The best chess players in history are great for different reasons. Some were simply geniuses who were too far ahead of their times. Others were fighters who consistently dominated their rivals. Yet still, a few were thinkers whose ideas shaped the development of the game, changed the approach to it, and profoundly influenced the succeeding generations. The first World Champion, Wilhelm Steinitz, is a man of this mold, and is arguably the greatest chess thinker of all time.
Steinitz was born on May 14, 1836 in Prague, the capital of the Kingdom of Bohemia that is now the Czech Republic. He was the last of thirteen children of a very poor family that lived in a Jewish ghetto. His father was a tailor and a Jewish teacher who groomed the young Steinitz to become a rabbi.
Jews in Prague then were strictly confined and regulated in the ghetto, but around 1850 these ghettos were abolished. Steinitz found himself free to roam the city and, having already learned chess from his father, took to visiting its chess cafes. One of these was the Café Wein, the chess haunt of the best players of Prague.
Steinitz showed early aptitude for mathematics that his parents soon had to abandon their plans of a religious vocation for him, and sent him instead to the Vienna Polytechnicum in 1857. Now twenty, Steinitz was a few years late for the university, but the delay was inevitable due to his family’s poverty.
Vienna whetted Steinitz appetite for chess, and he soon frequented Café Rebhuhn, one of the strongest chess clubs in Europe. On the day that he first set foot on the club, he reputedly asked for the strongest players. “What do you know about chess,” the club members asked? “I could play blindfold,” Steinitz quickly replied, and then proceeded to beat two good players with his back to the board. There may be some truth to this story as when Steinitz left for Vienna he had developed into an outstanding player at the Café Wein, quite possibly one of the strongest already in the whole of Prague.
Steinitz supported himself and his studies by working as a journalist. His income from it, however, proved insufficient, forcing him to abandon the university and turn to chess for a living.
Whatever the practical merits of leaving school, Steinitz justified it by gradually becoming Vienna’s strongest player. He progressed in the national championships from third in 1859, second in 1860, and clear first in 1861 on the strength of thirty wins and one loss in thirty-four games. His dominance brought back memories of the great Paul Morphy’s swashbuckling conquest of Europe in 1857, and with their games sharing that markedly Romantic, attacking style, Steinitz was given the moniker “The Austrian Morphy.”
Following his victory in 1861, Steinitz was asked by the Vienna Chess Society to represent Austria in the second Great London Tournament of 1862. This was to be his first international tournament, a gathering of the world’s best players where Steinitz could truly test himself. The field included Adolf Anderssen, who was then considered the world’s strongest active player following Morphy’s “retirement,” Louie Paulsen and Johan Lowenthal, two of Morphy’s rivals who have highly accomplished players themselves.
Anderssen won the tournament, with Steinitz finishing only sixth. He was disappointed, but his participation in the great event brought consequences greater than he might have thought.
The first of these was that Steinitz would attempt to stay in London for good, which in turn enhanced his playing strength. London nestled Europe’s best players, and they offered Steinitz higher quality opposition than elsewhere if he was to improve and fulfill what was already his life purpose of climbing the chess summit. London, too, would present him a new and viable endeavor in chess journalism. The city saw chess columns flourishing in various dailies, and Steinitz would eventually find engagement as a chess writer and analyst as he became more renowned.
The second consequence was that Steinitz’ frustrating finish led him to challenge the fifth-place finisher, Serafino Dubois, to a nine-game match. Dubois was a veteran Italian master who had also settled in London, but Steinitz regarded him such that he should not have finished below him.
Steinitz won this match 5-3, but far more than proving a point to himself, it opened his awareness to his strength in match play. This victory would be the first of what would come to be twenty-seven total match wins out of twenty-nine he would play from 1863 to 1894, a span of thirty-one years.
In London, Steinitz would thrive playing for stakes, low ones against wealthy clients willing to learn from him and high ones against acclaimed masters, usually in long matches. These matches, especially, were the gladiatorial chess contests of London’s old days when each had backers who put up the stakes. Very often the players themselves threw in their share, with the result that the huge bets on every side made for very nerve-wracking encounters.
In this sort of high-stakes combat Steinitz beat Joseph Henry Blackburne in 1863 (8-2), and Henry Bird in 1866 (7-5), two of England’s best. Defeating them meant Steinitz had risen as London’s strongest player, a fact that had wealthy English backers craving for a match with Anderssen.
