Lessons from Lasker

Peter Lane, 30 October 1997

Dr. Emanuel Lasker was not only World Champion for 27 years from 1894 to 1921, but was also one of the great thinkers of the game. He introduced and regularly used many strategical concepts decades before Nimzowitsch's formulations in `My System' and `Chess Praxis'. He is known as one of the great fighters, and, in his games, we see no attachment to dogma or `correctness'; the point of a game is to win. I imagine Simon Webb of `Chess for Tigers' learnt a lot from Lasker.

In particular, club players can learn from Lasker's approach to each individual move. Often Lasker seemed less concerned with the objective evaluation of a move, and more with the competitive edge it would give him. His skill in defense is reflected in the attitude: `a position can never be so bad as not to offer some means of defense'. Further, he stressed the importance of success in the final rounds in a tournament, when the prizes are decided.

How does Lasker win games? If his opponent made bad opening mistakes, he would gain an advantage and move over to the attack. If a weakness was created, he would fix a hold on that weakness, create a second weakness, and then force a breakthrough. Against passive play, he would work out a blockade of his opponent's aggressive possibilities, and then force his own attack through. With strong players he would create an ever-widening front of conflict, encouraging his opponent to think of winning, but also opening the possibility that the point could go either way. These four `winning strategems' are demonstrated in the four games below.

The games here are taken from Fred Reinfeld and Reuben Fine `Lasker's Greatest Chess Games : 1889-1914'. I initially found the games heavy going, intricate in their strategy. Of help is Nimzowitsch's `Chess Praxis', which explains in detail many of the strategic themes.


1. Attack from Strength

W.Steinitz vs Dr E.Lasker (London, 1899, Vienna Game)

`The player who has the advantage must willy-nilly go over to the attack. ... when you have an advantage you must of necessity attack.'
STEINITZ

In this game against Steinitz, we see Lasker build up a superior position due to opening errors by his opponent. From this position of strength, according to Steinitz, an attack must be made; and Lasker dutifully does so.

1.e4 e5 2.Nc3 Nf6 3.f4 d5 4.d3 Nc6

Steinitz liked this line (4.d3), but did badly with it in later years. The most common response was 4:...d4.

5.fxe5 Nxe5 6.d4 Ng6 7.exd5 Nxd5 8.Nxd5?

This wastes time: 7.e5 Ne4 8.Bd3 Nxc3 9.bxc3 or 8.Bc4 Nxc3 9.bxc3 Qh4+ 10.g3 Qe4+ 11.Qe2 are both fairly even.

8. ... Qxd5 9.Nf3 Bg4 10.Be2 O-O-O 11.c3?

11.O-O Bxf3 12.Rxf3! preserved the balance

11. ... Bd6 12.O-O Rhe8

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Black has a model development, and white now has problems on the queen-side. For example, if 13.c4 Qe6 14.Bd3 Nf4 15.Bxf4 Bxf4 leaves the centre weak. White now tries to force back the black pieces and gain some initiative on the king-side, based on the f-file, but his lack of development and central control give Lasker the chance for a surprise combination.

13.h3 Bd7 14.Ng5 Nh4! 15.Nf3

For a moment white's prospects brightened, but if 15.Rf2 Bg3, or 15.Bf3 Nxf3+ 16.Nxf3 Bb5 17.Re1 Bg3; 16.Qxf3 Qxf3 17.Rxf3 Re1+ 18.Rf1 Rde8 19.Bd2 Rxa1 20.Rxa1 Re2 21.Rd1 Bc6 22.Nf3 f6 with advantage to black because of his two bishops and piece pressure. This last line is a good illustration of the possibilities a centralised development can make available.

But now white has wasted several moves and weakened his king-side, which allows Lasker a decisive combination:

15. ... Nxg2! 16.Kxg2 Bxh3+!! 17.Kf2

17.Kxh3 allows Qf5+ 18.Kg2 Qg4+ 19.Kh1 Qh3+ 20.Kg1 Qg3+ 21.Kh1 Re4 27.Bg5 Rg4 23.Rg1 Qh3+ 24.Nh2 Qxh2 'mate.

17. ... f6!!

Not content with taking the rook, Lasker threatens to simply move some pawns up the king-side. This calm approach to winning is very frustrating for the opponent: `whatever you do, I'm going to get you'.

18.Rg1 g5 19.Bxg5 fxg5 20.Rxg5 Qe6

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White has returned his extra material, but the Black position is still centralised, and the white king position is unsafe.

