A review of Why Lasker Matters by Andrew Soltis

Yet surely the chief reason, the darkest cloud obscuring Lasker’s greatness, is to be found in the myths concerning his play. It has been said that he would deliberately play “bad” moves to unbalance the position in a game, that he used “psychology” and played the man rather than the board; also, that he won because he was just lucky! (And he was consistently lucky, over a period of about half a century.)

 

Reviewed by Paul Kane

Why Lasker Matters
by Andrew Soltis
Batsford
ISBN: 0713489839, February 2006, 288 pages

Emanuel Lasker was world chess champion for a period of twenty seven years, the longest reign in the history of the game. He won the world title in 1894, defeating the aged eagle Wilhelm Steinitz in a grueling match, and lost it in 1921 to the Cuban genius Jose Raul Capablanca. But even after this defeat he continued to have major, notable successes. At the extremely strong tournament held in New York in 1924, Lasker finished first, ahead of Capablanca and his future challenger (and the future world champion) Alexander Alekhine.

Lasker was probably the most successful chess player of all time, yet few consider him to have been the greatest. Bobby Fischer and, latterly, Garry Kasparov have usually garnered that accolade. What are the reasons for this? One reason may simply be historical myopia: Kasparov is our contemporary and his great achievements are plain to see. Another reason might be Lasker’s imagined infidelity toward the game. Chess was not his sole consuming passion, nor Caissa his only mistress. Lasker was a mathematician (receiving his doctorate in mathematics in 1902) and philosopher, a teacher and writer. He spent many years away from chess and played hardly at all during certain periods of his life. Yet surely the chief reason, the darkest cloud obscuring Lasker’s greatness, is to be found in the myths concerning his play. It has been said that he would deliberately play “bad” moves to unbalance the position in a game, that he used “psychology” and played the man rather than the board; also, that he won because he was just lucky! (And he was consistently lucky, over a period of about half a century.) His games, if these myths are to be accepted at face value, are unlikely to appeal to the chess purist.

In Why Lasker Matters Andrew Soltis sets out to debunk these myths, and he does this by examining the games: for the evidence for and against, the traces of Lasker’s thought, is to be found therein. His book contains 100 annotated games, covering a period of forty seven years (1889-1936), and includes heavyweight clashes with the greatest players of Lasker’s age (Steinitz, Tarrasch, Marshall, Capablanca, etc.) as well as instructive victories over a few lesser lights. At least half of these games are classics. Among my favourites are the rook sacrifice played against Pillsbury at St. Petersburg in 1895-1896, a sacrifice that introduces “the finest combination ever played on a chessboard” according to Amos Burn; the subtle, positional victory over Tartakower at St. Petersburg in 1909: from a seemingly equal position Lasker ineluctably goes on to dominate the centre and the whites squares; the defeat of Capablanca at the close of the St. Petersburg tournament of 1914; finally, the defeat of Pirc at Moscow in 1935, a game featuring a then innovative rook sacrifice in the Sicilian Defense. Overall, these are outstanding games that are full of fight and imbued with subtle strategic ideas.

Soltis is a good annotator, an amicable and occasionally humourous companion. His analyses seem sound and he gives good, perspicacious explanations of the play, making good use of contemporaneous sources. Along the way he gives a summation and portrait of Lasker as player and thinker.

Lasker was a supreme pragmatist. Although he founded no school, his play influenced many (among them Aron Nimzowitsch, whose notion of “heroic defence” undoubtedly derives from Lasker). He was neither as dogmatic as the classicists (like Siegbert Tarrasch) nor as flighty and unrealistic as many of the Hypermoderns. Both were in a sense too one-dimensional for Lasker, for his theorizing was always rooted in the struggle of the game itself. Chess is a fight; it requires thought, but this thinking cannot be divorced from competition. He remarks somewhere in Lasker’s Chess Manual (1932) that the most profound ideas come out of conflict; and this was a typical notion for him. It was his belief that any position, no matter how bad or dubious, will have resources that when found, will allow you to resist the opponent. And the very act of seeking, no matter what the fruits of that search, will empower you to battle on. He wrote once that “he who sees much, can endure much.” This stoic aphorism sums up Lasker’s whole approach to chess, and perhaps to life too.

Since Lasker didn’t believe that chess could be reduced to rules, he was never a slave to general principles. And he had great practical strengths as a player. He had a highly developed sense of danger: often he’d find himself slipping into a bad position and would create complications before it became apparent to opponent. He had courage and took calculated risks. Most of all, he had an awareness of human fallibility and factored this into his play; he allowed for the probability that both he and his opponent would make mistakes, be subject to fear and doubt, over-optimism and wish fulfillment.
This is a successful book: Andrew Soltis is able to demonstrate why Emanuel Lasker matters for today’s chess players; and he shows us some superb games along the way. His considered reappraisal of the games gives us a renewed appreciation of this great player.

The book has a few minor drawbacks. It lacks a proper contents page (which would have been useful), Lasker’s tournament and match record is absent and there is no bibliography of his writings on chess. A consideration of these, especially Common Sense in Chess (1896) – and as in life, it’s not as common as you think, as my mum was wont to say – and Lasker’s Chess Manual (1932) would have been helpful in making Lasker’s ideas more accessible. The manual, in particular, is in parts a fine explanation and interpretation of Steinitz’s theories.

Soltis’ final conclusion is worth noting: “It used to be said that Lasker, unlike his contemporaries, founded no school of thought. But we’re all his students.” Indeed. In the Wild West that is modern chess, pragmatism is an approach whose time has come.

About the reviewer: Paul Kane lives and works in Manchester, England. He welcomes responses to his reviews and can be contacted at pkane853@yahoo.co.uk

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