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.


Anonymous said...

Wonderfull written! Yes, emanuel was a great player. Do you know how many matches he played for the worldchampionship during his 27 year regime?

Where are the times that one may smoke at the board. All pictures i have seen of Berthold was with either a sigar or sigaret at the board.

Polly said...

Blunder: Excellent post as usual. It's making me want to go and look at some of these games.

Tiger: When I first statrted playing in 1972 smoking was permitted at most tournaments. By the late 70s it was banned from the playing hall. As a non-smoker it was a wonderful change in the conditions. I never had opponents who would blow smoke in my face, but the overall unpleasant smell made it tough to concentrate at times.

transformation said...

i was jut thinking last night (i am not joking) that BDK needed to be renominated for the chessBlogging Oscar in January, like last year, but you and he are neck and neck. fabulous. you inspire us all. warmest, dk

Dennis said...

Great post! Can you imagine being sent away at age 11 to study math? I have a 10 year old who has a hard time just finishing his homework, LOL.

Anonymous said...

One of the rumors explaining his third place finish was that his facial hair was not as full or rich as many of his opponents.


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Anonymous said...

Are you going to the National Chess Congress?