most part laconically terse, nevertheless provide significant details. For example "[In 1892] Lasker was engaged by the Manhattan CC to play a series of 3 serious games against each of 8 leading members. The 24 games were crucial in establishing his standing in the USA."
While a fuller narrative would have been desirable, between the games, the crosstables, and Whyld's comments, certain story lines can be deduced. For example, even without having read the Lasker biography by Hannak, one can see clearly that, one, Lasker came to America in 1892 with the intention of playing anyone who was anyone in New World chess, and two, he was spectacularly successful at it, scoring +21 -2 =1 in the aforementioned Manhattan CC series, +2 -0 =1 and +3 -0 =0 respectively against Cuban masters C. Golmayo and V squez, +6 -2 =1 against Kentuckian Jackson Showalter, and a clean +13 -0 =0 sweep at New York 1893 (a field which included Albin, Showalter, and Pillsbury). While few of these games are short, one senses that Lasker did not have to exert himself. He also shows flashes of the depth and originality that came to characterize his play, as in this game from the Manhattan CC series:
142. G. Simonson - Lasker,
game 13 New York (Manhattan CC), 25 October 1892. C67.
Despite the potentially dangerous pieces still in play, Lasker's king is going to march into the center of the board and take everything that is not nailed down. 24. a4 Rd3 25. h3 Rhd8 26. Ne4+ Kxc4 27. Rc1+ Kd4 28. Rb4+ Kxe5 29. Rxc7 a5 - Lasker must have foreseen this killing rejoinder several moves earlier. 30. Rxb6 Kxe4 31. Rb5 R8d5 32. Ra7 Rxb5 33. ab5 Rb3 34. Rxa4 Bc4 0-1. New York Daily Tribune 26-10-1892.
Lest the reader think Simonson was a fish, his historical Elo is estimated at 2430. Lasker's dominance in this American tour shows that he was clearly playing already at a 2600+ level.
A quick perusal of the crosstables in CGEL shows that dominance was the basic theme of most of Lasker's career. He had a knack for winning streaks unlike anything seen until Alekhine in the early 1930s or Fischer in the 1970s, scoring for example five straight wins over Steinitz during their 1894 world title match and +7 =4 to start their 1896 rematch, going +20 -1 =7 at London 1899 to win by 4.5 points, starting +4 -1 in his 1908 title match with Tarrasch, going +8 -0 =7 against Marshall in 1907, +15 -1 =5 in two tilts with Janowsky over 1909-10, and +6 -0 =2 against four all-time greats in the finals of St. Petersburg 1914.
This dominance is not evident in the games from simultaneous exhibitions, which (I would estimate) constitute close to half of CGEL's total. Here we see an unusual number of Lasker losses and draws, but as Whyld notes in his introduction, "the master can be generous in order to foster public relations." We see that clearly here in a simul game against a young schoolboy.
794. Lasker - J. E. Randell
(a schoolboy), simul Brooklyn, 20 November 1907. C33.
A surprising position to find the world champion in after just thirteen moves.
Whyld also notes that with simuls, usually only a grandmaster's few losses and draws make it into print, and thus survive the decades, while his routine wins are lost to history. Not all of the simul games in CGEL are trivial, however. Aspiring greats-to-be such as the young Pillsbury, Réti, and Euwe were known to take boards. Here we see the future master, Hungarian Gyula Breyer at age seveteen.
1003. Lasker - G. Breyer,
simul Budapest 26 January 1911. C21.
Whyld states that compilation of Lasker games presents certain problems. With his career beginning over 100 years ago, some early games are irrecoverably lost, while "Fate compensates in a malignant way by giving us spurious games which find their way into books and computer files." Among these are games by four similarly named players: Lasker's brother Berthold, his American cousin Edward Lasker (both of whom, like Emanuel, held the title "Doctor"), and two men named Laskar. Whyld has taken special care to weed these erroneously attributed games out.
The book includes also thirty-two Lasker-composed problems and endgame studies, the usual ECO-code openings index, an index of opponents, Lasker's tournament and match record, a record of simultaneous displays, reproductions of some sketches, photographs, and other pictorial materials relating to Lasker (including even a Mongolian postage stamp) and of his 1920 letter to Capablanca, resigning the world title to him before their 1921 match. Be advised that there are absolutely no annotations, not so much as a "?", so when the reader arrives at a position he may wonder why White played as he did, but for the analysis proving that, after each of the plausible moves White has, you are on your own.
On the whole, I recommend The Collected Games of Emanuel Lasker for anyone with any serious interest in this great player. Combined with Hannak's biography or other more narrative-oriented references it can provide a fairly good picture of this chess genius, and certainly as complete a picture as possible of his chess play.
One cannot help but feel, however, as with the recent Paul Keres: Photographs and Games, that much more would be fitting. A recent posting to The Chess Cafe's bulletin board wondered at the lack of any new lengthy biographical treatments of Lasker since Hannak's 1952 work. I agree; if there is a market for the recent serious biographical efforts on, for example, Schlechter and Napier, good players but comparatively lesser figures, how could there not be one for Lasker? And it is past time that the overly reverential treatment of Lasker handed down from Hannak, and from Reuben Fine, should be balanced with contrary views. Their quasi-hagiographies are not without basis, but they are incomplete. One could, for example, write quite a hatchet-job based just on the Lasker-related material in Edward Winter's Capablanca. There also remains much unknown, or at least untouched on, for example, what of Lasker's life in the Soviet Union in the mid-1930s?
In short, a thorough, well-balanced, updated biography of Lasker has yet to be written. However, if and when it is, Whyld's Collected Games of Emanuel Lasker will be an absolutely essential resource.
The Collected Games of Emanuel Lasker
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This article first appeared at ChessCafe.com in November 1998.
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