The match against Anderssen was arranged in London 1866, a grueling one that saw Steinitz victorious, 8-6 with no draws. Many would regard 1866 as the year Steinitz emerged as the world’s best, and he himself would look back to it as the year he became world champion.
As significant as his conquest of Anderssen was, however, Steinitz claim as world champion was tenuous at best. The match was tied at 6-6, and it was only by some stroke of fortune that he was able to win the last two games. In the succeeding years, he could not show clear superiority over Anderssen. Anderssen, in fact, would win the great Baden-Baden tournament of 1870, beating Steinitz in their two encounters.
Baden-Baden was one of the strongest tournaments ever, at the time. It included the best players of Germany, France, Austria, and England, and Steinitz sorely wanted to win it if only to affirm his belief that he had toppled Anderssen off his pedestal. As it turned out, however, Anderssen celebrated the most stunning achievement of his life, while Steinitz was left licking his wounds.
The defeat so affected Steinitz that he began a deep, arduous study not only of his own games but also of his fellow masters. He realized that he could beat the best of them consistently in open, attacking play, but labored in the closed games that every true Romantic despised. In particular, he found Louis Paulsen’s style mysterious. Paulsen was slow with his attack, and in a time when the order of every game was to mate the opponent off the blocks, he was supposed to be easily crushed. Yet, Paulsen was always one of the toughest nuts to crack.
Steinitz soon realized that by playing slowly one was in fact building small advantages and gaining concessions until they all became overwhelming. He formulated precepts for this new playing style, and waited for his chance to unleash it.
This opportunity came in the strong Vienna International Tournament of 1873. Steinitz would win it, ahead of Anderssen and Paulsen himself, one of the few times that he outperformed Anderssen in a non-individual match format. Steinitz’s play was now markedly different, but it was yet incomprehensible to his rivals.
Shortly after this victory, Steinitz would take a nine-year hiatus from the competition. He would spend this period for the other major activity of his professional career – chess journalism. In 1873, he would become the chess correspondent of The Field, the leading British sports magazine.
Steinitz now found a platform in his chess columns to demonstrate the principles of his new approach. Whereas analysts before him treated the game only concretely, that is, they merely showed the correct play based on accurate calculation, Steinitz taught the value of general assessment, or the evaluation of a position based on positional elements such as pawn structure, space, development, piece activity, outposts for knights, and the advantage of the two bishops. Just as games were won by impressive attacks and good calculation, so were they by creating, manipulating, and exploiting these positional elements.
Chess players gradually awakened to this fresh perspective. Those of the old generation found that it was just as powerful as their old style, and those of the new one honed themselves to a fundamentally stronger theoretical foundation. In time the old Romantic style of play hardly became discernible, and chess’ Classical Age began.
Steinitz emerged from his hiatus by winning the Vienna International Tournament of 1882. By then, however, Anderssen had passed away and a new force had emerged on the block. He was a protégé of Anderssen who had beaten Anderssen himself in a match in 1871, 5-2. He was Johannes Hermann Zukertort.
Zukertort responded to Steinitz 1882 victory by winning the equally strong London International Tournament of 1883. He did so dominantly, winning the first twenty-two of his twenty-three games, that against the world’s strongest players. In exhibitions, he could play as many as sixteen boards blindfolded. With a man of his caliber, the English backers’ cravings were stoked once again.
This match between Steinitz and Zukertort would be arranged in 1886. Everyone, from the financial backers to the players themselves, termed the match the first World Championship. Although no rigid qualification process had yet been established for anyone to audaciously call the match as such, there was no question that the world’s two most eminent players sat across each other. The match was as colossal as it was historic.
At the time the match was played Steinitz had already moved to New York of the USA. Whether the transfer did him any good, the fact was that Steinitz, a small man barely over five feet tall, was an offensive fellow. He had made many foes with his sharp tongue and violent temper and felt ostracized in London. Wealthy Englishmen who wished to see his downfall were quick and eager to finance the match.
The match was for the first to win ten games, with play divided among the cities of New York, St. Louis, and New Orleans in the USA. The stake was $4000 raised by both players equally, a huge sum then.
