Sunday, September 28, 2008

Hastings 1895: Emanuel Lasker, the Game Theorist

At age 26, he came to Hastings at was supposed to be the height of his climb to world champion status having defeated Wilhelm Steinitz convincingly in 1894 in a series of matches in New York, Philadelphia and Montreal. The prize fund of that match was reduced form 5000 to 2000. Steinitz had the money but as a gentleman agreed to the lesser since the young Mathematician (teaching at Tulane University in New Orleans) had trouble raising the funds.

After being titled the 2nd world champion as result of the matches in 1894, it was expected he would rule Hastings. One of the rumors explaining his third place finish was that he was also recovering from Typhoid fever. The book mentions his health in the biographies.

At the age of 11 he was sent to Berlin to study mathematics, where he lived with his brother Berthold (shown in picture on left), eight years his senior, who taught him how to play chess. Berthold shows up in some competitions in the early 1880’s and 1890’s as a strong player for his time.

In 1895 Lasker published two mathematical articles in Nature on convergent series which later formed the basis for some fundamental elements in modern algebra and geometric algebra ( known as the Lasker-Noether Theorem after a further refinement),. He later got his doctorate in mathematics. His attempt to create a general theory of all competitive activities had some influence on von Neumann's work on game theory.

Some claim that Lasker played his opponent as well as he played the board as he brought in the psychological element to the game. In round three, he had black against the draw master, Schlecter. Perhaps the style of play, where by move 8, with the exception of a knight already exchanged, he still had all his pieces on the back rank, was ploy to through the draw master off his guard since Carl was known to go for early piece exchanges.

Instead, Lasker forms a tight pawn formation in the center and plays for the long term goal. One last dig in the end has Schlechter offering his rook in an attempt to pull off a perpetual check. Lasker sees through this and continues the march of the penguins right down the middle. Historically, later in 1910, these two are in a heated match deciding the world championship. Schlechter's decision to play for a win in the 10th game, when he could have forced a draw quite easily and thus won the match. Some commentators have argued that there was a secret clause that required Schlechter to have a 2-game lead in order to claim victory.

At Hastings, Round 9 had the match against former world champion Wilhem Steinitz. Having defeated him in 1894 in a match, this game is a game to watch because of the sacrifices that Lasker tosses to break open the game. Knowing his older “positional modern theorist” plays a central game with limited opening moves and central control, the contemporary Lasker, seemed to have an insight to closed positions and plays his queen knight over to the king side which caused for negative commentary from independent analysis in the book. Perhaps, again, using the psychological element ( which he flat out denies BTW) he plays the seemingly unpractical moves only to open the game up later with a sacrifice ( move 25. Nxe5!) to give him initiative for a king side attack. This initiative is later turned into a material advantage with strategical long term goals. One last rook sacrifice and he wins the game.

Pillsbury in round 12 tries to throw off the second world champion with an unknown ( at the time) financhetto defense of the Ruy Lopez. Pillsbury, actually seems to come out of the middle game with a central pawn advantage but Lasker is allowed counterplay on the queenside. The endgame becomes a day at the races as both sides sprint their respective passed pawns for the win. The exception is that Pillsbury rook is now misplaced and can’t come into active play in time. ( another game to watch).


Lasker goes on to gets his doctorate in Mathematics at the turn of last century, while still ruling the chess championship world for 27 years. His academic and chess contributions leaves a legacy in class rooms and chess clubs throughout the world. Lasker was shocked by the poverty in which Steinitz died and did not intend to die in similar circumstances. He became notorious for demanding high fees for playing matches and tournaments, and he argued that players should own the copyright in their games rather than let publishers get all the profits. He published his last book, The Community of the Future, in which he proposed solutions for serious political problems, including anti-Semitism and unemployment. He died of a kidney infection in New York on January 11, 1941, at the age of 72, as a charity patient at Mount Sinai Hospital.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Professor Blunder

With only three more in my Hastings 1895 series ( Lasker, Chigoran, and Pillsbury) I regret to inform my readers that the frequency of updates will be sporadic at best.

