The new Lasker biography: an interview with editor Michael Negele

by Hartmut Metz
12/24/2018 – On December 24th, 1868 Emanuel Lasker, World Champion from 1894 to 1921, was born. To celebrate this 150-year jubilee the first volume of a monumental trilogy about Lasker recently appeared. In an interview with HARTMUT METZ, Dr Michael Negele, one of the editors and driving forces behind this trilogy, talked about Lasker, the trilogy, and the motivation to carry out such a monumental project. | Pictured: Dr Michael Negele and Dr Richard Forster signing the first volume | Photo: Archive Michael Negele

Master Class Vol.5: Emanuel Lasker 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?


"A Labour of Love"

An interview with Dr Michael Negele

Hartmut Metz: Mr Negele, the Lasker Year 2018 comes to a close. Is there anything that made you particularly happy?

Negele: Well, definitely the fact that the "silly" and obsessive idea I had in 2014, namely to publish the first volume of our trilogy about Lasker in 2018, could be realised. Now the chess community has to judge the quality of our work but I will always fondly remember the excellent cooperation of our small team.

When will the third and final volume of the trilogy appear?

We plan to publish it on January 11, 2021, the 80th anniversary of Lasker's death — and 20 years after the German Lasker Society was founded. But maybe the volume will appear on February 22, 2022 — my 65th birthday after which I intend to retire as "Chess Historian" to have time to play in senior tournaments.

What made you start such an enormous project? After all, in 2009 you already published and edited an homage to Lasker: the more than 1,000 pages strong monography "Emanuel Lasker — Denker, Weltenbürger, Schachweltmeister".

The idea to publish this trilogy in English came up during the work on the edition of 2009. In 2005 Stefan Hansen, the sponsor of the project, and I had discussed a possible translation into English. When the German volume was sold out in 2013 Prof. Joachim Rosenthal from Zurich brought me on the right track: should there be a new edition it should definitely be in English. And in a more convenient form - in three volumes.

How much work and research did you and Richard Forster invest in this project?

Negele: My interest in Emanuel Lasker was sparked by the fine Lasker conference 2001 in Potsdam and by the book  Emanuel Lasker Schach, Philosophie, Wissenschaft, edited by Dr Ulrich Sieg and Dr Michael Dreyer. When Stefan Hansen in 2005 gave the impulse to publish the monograph mentioned above I began to intensify my research about Lasker. Visiting the Cleveland Public Library in the summer of 2007 also gave me an enormous push — I discovered parts of Lasker's estate that previously had been considered "lost".

But while I was heavily involved in the edition of 2009 I now left the role of editor-in-chief entirely to my friend, the Swiss International Dr Richard Forster. Forster's excellent language skills made this a good move and it gave me the chance to take care of the framework of the project and to search for pictures and private documents by Lasker. The Lasker trilogy contains and will contain images that have never been published before, and which I discovered in Saint Louis in the archive of the "World Chess Hall of Fame" and in the Lothar Schmid collection in Bamberg. But how many Lasker hours Forster and I invested exactly is hard to estimate — but I think we will easily reach five-figure numbers.

Emanuel Lasker during an alternating simul on 44 boards, played in Berlin, May 1929, with Dr Paul List
(Click or tap to enlarge)

Quite a lot of work, showing a remarkable passion. Jacques Hannak's "Emanuel Lasker — The Life of a Chess Master" also used to kindle a passion for Lasker. After all your research — what do you think about this classic?

Negele: Of course, Hannak's writing often was hyperbolic and he sometimes got his facts wrong. He started to work on the book in 1938 and in 1952 it went to print - and these times were not ideal for research. But by now we know that a lot of the "anecdotal" evidence he had is based on facts and Hannak also often could draw on the personal memories of Martha Lasker. He claimed things that were wrong and even he erroneously claims that Lasker died January 14, 1941 — and not on January 11, 1941 — you can only partly reproach him. The initial collaboration of "John" Hannak with Lasker's widow and GM Reuben Fine until the end of 1941 is an interesting story off-stage, which I tried to present in my "Lasker compass" in volume I of the trilogy.

