May 3, 2001

Valery Segal


1910, Lasker - Schlechter

Perhaps the most mysterious of all chess matches for the title of the World Champion was played in 1910. The match Lasker - Schlechter. Its distance of ten games was not a novelty: Lasker played already such a short match one year before with Janovski. Most probably the regulations of both matches were the same. Still, the World Champion demonstrated his evident superiority over Janovski (+7-1=2), and chess historians never showed any interest in nuances of that match, while the match Lasker - Schlechter gave rise to a mystery that has not been revealed until now.

The challenger was one point ahead after nine games (+1=8). One more draw would bring him the final success according to logic and traditions. However, Karl Schlechter, the "king of draws", played a keen, incorrect opening. He wrote himself in his comment to the 4th move of the game that he did not want to make a draw. He was close to a victory, yet he made a mistake and lost the game. So why did he want to win so much? Naturally, this question drew the attention of historians to the match regulations. Which revealed a strange fact: the regulations of the match were never published anywhere! L. Verkhovski who carried out a lot of work with sources and wrote the fine book "Karl Schlechter" did not manage to throw light on this mystery. It appears that even interested contemporaries did not know what the conditions of the match were.

There was a hypothesis about a secret item in the regulations, stipulating that the challenger had to gain an advantage of two points in order to win the match. Strange as it is, this hypothesis is very plausible, because it was Lasker's favorite requirement that he set many times. It is only not clear why the item should have been a secret. It turns out that the whole world kept an eye on a match with unknown regulations, and after the finish it could be presented with a beaten champion who still would have retained his title! This is very strange, butů still possible.

However, this hypothesis does not fully explain Schlechter's behavior at the finish of the match. Reading about this match I always felt some absurdity in the whole situation and weakness of all historians' arguments. Moreover, it looks as if researchers themselves were not sure of what they were stating. All of them noted that, having won with the advantage of one point, Schlechter still would become champion for the whole chess world, even though he would not be declared officially. This is right, and it would be naive to think that Schlechter did not understand it himself. Then why did he long for a win in the tenth game?..

Not long ago, owing to the kindness of Mr. B. Rabkovski from the state of New York, I happened to read the book by Em. Lasker "My Match with Capablanca" that is very rare now. In the beginning of the book Lasker makes his readers acquainted with the history of the match, he writes in particular:

"The Match with Capablanca has a previous history that lasted as long as ten years. In 1911, as I made a short visit to the United States of America, the young maestro sent me a request concerning conditions of a match for the title of the World Champion with me. I drew up these conditions in several days and reported them to Capablanca. He entered a protest against one item of the conditions, having called it unfair, and broke off the negotiations, appealing to the chess press. Many chess players, especially from England and Argentina, supported Capablanca in this battle, which is absolutely unjust, in my opinion.

The disputed item was that in the case of the final result of thirty match games being 1:0, 2:1 or 3:2, then a draw was to be declared in the match. Some persons like Bern concluded that I was trying to gain a considerable advantage, because the title of the World Champion would have been retained by its previous holder, that is by me, in case of a draw result. Still, the same critics did not note that the match would have been played for a big sum of money. The above mentioned condition would be fair when dividing this sum and equally favorable for both sides. As for the circumstance that I would have kept the title after a defeat with the result 1:0, 2:1 or 3:2, it was, in essence, of no value for me, because in case of such a result the title of the champion would become substantial for me only if I'd have retaken it decisively in a return match."

Very interesting! It's strange that this passage was never cited. The author explains the "unfair rule" absolutely differently than what we know from free renderings, and much appears to be different at once. The point of Lasker's idea is that if any side (not just the challenger) wins by only one point, a draw should be declared in the match, and the stake (not only title matters) should be divided fifty-fifty. Usually winners got the whole stake at that time, and it is evident that Lasker considered such a "sharing" unjust in case that the winner would be only one point ahead. No doubt that there is a definite logic in Lasker's reasoning.

Now if we suppose that there was a "secret item" in the regulations of the match Lasker - Schlechter, then, most probably, it should have read namely "by Lasker", and Schlechter's motive becomes clear. He simply struggled for the money prize! A draw or a defeat in the last game were the same for him from this point of view: he had earned already half of the stake, but a win could give him the whole stake. Today the result of the famous match is interesting for us first of all. From the historical point of view it proves to be that the history of chess would have been different if Schlechter would have made a draw in the tenth game. Financial affairs of past champions are forgotten. This is a clear and natural thing. But we can sympathize for the motives of Karl Schlechter, a chess professional, a not well-to-do man, who tried to win "simply" for a big money prize.

"Chess is so interesting in itself, as not to need the view of gain to induce engaging in it;and thence it is never played for money."

Benjamin Franklin, "Chess made easy", 1802

"It is one of the insights of modern players, and especially of the best ones, that one has toplay the position itself, not some abstract idea of the position."

John Watson, "Secrets of Modern Chess Strategy", 1998

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