Olimpiu G. Urcan
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by John S. Hilbert
Although much has been written about every world champion, the world's archives have yet to be thoroughly scoured for material regarding even these, the game's greatest players. Emanuel Lasker, for instance, arrived in the United States in October 1937, in time to avoid the worst of what would follow as Europe went to war. While he had visited the United States on numerous occasions, and had lived in this country for some years, on and off, his October 1937 stay would only end with death. According to Chess Review, Lasker had come to visit relatives in Chicago. Although he would turn sixty-nine on December 24, 1937, he still expected to be invited to AVRO 1938. He would be bitterly disappointed. His arrival in the United States, however, also set off a series of visits, and accompanying exhibitions, in the major chess playing metropolises, most notably in Chicago and New York, during December 1937 and January 1938.
Less well remembered today is Lasker's short visits during this time to Washington, D.C. What follows is the coverage of his stay as it appeared in Willard Mutchler's chess column in the Washington Post. Mutchler was a long-time Washington, D.C., chess enthusiast, and had run the Post's column for many years despite his young age. He would die of heart disease at forty-three, nine years after Lasker's visits to his city. Among the men mentioned in the pieces that follow, Isador S. Turover would be remembered for many years not only for his chess play but more significantly for his devotion to the game and his support of brilliancy prizes. William K. Wimsatt, Sr., himself a talented player, was the father of William K. Wimsatt, Jr., a gifted chess problemist and internationally known scholar of Eighteenth Century English Literature at Yale University. He was also the father-in-law of Albert Fox, who many years before had been the youngest competitor at Cambridge Springs 1904. Fox too lived in the D.C. area, although he was apparently not present for Lasker's visits. Luis N. Ponce, besides being District chess champion, served in his professional life with the Ecuadorian diplomatic service, stationed in Washington. Vincent L. Eaton, then twenty-two, and associated with the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress, would serve as problem editor for Chess Review for three years, starting in 1939. He too, like Mutchler, would die at a relatively young age – in Eaton's case, on March 6, 1962, at forty-six. The C.W. Stark who is mentioned more than once was in all likelihood the father of Martin Stark, an exceptionally talented young player in the Washington, D.C. area. His good friend, then also a young man, was Ariel Mengarini, who in turn would play a pivotal role in Samuel Reshevsky's first unsuccessful United States Championship tournament in 1950.
In short, chess connections run forward and backward through the pieces that follow. They are presented here much as Mutchler's readers would have read them seventy-five years ago, although with diagrams and conversion of the moves to Standard Notation, and with minor corrections inserted. Comments in italics are by this author. Readers will also discover at least one Lasker game long forgotten, and hitherto uncollected in any major source. Who knows how many more such games by famous players lurk in the pages of long forgotten newspapers and obscure journals?
Washington Post, January 23, 1938:
"The sudden and unexpected appearance of the dean of all grandmasters, Dr. Emanuel Lasker, has local chess fandom enthusiastically agog. The 75 [sic]-year-old veteran, who has justly been acclaimed the greatest player of all time, arrived here January 14 as the weekend guest of W.K. Wimsatt and later returned as the guest of I.S. Turover. Arrangements were completed during his first trip for the doctor's by now famous simultaneous exhibition which took place last evening at the Jewish Community Center under the joint auspices of that organization and the Capital City Chess Club. About which more anon.
"It is unnecessary to dwell upon the virtues of an intellect which reigned supreme in the king of games from the time Dr. Lasker acquired the world championship title from Steinitz in 1894, until he lost it to Capablanca in 1921. Suffice it to say that Dr. Lasker is known as the champion of champions by more individuals throughout this globe than is the name of any other leader in any other branch of sports. For, believe it or not, international statisticians have long since determined that Dr. Lasker's game is the one universally played by the greatest number. And so the game score which follows will see the light of print in all nations and all tongues.
"The White allies consisted of District Champion L.N. Ponce, H.A. Rousseau and J.E. DuBois (currently tied for the Capital City's championship honors), and Club President C.W. Stark. Dr. Lasker was "assisted" by W.K. Wimsatt, Problemist V.L. Eaton and Paul Morphy club champion, and W.H. Mutchler. Black's opening move, 6...Nc6, may be regarded internationally of some theoretical interest, since it is not given in Griffith and Whit's compilation." [The following game appears in The Collected Games of Emanuel Lasker, by Ken Whyld (The Chessplayer 1998), Game Number 1378.]