21.Qd3 Bf4 22.Rh1

If instead 22.Rh5 Qg4; 22.Rg7 Bf5 23.Qb5 Qe3+ 24.Ke1 Qxf3 etc.

22. ... Bxg5 23.Nxg5 Qf6+ 24.Bf3 Bf5 25.Nxh7 Qg6 26.Qb5

A last-ditch attempt at complications, but such `attacks' (from a worse position) are doomed to failure even by Steinitz's theories.

26. ... c6 27.Qa5 Re7! 28.Rh5

If 28.Qxa7 Rg8 29.Qa8+ Kc7 30.Qa5+ Kb8 and wins.

28. ... Bg4 29.Rg5 Qc2+ 30.Kg3 Bxf3 0-1

An attractive game, showing the effect simple development has against opening errors. The combination followed simply from superior coordination. Noteworthy is Lasker's willingness to maintain his positional edge based on a centralised development.


2. Accumulating Advantages

A.Burn vs Dr E.Lasker (Paris 1900, Queen's Gambit Declined)

This game shows how to exploit a single weakness in the opponent's position.

1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Nf3 c5 5.cxd5 cxd4

We call this Tarrasch's Defense now, 5:...Nxd5 6.e4 Nxc3 7.bxc3 cxd4 8.cxd4 is the semi-Tarrasch; or 6.Nxd5 Qxd5 7.Be3! Na6 8.g3 cxd4 was equal in Kashdan-Alekhin (Folkestone, 1933).

6.Qxd4

Instead 6.Qa4+ Bd7 (Qd7 7.dxe6) 7.Qxd4 exd5 8.Nxd5 wins a pawn for white. This is the Tarrasch Gambit, dangerous against weak defenders, as black gains a strong development edge.

6:...Nxd5 7.e4 Nxc3 8.Qxd8+ Kxd8 9.bxc3 Bc5

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Burn was obviously playing for a draw, and was therefore happy to exchange queens, even at the cost of his Q-side pawn structure. Instead, 7.Nxd5 Qxd5 8.Qxd5 exd5 9.Be3 allows white to gang up on the isolated queen pawn. In order to gain half a point, it is usually the case that you have to first play for the full point!

10.Ne5 Ke7!

Black avoids 10:...Ke8 11.Bb5+ Nd7 12.Ke2 a6 13.Bxd7+ Bxd7 14.Nxd7 Kxd7 15.Be3! either removing the bishops, when a draw is likely, or posting the bishop well for attack and defense.

This typical precision from Lasker prompts white to further entangle himself.

Instead, more secure was, 10.Nd4 Ke7 11.Be3 etc.

11.Nd3 Bb6 12.Ba3+ Ke8 13.Ne5 Nd7 14.Bb5

If 14.Nc4 Bc5 15.Nd6+ Ke7 16.Bxc5 Nxc5 17.e5 Bd7 when black's pawns are still better, though the Nd6 prevents Rc8. White prefers to look for further exchanges.

14:...Bc7! 15.Nd3

The difference is in the bishops. If instead 15.Bxd7+ Bxd7 16.Nxd7 Kxd7-c6 and black has much the better ending.

White's pieces are now pushed away.

15:...a6 16.Ba4 b5 17.Bb3 Bb7 18.f3 Rc8! 19.Kd2

Impossible is 19.c4 bxc4 20.Bxc4 Ba5+, and so c3 is fixed as a weakness.

19:...a5 20.Rab1 Bc6 21.Bc2

White retreats voluntarily before the planned ...Nb6...a4...Nc4+, but thereby allows black to organise his king-side attack.

21:...f6 22.g3?

To develop the king's rook, but this is a further weakening. Best is 22.Nc5 Nb6 23.Bd3 or 22:...Nxc5 23.Bxc5 Bf4+ 24.Ke2 Bxe4 25.Bxe4 Rxc5 26.Rxb5! level.

22:...Kf7 23.Ke2 g5! 24.g4 h5!

One weakness leads to another. The h-pawn is again weak, but 24:...g4 had to be stopped. Now Lasker will open the king-side at his leisure, meanwhile uncovering Q-side threats. Lasker is therefore playing according to the principle of two weaknesses.

25.h3 Bb8 26.Bb2 Nb6 27.Nc5 Be8 28.Nb3 Nc4! 29.Bc1

White is forced backwards off the board, if 29.Ba1 Na3 30.Rc1 hxg4 31.fxg4 Bf4 32.Nd2 Bc6 and white runs out of moves.

29:...hxg4 30.fxg4 Be5!

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The first direct attack on the c3-pawn; it can only be defended indirectly.

31.Nd4 Bxd4 32.cxd4 Na3!

