50 games you should know: Tarrasch vs Lasker, 1908

by Johannes Fischer
2/1/2018 – Good chess players are often bad losers. After defeats they throw tantrums, berate themselves or their opponents and throw things around. But bad losers often train harder than others and learn from their defeats, provided they are self-critical enough. Some bad losers shy away from a critical look at their play. One of them was Siegbert Tarrasch. | Picture: Cover of the book "Die Schachwettkämpfe Lasker-Tarrasch um die Weltmeisterschaft 1908 und 1916", Edition Olms, Zürich 1990.

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Tarrasch was born on March 5, 1862, in Breslau which at that time was part of Germany, and he died February 17, 1934, in Munich. For a long time he was one of the best players of the world. According to statistician Jeff Sonas in 1895 Tarrasch had a historical Elo-rating of 2818 and this makes him the best player of all times who was never World Champion.

Bobby Fischer also held Tarrasch in high esteem. In 1964 he published his famous list with the ten best players of all times in the short-lived American chess magazine Chessworld. Number one on this list is Paul Morphy, and while Fischer was not impressed by Lasker's play, Tarrasch made it to the list. Fischer writes:

Steinitz had many rules but considered himself above them, whereas Tarrasch always followed his own rules, but so brilliantly that he is among the greatest players. Tarrasch's play was razor-sharp, and in spite of his devotion to this supposedly scientific method of play, his game was often witty and bright. He was a great opening theorist, vastly superior in this respect to Emanuel Lasker, for example, who was a coffeehouse player: Lasker knew nothing about openings and didn't understand positional chess… (Chessworld, 1,1 (January-February 1964, p. 56-61, quoted in: Andrew Soltis, Chess Lists, McFarland 2002, p. 37)

Siegbert Tarrasch

Throughout his life Tarrasch was an amateur. He worked as a medical practitioner, was married and had five children, but he still was not only a successful player but also a prolific, entertaining and popular writer who did a lot to popularise chess. He had a tendency to simplify and to be categoric but coined many well-known sayings: "Knight on the rim is dim", "The Rook's place is behind the passed pawn; behind the enemy pawn in order to hold it up, behind one's own in order to support its advance", to name just two. He is also famous for his quote "Chess, like love, like music, has the power to make men happy."

But despite all his achievements Tarrasch's reputation has suffered over the years. This is due to his haughtiness, his arrogance, and his way to handle defeats. These traits of Tarrasch are particularly marked in his rivalry with Emanuel Lasker.

Dr. Emanuel Lasker

Lasker, who was born on December 24, 1868, and the six years older Tarrasch, had been rivals for most their lives. They played their first games against each other when Lasker still had little experience and Tarrasch was already one of the world's best players. André Schulz writes:

1887 Tarrasch could still even give the latter a knight odds in two games in the Berlin 'tea halls' and yet win one game and draw the other. Two further games without odds then ended, however, in a win for each side. (André Schulz, The Big Book of World Chess Championships: 46 Title Fights - From Steinitz to Carlsen, New in Chess 2016)

But Lasker quickly gained in strength and in 1892 he challenged Tarrasch to an official match. Apparently Tarrasch had no faith in the dictum that you should beat young talents while still able to do so, and declined Lasker's challenge with an arrogant letter in which he advised Lasker to first win a great international tournament before challenging him. Unfazed by this rebuke, Lasker challenged the reigning World Champion Steinitz to a match for the title a short while later. Steinitz accepted, the match was played, and in 1894 Lasker was the new World Champion.

Master Class Vol.5: Emanuel Lasker

The name Emanuel Lasker will always be linked with his incredible 27 years reign on the throne of world chess. In 1894, at the age of 25, he had already won the world title from Wilhelm Steinitz and his record number of years on the throne did not end till 1921 when Lasker had to accept the superiority of Jose Raul Capablanca. But not only had the only German world champion so far seen off all challengers for many years, he had also won the greatest tournaments of his age, sometimes with an enormous lead. The fascinating question is, how did he manage that?

In the following years Lasker and Tarrasch tried to avoid each other at tournaments. If Lasker wanted to play in a tournament, Tarrasch usually did not play, if Tarrasch took part in a tournament Lasker usually abstained from playing there.

But there were always talks about a match between the two best German players of that time. In 1904 — after long and hard negotiations — Tarrasch and Lasker finally agreed to play a match. But then Tarrasch withdrew in the very last minute, claiming an "accident while skating on ice". An excuse nobody really believed. André Schulz writes: "His contemporaries already supposed that Tarrasch had been unable to bring together the unusually high stake of 8000 marks in time and had thought up the story of the accident to achieve a postponement without loss of face." (The Big Book of World Chess Championships). But Lasker did not agree to a postponement, the negotiations came to a halt, and the match did not take place.

