Emanuel Lasker

Quick Info

24 December 1868
Berlinchen, Prussia (now Barlinek, Poland)
11 January 1941
New York, USA

Lasker became World Chess Champion in 1894 and held the championship until 1921. In mathematics he introduced the notion of a primary ideal.


Emanuel Lasker was born in the Prussian province of Brandenburg into a Jewish family. His mother was Rosalie Israelssohn while his father was Adolf Lasker, a cantor in the synagogue whose role there was to lead the liturgical prayers and chanting. Emanuel had an older brother Berthold and, when sent to attend school in Berlin when he was eleven years old, Emanuel was taught to play chess by Berthold who was a student in the medical faculty there. He made some money playing chess in the local cafés, but he did not become a serious chess player until about the age of fifteen.

In fact Emanuel's parents were so worried that he was devoting too much time to chess and not enough to his school work that they told Berthold to find another school for Emanuel. However, the head of this new school was president of the local chess club and the mathematics master was the local chess champion, so in his new secondary school Emanuel continued to show remarkable talents at both mathematics and at chess. In 1888 he obtained his abitur in Landsberg an der Warthe, now a Polish town named Gorzow Wielkopolski.

Lasker studied mathematics and philosophy at the universities in Berlin, Göttingen and Heidelberg but he combined his studies with playing chess. In 1889 he won his first chess tournament in Berlin and, a month later, he won the Hauptturnier in Breslau which earned him the German title of Master of Chess. One of the judges at this event, Leopold Hoffer, commented:-
The young master will be a formidable opponent in future contests.
Although he failed to win the tournament at Amsterdam shortly afterwards, Hoffer reinforced his opinion:-
Young Lasker only confirmed the opinion we expressed about him when we watched him in Breslau. He is only 21 years of age, but possesses already the qualities of a first-class master - erudition, judgement of position, quickness of conception, imagination, great enthusiasm for the game, and above all, he is a man of culture and more than average intelligence.
Lasker had an extended stay in England in 1891-92, playing many fine chess games and beating the best players in that country. In 1893 he went to the United States and continued to win all the matches that he played. He won the New York International tournament, winning every game despite some top players competing, and he defeated the American chess champion. He did not neglect his mathematics however, and in 1893 he lectured on differential equations at Tulane University in New Orleans. His remarkable wins in the United States put Lasker in a position to challenge Wilhelm Steinitz, who was 58 years old at this time, for the title of World Champion. A match was arranged which would take place in three venues, New York, Philadelphia and Montreal, with victory going to the first player to record ten victories.

The match began in New York on 15 March 1894 and was fairly even with two victories to each player in the first six games. However, Lasker then won five consecutive games winning impressive victories in Philadelphia, and, despite Steinitz recovering after this, Lasker won in Montreal. He gained his tenth win there on 26 May 1894, having by this time played four draws and having five losses. However despite now being World Champion, many doubted that he deserved the honour. Tarrasch said:-
In my opinion the match with Steinitz does not have the great importance that they themselves attribute to it. For Steinitz has grown old, and the old Steinitz is no longer the Steinitz of old.
Lasker had returned to Germany by the end of 1894 but he contracted typhoid fever and became seriously ill. His brother Berthold nursed him back to health but it was a slow process and he was still recovering in 1895 when he took third place in famous Hastings Tournament in England described as:-
... the most important tournament of the 19th century, which assembled the entire cream of world chess.
While in England he gave a series of lectures on chess which he wrote up for publication as Common Sense in Chess. The book was published in German in 1896 with the English translation appearing in the following year.

Over the next few years Lasker played in relatively few chess tournaments. He had a famous win in St Petersburg in 1895-96 and in a tournament in Nuremberg in the summer of 1896. In 1896-97 he played Steinitz again in a world championship match and was again victorious. This time he reached ten victories having lost only twice and drawn five times. In London in 1899 Lasker had one of his most impressive tournament victories, winning 20 of the 28 games he played, losing only one game. In the following year in Paris he was equally impressive winning 14 of his 18 games, again with only one loss.