One chapter in the first volume, written by the German grandmaster Raj Tischbierek, takes a look at the World Championship match Lasker vs Tarrasch, 1908, a match on which the chess world, as Tischbierek puts it, had been waiting for 16 years. Lasker won 10½-5½ (8 wins, 5 draws, 3 losses) but what would have happened if Tarrasch had been at his peak?

Negele: Well, I can refer to a competent judge — former World Champion Vladimir Kramnik — when I claim that by winning the tournaments in Monte Carlo 1903 and in Ostende 1907 Tarrasch showed his best chess and proved that he understood the game as well as Lasker. But a match Lasker — Tarrasch before the turn of the century would probably have favoured Lasker.

However, in 1908 Lasker was not a clear favourite against Tarrasch. After all, in the years before the match, he had not shown much. In Cambridge Springs 1904 he had shared second and third place with Janowski, two points behind tournament winner Frank Marshall whom, however, Lasker in 1907 demolished 11½-3½ (8 wins, 7 draws, no losses) in a match. But in 1905, Tarrasch had also shown that he is much better than Marshall, the winner of Cambridge Springs, by beating him 12-5 (8 wins, 8 draws, 1 loss) in a match.

Apart from Lasker himself hardly anyone understood why Lasker won the match against Tarrasch so clearly. Tischbierek sees a lot of similarities between the Lasker vs Tarrasch match 1908 and the "Match of the Century" between Fischer and Spassky in Reykjavik 1972. According to him, even before the first move was played, Tarrasch had already been "cooked" by Lasker's way to negotiate the conditions of the match. And at the board, Lasker was the "Master of a 1,000 resources" as Capablanca observed in 1916.

In the first volume, Grandmaster Mihail Marin annotates Lasker's most beautiful games but I also liked the articles that show Lasker's various other talents, e.g. his mathematic skills which the mathematician and FIDE-Master Joachim Rosenthal analyses in an article.

Negele: During our work on this volume we found a lot of answers to questions concerning Lasker's ambition to enter a career in academia that still had been unsolved in 2009. Among other things, we found evidence of a failed attempt for a PhD, in Spring 1897 in Heidelberg. However, a final conclusion about Lasker's mathematical accomplishments might only be possible after reviewing the many manuscripts that are owned by David DeLucia. Among other things, there is a textbook which Lasker wrote in the Soviet Union, titled "The Architecture of Mathematics".

New York 1893 (click or tap to enlarge)

The Lasker monograph from 2009 had 1080 pages, the first volume of the trilogy has 464 pages. How many pages will the trilogy have all in all?

Negele: Currently we plan XIV plus 450 pages for each volume - that would amount to 1,392 pages for the trilogy.

Design and look of the volume make a very good impression. I particularly like the layout and the many old photographs.

Negele: I also think that the high quality and the number of pictures will impress every chess fan. I am amazed what our designer Ulrich Dirr (Art&Satz, Munich) managed to make out of the old original photos which sometimes had suffered a lot over the years. We wanted to have a nice book with a "good feel" to it that evokes the times of Lasker. After all, working on this trilogy was and is a labour of love.

Translation and editing: Johannes Fischer

Exzelsior Verlag...

Schach Niggemann...

Hartmut is an editor at Badischer Tagblatt, headquartered in Baden-Baden. He also writes for chess and table tennis among others for the Frankfurt Rundschau and the Munich Merkur. In addition, the FM of the Rochade Kuppenheim regularly writes articles for the chess magazine 64, Chess Active (Austria) and
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chessbibliophile chessbibliophile 12/24/2018 11:22
Yes, Einstein was a friend of Lasker. He wrote the foreword to the biography by Hannak.
jaberwocky jaberwocky 12/24/2018 08:57
I think Emanuel Lasker was a friend of Albert Einstein. Lasker's good range of interests would have helped him in his chess as well.