The draughty state of E Lasker
William Hartston rediscovers a game invented by one of the first world chess champions
Saturday 07 June 1997
So Lasker invented Laska (or Lasca, or Laskers, as later versions of the same game came to be known). For the rules that follow, and a good deal of the rest of the information in this piece, we are grateful to our reader Stanley Daniels, who put us on the trail of this forgotten game.
The game is similar to draughts, played on a seven-by-seven board. Each player starts with 11 men, placed on his back three ranks. Moves and capturing are just as in draughts, with one crucial exception: when a man is captured, it is not removed from the board, but placed underneath the man that captured it.
In the position illustrated, White has made his first move into the board's centre square and Black has captured it, resulting in a two-storey piece with the white man below the black one. White now recaptures, with one of his two men placed to do so, jumping over the double-decker and removing its top layer only, which will then reside beneath the capturing man, leaving a single black piece on the square formerly occupied by the double- decker. If a two-tier piece makes a capture, it will grow another level.
Piles may grow in size as the game proceeds, but in every case are under the control of the player whose colour is on top. You win the game when you control all the piles. As in normal draughts, you must make a capture if one is possible. Also as in draughts, a piece promotes to a king if it reaches the other side. You then need some way to mark it, because it will remain a king for the rest of the game, even if subsequently submerged beneath other pieces. The power of any pile of pieces, however (ie whether it moves as a king or an ordinary man) is determined by the status of the piece on top.
And that's about all there is to it. Whereas in chess and normal draughts, the position tends to become simpler and more technical as captures limit the number of pieces on the board, nothing ever leaves the playing area in Laska, and every capture is liable to increase the complexity of the position. As a simple example, consider the pile that results from a series of captures of several single pieces by one white piece. This will leave a pile in White's control, but a black monster with many lives lurks beneath it. One capture of the pile will leave a piece in Black's control that needs to be captured several times before White can claim it as his own.
(And before you ask, no, a king cannot hop backwards and forwards over the same piece, lopping off layer after layer in a single move.)
After its invention in 1911, the game of Laska was played by several notable chess masters including its inventor's namesake, Edward Lasker, and the great German world title challenger Dr Siegbery Tarrasch. All seem to have received it favourably, but somehow the game never caught on.
The games historian David Pritchard tells us that Lasca (with a "c") was first marketed by CET. & Co shortly after its invention, and a patent applied for. It was described as a "great military game - a game to teach cautiousness and tactics". There is evidence of only one "Laska Association", a short-lived organisation at Clare College, Cambridge in the Seventies.
We shall be grateful for any further information or sightings of this lost game.
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