Emanuel Lasker on Chess Improvement

From time to time I like to go back to the old classic books. These are mostly game collections of the world champions, annotated by those champions, as well as several players who came close to becoming world champion, or  were known as outstanding teachers and writers – notably David Bronstein, Victor Korchnoi, Paul Keres, Siegbert Tarrasch, Richard Reti and Aaron Nimzovitch. Of course there are many good modern books – too numerous to mention. I tend to read several of these books at the same time (well, not exactly at the same instant) but lately I’ve been focusing again on Lasker’s Manual of Chess or, as I like to call it, “Emanuel’s Manual.” Naturally, if this ever becomes an e-book we could call it “Emanuel’s e-Manual.”

Emanuel Lasker 1868 - 1941

Emanuel Lasker 1868 – 1941

Lasker was, of course, the Second Official World Champion, winning the title in 1894 from Wilhelm Steinitz, and then holding it continuously until his defeat by Capablanca in 1921. Lasker was also a noted mathematician and had a keen interest in philosophy, although he tended to focus on one or the other of these things – not all at the same time. A 1985 publication in Russian by Sadovskii and Sadovskii “Mathematics and Sports” speculated that neither bridge, nor chess, nor Go, nor any other game requiring great intellectual concentration is truly relaxing … So, if you need a break, they suggest walking, swimming or tennis. They give Lasker specifically as an example of a person not being able to do serious mathematics and chess at the same time. To this I would add that Botvinnik also “disappeared” for long stretches while pursuing his engineering work, then would typically have a bad result (by his standards), only to refocus on chess and soon reclaim his top spot in the world (matches with Smyslov and Tal). On a lesser scale I can relate to this personally, as when I played “serious” chess (and Go for a year) my academic and professional work suffered. I eventually gave up tournament chess for two periods of six and seventeen years, packing all books in boxes tightly taped shut, sequestered in the attic.

Before moving on, I’d like to get something off my chest. I want to know why authors feel obligated to so carefully prepend a world champion’s name with the phrase “Former world champion …” I can see the need for this in boxing, with its multiple world championship titles, multiple weight classes, and frequent changing hands of titles. But in chess? We have only one weight class  I suppose that a person who knew little of chess, if not so properly warned might, at a cocktail party some evening,  with champagne glass in one hand and hors d’oeuvre in the other, effusively blurt out “And so, Donald, what do you think of the current world champion Lasker? Our horrified host would be obligated to point out “Sir, Madam, or whatever you are, Lasker has unfortunately passed away, and so he simply cannot be the current world champion. You’re fired.” Well, there’s a scene we’d all like to avoid …

Emanuel’s Manual, first published in German in 1925, is an outstanding general treatise of instruction on chess. It also delves into Steinitz’s theories, the historical fact that Steinitz’s contributions to chess were unappreciated and even mocked at the time of his death (1900), and therefore, the great player Lasker, who vanquished the great thinker Steinitz, felt obligated to set the record straight. Steinitz’s key idea was to develop game plans based on the actual configuration of the pieces on the board (!) and not, as was the custom of his time, on the ability of the contestants, their fighting mood, their swashbuckling sacrifices playing for brilliancies no matter what, and their equally unreasonable but “honorable” practice of accepting and grimly holding onto all material sacrifices. Steinitz proclaimed that one should plan for attack only when one held an advantage of some kind and, as Lasker points out, that advantage must be expressed as a valuation. How obvious this all seems to us now, standing on the shoulders of Lasker and Steinitz, in an era of computers that spout nothing but valuations!

Wilhelm Steinitz 1836 - 1900

Wilhelm Steinitz 1836 – 1900

Lasker then goes on to offer criticisms and additions to Steinitz’s Theory, e.g. Steinitz gives specific advice to both defender and attacker, but does not address balanced situations in which the players are neither attacking nor defending, but maneuvering. Of course, this is what we now call position play, the key idea of which, according to Lasker,  is to achieve and maintain cooperation of the pieces. Lasker also describes the related Principle of Justice and the relationship between Chess and Life.  I’ll refer you to the book for this philosophical discourse, but here are a couple of quotes – the first one well known, the second one much less so:

“On the Chess-board lies and hypocrisy do not survive long. The creative combination lays bare the presumption of a lie; the merciless fact, culminating in a checkmate, contradicts the hypocrite.”

“And many a man, struck by injustice as, say, Socrates and Shakespeare were struck, has found justice realized on the Chess-board and has thereby recovered his courage and his vitality to continue to play the game of Life.”

Finally, Lasker’s reflections on education in chess are quite interesting. Of course, his context is 1925, but probably most of it is still true today. He states that chess education goes on in a haphazard fashion and that most players reach a rather low level and stay there. Hmmm, 87 years later it seems that Richard James has been saying the same thing on this blog – it’s still true!

Lasker estimates that it would take 200 hours of instructor time to educate “a young man ignorant of Chess to the point where, if conceded any odds, would surely come out the winner.” The term “master” here is slightly vague and might conceivably mean anyone at a present day 2100, 2200 or 2300 rating. Let’s say 2200. Could not give pawn and move to what level of player? 1900 or 2000? Well, 200 hours is far short of the 10,000 hours of intensive practice, but we assume that the student is studying at home, playing casual games and playing in tournaments. This intensive effort would be spread over five to ten years. Frankly, this sounds about right! The ratio of instruction time to other intensive practice would need to be about 50 to 1.

Lasker’s 200 hours break down as:

  • Rules / Exercises – 5 hours
  • Elementary Endings – 5 hours
  • Some Openings – 10 hours
  • Combination – 20 hours
  • Position Play 40 – hours
  • Play and Analysis – 120 hours

Presumably the “Play and Analysis” would cover all phases of the game, i.e. some additional work on openings, more advanced endings and middle game attack and defense. What I don’t see here is two hours talking about how each piece moves, six months before the concept of checkmate is introduced, etc. which, in my carefully considered opinion, would have every single student dropping the program – at least in US schools. It would be an slight over-statement to say that we live totally in an instant gratification world, but neither the students nor parents have this kind of patience, even if you told them it was the way to become world champion.

Where I would quarrel with Lasker is his statement “Even if the young man had no talent at all, by following the above course he would advance to the class specified.” By his own admission, the actual results represent one-hundredth of one percent of his expectations. Four orders of magnitude! Lasker ascribes this huge disparity to our frightful waste of time and values, not only in teaching chess but also Mathematics and Physics, where the results are even worse than Chess. Well, Botvinnik said that young Karpov had no talent, so by that yardstick Lasker is right. In 200 hours of instruction you could get Karpov to the point that no one could give him pawn and move!

Lasker – “Education in Chess needs to be education in independent thinking and judging. Chess must not be memorized … memory is too valuable to be stocked with trifles (Einstein, a friend of Lasker’s, when asked by a reporter what the value of Pi was, said ‘about 3’}. You should keep in mind only methods. The method is plastic. It is applicable in every situation.”