Lasker forces two extra Q-side pawns - the opposite colour bishops not being a problem with the help of the rooks.

33.Bxa3 Rxc2+ 34.Kd3 Rxa2 35.Bd6 b4 36.Rbc1 Bb5+ 37.Ke3 Kg6!

Leaves white with nothing. 37:...Rxh3 38.Rxh3 Ra3+ 39.Kf2 Rxh3 40.Rc7+ Kg6 41.Bf8 Rh7 42.Rxh7 Kxh7 is less clear, though still a win.

38.Rc5 Ra3+ 39.Kf2 Bd3 40.Re1 Rxh3 41.Rc7 Ra2+ 42.Kg1 Rh4 43.e5 Rxg4+ 44.Kh1 Be4+ 0-1

A beautifully played endgame by Lasker, patiently and methodically exploiting his opponent's errors: 6.Qxd4 and 10.Ne5 were tame, and 22.g3? weakening, but black's position looked harmless enough. It was only as Lasker uncoiled that the lack of scope in white's position became evident. In particular, c3 always looked the lame point in white's position, but the one time Lasker attacked the pawn, it managed to jump to the d-file!

Lasker built his position up gradually, starting with Burn's weak opening play, and he employed prophylaxis against c4, to paralyse white's Q-side. Added to this, he opened the h-file, enabling the use of the principle of two weaknesses. After exploiting pressure against c3 to break through, he curtailed any counterplay with 37:...Kg6, and concluded with an attack on the king!


3. Taking Control

J.H. Blackburne vs Dr E.Lasker (London 1899, Queen's Pawn Opening)

One of the more important lessons to learn when playing competitive chess is how to improve this prospects in a level position. A good player will understand which are the key squares in a position, bring his pieces into connection with them, and, if his opponent cannot counter this reorganisation, will thereby gain the advantage.

In this game, the opening finishes fairly level, but Blackburne plays without a concrete plan, and Lasker can tie up the queen-side in a restriction operation later to become classic. Having thwarted his opponent's activity, Lasker can walk down the other side of the board.

1.d4 d5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.e3 e6 4.Bd3 Nbd7 5.Nbd2 Bd6 6.e4 dxe4 7.Nxe4 b6 8.O-O Bb7 9.Nxd6+ cxd6

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This position is as level as they come: two bishops for white, the extra central pawn for black. White should perhaps try c4,b3,Bb2 to give his second bishop a good diagonal. Black might play e5 and for c-file pressure. But the position is still a little fluid, and it is very easy to drift into an inferior position.

10.Re1 O-O 11.Bg5 Qc7 12.c3 Rfe8 13.Bb5 Bc6!

To avoid the doubling of the f-pawns after Bxf6, but striking in that he should allow the exchange of this bishop.

Blackburne has managed to drift and the Bg5 seems wasted, unless exchanged on f6 the bishop reaches a bad diagonal, but perhaps he didn't expect Lasker to exchange his own lovely bishop?!

Lasker had already foreseen the weakness of the light squares d5,c4,b5, (therefore the bishop exchange) which allows him to blockade the Q-side and make the Bg5 of little effect. The following sequence of moves, binding up the Q-side, should be studied carefully (and more may be found on the subject in `Chess Praxis').

14.Bxc6 Qxc6 15.Qd3 h6 16.Bh4?

16.Bxf6 was indicated - this bishop is now useless.

16:...Rac8 17.Rad1 Nd5!

A hypermodern move - piece occupation of the centre, and not pawn to d5. Note that pieces, especially knights, have an impact forward of an outpost, whereas the pawn can only sit tight.

18.Bg3 b5 19.Nd2 N7b6 20.a3 a5 21.Rc1 a4

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Nimzowitsch would have been proud. The Q-side blockade allows Lasker the freedom to advance his majority on the other wing. White has been a bystander in the game - not comprehending, and so unable to counter, his opponent's strategy.

22.h4

A woefully late try to hold back the deluge, but the pawn merely becomes a target.

22:...f5! 23.Bh2 Qd7 24.Qg3 f4 25.Qd3 e5 26.c4?

Cannot be good, giving up e4-control. But what else? White is practically a piece down.

26:...bxc4 27.Nxc4 e4! 28.Qf1

Black wins after 28.Rxe4 Rxe4 29.Qxe4 Qb5 and 28.Nxb6 Rxc1 29.Rxc1 exd3 30.Nxd7 d2!

28:...Nxc4 29.Rxc4 Rb8 30.Rc2 Kh8!