Ponce, Rousseau, DuBois, Stark – Emanuel Lasker, Wimsatt, Eaton,
1.d4 e6 2.e4 d5 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.Nge2 dxe4 5.a3 Bxc3+ 6.Nxc3 Nc6 6...c5 is the usual move and aims to hold the gambit pawn. It creates permanent weaknesses on Black's black squares, however, and White soon obtains sufficient compensation by breaking through with f3. The text tries to avoid the gambit line and appears to be safe. 7.Bb5 Nge7 8.Be3 If 8.Nxe4 a6 forcing 9.Bxc6+ which leads to simplification and bishops of opposite colors. 8...0-0 9.Qd2? 9.Nxe4 was indicated but white, perhaps unwisely, prefers the gambit line. 9...f5 10.f3 exf3 11.gxf3 e5 12.d5 f4 13.Bc5 13.dxc6 , simplifying after the exchange of queens, would have given White drawing chances. 13...Nd4 14.0-0-0
14...Nef5 Courageously played and probably justified in view of the dominant position occupied by Black's knights. 15.Bxf8 At the cost of the exchange, Lasker and his partners plant a knight at e3, and increase the pressure against c2. White should have played Bd3 ... either at this move, the next, or the one after that. Black's pieces keep piling up on the square in front of White's King. – jsh 15...Qxf8 16.Qf2 Ne3 17.Rd2 Bf5 18.Ba4
18...Qc5 A powerful move, threatening ...b5 and preventing White's liberating move, Nd1. 19.Rxd4 Probably best. Black's pressure is terrific and should lead to victory in any event. 19...exd4 20.Ne4 Qe7 21.Bb3 Kh8 22.Nd2 a5 23.a4 b5 The position is hopelessly lost. Very forcefully and accurately played by Dr. Lasker and his cohorts. 0-1 [Washington Post, January 23, 1938; Annotations by I.S. Turover]
Washington Post, January 30, 1938:
"Dr. Emanuel Lasker, grand master of all grand masters, has come, seen and conquered. Playing before a capacity audience last Saturday in the Jewish Community Center's large auditorium, the worthy doctor routed 26 opponents simultaneously by a score of 22½ to 3½. District Champion L.N. Ponce, the only contestant to gain a victory, consistently outplayed Dr. Lasker, who resigned on his thirtieth turn. H.A. Rousseau, J.H. Abercombie, C.A. Hesse, B. Greenstein and V.C. Klug emerged with draws, while the others went down to defeat.
"The Capital City Chess Club and Center, joint sponsors, rest content in the knowledge that the exhibition was the most successful staged in Washington since the appearance of Reshevsky, the boy wonder, in 1922. Spectators and players alike greeted Dr. Lasker with an ovation lasting several minutes in a demonstration which far surpassed that ever accorded any visiting chess master. Messrs. I.S. Turover and C.W. Stark, Capital City Club president, made brief welcoming remarks. W.K. Wimsatt introduced Lasker with fitting praises, and the master, visibly touched, expressed his deep gratitude.
"In his four and a half hours of play Lasker totaled 860 moves, nearly three and a half per minute. His play, while not aggressive, was forcefully planned and the optimum in soundness. The summary:
[Spellings and opening names have been kept as in the original. Interestingly enough, nine of the games were adjudicated, indicating Lasker's four and a half hours of play was the predetermined limit of the exhibition, quite possibly a concession to Lasker's age. Note, too, that two of the games involved consultation play. Often such exhibition details are lost in accounts, and almost invariably suffer that fate when added to digital game bases.]
"Both Greenstein and Klug had slight advantages in complicated positions at the time of adjournment and had winning possibilities had play continued.
"Edward Lasker, former challenger for the American crown, was among those present, but immersed himself in his latest hobby, the Oriental games [sic] of Go.
"The great interest manifested in Dr. Lasker's play was all the more surprising in view of the $2 cost per board, and many prospective opponents were disappointed because the committee of arrangements set a definite upper limit. Players and spectators were reminded that the major share of the expense of the exhibition was borne by the sponsors and two private patrons. A board charge of $5, augmented by admission charges, would have been required had the entire expenses been borne publicly. Personally, we hope to see the day when the Washington public bears the entire cost of its major chess events."
