Jews In Sports: Exhibit Page @ Virtual Museum

Harold U. Ribalow and Meir Z. Ribalow
Page 19 of 54

The Great Jewish Chess Champions

It encouraged the persistent veteran to challenge Lasker one more time. Lasker of course accepted and it was agreed they would meet in November, 1896, in Moscow, but first there was another important tournament to get through, the one in Nuremberg in July of the same year. The field was impressive, for it included Tarrasch, Pillsbury, Tchigorin, Blackburne and Carl Schlechter from Vienna, an upcoming star. Steinitz, too, was an entry. When it was all over, after eighteen rounds of chess, Lasker was again number-one, and Steinitz was sixth. It was a formidable showing but the old lion was not satisfied. He was unable to face up to the idea that he was losing his skill; that he was not as strong as he had been. He saw himself as the permanent champion. Yet he realized that something had happened. After all, he had come in sixth, and his confidence began to go.

In their second championship match, Lasker destroyed Steinitz. He won the first five games with ridiculous ease. Three draws followed and then two more victories for Lasker. It ended with a 10-2 score. The final game was played on January 14, 1897. Four weeks later, Steinitz's mind went and he was sent to a psychiatric clinic. In 1899 he played miserably in the London tournament and shortly thereafter was found to be hopelessly mad. In the summer of 1900 he died, leaving his family poverty-stricken. His fate made a profound impression on Lasker, who was determined that he would not suffer a similar destiny. This was the reason why Lasker asked for and sought good purses; it was why he broke away from chess for long periods of time. But late in his own life, he, like Steinitz, needed money and had to play for pittances. Steinitz not only was a major opponent he also was a dark shadow over the life of Lasker. Dr. Hannak writes that "Steinitz exhausted himself in chess and died of it. Lasker rose above chess to live another life in all the riches of the spirit. Steinitz was unhappy whenever he lost a game of chess. Lasker was unhappy whenever he failed to get away from the game."

It was said of Lasker that he had "erudition, judgment of position, quickness of conception, imagination, enthusiasm and culture." Richard Reti, another Jewish player, whose Masters of the Chess Board is one of the best books written on the game, reviewed Lasker's career and said that "Lasker must be considered as the most successful of all the chess-masters." He paid tribute to Lasker's open game and said that he turned more defeats into victory than any other player.

From 1896 to 1899 Lasker decided to pay no attention to chess. From time to time he made these breaks and devoted his time to mathematics, to lecturing, to the writing of poetic dramas and other creative projects. After the three-year break, however, he felt refreshed and returned to chess competition. He was now living in England and was invited to participate in the London tournament of 1899. Immediately, Lasker revealed that he had lost none of his skill. Facing an assemblage of the leading masters of the day—except for Tarrasch who did not take part in the competition—Lasker won the first prize by a record margin, some four-and-a-half points ahead of his nearest opponent; but he also won the first brilliancy prize for a remarkable game. Oddly enough, he played this game against Steinitz, who was taking part in the last tournament of his life and who, for the first time in his career, ended up unplaced in an international tourney.