Lasker: New Approaches


Lasker: New Approaches

Johannes Fischer

January 13 2001 saw the 60th anniversary of the death of Emanuel Lasker, one of the most fascinating personalities in the history of Chess. Not only was he World Chess Champion for 27 years - longer than any other player before or after him - but he also held a PhD in Mathematics, published a number of philosophical works, wrote one drama and regularly commented upon political events. Commemorating this anniversary an essay collection edited by Ulrich Sieg and Michael Dreyer was published by the German publishing house Philo: Emanuel Lasker: Schach, Philosophie und Wissenschaft (Emanuel Lasker: Chess, Philosophy and Science). This volume scrutinizes the various aspects of Lasker's intellectual heritage (Chess, Mathematics, Philosophy, Drama, Games and Political Writing) and sees itself as supplementing and correcting the old Lasker-biography by Hannak which more often than not sacrificed faithfulness to historical evidence and appropriate criticism for the sake of enthusiasm and adoration. Both Dreyer and Sieg are strong Chessplayers and members of the Chessclub of Lübeck, to which the book is dedicated.

Lasker starts with a biographical sketch by Sieg and Dreyer which outlines Lasker's intellectual development. Although Lasker is first and foremost remembered as a Chessplayer it appears that his approach to the game has been highly ambivalent throughout his life. Of poor background Lasker saw Chess as a way to financial and intellectual independence, yet he always aspired to be more than a mere Chessplayer. After school he studied mathematics but interrupted these studies to fight for the title of World Chess Champion. After having won the title and after having confirmed his reputation as the World's best player through fantastic tournament results he returned to mathematics and finished his PhD. Several unsuccessful attempts to secure a post in academia as mathematics teacher at English or American Universities followed. Thus, he returned to Chess and while he seemed to have abandoned hopes of an academic career he still pursued his scholarly interests outside of academia. Again, it was Chess that allowed him to secure the necessary income for these studies.

Yet, there were long periods in his life during which he did not play at all. After a long break he only agreed to play against Capablanca in 1921 because he had lost a lot of money during the war. Despite a crushing loss he still showed his enormous strength in various tournaments (for instance by winning the New York tournament 1924) before going into retirement again. A the age of sixty for Lasker everything seemed to be settled for a quiet, peaceful life at the end of a successful career. These hopes were destroyed when the Nazis came to power in 1933. It speaks for Lasker's political insight, that he, unlike so many others, was under no illusions whatsoever about the nature of the new German rulers. It also indicates his inner strength that with 65 years of age he decided to give up all his possessions in Germany and went into exile. Once more, he returned to Chess to make a living: after staying in the Netherlands and England for a while, Lasker and his wife, Martha, accepted the invitation of Krylenko, the then Soviet sports minister, to stay in Moscow and to work at the Institute for Mathematics (probably on a honorary post). However, in 1937 when they witnessed the beginnings of the stalinist purges of whom Krylenko was one victim the Laskers moved again. After a trip to New York to visit relatives, Martha and Emanuel Lasker decided to stay in America. Now, at the end of their lives they faced the fate of penniless immigrants and again Lasker tried to turn his abilities as a Chessplayer into money. He gave lectures and simultaneous displays but his age prevented success in major tournaments. Four years after his arrival in America Lasker died on January 13 1941 in New York.

Following this biographical introduction each chapter deals with a different aspect of Lasker's intellectual work. The first one, written by Ulrich Krause, a mathematician who works as a computer specialist and was three times Chess champion of Schleswig-Holstein, deals with Lasker as a Chessplayer and Chess Thinker. Krause mainly relies on Common Sense in Chess and Lasker's Manual of Chess. He emphasizes the influence of Steinitz' scientific approach on Lasker and explains the principles Lasker laid down in his books: the relatively minor importance of the opening, the crucial question when to attack and when to defend and the significance of the endgame. Lasker also put special emphasis on the necessity of forming plans and stressed the importance of independent thinking. For him, this was one of the hallmarks of the good player.