One year later Tarrasch was confident again. In 1905 he had won a match against the US-American Frank Marshall with 8-1 and eight draws, and after this smooth victory he felt ready for a match against Lasker. But apparently Tarrasch forgot or wanted to forget who was World Champion and who was challenger:

Acceptable conditions provided I am ready to play a match against Lasker, but I will not challenge him; this is up to the one who has the lesser renown and the fewer successes. But my successes for about the last twenty years have been at least equal to his; when I challenged him two years ago this was a faux pas of me. (Siegbert Tarrasch, Der Schachwettkampf Marshall – Tarrasch im Herbste 1905, p. 62, quoted in André Schulz, The Big Book of World Chess Championships)

But in 1908 — and after more negotiations — it was finally time: Lasker and Tarrasch agreed to play a World Championship match in Düsseldorf and Munich. In contrast to Tarrasch in 1905 the organisers had a clear understanding of who was challenger and who was champion, and it shows in the fees offered to the players:

Lasker demanded for the WCh match first of all an honorarium of 15,000 [German] marks, but then contented himself with 7,500 marks (equivalent to around 35,000 to 40,000 euros today). Tarrasch did not insist on an honorarium so as to enable the match to actually take place. Moreover a prize fund of 6,500 marks was made available by the German Chess Federation, of which 4,000 marks would go to the winner, 2,500 to the loser. (André Schulz, The Big Book of World Chess Championships)

Reputation or previous successes aside — the match was one-sided, and after 16 games Lasker had won 8-3 (five games ended in a draw). But despite this clear defeat Tarrasch was not ready to acknowledge that Lasker was the stronger player. In his book about the match he came to the following conclusion:

If one does not just look at the result but plays through the games one will have to admit that on many occasions I have played much better, that my strength in the second half of the match was much greater than in the beginning, and that it was not the greater strength of the opponent which defeated me, but that I, particularly in the beginning, much too often missed the win and practically threw the games to my opponent. I am the first to wholeheartedly acknowledge the superior strength of an opponent. But this has to be strength which overcomes the opponent! But I noticed such a strength in only very few games, namely in the fifth and the eleventh game. In fact, in a lot of the other games a second-rate player could have led the game to a successful end in my stead after I had managed to create a winning position. (Siegbert Tarrasch, Der Schachwettkampf Lasker-Tarrasch um die Weltmeisterschaft im August-September 1908, Leipzig 1908, S. 111, quoted in Die Schachwettkämpfe Lasker-Tarrasch um die Weltmeisterschaft 1908 und 1916, Edition Olms, Zürich 1990.)

As reasons for his bad play in the first half of the match Tarrasch cited "lack of practice" and the "maritime climate" in Düsseldorf. While "lack of practice" might indeed have contributed to Tarrasch's defeat, Düsseldorf is simply not affected by "maritime climate" — if you want to go from Düsseldorf to the sea you must cross the whole of the Netherlands.

But the numbers do not lie: Lasker simply played better than Tarrasch in the match. And Tarrasch did himself no favour with his ridiculous excuses for his defeat: in the long run they gave him the reputation of an almost laughably bad loser, and this overshadowed his remarkable achievements.

The second game of the match is particularly revealing here. Lasker commits a number of inaccuracies in the opening which gives Tarrasch a tactical opportunity to reach an almost winning position but then Tarrasch finds no way to increase or exploit his advantage and is outplayed by Lasker.


A remarkable game. It shows how well Lasker played in difficult positions and how hard it is to win a won game. And the comments by Tarrasch show why it is not good to be a bad loser.

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50 games every chessplayer should know...

  1. McDonnell vs. Labourdonnais
  2. Anderssen vs. Kieseritzky, The Immortal Game
  3. Morphy vs Duke of Brunswick, Count Isouard
  4. Steinitz vs von Bardeleben
  5. Pillsbury vs Lasker
  6. Rotlewi vs Rubinstein

Johannes Fischer was born in 1963 in Hamburg and studied English and German literature in Frankfurt. He now lives as a writer and translator in Nürnberg. He is a FIDE-Master and regularly writes for KARL, a German chess magazine focusing on the links between culture and chess. On his own blog he regularly publishes notes on "Film, Literature and Chess".


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