The old lion is still able to bite.
World Champion Dr. Emanuel Lasker defeated Cuba's José R. Capablanca to take the lead after seven rounds of the winners' group at the St. Petersburg international Masters' tournament. Lasker, playing White, employed the Exchange Variation of the Ruy Lopez - a line that has served him well in the past - to hand his young rival his first defeat of the tournament. The surging Champion, who trailed Capablanca by one and one-half points only three rounds ago, now stands atop the score table with 12 points, a full point ahead of Capablanca's 11, although the Cuban, holding a game in hand, can still reclaim a share of the lead with a victory over Dr. Siegbert Tarrasch in the next round, when Lasker will sit idle with the bye. Tarrasch fell in the day's other game to Russia's Alexander Alekhine, losing in 51 moves from the White side of a French Defense. Frank J. Marshall was free.
The World Champion, whose play earlier in the tournament was at times unsteady, seems to have found his full strength precisely when he needs it most. He has now won four games in succession, defeating each of his fellow-finalists in turn after failing to record even a single victory against any member of that quartet in the tourney's preliminary round. The Doctor's most recent games have displayed in brilliant fashion his multifarious chess talents: triumphs over Tarrasch and Marshall in complex tactical battles, a long and difficult endgame victory over Alekhine, and now a positional and strategic masterpiece vs. Capablanca. This, surely, is the Lasker the St. Petersburg organizers hoped to see when they induced him to enter the tournament lists for the first time in five years; this is a Champion.
But the contest is far from over, and Capablanca can assure himself of no worse than a tie for first place by winning in the final three rounds vs. Tarrasch, Marshall, and Alekhine, each of whom he has already defeated once during the tournament. Five years ago at St. Petersburg Lasker and Rubinstein, after an all-out race, finished shoulder-to-shoulder at the wire. We may well see a similar result again.
Scores after Round 7 of the winners' group: Lasker 12, Capablanca* 11; Alekhine 9 1/2; Marshall* 7 1/2; Tarrasch 7.
Players marked with an asterisk (*) have had the bye.
We must confess that upon first receiving the Lasker vs. Capablanca game score we were surprised to find that the Champion had chosen the Exchange Variation of the Ruy Lopez in such a vital encounter, having expected a more enterprising debut. Upon a bit of reflection and research, however, our surprise lessened, as we began to recall that Dr. Lasker had previously wielded this same weapon in World Championship matches vs. Steinitz and Tarrasch, as well as against such luminaries as Chigorin, Schlechter, and Janowski, and usually with success. He knows the line well, and finds in it ample scope for interesting play - certainly reasons enough to call upon it again. (We note in passing that the Champion's familiarity with the Exchange Variation is not limited to the White side of the board, as very recent experience makes clear: the position after Black's eighth move in the Lasker-Capablanca encounter is nearly identical to the one that arose at the same point in the Alekhine-Lasker contest from the previous round, the only difference being the substitution by Capablanca of ...Ne7 for Lasker's ...f6.)
The move 12.f5 has given rise to much discussion in our club, with some members labeling it a positional error, inasmuch as the e5-square is thereby ceded to Black and the White e-pawn becomes a target on the file. Others, however, see rather more merits than demerits in the move, noting that the f5 pawn advance restricts Black's Knight and Queen's Bishop while gaining control of the e6-square. To arbitrate such a question is beyond our playing strength; we do note, however, that while White's Knight became powerfully entrenched on e6, its Black counterpart never succeeded in reaching e5, and that the ostensibly weak White e-pawn survived to deliver a decisive blow at the 35th move, sacrificing itself on the very square thought to reside most securely in enemy hands. Our own impression of the struggle as a whole is that Dr. Lasker's play appears direct and to the point, gaining ground throughout on all sectors of the board, while that of Capablanca seems uncharacteristically dilatory and without purpose, in marked contrast to his previous efforts in this event. In the end Capablanca found himself completely encircled, with the White Rooks having invaded on the a- and h-files and the enemy Knight poised to deliver the death blow. We are informed that the Champion's victory - without doubt one of his finest games - was met with thunderous applause.
Alekhine won a fine game from Tarrasch, a strong performance rather overshadowed by the dramatic clash between the two leaders. The Russian Master once again employed the McCutcheon Variation of the French Defense, as he had done vs. Marshall in the third round of the winners' group. Black soon obtained a good game, and when Dr. Tarrasch at the 11th move chose not to offer the exchange of Queens via 11.Qe2 but opted instead for 11.Kd2?!, he seems to have stimulated the imagination of his youthful opponent, ready as ever to attack. Alekhine began directing his forces toward the Queen-side, residence of the White monarch, and with a series of clever strokes (20...Rd8, 23...c4) Black developed a dangerous initiative. With 27...Rda6! Alekhine offered his Queen, whose capture Tarrasch was compelled perforce to refuse on pain of mate in 2. The lady remained en prise until Alekhine's 30...Rxa2 initiated a transaction leaving him with Queen and two pawns against the opposing Rooks, with the second player enjoying in addition continuing attacking chances against the beleaguered White King. Within the space of a further dozen moves Alekhine had collected White's remaining pair of pawns; Dr. Tarrasch subsequently resigned at the 51st move. The Doctor, who according to reports from St. Petersburg has been feeling rather unwell of late, has scored only one half-point from six games in the winner's group. And his troubles may not be at an end: in the next two rounds he faces Capablanca and Lasker.