In general, Lasker's Chess writings abound with musings about philosophical problems, and he saw Chess as the very essence of his central philosophical theme: Struggle. For Lasker, Chess was a struggle between two minds, and he hoped to take Chess as a starting point for a science of struggle - something Lasker naively considered to extremely valuable for the whole of mankind as it would contribute to progress and a better future. He even went so far as to believe that his philosophy of struggle would make wars unnecessary. These ideas are characteristic for Lasker and are central for all of his works: he firmly believed in progress through a mixture of cooperation and competition between two or several opposing forces. These ideas also reveal his concern with ethics and ethical behavior - two issues that were extremely important to him. But this search for a science of struggle contradicts the popular image of Lasker as a psychological player: he was keen on finding general, rational principles of struggle instead of finding ways to exploit irrational behavior of the opponent.

All in all Krause provides a good overview of Lasker's writings on Chess but he faces the problem of having to explain the highly specialized topic of Lasker's way of playing Chess to a group of readers that might not even be familiar with the rules of the game. This dilemma makes itself felt when he hardly distinguishes between the ideas laid down by Lasker and the games Lasker played himself. Both Common Sense in Chess and Lasker's Manual of Chess were books aimed at the common public, and it might well be that rules which are valuable for beginners or intermediate players do not really apply to grandmasters - or, at least, that grandmasters know when to keep and when to break them. One example: Krause quotes Lasker's warning about premature attacks and writes that Lasker hardly ever made such attacks. However, in one of his most famous games - Lasker - Napier - he tried to take his opponent's king's position by storm and advanced his own pawns right after the first moves recklessly. The question about Lasker's real strength as a player is also not raised. While it is of course impossible to give a satisfying answer in an essay of this kind, it would have been good to draw a clearer line between the theories of Lasker and his actual play. Moreover, there is hardly a word about the relevance of Lasker's theories in regard to modern Chess. While some parts of his theory still seem to be valid others are hopelessly outdated. However, Lasker's plea for independent thinking and intellectual skepticism appear to be more pertinent than ever. His attempt to develop a philosophy for mental combat also deserves further exploration, and could indeed prove useful when trying to find out more about the role of the mental approach in sports or any other sphere of life.

Markus Lang, a political scientist at Chemnitz University comments upon Lasker as a mathematician. Here, as in the article about Lasker as a Chessplayer, the dilemma of having to make a broad readership understand the finer points of a rather specialized field makes itself felt. But whereas other accounts of Lasker's life often mention yet hardly ever scrutinize the significance of Lasker's mathematical achievements, Lang is able to clarify this question. Lasker was successful as a Chessplayer, wanted to be recognized as a philosopher but wrote his PhD in Mathematics. He also published numerous articles in mathematical magazines.

Lasker's PhD proved to be influential, and was taken up and developed by Emmy Noether, the daughter of Lasker's PhD advisor, and one of the very first women who managed to enter the ranks of conservative German academia. Noether's theories now form an important part of modern algebra. In the words of Lang: "Lasker not only contributed preliminary work for Noether's proof of the "Allgemeinen Zerlegungssatz", but his works made it possible for Noether's idea to come into existence. Thus, Lasker deserves a lasting place in the history of modern Mathematics." (Translation, JF).

Tim Hagemann deals with Lasker's efforts at drama. Both Emanuel Lasker and his brother Berthold were married to writers. Emanuel to Martha Cohn who successfully published slightly frivolous, entertaining stories under the pseudonym L. Marco and Berthold to Else Lasker-Schüler (although only for a short time), one of the most famous and influential modern German poets. Maybe these literary influences made the brothers embark on their ambitious project of a jointly written philosophical drama titled "Vom Menschen die Geschichte" (Of Mankind's History). Hagemann's article provides a detailed summary of this drama which recounts the history of mankind from the beginning to modern time and asks how human beings are able to lead a fulfilled, ethical life. This question is enacted through a cast of characters that embody certain philosophical ideas and thoughts, a device which, together with the clumsy, elaborate and artificial language of the drama does not really provide much entertainment. At the end, as a solution to the dilemma of Western thought as it is perceived by the authors, Lasker's own philosophy is offered as a remedy. Although the drama was no success and is of little, if any, literary value it reveals characteristic traits of Lasker: self-confidence, the willingness to venture into unknown territory and the conviction that he had something important to tell to the world. The very content of the drama also shows Lasker as a follower of the ideals of enlightenment and as a firm believer in a steady progress of mankind.