Zukertort raced to a 4-1 lead, but in the end he succumbed to Steinitz and his new style, 10-5. Steinitz had officially become the first World Champion. It was very apparent that Zukertort could attack and combine as well as Steinitz could, but Steinitz was far superior in quiet positions that called for patient maneuvering. The true Romantic in Zukertort was likely too proud to assimilate his great rival’s theories.
Steinitz would successfully defend his title three times, twice against Mikhail Chigorin in 1889 and 1892, and against Isidor Gunsberg in 1890. The matches against Chigorin were also great clashes of style, as Chigorin was one of the last outstanding Romantics. Steinitz’s victories over him all the more proved the superiority of his ideas.
Steinitz would finally lose his title to Emanuel Lasker 1894, but by then he was already fifty-eight and well past his prime. Lasker was a thoroughly classical player, and aside from being Steinitz’ junior by more than three decades, was a more ferocious practical fighter than any of the three previous challenges. They would play a rematch in 1896, but Lasker’s victory was even more decisive than the first.
Steinitz would continue playing as a deposed champion and finished respectably in great tournaments such as Hastings 1895, St. Petersburg 1895, Nuremberg 1896, and Vienna and Cologne in 1898. Only in London 1899 did he fail to land a prize, but then his health had already seriously deteriorated that he would pass away the following year.
No one has caused as many sweeping changes to the approach to chess as did Steinitz, and he stands today as its most influential figure. What his then-revolutionary theory said, and what he really made everyone understand is that a game at the start is, in truth, equal, and it would continue to be equal if the players make good moves.
Only when a mistake is made does the other gain an advantage, either in the form of material, initiative and any of the aforementioned positional elements. Playing for these advantages, exploiting them, and successfully transforming one to the other is what is known now as positional play while employing a consistent, long-term plan from the opening to the endgame to gain a decisive advantage is known as strategy. The Romantic kind of attack that is launched in equal positions, and without having yet an advantage, will be doomed to fail against the correct defense. Every good player in the past one hundred years has been brought up on this knowledge.
Perhaps Steinitz himself best summed up his legacy, and this statement he made reveals that just as he had discovered many truths on the chessboard, he had also seen the real significance of his life’s work:
“I was champion of the world for twenty-eight years because I was twenty years ahead of my time. I played on certain principles, which neither Zukertort nor anyone else of his time understood. The players of today, such as Lasker, Tarrasch, Pillsbury, Schlechter and others have adopted my principles, and as is only natural, they have improved upon what I began, and that is the whole secret of the matter.”
If it weren’t up to Steinitz, the most truthful encapsulation of him may have been uttered by an adoring fan who followed his games. “This little man,” he said, “taught us all to play chess.”
REPRODUCED ANTIQUE 1865-70 STEINITZ STAUNTON CHESSMEN
Dimensions: King Height - 3.75" (95 mm) King Base - 1.65" (42 mm)
The Steinitz Series Luxury Chess Pieces - 3.5" King
The following games of Steinitz are worthy of close study:
- Steinitz vs Meitner – A demonstration of Steinitz’s Romantic style
- Steinitz vs. Anderssen – A demonstration of the new positional style that Steinitz unleashed in the great Vienna International Tournament of 1873
- Rosenthal vs. Steinitz – A demonstration of the positional principle of the advantage of two Bishops
- Steinitz vs. Chigorin – A demonstration of Steinitz’s theory that powerful attacks spring from superior positional play.
- Steinitz vs. von Bardeleben – Steinitz’s magnum opus, and a demonstration of how to conduct an attack.
Sources and suggested readings:
- Wilhelm Steinitz by Isaac Linder
- Kings of Chess by William Hartston
- Chess Secrets: Masters of Innovation by Craig Pritchett
- Improve Your Chess by Lars Bo Hansen
- Steinitz: Move by Move by Craig Pritchett
- From Morphy To Fischer by Al Horowitz
- Masters of the Chessboard by Richard Reti
- Kings of Chess by Paul Van der Sterren
- The Big Book of World Chess Championships by Andre Schultz
- Foundations of Chess Strategy by Lars Bo Hansen
- Wikipedia on Wilhelm Steinitz
- Wikipedia on the London International tournament of 1862
- Wikepedia on the Vienna International Tournament of 1873
- Wikepedia on the Vienna International Tournament of 1882
- Wikepedia on the London International tournament of 1883
- Wikepedia on Johannes Hermann Zukertort