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In 1914, world champion Emanuel Lasker was trailing future world champion J.R. Capablanca in a tournament, meaning that he needed to win, not just draw, against Capablanca.

He played the exchange variation of the Ruy Lopez, trading his best attacking pieces, his queen and light squared bishop, early in this classic game. For these reasons, the variation was considered "drawish." Except that Lasker won.

Here's some background that may explain why:

  1. Lasker was the best endgame player in the world. Capablanca was inferior (at the time) in this regard. (Both of these opinions are Capablanca's.)

  2. Capablanca was already a ferocious middle game player (and seen as such).

  3. At the time, Lasker was 46 years old and Capablanca was 26. Lasker was more "mature."

In "Chess Fundamentals," Capablanca noted that immediately after the queen exchange, "The reader should note that if all the pieces were exchanged, White would be practically a pawn ahead and therefore have a won game." In fact, Capablanca was "rattled" by the prospect of a lost endgame and therefore misplayed what passed for a middle game.

Even though it was regarded as "unconventional," did Lasker's strategy make sense from the point of view of his endgame advantage?

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  • By comparative advantage, do you mean this: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comparative_advantage
    – Scounged
    Jul 12, 2016 at 5:56
  • @Scounged: If Lasker and Capa are equally good in the middle game, and Lasker is better at the end game, Lasker has a comparative advantage in the endgame.
    – Tom Au
    Jul 12, 2016 at 6:01
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    @Tom Au: But if Capablanca is much better in the middle game and only a little better in the endgame, then Lasker has a comparative advantage in the endgame as well. In your example one would rather just say that Lasker has an advantage in endgame play. Jul 12, 2016 at 8:05
  • @BlindKungFuMaster:Ok, changed it to "endgame advantage." Thanks for your help.
    – Tom Au
    Jul 12, 2016 at 8:07

3 Answers 3

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It made perfect sense.

He was very familiar with the opening:

Lasker played hundreds of practice games with the Exchange Variation of the Ruy Lopez and discovered what he thought was every mistake White or Black could make.

Source: #247: 300 Wisest Things Said about Chess: With 300 Annotated Positions

Lasker was well known to adapt his playing style to the opponent's psychology.

Lasker was considered to have a "psychological" method of play in which he considered the subjective qualities of his opponent, in addition to the objective requirements of his position on the board. Richard Réti published a lengthy analysis of Lasker's play in which he concluded that Lasker deliberately played inferior moves that he knew would make his opponent uncomfortable.

Source: wikipedia

Your research has shown that the opening took Capablanca out of his stride and scored the full point, so yes it made perfect sense.

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White doubles Black's pawns in order to enter a winning endgame - White can create a passer, Black cannot. Thus, White's strategy could be to trade off all the pieces, before Black can put his pieces to work.

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  • How does this add anything to what's already been said?
    – David
    Aug 13, 2020 at 9:51
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Lasker already knew at that point that Capa was a far superior player and that's evidenced by the fact that when they met for the world championship, Lasker didn't win a single game. Lasker was playing for draws to save face. He knew he couldn't beat Capa and that's why he later tried to refuse to even play him for the world championship.

I completely disagree with your assertion that Lasker was better in the endgame. I learned a lot about the endgame from reading Capa's books. Maybe more than any other author. I can't say I ever learned anything from Lasker. He beat a near 60 year old Steinitz to win the title and then refused to play any top contenders for the next 30 years. When he finally did he lost and lost badly. Fischer called Lasker a "coffee house player" and I tend to agree. Lasker was still playing 1860s chess 60 years later. If Morphy had lived, Lasker would have never been world champion. Keep in mind, Morphy was actually younger than Steinitz and while both were alive, most estimates rate Morphy 400-500 rating points higher than Steinitz throughout their careers. That's roughly the difference between Magnus and an IM. So Lasker's world championship would be like somebody beating a 60 year old 2300, declaring themselves world champion and refusing to play any top players for the next 30 years.

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