Chess secrets: from Lasker to Carlsen

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Chess secrets: from Lasker to Carlsen

Comparing the records of the world chess champions has become a popular pursuit. Such investigations have been fuelled by the fiftieth anniversary of Bobby Fischer’s conquest of the championship, which fell precisely at the end of last month. Debate has been intensified by the announcement from the reigning champion, Magnus Carlsen, that he will retire from his throne while still undefeated. Only two previous champions achieved this feat: Alexander Alekhine in 1946 by passing away while in retention of the title, and Bobby Fischer in 1975, by forfeiting his title without moving a pawn in defence. Both Carlsen and Alekhine played no fewer than five matches for the championship, Fischer just one, thus seriously disappointing his millions of fans around the world.

Earlier this year I suggested that Emanuel Lasker might have been the greatest champion of them all. Coincidentally, a new book by the ever reliable Steve Giddins, in partnership with Gerard Welling, has proposed a most innovative instruction manual, The Lasker Method to Improve in Chess, published by New In Chess — a curious simultaneous endorsement of my own recent analysis.

Chess enthusiasts love statistics. This week I have taken my research even further, to ascertain who was the most effective World Champion, by collecting all the results of games between the sixteen World Champions and working out the percentages between them. In other words, a league table of the best against the best.

Below is the table of World Champions’ results (in classical time limit games only) against other World Champions whom they have played.

World Champions’ percentages against other World Champions, in chronological order

1 Wilhelm Steinitz 46.79%

2 Emanuel Lasker 60.59%

3 José Raul Capablanca 54.59%

4 Alexander Alekhine 51.09%

5 Max Euwe 41.60%

6 Mikhail Botvinnik 51.16%

7 Vasily Smyslov 47.46%

8 Mikhail Tal 48.51%

9 Tigran Petrosian 49.35%

10 Boris Spassky 47.06%

11 Bobby Fischer 54.67%

12 Anatoly Karpov 50.48%

13 Garry Kasparov 53.74%

14 Vladimir Kramnik 50.00%

15 Viswanathan Anand 48.09%

16 Magnus Carlsen 52.58%

It is interesting that Emanuel Lasker, the second champion, with a very long reign of 27 years, comes out on top. Meanwhile, in spite of his refusal to defend the title, Bobby Fischer edges out the sublime Capablanca for silver medal in this celestial battle of the grandest of grandmasters on the peak of Mount Olympus.

Lasker’s percentage lead is clear and quite extraordinary. It includes games stretching from 1894 to 1936 against Steinitz, Capablanca, Alekhine, Euwe and Botvinnik — a remarkable display of chessboard longevity.

Interestingly, Carlsen’s style appears to imitate that of his great predecessor, Emanuel Lasker.  I have summarised the winning formula, present in the games of perhaps the greatest historic and the reigning champion, encapsulated in ten easy to learn memorable “M” principles. Standing for Magnus: the World Champion will standardly put these into practice. Of course, Magnus did not invent these principles; they are present in the victories of all great champions. The games of Magnus Carlsen, though, are the clearest contemporary expression of this winning programme, also clearly visible in the games of Emanuel Lasker.

Mental Stamina: the resilience to fight through remorselessly to the end.

Motivation: Fierce desire to succeed. Without these first two M qualities, no aspiring champion will ever succeed. There have been outstanding players in the history of chess, such as Johannes Zukertort, Akiba Rubinstein, Paul Keres and Peter Leko, who have been highly creative and technically immaculate — yet, lacking Mental Stamina and Motivation to the most extreme degree, they never quite fulfilled their ambition of reaching the very top.

Mobilisation: Activating resources at your command.

Momentum: seizing and maintaining the initiative.

Material: converting momentum to material advantage.

Muralism: A word which I have coined from the Latin word Murus, a wall, implying here impenetrable defence against enemy attacks. Away from the chess board this would imply having no moral or ethical chinks in one’s affairs.

Masquerade: mastering the art of deception, throwing the opposition off balance by an unexpected manoeuvre or sacrifice.

Massacre: moving in for the kill and showing no mercy.

Mate: the coup de grâce. Most opponents will surrender or resign before final evisceration occurs; but it is important to maintain vigilance to the very end.

And one M to avoid: Mistake.

Not all Carlsen games can exemplify all the M’s. However, the linked game from a tumultuous moment in world chess history shows some key applications of the M for Magnus principles.

Norway was in uproar; India in mourning and chess trended on Twitter at number three slot in the world. Magnus Carlsen finally broke through to score a decisive victory in his $5 million dollar World Championship Challenge against the previous Champion, Viswanathan Anand. As has become customary, Carlsen, like Lasker, achieved no advantage from the opening, but a tense and complex position where a draw was unlikely. Under intense pressure, Anand eventually plunged from the tightrope he had been carefully navigating, vanished into the precipice and lost both game and title in one fell swoop.

Is Carlsen the modern counterpart to Lasker? You judge on our Style Council;

Emanuel Lasker vs. Jose Raul Capablanca (1914)

Alexander Alekhine vs Emanuel Lasker (1924)

Viswanathan Anand vs Magnus Carlsen (2013)

Raymond Keene s latest book Fifty Shades of Ray: Chess in the year of the Coronavirus”, containing some of his best pieces from TheArticle, is now available from  Blackwell s .


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Member ratings
  • Well argued: 97%
  • Interesting points: 100%
  • Agree with arguments: 97%
36 ratings - view all

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