A while back, I inquired at a nearby college about being an adjunct professor for an evening class since I had a prior professional relationship as well as being an Alumni when I was going for my undergraduate degree. I got a call Monday to ask if I could jump in for Wednesday due to the previous Professor bailing on them. Talk about trial by fire! I had 2 days to prepare a class without the book! I have the book now and the class went great as if there was never a gap ( I came in week 2 and picked up where the other left off).
Long story short, my teaching an evening electrical engineering course is taking me away from chess at the club during the semester. I do plan on completing my Hastings series but be patient as the posts will be less frequent ( as well as posting comments on my fellow blogger's sites).

The good news is that it's a paying gig... and pays more than chess... which in my case...isn't saying all that much.

Thanks for your patronage and interest in this site. I'll be back.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Hastings 1895: Dr. Seigbert Tarrasch , The Architect of Modern Chess

Note: To ease the viewing of the games, I created single post games at linked in this post.

Tarrasch’s rule: “ Rooks belong behind passed pawns.”

It isn’t that uncanny that he placed 4th at Hastings just ahead of Wilhelm Steinitz. In their long 72 move game , these two positional players of the modern era were well matched. Tarrasch was Steinitz’s contemporary and was able to finally edge his way to a win with patience and tenacity over his predecessor who was almost twice his age.

Dr. Seigbert Tarrasch, a medical doctor in practice, was a very influential chess writer who wrote several books, including Die moderne Schachpartie ( the Modern Chess) and Three hundred chess games. Although his teachings became famous throughout the chess world, until recently his books had not been translated into English.

In the 1890’s, Modern Chess took some of Wilhelm Steinitz's ideas (e.g., control of the center, bishop pair, space advantage) and made them more accessible to the average chess player. He wrote rather dogmatically about the game making it more like formula. In other areas he departed from Steinitz. He emphasized piece mobility much more than Steinitz did, and disliked cramped positions, saying that they "had the germ of defeat."

One of the little known facts about Tarrasch is his revelation of the importance of pattern recognition, 50 years before DeGroot published his studies and 100 years before Michael De La Maza’s Circle training ( launching the “cult” of the knights errant).

“ A thorough understanding of the typical mating combinations makes the most
complicated sacrificial combinations leading up to them not only not difficult,
but almost a matter of course” - Tarrasch

One of Tarrasch’s most famous combinations comes out of his round 4 victory over Walbrodt. The position below follows after move 33… Nh5.

Tarrash’s position isn’t all that great as he’s facing a battery of rooks, Bishops and Knights precipitating down on the king side like a hurricane with its eye, the queen on e5 approaching rapidly.

So he finds a way out by offering his rook first by 34. Rxd4 Nxg3 35. Nxg3, Rxg3+ 36. hxg3, Rxg3+ 37. Kf1 Rxd3 38 Rg4 and there is no stopping mate.

Against Blackburne in round 16, the position below is after he plays 27.Rxh6! Both his rook and Bishop are hanging in the position but it is too much for the Drunken Master.

Tarrasch had opportunities to become world champion in the late 1880’s and early part of the 1890’s often time getting invited to play such rivals like Steinitz and Lasker. He declined the offers because of the demands of his medical practice only to be second fiddle to Lasker over the next few decades. At Hastings he managed to defeat Lasker in an endgame with Knight versus Bishop ending that Lasker takes a misstep with an advanced pawn allowing Tarrasch to sacrifice his knight but then march his connected passed pawns to a win.

His dogmatic approach to the game was probably overstated. Rather, following the romanticism of the Anderssen and Morphy era of chess, he provided an antidote that augmented Steinitz’s Positional ideas marked with new concepts of piece mobility and control of the center not only through direct occupation but through long distance influences. Some say that his ideas was what sparked the Hypermodern movement. I think, if anything it laid the ground work for the next generation of players. Whether it was an IQP position played with precision against Janowski, or a more hypermodern control of the center against Steinitz, his ideas were refreshingly effective and timely.
He scored a total of 14 points at this event with defeating 12 : Lasker, Steinitz, Schiffers, BlackBurne, Wlabrodt, Burn, Janowski, Bird, Albin, Marco, Tinsley and Vergani ( most of the lower half) with draws against 4: Bardeleben, Schlecter( but most everyone drew against him), Gunsberg and Meises.