In his article about the Homo Ludens and the Homo Oeconomicus, the playing man and the economical man, Oliver Lembcke, who works as a political scientist at the University of Jena, analyzes the importance games had for Lasker's thinking. As far as Chess is concerned this might be pretty obvious but Lasker was also interested in other games. Not only did he found a school for mindgames but he also wrote several books in which he tried to lay down theories of successful playing. Lasker is mainly concerned with games of balance, that is, those games in which the players start to play with approximately balanced powers. For these games Lasker introduces the principle of economy as the key to success: one should not invest more than one is bound to gain in return. He also considers the striving for success as being part of an ethics of playing. His search for a successful strategy of playing leads him to his philosophy of struggle which he dubs Machologie, and Lasker now tries to define what characterizes a successful player - the ideal Macheide. According to Lasker it is someone who acts economically and rationally and thus in a dialectical struggle of competition and cooperation with his adversary gradually gains deeper insight and ensures progress. It is important to note that for Lasker struggle is a very large term that comprises war, as well as games and any creative problems one struggles with. Unfortunately, these reflections were never really taken seriously as one possible explanation for Lasker's phenomenal success in Chess. But they precede the ideas of John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern, the founders of the modern theory of games which is now a valid and acknowledged part of science.

Lembcke also points to a telling contradiction in Lasker's theories: while Lasker claims that those who play are "round" people, that is, agreeable to be with and of appealing personality, the player who wants to have success is definitely not "round" as he is only interested in success and the most rational way to obtain it. According to Lembcke this contradiction can be solved by bringing another favorite term of Lasker's into play: Common Sense. Lembcke concludes his essay by stating: "The homo oeconomicus is interested in success - and who is serious about success has to act according to his principles. The homo ludens is the playing man - and who is serious about the game, knows that a game is nothing but a game. ... Common Sense enables one to find the right measure for both approaches and in this sense Lasker's plead for games was at the same time always a plead for Common Sense." (Translation, JF)

In one of the most interesting and illuminating essays of the volume, Ulrich Sieg, co-editor of Lasker, FIDE-Master and historian at the University of Marburg, deals with Lasker's philosophical ideas and its historical contexts. Unlike the public which mainly perceived him as a Chessplayer, Lasker saw himself as a philosopher, and he hoped to be remembered for his contributions to philosophy. A hope that still remains unfulfilled as Lasker's philosophy has until now received only very little attention. While this might partly be due to the fact that Lasker throughout his life has been an academic outsider, Sieg argues that this lack of attention is not fully deserved. Though Lasker certainly is not the philosopher he believes to be, his writings still contain a number of interesting and original thoughts.

As was typical for the assimilated Jews in Germany who adhered to the ideas of the enlightenment and the values of classical humanism as embodied by e.g. Lessing and Goethe, Lasker's thinking relies on ethics, human values and a firm rejection of racism. He was also strongly influenced by American pragmatism and believed that thinking had to prove itself by being practically relevant. However, his whole intellectual outlook seems to be virtually untouched by the ideas of modernism brought about by the upheaval of World War I and the changed perceptions in art, music, literature or psychology. This datedness of Lasker's philosophical approach might also explain why his ideas are almost completely ignored.

