In general, when one asks what any World Champion’s strengths were/are, it’s fairly easy to give a somewhat educated answer. Steinitz: the first master of positional chess. Alekhine: dynamic, combinative genius. Capablanca: endgame mastery and positional elegance. Tal: attack and tactics. Lasker: endgame mastery, the first chess psychologist. But... when discussing Lasker, is that the whole story?
[Warning! Emanuel Lasker is my favorite chess player, so I’m going to lay it on a bit thick!]
- Was Emanuel Lasker really that good at the endgame? Yes. In fact, he’s easily in the list of the top five best endgame players ever.
- Chess psychology… what does that mean? Lasker saw chess as a fight, and he entered that fight without any fear whatsoever. He knew how to turn up the heat, and where other players would crack, he would stand tall and, invariably, come out the victor.
- And let’s not forget his defensive prowess. Where nobody (back then or now) was Lasker’s superior in the endgame, he’s (in my opinion) the greatest defensive player ever. Simply put, he saved positions that even the greatest modern players wouldn’t have been able to save.
Those amazing attributes alone might explain why he retained the World Championship for an outrageous 27 years! But what if I told you that he had another specific chess talent, one that was just as pronounced as his massive endgame skills? Lasker had the ability to calculate extremely deeply, and he had an imagination that led to him seeing things that others would never find. This means that he was able to come up with delightful combinations, just like all the other great tacticians.
But he also used this talent to find defenses that no human would even think of. He used this talent to create chaotic tactical tidal waves (like Tal did), which drowned one opponent after another. He used this talent to find endgame ideas that are well known now, but had never been seen before he found them over the board! And he used this talent to create defensive setups that even modern computers are incapable of seeing.
I could give examples of all these things, but we’ll keep it simple and just concentrate on his use of basic tactics.
The following double bishop sacrifice had never been seen before Lasker played it in this game.
Of course, it’s very important to understand that tactics aren’t just used for mating attacks. Tactics also allow positional ideas to come to fruition and make technical endgames far easier to play. Here are two examples:
By threatening both the d8-rook and c5-pawn White hopes to get three pawns for the lost piece. However, Lasker (and his two partners) show that this is just wishful thinking on White’s part.
In our next position, Lasker (who was 66 years old at this point!) understood that a pedestrian move like 34...R2d4 wouldn’t give him anything after 35.Ne4 Qh5 36.Qe2=. So he came up with the idea of sacrificing his queen for a rook, knight and pawn. At that time, such a sacrifice was unheard of, but (like the double bishop sacrifice) it became normal after this game.
This game is all the more impressive when you realize that his opponent, Max Euwe, took the World Championship from Alekhine one year later!
Let’s enjoy a few more Lasker tactics in puzzle form. I’ve only used puzzles from the early part of his career. Perhaps I’ll use later ones in a future article!?
Please remember that I’ve loaded many puzzles with analysis and prose, so after you try and solve a puzzle click “solution” and then “move list” so you can enjoy the behind the scenes stuff.
White to move and mate in 6
Okay, this one is a bit different since I'm highlighting a possible variation (with Lasker's side losing) that lower rated players will enjoy. I also give the real game, and also best play for both sides showing how Lasker would have created maximum chaos in an effort to save a bad position. (Since Lasker won, the chaos must have worked!)
White’s winning easily, but a tactic puts Black away in the shortest amount of time.