This day in Jewish history

1894: A Rabbi’s Grandson Becomes World Chess Champion

Emanuel Lasker was one of the top players of all time, but the mathematician died penniless.

David Green
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Emanuel Lasker, right, plays Wilhelm Steinitz to win the World Championship Match in New York, 1894. Credit: Wikipedia
David Green

On May 26, 1894, Emanuel Lasker became the world chess champion, when he defeated William Steinitz, who, at age 58, was 32 years his senior. Lasker was to go on to retain the title until 1921, and to this day, is considered one of the greatest players of all time.

Emanuel Lasker was born in Berlinchen, Prussia (today, Berlinek, Poland), on December 24, 1868. His father, Adolf Lasker, a rabbi’s son, was himself a synagogue cantor. His mother was the former Rosalie Israelssohn. The couple had three other children: an older son, Berthold, and two younger daughters, Theofilie and Amalie.

When he was 11, Emanuel, who until then had had a traditional Jewish education, was sent by his parents to Berlin to develop the gift for mathematics he had demonstrated from a young age. In the Prussian capital, he lived with Berthold, who was then a medical student. Berthold was also a serious chess player, and he introduced Emanuel to the game. When their mother heard how much time her younger son was spending at the Café Kaiserhof, playing chess, she withdrew him from the school he was studying in. There are different versions of what happened next, but what is not in dispute is that he continued playing chess, and began to win money by competing.

By 1889, Lasker had won his first chess tournament, and later that year, he qualified as a German chess master. He soon began competing internationally. But he also studied math – at Berlin, at Gottingen and at Heidelberg, before earning his Ph.D (on the convergence of ideal numbers) at the University of Erlangen, 1902. Throughout his life, his professional focus alternated between these two interests.

In 1893, at a tournament in New York, Lasker accomplished the rare feat of winning all 13 games he played. The next year, he challenged William Steinitz, who in 1886, had becomes the world’s first undisputed chess champion, for the title. The men played 19 games, in New York, Philadelphia and Montreal, with the final tally being 10 games to Lasker, five to Steinitz, and four draws. Steinitz took the $2000 purse, and became the second world champion, a title he defended successfully when he and Steinitz had a rematch in 1896-97.

Between 1902 and 1907, after several years of intense competition, Lasker, now living in the United States, laid off the chess in order to work as a mathematician. He came back to the game in the latter year, and defended his title several times. In 1911, he married Martha Bamberger Cohn, a writer whom he had known for nine years, whose first husband had died not long before. She remained Lasker’s love and closest companion for the rest of his life.

Having seen the precariousness of a chess master’s existence, Lasker bargained hard for large prizes for players, and also insisted on retaining the copyright on republication of his games, a custom that soon became standard practice for all players.

Nonetheless, when the Nazis came to power in Germany, Lasker’s property was confiscated, and the couple had to flee, penniless. He and Martha moved to Moscow, which they left in 1937, after Stalin’s purges got under way. They eventually made their way to the United States, where Martha died a short time later.

Lasker had lost the world championship in 1921 to Jose Raul Capablanca, and soon after retired from competitive chess. In his final years, in the United States, he lectured on chess, but was destitute. When he died of a kidney infection, on January 11, 1941, at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York, he was there as a charity patient.