These last two moves of Lasker's form a vital part of the winning strategy. White had ideas of playing against e4 or d5 after a rook exchange, so Lasker gains a move by forcing defense of b2, then moves his king off the critical diagonal. Qc4 is now met by Rec8.

31.Rec1 Qg4! 32.f3 Qxh4 33.fxe4 Rxe4 34.Rc8+ Rxc8 35.Rxc8+ Kh7 36.Qb1 Nf6 37.d5

Obviously carefully calculated by Lasker. If 37.Re8 d5 ... Ng4 won, but now Re8 is threatened.

37:...g6 38.Rc7+ Kh8!

Precision chess - if 38:...Kg8? the rook could not move, because of Qxg6+.

39.Rc1

Or 39.Rc8+ Kg7 40.Rc7+ Kf8 and a walk to the d-file.

39:...Re2 40.Kh1 Ng4 41.Rc8+ Kg7 42.Rc7+ Kf6 0-1

When I first played through this game, I knew it was good, but I didn't really understand it. The Q-side restraining operation is clear, I might even recognise it as an option before it turns up, and I could manage the K-side attack at the end, perhaps also cope with the white counterplay, but ... how to move from the one to the other? As I played through the game a few more times, I began to understand the `bridging' passage from moves 26-30. It reminds me of the modulation between keys in a piece of music; without the bridge, the change falls flat.

Note the calmness of the strategical player. Having transformed the restrained Q-side into a central preponderance, Lasker takes time to rearrange his pieces, counter threats, and hit at the fresh targets. If you wonder how great players preserve a slight initiative and turn it into a crushing attack, it's because they find moves like 29...Rb8 and 30...Kh8.


4. When Only a Win Will Do

Dr A.Alekhin vs Dr E.Lasker (St.Petersburg 1914, Ruy Lopez)

The finish to this tournament is one of the great stories in Lasker's career. Entering a double-round final with Alekhin, Capablanca, Tarrasch and Marshall, Lasker was a full point and a half behind Capablanca. In order to win the tournament, every game had to be played to a win. And he succeeded! How?

`The immortal Lasker playing his fourth move at St.Petersburg. Bishop takes knight, most drawish of all the variations in the Lopez, and there was Lasker needing a win but playing bishop takes knight against Capablanca. Psychological chess. Capablanca sweating away at the thought of a new wrinkle. Lasker sitting like a stone.'
from LAST ROUND by Kester Svendsen

What I think Lasker understood is that the only drawish variations are those forcing lines leading to a perpetual, all other variations preserve a balance, and enable either or both players to disturb the balance and play a full game. This is Lasker's big secret, if you like: in a balanced position he will not play the objectively best move, but will instead disturb the balance. The risk is not great, as the position is level; instead of a stand-off, we get a dynamic equilibrium. In a stand-off, it is easy to stand still, in equilibrium, you have to do a lot of work. In chess, if you don't do the necessary work, you lose. And this is what is meant by Lasker's psychological chess.

The game against Alekhin was played immediately before the one against Capablanca, but makes his winning technique far clearer.

1.e4 e4 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Bxc6 dxc6 5.Nc3 f6 6.d4 exd4 7.Qxd4

What is white up to in this opening? He has conceded the two bishops in order to double black's c-pawns. In a pawn endgame, white would win due to his extra king-side pawn, and therefore he exchanges queens.

Of course, `Before the endgame, the Gods have placed the middlegame', and black has his two bishops; furthermore, his only weakness, the queen-side pawns, is easily defended by the king after O-O-O.

7. ... Qxd4 8.Nxd4 Bd6 9.Be3 Ne7 10.O-O-O O-O

Defend the Q-side? Yes, but Lasker takes the chance of provoking Alekhin to attack - remember, Lasker must win this game!

11.Nb3 Ng6

Black must concede c5, as 11:...b6 fails to 12.Bxb6!

12.Bc5 Bf4+ 13.Kb1 Re8 14.Rhe1 b6 15.Be3 Be5 16.Bd4 Nh4 17.Rg1 Be6

A good option was 17:...g5 with a king-side bind.

18.f4! Bd6 19.Bf2 Ng6 20.f5! Bxb3 21.axb3

Better than 21.fxg6 Be6 22.gxh7+ Kh8 23.Bxb6 Bxh2 etc.

21. ... Nf8 22.Bxb6 Bxh2 23.Rh1 cxb6 24.Rxh2 b5 25.Re1 Nd7 26.Nd1 a5!