In 1908 he was asked for a match against Lasker. The story goes that when they were introduced at the opening of their 1908 championship match, Tarrasch clicked his heels, bowed stiffly, and said, "To you, Dr. Lasker, I have only three words, check and mate" - then left the room. Lasker did beat him decidedly with 8 wins, 3 losses and 5 draws.

His "swan song" event was probably Saint Petersburg 1914 where he placed 4th again but it earned him the title of grandmaster when Czar Nicholas was granting the original titles to Capablanca, Lasker and Alekhine in addition to Tarrasch.

Not that I am obsessed with "the tragic lives of chess players, however I will mention that Tarrasch had three sons. One of his sons, Fritz, died in the First World War. He died on May 14, 1915. He was a Lieutenant in the 15th Bavarian reserve infantry regiment. Tarrasch's second son committed suicide. Tarrasch's 3rd son was run over by a train in Munich in 1916 and died. This probably explains why he pretty much dropped out of chess after 1914.

His last chess book, Das Schachspiel was published in 1931. In 1932 he published his own chess magazine, the Tarraschs Schachzeitung. He published his magazine the last 18 months of his life. He died on February 17, 1934 in Munich at the age of 71.
Seigbert Tarrasch March 5, 1862 -February 17, 1834

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Hastings 1895: Wilhelm Steinitz, Father of Positional Play

Wilhelm Steinitz was a 59 year old veteran at Hastings placing fifth in a field of 22 top contenders. Much has been written about this Austrian born chess player who later was an early Architect for the American Chess Congress that Frank Marshall later became known for.

After reviewing most of his wins, I wanted to label him either “Rumplestiltskin”, King Midas, or simply “the Alchemist” for his ability to turn crappy positions to wins or draws.

For instance, in a game against Teichman, which I mentioned previously and thanks for your patience, ( 3rd game down in this post ) , Steinitz is behind 2 pawns in this endgame and he manages to successfully force a draw against a tough tactician.

Teichman has to block with the rook in which case, Black ( Steinitz) moves Rb2.

In the game against Chigoran ( Game of the week with an Evan’s Gambit) , he has a lousy position in the middle game. We all have experienced that at some point in our chess career, I’m sure. As Black In the position here:

He plays 20…Qb5 and offers a Q exchange knowing that White will further reduce the forces by a series of exchanges. Ultimately this works for Steinitz, he does have a couple extra pawns for compensation of a weak and cramped queen side. Chigoran knows that the dual bishops will win over the dual Knights. After exchanging queens and a knight for a bishop, Chigoran still has a knight fork if he continues the exchange. But Wilhelm Steinitz sees through all this and places his bets on the imbalanced 2R versus R+B+2P endgame which he wins effortlessly.

Back in a day, he was labeled the first World Champion. Steinitz won every serious match he played from 1862 until 1892 inclusive, sometimes by wide margins. In the period of 1862 -1872 he played in the “Romantic” attack-at-all-costs style of play like Anderssen and Morphy.
It was after that period where he developed a more positional style which debuted in the 1873 Vienna tournament and was to become the basis of modern chess. His style of play later became the cornerstone of the turn of the last century and promted a new era several decades later known as Hypermodern. This is why I found "father of positional play" more of a fitting label in the title.

Sure enough, his games in this match were mostly positional in style, but his handling of Classic Evan’s gambits against Gunsberg had him showing his Romantic roots blended with his positional style rather nicely while keeping the game closed and held on to the pawn until his opponent cracked and dropped a piece. With Blackburne ( drunken master) trying to throw a King’s Gambit at him, he goes for rapid development and attacks at two weaknesses.

He gets the first Brilliancy prize for his game against Von Berdeleben in this CT-ART like position with a double attack and a “take my rook, please” series of moves that followed. ( Ok another game to watch posted in part 1 here )

He died in 1900, in poverty. He was not one to manage his finances wisesly depite being World champion, chess writer and architect of the modern era of positional play. Rather he was a man of honor, and willing to play for a title for no fee at all because of his passion for this game. It’s truly sad that such genious ( and many in that period) ended their lives in such disposition to their status in the chess world.

At least he is post humously honored in Praque at his place of birth.