Central for Lasker's thinking was his philosophy of struggle but, the contradiction between the playing man and the economical man pointed out by Lembcke also runs through Lasker's philosophy. While ethics are of central importance to Lasker he does not quite manage to reconcile these ideals with his belief in the necessity of a rational and economical approach towards success. At the end of his essay Sieg expresses the hope that Lasker's philosophy will be taken more seriously in the future. As he derived his ideas mainly from his experiences at the Chessboard they may be most fruitfully applied there. Accordingly, Sieg concludes that, if one should ever try to establish a philosophy of Chess, there is no way around Lasker.

It may come as a surprise that Lasker also tried his hand at political commentary. Like so many other intellectuals of his time he felt compelled to voice his opinion about political events. In a very informed and concise article co-editor Michael Dreyer, who teaches political science at the University of Jena analyzes Lasker's political writings. Not surprisingly, Lasker's thoughts about politics are again influenced by his philosophy of struggle - the Machologie and, true to his ideas about the positive sides of competition Lasker was an advocate of democracy and democratic principles.

After a brief summary of Lasker's political ideas Dreyer shows how Lasker tried to apply his ideas to political events. Here, his proposals are nearly always original though they sometimes also border on the absurd. The most striking example might be Lasker's comments about Germany's role in World War I. Like so many German intellectuals who were fiercely patriotic Lasker believed Germany to be fighting for a good cause and he commented upon the development of the war in his Chess columns comparing the war to a game of Chess. But, and this was certainly unusual for his time, he also showed respect for the countries Germany fought against. At the end of his life Lasker wrote "The Community of the Future" - a book in which he tried to put down his idea for an ideal society. Two problems were especially dear to his heart: the fate of the European Jews and the problem of unemployment. To solve the first, Lasker proposed Alaska as a possible place for immigration - a proposal that at that time did not sound as absurd as it may sound today. Lasker also thought about the origin of antisemitism and identified unemployment as one of the main reasons that made people turn against the Jews. His remedy against unemployment was the idea to erect camps modeled after the Kibbuz system in Israel to train people for the job-market. In his evaluation of Lasker as a political theorist Dreyer points out that although Lasker suffers from a lack of systematic education and reading in this field he still shows his independent thinking and original ideas and that Lasker should not be compared to the great political theorists but to the other intellectuals of his time.

In an appendix the book is rounded off by a collection of documents about Lasker and his life, many of them rare and original which together with the photographs and pictures that accompany the essays, contribute to the impression of a carefully designed and edited book.

Moreover, Lasker is also well-researched and readable. It helps to see Lasker in a new and different light and is especially valuable as it illuminates Lasker's numerous interests and activities beyond the realm of Chess. Nevertheless, all the articles in this volume point to Chess as Lasker's forte. Yet, curiously enough it is the image of Lasker as a Chessplayer that seems to need a reevaluation. Rectifying the perception of Lasker as a psychological player could allow an analysis of his real Chess skills and strengths. It might also create an opportunity to apply the philosophy of struggle, which was so dear to his heart and which runs through his entire work, fruitfully.

The beginnings of a different perception of Lasker could be seen at the Lasker-Conference in Potsdam, near Berlin, which took place from January 12-14 and thus also commemorated the 60th anniversary of Lasker's death. Well organized by Paul Werner Wagner, a cultural manager by profession and a Lasker fan by interest the conference was a remarkable success: apart from a large number of participants it could also boast of quite a few prominent guests from German cultural and political life and from the World of Chess. It saw the foundation of the Lasker-Gesellschaft ( which has as its aim to continue research about Lasker and to preserve and maintain his (intellectual) heritage.

Media interest was also high and various German newspapers and magazines reported about the event. The conference's support by the Moses-Mendelssohn Zentrum in Berlin, an institution researching European Jewish Studies and the Bundeszentrale für Politische Bildung (Federal Center for Political Education) indicate an interest in Lasker beyond the realm of Chess. As both the book by Sieg and Dreyer and the conference demonstrate a renewed interest in Lasker this raises hopes that the cultural and historical aspects of Chess in general will be further explored by similar books and events in the future.


aktualisiert: 25. März 2002