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Lasker decides to play for a Q-side attack, and not against the weak e-pawn (much to Tarrasch's surprise!). The reason is, white can defend e4 as often as black can attack it, and so there is no gain. Lasker encourages the e-pawn to advance, widens the playing area to include the Q-side, and looks for complications, which may be to his favour. This is how to play for a win, when a draw is of no interest.

27.Rh3 b4 28.Nf2 Nc5 29.Rhe3 a4 30.bxa4 Nxa4 31.e5 fxe5 32.Rxe5 Reb8!

Decentralising! But with threats, e.g. 33.R1e4 Nc3+ 34.bxc3 bxc3+ 35.Kc1 Ra1 'mate.

33.Ne4 b3 34.Re2 Nb6 35.cxb3 Nd5 36.g4 h6 37.g5 hxg5 38.Nxg5 Nf6

Avoiding 38:...Rxb3? 39.Re8+ with 'mate.

39.Re7

Here, R5e3 or Rc5 or Rc2 give a draw, but the Re7/Rg2/Ne6 combination seems irresistable... 39. ... Rxb3 40.Rg2 Nd5

Where to play the rook?

41.Rd7?

No, anywhere but there! 41.Re1 held the draw.

41. ... Rd3!! 42.Rxd5

Sad but true. Nc3+ winning the exchange is threatened. If 42.Rb7 Rd1+ 43.Kc2 Ne3+, or if 42.Kc1 Ra1+ 43.Kc2 Nb4 'mate.

42. ... Rxd5 43.Ne6 Kf7 44.Rxg7+ Kf6 45.Rc7 Rd6 46.Nc5 Kxf5

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How to go about winning this? The trick is in piece play, black must get his king into the opposing position, and this becomes very easy if the white rook is exchanged. The play is therefore based around restriction of piece activity.

47.Rf7+ Ke5 48.Kc2 Rh6 49.Nd3+ Kd6 50.Rf5 Rb8 51.Kc3 Kc7 52.Rf7+ Kb6 53.Rd7 Rh3 54.Rd4 Rbh8

The knight's best square is d3, covering b2; other squares are passive (d1) or exposed (c4). Black will attack the knight with his rooks, the threat now being ...R8h4...Rh5...Rd5, forcing the exchange of rooks.

55.Rb4+ Kc7 56.Kc2 R8h4 57.Rb3 Rh2+

Tarrasch suggests 57:...c5 58.Rc3 Kd6 59.Ra3 c4 60.Ra6+ Kd5 61.Nb4+ Kd4 and a quick win for black: `But we must bear in mind that the advance of the QBP determines first prize! ... And the advance would still be possible if the other methods turned out to be insufficient.'

58.Kc3 R4h3 59.Rb4 Rh5 60.Rg4 R2h3 61.Kc2 Rd5 62.Nf4 Rc5+

Not 62:...Rd4 63.Rg7+ and wins!

63.Kb1 Rh1+ 64.Ka2 Ra5+ 65.Kb3 Rb5+ 66.Kc3 Kb6 67.Nd3 Rh3 68.Kc2 Rd5 69.Rb4+

Note that Lasker has gained a move, 69.Nf4 in this position allows 69:...Rd4, and therefore the rook must take up a passive position.

69. ... Kc7 70.Rb3 Rh2+ 71.Kc3 Kd6 72.Ra3 Rg2 73.Ra1 Rg3 74.Rd1 Kc7 75.Rd2 Kb6 76.Rd1 Kb5 77.Kc2

If 77.Rd2 Rc5+ 78.Kb3 (78.Kd4 Rc4+ 79.Ke5 Re3+ 80.Kf5 Rd4) Rd5 79. Kc2 Rf5 80.Rd1 c5 81.Rd2 Rh3 82.Rd1 Re3 83.Rd2 Rfe5 and exchanges rooks.

77. ... Kc4 78.b3+ Kb5

Black has now forced a serious weakness.

79.Rd2 Rh3 80.Rd1 Rh2+ 81.Kc3 Rd8 82.Rg1 Rh3 83.Rd1 Rdh8 84.Rg1

84.Rd2 Rh2 85.Rd1 Rh1 86.Rd2 R8h2 87.Nf2 Rf1

84. ... Rhh5 85.Kc2 Rd5 86.Rd1 Rg5 87.Rd2?

Another error. Correct was 87.Rf1, when black would double rooks on the seventh rank and attack the b-pawn. The win would still be quite difficult.

87. ... Rhg3 88.Nc1 Rg2 89.Ne2 Kb6! 0-1

As Re5 will force the rooks off, when black has an easy win.

Chess Quotes

"Those who say they understand chess, understand nothing"
— Robert HUBNER