Emanuel was born in the Prussian province of Brandenburg into a Jewish family. His mother was Rosalie Israelssohn while his father was Adolf Lasker, a cantor in the synagogue whose role there was to lead the liturgical prayers and chanting. Emanuel had an older brother Berthold and, when sent to attend school in Berlin when he was eleven years old, Emanuel was taught to play chess by Berthold who was a student in the medical faculty there. He made some money playing chess in the local cafés, but he did not become a serious chess player until about the age of fifteen.
In fact Emanuel's parents were so worried that he was devoting too much time to chess and not enough to his school work that they told Berthold to find another school for Emanuel. However, the head of this new school was president of the local chess club and the mathematics master was the local chess champion, so in his new secondary school Emanuel continued to show remarkable talents at both mathematics and at chess. In 1888 he obtained his abitur in Landsberg an der Warthe, now a Polish town named Gorzow Wielkopolski.
Lasker studied mathematics and philosophy at the universities in Berlin, Göttingen and Heidelberg but he combined his studies with playing chess. In 1889 he won his first chess tournament in Berlin and, a month later, he won the Hauptturnier in Breslau which earned him the German title of Master of Chess.