Chess was certainly not the only interest for Lasker over these years. In fact he was concentrating more on mathematics than chess which explains why he played in so few tournaments. Advised by Max Noether, Lasker presented his doctoral thesis Über Reihen auf der Convergenzgrenze to Erlangen in 1900 and it was published in the Philosophical Transactions.

Lasker moved to the United States in 1902 and lived there until 1907 but only played in one chess tournament during these years, namely at Cambridge Springs in 1904. Lasker was second equal in this tournament, the winner Frank Marshall went on to challenge Lasker for the world championship. However, Lasker set high financial stakes for such a match and Marshall, young and comparatively unknown before the Cambridge Springs tournament, had little chance of finding backers to put up Lasker's asking price. Marshall had to take on other opponents which, indeed, he did.

Although Lasker played little chess over this period, he did some remarkable mathematics. In 1905 he introduced the notion of a primary ideal, which corresponds to an irreducible variety and plays a role similar to prime powers in the prime decomposition of an integer. He proved the primary decomposition theorem for an ideal of a polynomial ring in terms of primary ideals in a paper Zur Theorie der Moduln und Ideale published in volume 60 of Mathematische Annalen in 1905. A commutative ring RR is now called a 'Lasker ring' if every ideal of RR can be represented as an intersection of a finite number of primary ideals.

In 1907 Lasker returned to Germany and, challenged again by Marshall, he now dropped the price to a figure that Marshall could find backers to put up - the World Champion was back to playing chess in a big way. During the years 1907 to 1910, he defended his World Champion's title in six matches, one against Marshall in 1907 in which Lasker never lost any of the 15 games played (8 wins and 7 draws), one match against Tarrasch in 1908, three matches against David Janowski in 1909 (two matches) and 1910, and one against Carl Schlechter in 1910. He only played in one tournament during these years, coming first equal with Akiba Rubinstein in St Petersburg in 1909. He also played exhibition matches, which could be lucrative, and in the same year he played two such matches against Janowski.

Lasker married Martha Cohn, the daughter of Emil Cohn, in 1911 and they lived in Berlin. Arrangements were put in place for Lasker to defend his title again. The plan was that he play Rubinstein for the World Championship, then that the winner would play José Raúl Capablanca. However, due to World War I, the matches could not be played. After World War I ended, arrangements were again worked out, with a world championship match between Lasker and Capablanca being set up. However, Lasker wrote to Capablanca resigning his World Champion title before the match was to be played. However, he was persuaded to play and the match took place in Havana, Cuba, in the following year. After fourteen games Lasker retired because of ill health and his reign of 27 years as World Chess Champion was over.

Despite losing the title, Lasker still won the New York International Tournament in 1924 with Capablanca coming second with Alexander Alehkine in third place. Lasker now took up Bridge and Go, going on to represent Germany at Bridge.

In 1933, being Jewish, Lasker was forced to emigrate and went to England where he lived until 1935. Gareth Williams, writing in Chess Monthly, describes Lasker's last few years:-
... the Laskers were forced out of their comfortable retirement. The regime confiscated the Laskers' Berlin appartment, their farm at Thyrow and their lifetime savings. Emanuel and Martha Lasker, in their old age, suddenly found themselves destitute, without money home or homeland.
He was forced to come out of retirement and to play chess again to make enough money to live:-
In order to survive Lasker had once again to build a career in chess. The first tournament he was invited to after nine years retirement was Zürich. ..... Lasker was invited to Moscow in 1936 to participate in another great international tournament. ... The Laskers were encouraged to stay on in Moscow after the tournament and Dr Emanuel Lasker, mathematician, was invited to become a member of the Moscow Academy of Science. The offer was accepted and the Laskers took up permanent residence in Moscow. Emanuel became absorbed with his mathematical studies at the Moscow Academy.
He played in the Nottingham International Chess Tournament from 10th to 28 August 1936. W H Watts, writing an Introduction to the book of the tournament, wrote:-
Lasker, throughout the tournament gave me the unmistakable impression that he was not extending himself. There may be a very good reason for this. He made his name a generation ago and although winning a high place would be a very fine performance, the strain of a long tournament with fifteen long arduous games would be unwise for a man of nearly seventy years.
At the garden party in the middle of the tournament:-
Lasker's never failing fund of humour was much in evidence and he evidently excels at clock golf.
Indeed although he did not win the chess tournament, he did win the putting competition! It was reported that he played for the ending, in other words he made sure his second putt was as short as possible.

