Wilhelm Steinitz – The First World Champion of Chess


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Steinitz Memorial Chess Tournament

The Steinitz Memorial tournament is taking place at the moment and the current World Champion, Magnus Carlsen, is among the participants. The tournament sees a host of current chess stars paying honour to the first World Champion of chess.

We shall present the highlights from the event over the course of next week but today we are focusing on the man behind the name.

Rich Chess Heritage

The reliance on computer preparation can lead to gaps in the general knowledge of chess players.  Items not linked directly to tuning up for future successes tend to be overlooked completely.

This approach runs the risk of losing touch with our rich chess heritage. Therefore, to try and bridge the gap, we present a short piece looking at the life of Wilhelm Steinitz, in the hope that readers will have more of an understanding about why there is a need for a tournament in his honour. We can only scratch the surface here; the intention is to encourage further reading about one of the game’s greatest characters.

Wolf Steinitz on the Move

Despite being dubbed ‘The Austrian Morphy,’ Steinitz was actually born in Prague in 1836. Originally his name was Wolf Steinitz. This changed some time prior to him moving from Prague to Vienna. He went on to spend a significant amount of time in London before moving on to New York.

Steinitz cemented his importance in chess history firmly in place by becoming the first official world champion of chess, thanks to his match victory over Johannes Zukertort in 1886.

There are claims to extend Steinitz’s tenure at the top of the world – all the way back to 1866 in fact, when he defeated Adolf Anderssen in a match – but Paul Morphy’s shadow loomed large over such claims until his death in 1884.

Successful Defence; Eventual Defeat

Subsequent title matches against Mikhail Chigorin (1889 and again in 1892) and Isidor Gunsberg (1890-1) brought further success for Steinitz and the retention of his title.

He eventually lost the crown to Emanuel Lasker in 1894 and failed to regain it in a rematch two years later. There is no doubt that Lakser was the stronger player but Steinitz was never one to shirk a challenge.

Even then his chess career was not yet over. Going on to earn a fine fourth place at the great Vienna tournament of 1898 (won by Tarrasch, although Lasker was unfortunately absent) he then went straight on to the Cologne tournament, when several other competitors from Vienna were already exhausted. A remarkable demonstration of stamina from the old champion! His final appearance at the London tournament of 1889 saw him finish outside of the prizes for the first time in 40 years.

Changing Methods of the Champion

In his early years his style of play adhered to the norm; a strong reliance on the strength of the attack. Openings had to be sharp and the King’s Gambit remained prevalent. Yet Steinitz, always his own man, came to understand and appreciate that positional matters were important too. He was, for instance, firmly of the opinion that an attack is incorrect unless one has the advantage and also that if one has the advantage then there is an obligation to attack, otherwise the advantage will slip away.

Trying to make a living from chess still sounds a curious notion in 2020. Imagine how it would have been in the 1880s. Steinitz relied partly on chess journalism to make ends meet. Studying and annotating games for his chess columns helped him develop and he also had a platform to write about his theories.

Steinitz and the Ink Wars

In a precursor of the Internet era, Steinitz became involved in the infamous Ink Wars with his own chess column in The Field battling publicly with Leopold Hoffer and Zukertort’s Chess Monthly. Heated exchanges led to Steinitz proposing the disagreements should be settled over the chess board.

There were significant gaps in his tournament appearances (for example, after Vienna 1873 he didn’t play in another tournament until Vienna1882). Health issues – both physical and mental – certainly played a part in his erratic appearances, but when he did play he was always true to his own ideas and theories.

The End of an Era

Wilhelm Steinitz died in 1900. It brought to an end one great era of chess and ushered in a new one, which would be built largely upon his theories. Lasker, his immediate successor, kept the flame of Steinitz burning brightly. As part of a glowing tribute in his famous Manual of Chess he wrote: ‘His theory is and forever remains the classical expression of the idea of chess.’

Steinitz played many fabulous games. It is fascinating to follow his career and see him sticking stubbornly to his own theories. All the time, he was dragging the game of chess, kicking and screaming, into a brand new era. He was certainly ahead of his time and he laid the foundation stones upon which the world built a deeper understanding of chess.

Bishops vs. Knights

This snippet was one of the concluding blows in the long-running debate between Steinitz and Chigorin. The Chigorin Defence often leads to the exchange of both of Black’s bishops for the two white knights. It was a battle of ideas neither player would concede. Steinitz was on the side of the two bishops and Chigorin frequently worked wonders with his knight pair.

World Champion Steinitz against Chigorin

Steinitz – Chigorin

Vienna, 1898

There are various ways for Steinitz to win. However, he must have been happy to let the bishop have the final say over the knight. He played 40 Bxg6 Nxg6+ 41 Kxf5 1-0

Incidentally, tactics occur regularly in endgames despite the reduced material. To sharpen up we can recommend our course on Van Perlo’s Endgame Tactics.

Anyone interested in learning more about the life and times of Steinitz should consult William Steinitz, Chess Champion (McFarland, 1993) and The Steinitz Papers (McFarland, 2002) both written by Kurt Landsberger (who was Steinitz’s great grandnephew). Watch out too for the forthcoming Steinitz in London (McFarland, 2020) by Tim Harding.

Meanwhile, as you enjoy watching the games of the Steinitz Memorial on Chess24, spare a thought for the great man himself and imagine him nodding in approval when he sees his theories in action, as played by great players of the current era.

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