Book Review: Why Lasker Matters by Andrew Soltis

Why Lasker Matters by Andrew Soltis, © 2005 Batsford

Other than having many great games by the best chess player of all time, this book is worthless.

How can anyone look at all Lasker’s games and read everything by him and about him and not learn anything?

Instead of analyzing the games correctly, Soltis puts in more than 100 pages of BAD analysis and then tries to correct it. That is insane!

Soltis repeats the obviously false anecdote: “Tarrasch said he had only three words to say to Lasker, ‘check and mate’.” That’s two words, and Tarrasch never said any such thing.

There are so many mistakes I could write several pages of corrections. Not worth it.

Get this book from the library but don’t read anything Soltis says and don’t read any analysis.

Soltis understands nothing about how Lasker played chess or why he played chess, and understands nothing about other masters. He doesn’t publish the three most important games Lasker ever played: seventh and eighth games of 1894 match with William Steinitz (NOT “Wilhelm” Steinitz, as Soltis persists in remaining insultingly ignorant. Steinitz came to the USA in 1883 and became a naturalized citizen and changed his name to “William”.), and Lasker-Marco, Hastings 1895.

Emanuel Lasker was born December 24, 1868, in Berlinchen (Prussia). He was precocious but what we call a “smart-ass”, insufferably conceited and sarcastic. His sarcasm was based upon ignorance, but he was a small child, which is probably why no one hit him. His parents got rid of him by sending him to live with his brother Berthold (B. Dec. 31, 1860), who was a medical student and a manager of a “tea room”, where people played cards and board games.

Being inordinately lazy, Lasker decided to become a chess master and barely won the Haupturnier at Breslau 1889. This did not make him a master, but gave him the opportunity to become a master. His style was developed over the next three years as he played tournament, matches and hundreds of simultaneous games. He tried to emulate Paul Morphy. By 1892 Lasker was the best player in England, with a straight-forward, classical style, and notable for his excellent endgame play.

Lasker tried to play a friendly match with Tarrasch but was rudely rebuffed, so he went to the USA to challenge Steinitz. Soltis says Lasker studied the games of Steinitz for four years, but that is wrong. It wasn’t until 1893 that Lasker did so.

Being young and naive, Lasker assumed that Steinitz must have a system because he had been the best match player in the world for twenty-seven years. Steinitz did, but it was not what Lasker thought. Steinitz played exactly as he wrote.

Lasker won the New York 1893 tournament, 13 – 0, and was a better player than Steinitz but didn’t know it. By studying the games and writings of Steinitz, Lasker divined a “theory”, “which Steinitz only hinted at in his writing.” To make this theory work Lasker had to disregard openings where “Steinitz had eccentric ideas, such as the Evans’ Gambit and Two Knights Defense.” So Lasker decided to play like Steinitz in their world championship match. I think the first game was April, 1894. They traded two wins and then two draws. Game seven is the most important Lasker ever played. 1 PK4 PK4; 2 NKB3 NQB3; 3 BN5 PQ3; 4 PQ4 BQ2; 5 NB3 KNK2; 6 BK3 NN3; 7 QQ2 BK2; 8 O-O-O PQR3; 9 BK2 PxP; 10 NXP NXN; 11 QxN BKB3; 12 QQ2 BB3; 13 NQ5 O-O; 14 PKN4 RK1; STOP. Lasker’s intuition is playing this game and all of the following moves have been pre-determined. 15 PN5 BxN; 16 QxB RK4; 17 QQ2 BxP; 18 PKB4 RxP; 19 PxB QK2 Lasker thought he had blundered and instead of 20 BB3 RxB; 21 BxP, followed his intuition; 20 QRB1 RxB; 21 BB4 STOP What’s the problem? If 21 … RKB1; 22 RxP RxR; 23 RB1 QxP, Black wins. If 22 PKR4, 22 … RN6 wins. 21 … NR1? As predicted by Lasker’s intuition, Steinitz relates this position to the Evans’ Gambit, where Black is forced to make such moves. Black can draw but Steinitz insisted upon evading perpetual check and lost.

The next game was just as dramatic. Lasker played the French Defense, 1 PK4 PK3; 2 PQ4 PQ4, and had an advantage after ten moves, but didn’t try to win. He plays bad moves and lets Steinitz have an advantage, but the winning plan consists of advancing his Queen-side majority of pawns, something Steinitz never did. He always played to attack the king. Lasker put all his pieces around his king, but Steinitz persisted in his foolish attack and lost.

Lasker’s new style was subjective and not objective, and he won the match: 10 wins, 5 lost, 4 draws.

In his first game as World Champion at Hastings 1895, Lasker played like an idiot against George Marco, throwing away four tempi in the opening. Intuition again. Lacking imagination, Marco blundered and lost a rook for a bishop.

This game is so striking it is a RED FLAG.

Absurd comment: “Lasker often played the Exchange Variation without a special reason.” 1 PK4 PK4; 2 NKB3 NQB3; 3 BN5 PQR3; 4 BxN QPxB.

I believe Lasker played that fourteen times in tournaments. Seven times he wanted a draw and played 5 PQ4 and traded queens. Seven times 5 PQ3 and tried to win.

Lasker defeated Steinitz, Janowsky (twice), Marshall and Tarrasch in world championship matches and drew with Carl Schlechter in 1910. He finished third at Hastings 1895 and was first at St. Petersburg 1895/96, Nuremburg 1896, London 1899, Paris 1900. After second place (behind Marshall) at Cambridge Springs 1904, he tied for first with Rubinstein at St. Petersburg 1909. Lasker was first at St. Petersburg 1914 and Berlin 1918.

Almost an amateur, Lasker only played chess to make money, and when he had enough money he went back to college, obtaining master’s degrees in mathematics and philosophy, and frequently teaching.

He lost a world championship match to Jose Capablanca in 1921 but won the great tournament of New York 1924, ahead of Capablanca, Alekhin, Marshall, Reti, etc.

That’s not the end of his career, but the end of this review.

© 2006 James Schroeder

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14 years ago

How do you know that “three words” anecdote is obviously false? I don’t think it can’t be conclusively disproved.

Anyway, as long as such story is presented just like that, as a story, I think there’s no fault in repeating it. Books should be written in a fashion that make them good reads, and a good story comes handy for this purpose.

How did Soltis relate the episode? As one of those “the story goes…” bits or as a veritable historical fact?

Be that as it may, “check and mate” is a phrase made of THREE words indeed, not two. “Check” is a noun and so is “mate”. As for “and”, that’s a conjunction. And the three of them are words, what else? Nouns and conjecntions are all words, just different classes of words. The anecdote is about three words, and no more than them, that Tarrasch had for Lasker. *Words*, not *nouns*.

Also, I don’t grasp the rationale in calling Soltis insultingly ignorant just because he kept referring to Steinitz by his birth name, Wilhelm.

The first world champion at some point changed his name into William, okay. So what? William is just the English version of Wilhelm, and such change is a fairly minor matter of formality. By the way, almost everyone knows the Austrian-American player as Wilhelm Steinitz, almost an household name in the chess world, not William Steinitz. I guess Soltis just wanted to be consistent when naming names.

With every good wish,


Captain Iso
14 years ago
Reply to  Ben

“Check and mate” is a list of two words, just as “Check and mate and knucklehead” is a list of three words.

14 years ago

So goes the anecdote:

“Tarrasch said he had only three words to say to Lasker, ‘check and mate’.”

It doesn’t talk about Tarrasch announcing that he had *a list of only two words* for Lasker. He said he had *two words*.

“Check and mate,” the non-condensed version of the expression checkmate, is obviously a three-word phrase.