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Friday, September 11, 2015

How Edward Lasker ALMOST Won the U.S. Championship

     Frank Marshall, U.S. Champion for 27 years, only defended his championship once. And, he nearly lost it in a match against Edward Lasker. The match was interesting, hard fought and witnessed by a lot of chess fans in the two months it took place in New York, Chicago, Milwaukee, Cleveland, Detroit, Baltimore, Washington D.C. and Long Island! Seven games lasted more than 60 moves and the result in doubt until the 18th and final game. 
     Marshall had been expected to win easily, but Edward Lasker, a distant relative of Emanuel Lasker, and one of the many new foreign-born players in U.S. chess in the 1920s nearly did him in. He was born in Berlin of a German father and American mother and had come to the United States in the opening months of World War One. For a record of Marshall's career visit Rutgers' The Frank James Marshall Electronic Archive and Museum.
     How good was Edward Lasker? According to Chessmetrics, in 1923 Lasker was ranked 18 in the world ahead of players like Colle, Yates, Saemisch, Sir George Thomas and Mieses. His highest ever rating, 2583, was in 1924. 
     Lasker, by way of New York City, ended up in Chicago making $18 a week in the shipping department of Sears, Roebuck and Co. That's about $225 -$250 today. In those days a loaf of bread was about $0.10 – $0.12, a half gallon of milk around $0.30 and steak cost around $0.36 a pound in Chicago. You could get yourself a nice Chevrolet car for $525 and the Sears catalog advertised Honor Bilt “Self-Build” house kits with 5 rooms and a bath for $2,436. 
     Lasker didn't remain a shipping clerk for long though. He moved up the business ranks and eventually invented a breast pump for mother's milk. This enabled him to find plenty of time to play chess and he was very successful, winning the Western Chess Association's open championship five years out of six. This event was the forerunner of the modern U.S. Open.
     During this period Lasker became a U.S. citizen and tested his skill in New York, winning a small master tournament in 1922. This was the tournament that 11-year-old Sammy Reshevsky played in and knocked off Janowsky who was living in the U.S. at the time. The tournament was important for Lasker because he got the exposure and support he needed to challenge Marshall. 
     Marshall hadn't defended his title in 14 years, mostly because there just wasn't anybody good enough to challenge and defeat him, but Lasker reckoned that because Marshall was a tournament player and not a match player, he had a shot at defeating him. The reason was because Marshall, who had a risky, cut and thrust style, scored well in tournament play against the lower half of the tournament while registering less success against the stronger players in the top half. For example, Marshall scored only one win, 16 losses and 21 draws against Capablanca and Emanuel Lasker. So, being eight years younger than Marshall and by playing solid chess, Edward thought he had a chance at winning the match and he nearly pulled it off! 
     After nearly two years of negotiations on match conditions, play began in the evening of March 15, 1923 at the Marshall Chess Club in front of a mostly pro-Marshall crowd. Lasker adopted a strategy of playing conservatively with White and adventurously with Black. Lasker, to everyone's surprise won the first two games. The second was a real shocker because with Marshall as white, it was a Vienna Opening which Marshall knew well and it also resulted in some controversy. (Game below) 
     But when the match moved to the Midwest in April to the Hamilton Club in Chicago, Marshall began with two straight wins, but Lasker regained the lead when Marshall tried too hard for a swindle in the sixth game. Lasker lost the lead in back in the seventh. The game was adjourned with Lasker having a slightly inferior position. He wrote that after breakfast the next morning he was suddenly seized with excruciating abdominal pains. He was rushed unconscious to the hospital where he was diagnosed with kidney stones and had to spend several days in bed. Match rules allowed him to request a postponement for up to seven days because of illness, but according to Lasker, Marshall objected, saying that the match rules did not apply to adjournments! 
     The match umpire back at the Marshall Chess Club didn't respond to a telegram from the Chicago organizers, so Lasker told his doctor that he had to leave the hospital. He ignored the doctor's advice, ordered a cab and, in his words, barely managed to drag himself to the chess table for the adjournment, which he then lost. That was Lasker's version in Chess Secrets I Learned from the Masters anyway. According Herman Helms' version, Lasker was in the hospital for two days and the adjournment was postponed for three at his request.
     Marshall established a two point lead with wins in the 10th game at the Cleveland City Club and the 12th at the Detroit Chess and Checker Club. Lasker claimed his game and his health both suffered in the match's final games. The truth is, Marshall's play had a lot to do with it. Marshall was not just a tactician, he was also a great player in all phases of the game. He repeatedly outplayed Lasker in the endings, winning from slightly favorable positions and drawing inferior ones. 
     Lasker managed another win in the 14th game, in Baltimore, but couldn't score another win to tie the match and it finished in early May at Washington, Long Island and, finally, back at the Marshall Club on May 11-12. 

Marshall 0 0 ½ 1 1 0 1 ½ ½ 1 ½ 1 ½ 0 ½ ½ ½ ½ = 9.5 
Lasker     1 1 ½ 0 0 1 0 ½ ½ 0 ½ 0 ½ 1 ½ ½ ½ ½ = 8.5 

     A few months later Lasker's health improved and he wanted a rematch on about the same terms, but Marshall wanted him to put up the money in a deposit with a third party instead of just taking pledges from various fundraisers like he had done in the first match. Lasker pointed out in a letter to Marshall that it was impossible to raise the money in advance and so a rematch was nearly impossible. Marshall really didn't care. He was seeking his own rematch with Capablanca, who insisted on the same terms: the challenger had to make a cash deposit. For compete details on the negotiations see the article at Chessgamesdotcom.
     After that, Lasker focused on the international tournament at New York in 1924 to which he had been invited almost entirely on the basis of his match with Marshall; he was outclassed and finished 10th in a field of 11 and as a result, he seems to have pretty much lost interest in chess and played less frequently. 

   As a sidebar, Lasker, according to an interesting article in The American Go Journal Go may have saved his life by the fact that he was also an excellent Go player.

     Marshall held on to his title with no more challengers until 1936 when he gave it up, saying that there were plenty of new challengers and it was time for him to step aside. 
     For details on the incident that occurred during the game presented here refer to Chessgamesdotcom which has excerpts from Lasker's Chess Secrets I Learned From the Masters
     This game turned out to be very complicated and I spent a couple of days going over it with various engines, doing infinite analysis and multiple Shootouts with three different engines. Lasker himself was in a snit over the annotations that appeared in print after the game. He felt he was slighted by the pro-Marshall press, including the New York Times reporter who criticized his "showy" sacrifice as being made to "please the gallery." He also attacked the analyst for the American Chess Bulletin, who denigrated the N offer and suggested defenses such as 21 Rdl, which loses a piece to 21 … Rxe4+! Lasker, a gentleman himself, didn't reveal that the “culprit” was the venerable Hermann Helms.
     The fact is, thanks to modern engines, Helms was probably closer to the truth than anybody realized and most annotators seem to have based their conclusions on the fact that Lasker won the game...a frequent occurrence back in the pre-engine days.


  1. Who knew Lasker was that good?!

  2. I wrote this long comment to you yesterday and had a terrible trying to get it posted, so I wasn't going to type it again!
    I'm 67 years old, master strength, but only expert rating USCF because limited play. Last played in US Open 1985 with 2385 performance rating.
    I like your site for the historical aspect. Also you write about things and people no one else covers.
    I've been reading your site for the last couple of months.
    I read chessbase everyday and play over all the games. I watch the Sinquefield Cay everyday, every game until the end.
    Around 1964 I read Laskers book you mentioned above 3 or 4 times!!
    Dan Belasco