Chess’ Romantic Age that began when Philidor dominated the nooks of France, Holland, and England was to reach its peak about fifty years after his death. By 1850, Romanticism was in full swing, and European masters would firmly assimilate the distinct Romantic style up to the last decades of the 19th century. It had many outstanding exponents, none deadlier and more feared than Adolf Anderssen.
In a time when chess’ positional foundations weren’t yet laid and Philidor’s principles were yet to be understood, Romantics played with the unsophisticated objective of mating the King. They wasted no time for the hunt, and daring sacrifices and fabulous combinations were the order of the day. In sharp, highly unbalanced games, Romantics would press relentlessly and cut through in brilliant fashion.
Romantic games may appear crude, but the best ones are also very aesthetic. Their defining qualities of attack, sustained tactics, and counter-attack, in fact, ushered the more enlightened era known as the Scientific Age where the classical principles known today were founded. Some of the most beautiful games in history come from the Romantic Age, and two, in particular, were played by Anderssen. They have come to be known as The Immortal Game and The Evergreen Game.
Anderssen was born in Wroclaw, Poland on July 6, 1818. He took an immediate interest in chess when he learned it from his father at the age of nine. He studied and wrote much about it, and even composed and published chess problems. Whatever competitive inclinations he had in these early years, however, had to defer to his studies. At eighteen, he took up Philosophy and Mathematics at the Breslau University, would graduate and eventually embark on a career as a Mathematics teacher.
While completing his degree, Anderssen would frequent the chess cafes of Breslau and soon prove the equal of the best local players. To his chagrin, however, he would always find himself bested by visiting German masters.
In the 1840s France and England were the strongest chess-playing nations, and a match was even arranged in 1843 between their champions, Pierre St. Amant and Howard Staunton, which French and British players then perceived as the first World Championship. Germany, however, was fast catching up, and boasted of strong players such as Baron von der Lasa, who was already touted to be as strong as Staunton himself.
Wishing to improve, Anderssen would visit Leipzig and Berlin to cross swords with the best German masters and earn his spurs. In 1848, he drew a match with Daniel Harrwitz, a professional and another one of the outstanding German masters. This result, along with his general reputation as a strong and rising contender, earned him an invitation to the Great London Tournament of 1851, the first-ever international chess tournament.
Up until the staging of the great event, there had been a clamor among the European chess community for a formal competition that would pit every nation’s best. With Europe nestling the strongest players anywhere, some proposed even that the winner be declared World Champion.
The tournament, adopting an elimination format, boasted a stellar field that included Howard Staunton himself, Henry Bird, Elijah Williams, and Marmaduke Wyvil of England, Bernard Horwitz, Johann Lowenthal, and Jozsef Szen of the German Empire, Lionel Kieseritzky of France and Carl Mayet of Poland.
Anderssen won the event, en route beating Howard Staunton 4-1. While he was not conferred the title of World Champion, and Anderssen himself did not consider himself one, the victory allowed him greater claim than anyone as the world’s best.
Now thrust into the chess limelight, Anderssen would intersperse serious and competitive play with his Mathematics professorial career. From the 1850s to the 60s he would play matches with the world’s leading lights such as Paul Morphy, Max Lange, Ignatz von Kolisch, Louie Paulsen, Gustav Nuemann, Wilhelm Steinitz, and Johannes Zukertort.
Matches were then accepted means of testing chess strength, but from the 1860s round-robin play where every participant meets all the others were becoming more common. It was in this kind of play that Anderssen truly excelled, and there left his mark as a true legend of the game. Finding himself with much time to spare from his professorial duties, Anderssen arduously dedicated himself to chess, with the result that the more advanced he passed into his playing career the finer his chess became. From the late 1850s up to the 1870s he compiled a tournament record of five first places, two-second places, two third places.
One of his most celebrated victories was the very strong Baden-Baden International tournament of 1870, which showcased a field that was even stronger than that of London 1851. Aside from his arch-rival Wilhelm Steinitz, the field included England’s Joseph Henry “The Blackdeath” Blackburne and Cecille de Vere, the German Empire’s Gustav Neumann and Louie Paulsen, the Russian Empire’s Syzmon Winawer, and France’s Samuel Rosenthal.
Wilhelm Steinitz had defeated Anderssen in a match in 1866 and was slowly taking the mantle as the new top player. With his victory, however, Anderssen emphatically proclaimed that he wasn’t conceding his throne yet.
Baden-baden 1870 was the first tournament ever to use chess clocks, and ranks as one of the strongest tournaments of the 19th century, even arguably a top twenty of all time. While London 1851 was perhaps more significant as a “first” in history, Baden-baden was certainly Anderssen’s most defining achievement.
Quite significantly, as Anderssen was dominating these tournaments late in his career, his play began to evolve. His open, derring-do games shifted into the slow, maneuvering type, a style that heralded chess’ future. Soon Steinitz would lay down the game’s classical foundations, but just at about the same time that he was ushering the chess world into a new era, Anderssen had already awakened to the idea that the more fundamentally correct way to play was to fight for and exploit small advantages. As predominantly Romantic as he was, Anderssen was also a thinker.
Quite notably, too, Anderssen was admired for a genial personality that belied his ferocity on the board. He was a true gentleman who always wore a smile and whose sportsmanship was rare among competitors then. In his later years was treated like a beloved senior statesman whom everybody wanted to have a game with for the sheer pleasure of defeating him, if they were fortunate enough to. His rival Steinitz not only admired him but gave him the utmost respect when he said:
“Anderssen was honest and honourable to the core. Without fear or favour he straightforwardly gave his opinion, and his sincere disinterestedness became so patent….that his word alone was usually sufficient to quell disputes…for he had often given his decision in favour of a rival…”
True, more glorious days for chess still lay ahead, and chess understanding was to deepen like it never had in the coming Scientific Age, but the era of Romanticism stands out for unbounded artistry. Anderssen is its quintessential figure, and his best games are some of the most dazzling ever. He is undoubtedly one of the greatest tacticians and attackers in history, an artist of the highest class who continues to inspire players today with the beauty and magnificence of chess.
- Chess Secrets: The Great Romantics by Craig Pritchett
- Wikipedia on Adolf Anderssen
- Wikipedia on The Baden-baden Chess Tournament of 1870
- Chess Secrets: The Great Romantics by Craig Pritchett
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