Washington Post, February 6, 1938:
[Lasker's exhibition boosted interest in chess in the Capital District, as Mutchler informed his readers in the brief notice below. Note as well the number of spectators reported for the Lasker exhibition, a figure that did not appear the week before with the event's major coverage.]
"Chess is booming in the Nation's Capital. Following Dr. Emanuel Lasker's simultaneous exhibition, witnessed by more than 300 spectators, the last weekend produced a record-breaking 30-board match between the Capital City and Paul Morphy Chess clubs. Additional prospective pairings were precluded by a lack of space, for 60 chess players, abetted by an overflow audience, occupy more area than the Capital City's quarters contains. The event was the first of its kind to receive coverage by a local radio station. Arch MacDonald dispersed the tale over WJSV airlanes."
[Mutchler himself won his game on Board Thirty. Curiously enough, all thirty games were decisive, with Capital City outscoring its opponents 23-7. Of more interest to Lasker fans was the inclusion of L.N. Ponce's victory over Lasker in the simultaneous exhibition. As so often remains the case, it was the performer's loss that saw print. The game did not appear in Ken Whyld's collection of Lasker's games, but was reported by him, along with dozens of additional Lasker games, in Quarterly for Chess History, Volume 2. See p.188.]
Washington Post, February 13, 1938:
Emanuel Lasker – Luis N. Ponce [D52]
Readers have been clamoring for the score of L.N. Ponce's victory over Dr. Lasker, which accordingly is appended. 1.Nf3 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 d5 4.d4 Nbd7 5.Bg5 c6 6.e3 Qa5 7.Nd2 Bb4 8.Qc2 dxc4 9.Bxf6 Nxf6 10.Nxc4 Qc7 11.Be2 0-0 12.0-0 Rd8 13.Rac1 Bd7 14.f4 Be8 15.f5 exf5 16.Qxf5 Nd5 17.Bd3 g6 18.Qf3 Bf8 19.Ne5 Nxc3 20.bxc3 Bg7 21.Ng4 f5 22.Nf2 Bf7 23.e4 fxe4 24.Nxe4 Bxa2 25.Nf6+ Bxf6 26.Qxf6 Rf8 27.Qg5 b5 28.h4 Qg7 29.h5 gxh5
30.Qxh5 [Lasker might have continued with 30.Rxf8+ Rxf8 (30...Kxf8 31.Qxh5 Bd5 32.Rc2 Kg8 33.Bxb5) 31.Qxg7+ Kxg7 32.Ra1 etc. – jsh] 30...Bd5 0-1 [Washington Post, February 6, 1938]
[A forecast of future Lasker material first appeared as a "Noteworthy Brief" in the same Mutchler column:]
"Dr. Lasker, consulting with W.K. Wimsatt, H.A. Rousseau, V.L. Eaton, Gino Simi, and Dr. Chase, trounced Consultants I.S. Turover, D.H. Mugridge, L.N. Ponce, C.W. Stark, J. Irving Belt, and W.H. Mutchler in a farewell game staged last week at Turover's residence. Details of the score will appear next Sunday."
[The game did appear in the next week's column, but gone was the verb regarding its outcome. Rather than "trounced," the game was "left unfinished," in the words of its annotator, I.S. Turover – who, one obviously notes, was the leader of Lasker's consultation team's opponents. And that team included Mutchler, the Post's chess columnist. Readers were encouraged to submit comments regarding the final position. The question mark following "Washington, D.C.," in the game header below is for a questioned that couldn't be answered conclusively for purposes of this column: whether Turover lived in Washington, D.C., or in one of its suburbs, at the time the game was contested at his residence. In addition, Mutchler's "last week" reference in his February 6 column leaves open the possibility the game was actually contested at the end of January. The game that follows is not in Ken Whyld's extensive compilation of Lasker's games, nor is it readily found in other sources.]