In 1937 the Laskers moved yet again, after their patron Krylenko had been disgraced, this time taking up residence in New York in the United States. There Martha Lasker took ill and they were advised not to travel; she died later that year. Lasker gave lectures and demonstrations over the next couple of years but, in 1939, during a lecture, he became dizzy. This was the start of an illness which slowly worsened until his death.

Nathan Divinsky, himself an exceptional mathematician and like Lasker most famous for his results in ring theory, writes:-
In that great roll-call of tournaments, St Petersburg 1896, St Petersburg 1914 and New York 1924, Emanuel Lasker always won. In 1896 it was by a two-point margin over his leading contemporaries, 18 years later again by a two-point gap in the final and ten years further on (three years after he conceded the title to Capablanca) 1121\large\frac{1}{2}\normalsize points ahead of a mighty field. Such results surely indicate something truly remarkable about Emanuel Lasker.
Lasker, in addition to his algebraic results and his chess genius, also introduced a number of interesting mathematical games. For example he devised laska, and produced an interesting modification to the rules of nim. As well as writing on chess, where we could mention Lasker's manual of chess in addition to the classic Common sense in chess mentioned above, Lasker wrote on philosophy. On that topic he published Kampf (1907), Das Begreifen der Welt (1913), Die Philosophie des Unvollendbar (1919), Das verständige Kartenspiel (1929, English translation in the same year), Brettspiele der Völker (1931), and The Community of the Future (1940).

Mikhail Botvinnik, who became World Chess Champion in 1948, wrote:-
The first time I saw Lasker, he was an elderly man. His appearance was not impressive. His movements were very slow. ... He was a very wise man - he was the first one who studied all the practical sides of a chess game: how to prepare for a tournament, when to play in it, how to rest, eat, etc. He perfectly understood all these practical aspects.
A quotation from Lasker shows how he approached games. He was once asked after giving a lecture why he almost always chose variations in openings which his opponent had declared unsatisfactory. Lasker replied:-
I did not study anything but the variations in question consisted of developing moves which were so sound and reasonable that they could not be so bad as my opponent thought. I was therefore convinced that he had misjudged these variations, and his understanding of them was faulty. I wanted to take advantage of this state of affairs.
In [2] his philosophy of life and of chess are compared:-
Lasker's conception of life, as expounded in his writings, was that of a fight or struggle and as a chess player he was probably the greatest fighter that the game has seen. Supremely wary and tenacious, he would deliberately involve himself in difficulties to complicate the struggle and give himself chances of outplaying his opponent; and once he had the advantage, he would push it home with relentless vigour and decision.
Finally let us comment that Lasker's results on the decomposition of ideals into primary ideals was the foundation on which Emmy Noether built an abstract theory which developed ring theory into a major mathematical topic and provided the foundations of modern algebraic geometry. Emmy Noether's Idealtheorie in Ringbereichen (1921) was of fundamental importance in the development of modern algebra, generalising Lasker's results by giving the decomposition of ideals into intersections of primary ideals in any commutative ring with ascending chain condition.

References (show)

  1. Biography in Encyclopaedia Britannica.
  2. Obituary in The Times
  3. Gareth Williams, Lasker's Last Stand, Chess Monthly 6 (1), (1996), 44-45.

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Written by J J O'Connor and E F Robertson
Last Update October 2003