Emanuel Lasker, Longest-Reigning World Chess Champion
Two long-dead candidates’ names continue to stir discussion. One is American Paul Morphy (1837-84), who never was awarded the stature many believe he deserved.
The other is Emanuel Lasker, the German who held the official world championship much longer than any other player in history.
Lasker’s Emergence as a Leading Chess Challenger
Lasker was born 24 December, 1868 in Berlinchen, Germany (then Prussia). As a child, he learned chess from his older brother Berthold, one of the best players in Germany.
At college, Emanuel studied mathematics and philosophy; his algebraic research ultimately would earn him a doctoral degree.
By age 20, he was making a name for himself (and earning a small income on bets) at chess tournaments in his homeland.
He became a professional player in 1890 and rose to international prominence by his performances at major events in mainland Europe, England and the United States.
He was undefeated (13-0), a rare achievement in master chess, at a New York tournament in 1893. Lasker advanced in challenge matches against noted masters and founded a twice-monthly chess magazine in London.
Lasker Wins the World Chess Championship
In 1894, he challenged Wilhelm Steinitz for the world championship. Steinitz had won the title in 1886 and successfully defended it twice.
As in earlier world championship matches, the 1894 affair was played in multiple cities—this time, beginning in New York and proceeding to Philadelphia and Montreal. Ten game victories were required to win the match.
Play was even through the first six games. Lasker then won five in succession, and Steinitz was unable to recover. The final score was Lasker 10, Steinitz 5, with 4 draws.
In an 1896 rematch, Lasker effectively vanquished Steinitz from title contention, winning 10-2 with 5 draws.
Lasker's Quarter Century as Chess Champion
Lasker retained the championship for the next 25 years—though it should be observed that World War I (1914-18) severely curtailed professional chess play; no world championship match was organized between 1911 and 1920.
In the first decade of the century, he defended his title against Frank J. Marshall, Siegbert Tarrasch, David Janowski and Carl Schlecter (the latter by a single game in 1910).
During his tenure as champion, Lasker was busy with other interests. He wrote articles and books on chess, mathematics and philosophy; founded and edited chess magazines; and lectured at several universities.
Just as Lasker had become Steinitz’ redoubtable young antagonist in 1894, an exceptional young player of the new century began to challenge Lasker. José Raoul Capablanca had become the Cuban chess champion in 1900 at age 12.
Later, while a diplomatic attaché in Europe, he gave frequent simultaneous exhibitions and stood his ground in games against many of the leading masters of the early 20th Century.
Lasker had defeated Capablanca in tournaments, but by 1920, he was ready to step down. He resigned his title. Capablanca persuaded him to engage in an official match for the championship—for a substantial monetary incentive.
The event was staged in Havanna in Spring 1921. Lasker failed to win a game and resigned the match after scoring 0-4, with 10 draws.
Lasker’s Chess Comeback & Later Life
Despite relinquishing the championship, Lasker continued to be a major tournament contender until he was almost 70. He spent his last years mainly writing and lecturing. He died 13 January 1941 in New York.
Harry Golombek, one-time British chess champion and noted historian, called Lasker “the most successful chess-master of all time.” Chess columnist Heinrich Fraenkel (“Assiac”) said he was “the greatest of them all.”