E. Lasker, W.K. Wimsatt, Sr., H.A. Rousseau, V.L. Eaton, Gino Simi,
Dr. William Chase – I.S. Turover, D.H. Mugridge, L.N. Ponce, C.W. Stark,
J. Irving Bell, and W.H. Mutchler [B17]
The score of the much discussed consultation game in which Dr. Lasker participated at I.S. Turover's residence appears below. Readers are asked to analyze the final position and submit comments. 1.e4 c6 2.Nf3 d5 3.Nc3 dxe4 4.Nxe4 Nd7 Deviating from the customary 4...Nf6, which gives a majority of pawns on the queenside after 5.Nxf6+ exf6 (5...gxf6 is met by 6.g3 and later Bg2, with a good game for white.) 5.Bc4 Cleverly played, and preventing Black's normal development for some few moves – besides quietly setting some traps. 5...Ngf6 6.Neg5 Nd5 Practically forced. The alternative, 6...e6, besides shutting in the Queen's bishop, is refuted by 7.Bxe6 fxe6 8.Nxe6 Qb6 (if 8...Qe7 9.0-0) 9.Qe2 with definite advantage. 7.d4 h6 8.Ne4 N7b6 9.Bb3 Bf5 At last Black has accomplished one of the major objectives of the Caro-Kann, the proper (?) development of the queen bishop. 10.Ng3 Bh7 11.0-0 e6 12.Ne5 Be7 13.Qg4 Initiating a powerful kingside attack, and preventing Black's castling. 13...Bf6 14.Nh5 Rg8 15.Re1 Qe7 16.c4 Nb4 Deciding to sacrifice a pawn in order to get some counterplay. 17.a3 Nc2 18.Bxc2 Bxc2 19.Bxh6 0-0-0 20.Be3 Bf5 Black cannot win the c-pawn by ...Bxe5, etc., for White gains the a-pawn in all variations due to the opening of the bishop's diagonal. Black therefore tries a more subtle maneuver. 21.Qg3 Forced. If 21.Qf3 Bxe5 22.dxe5 Qh4 with a strong game. 21...Bh4 22.Qf3 f6
23.Nxc6 Forced – but ingenious, and undoubtedly long planned by White. With three pawns for the sacrificed piece, White should at least draw, but with Black in time difficulties the chances in over-the-board play are all in White's favor – and luck is usually with the courageous. So it proves. [23.c5 Nd5 24.Nc4 is an interesting alternative. – jsh] 23...bxc6 24.Qxc6+ Qc7 25.Qb5
25...Qd7 Black here goes astray. 25...Rh8 would have forced the exchange of Queens with at least an even game. Note some of the interesting possibilities: 26.Qa6+ a) 26.Ng3 Bxg3 27.fxg3 g5 gives black the initiative and perhaps a won game.; b) 26.Nf4 loses quickly after 26...g5 27.Ne2 Qxh2+ 28.Kf1 (28.Kxh2 Bxf2 mate) 28...Bd3 wins.; 26...Qb7 27.Qxb7+ Kxb7 28.Nxg7 Nxc4 29.Nxf5 with the three pawns compensating for the knight. 26.Qb4 Qa4 Under time pressure Black is trying to simplify by exchanging Queens, but the move is decidedly weak. 27.b3 Relatively less decisive than 27.c5, which wins another pawn after the exchange of Queens. 27...Qxb4 28.axb4 Kb7 28...Kb8 was probably better due to White's eventual threat of Nf4, but Black is already at a loss for a satisfactory continuation. 29.Nf4 Bg5 30.Ne2 Bxe3 31.fxe3 e5 Trying to gain equality by giving back the piece but, during the excitement of completing the necessary 36 moves overlooking White's crushing 34.e4. 32.d5 Nxd5 33.cxd5
33...Rxd5 The final and decisive error. 33...Be4 still afforded black some fighting chances. The text loses a piece and with it probably the game. 34.e4 Bxe4 35.Nc3 Bxg2 36.Kxg2 Rd2+
Left unfinished. The position offers difficulties and, while perhaps a theoretical win for White, Black's chances of drawing in practical play are by no means poor. [Washington Post, February 13, 1938; annotations by I.S. Turover.]
Thus ended Lasker's brief time in Washington, D.C. As with any appearance by a grand elder statesman of chess, Lasker's visit brought with it a new glitter to the local chess scene, with larger crowds, more interesting games, and even more residual publicity, as very soon thereafter the first Washington, D.C., radio coverage of a local chess match was reported.
Copyright © 2014 by John S. Hilbert
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Olimpiu G. Urcan is the author of Arthur Kaufmann: A Chess Biography, 1872-1938 (2012) and other books by McFarland Inc. Publishers. Follow his chess history updates on Twitter: @OlimpiuUrcan.
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