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    Wilhelm Steinitz


    Tenacious Master of the Defence

    Wilhelm (later William) Steinitz (May 17, 1836August 12, 1900) was an Austrian-American chess player and the first undisputed world chess champion from 1886 to 1894; some contemporaries and later writers described him as world champion since 1866, when he won a match against Adolf Anderssen. Steinitz lost his title to Emanuel Lasker in 1894 and also lost a re-match in 1897.

    Statistical rating systems give Steinitz a rather low ranking among world champions, mainly because he took several long breaks from competitive play. However, an analysis based on one of these rating systems shows that he was one of the three most dominant players in the history of the game.

    Although Steinitz became "world number one" by winning in the all-out attacking style that was common in the 1860s, he unveiled in 1873 a new positional style of play and demonstrated that it was superior to the old style. His new style was controversial and some even branded it as "cowardly", but many of Steinitz's games showed that it could also provide a platform for attacks as ferocious as those of the old school. Steinitz was also a prolific writer on chess, and defended his new ideas vigorously. The debate was so bitter and sometimes abusive that it became known as the "Ink War". But by the early 1890s Steinitz' approach was widely accepted and the next generation of top players acknowledged their debt to him, most notably his successor as world champion, Emanuel Lasker. As a result of his play and writings Steinitz, along with Paul Morphy, is considered by many chess commentators to be the founder of modern chess.

    As a result of the "Ink War", traditional accounts of Steinitz' character depict him as ill-tempered and aggressive; but more recent research shows that he had long and friendly relationships with many players and chess organizations. Most notably in 1888 to 1889 he co-operated with the American Chess Congress in a project to define rules for the future conduct of contests for the world championship title that he held.

    Steinitz was unskilled at managing money and lived in poverty all his life

    Willi against Mikhail Tchigorin


    Steinitz was born on May 17, 1836 in the Jewish ghetto of Prague (now capital of the Czech Republic; then part of the Austrian Empire), the last of a hardware retailer's thirteen sons. He learned to play chess at age 12.

    He began playing serious chess in his twenties, after leaving Prague to study mathematics in Vienna. He improved rapidly in the late 1850s, progressing from 3rd place in the 1859 Vienna championship to 1st in 1861 with a score of 30/31. In this period he was nicknamed "the Austrian Morphy".
    Steinitz was then sent to represent Austria in the London International Tournament of 1862. He placed sixth, but his win over Augustus Mongredien was awarded the tournament's brilliancy prize. He immediately challenged the 5th-placed contestant, the Italian player Serafino Dubois, to a match, which Steinitz won (5 wins, 1 draw, 3 losses).This encouraged him to turn professional and he took residence in London. In 1862-63 Steinitz scored a crushing win in a match with Joseph Henry Blackburne, who went on to be one of the world's top ten for 20 years but had only started playing chess 2 years earlier. Steinitz then convincingly beat most of the leading UK-resident players in matches: Frederic Deacon, Augustus Mongredien, Green, and Robey. This charge up the rankings had a price: in March 1963 Steinitz apologized in a letter to Ignác Kolisch for not repaying a loan, because while Steinitz had been beating Blackburne Daniel Harrwitz had "taken over" all of Steinitz' clients at the London chess club, who had been Steinitz' main source of income.

    Willi against Mongredien


    Narrarated in German

    Above...Adolph Anderssen

    These successes established Steinitz as one of the world's top players, and he was able to arrange a match in 1866 in London against Adolf Anderssen, who was regarded as the world's strongest active player because he had won the 1851 and 1862 London International Tournaments and his one superior, Paul Morphy, had retired from competitive chess. Steinitz won with 8 wins and 6 losses (there were no draws), but it was a hard fight; after 12 games the scores were level at 6-6, then Steinitz won the last two games. As a result of this win Steinitz was generally regarded as the world's best player.The prize money for this match was £100 to the winner (Steinitz) and £20 for the loser (Anderssen). The winner's prize was a large sum by the standards of the times, equivalent to about £55,000 in 2006's money.

    Steinitz had married a lady named Caroline (born 1846) earlier in the 1860s, and their daughter Flora was born in 1867. The couple had no other children.

    Steinitz won every serious match he played from 1862 until 1892 inclusive, sometimes by wide margins. In the years following his victory over Anderssen he beat Henry Bird in 1866 (7 wins, 5 losses, 5 draws) and comfortably beat Johannes Zukertort in 1872 (7 wins, 4 draws, 1 loss; Zukertort had proved himself one of the elite by beating Anderssen convincingly in 1871). But it took longer for him to reach the top in tournament play. In the next few years he took: 3rd place at Paris 1867 behind Ignatz Kolisch and Simon Winawer; and 2nd places at Dundee (1868; won by Gustav Neumann), and Baden-Baden (1870; behind Anderssen but ahead of Blackburne, Louis Paulsen and other strong players). His first victory in a strong tournament was London 1872, ahead of Blackburne and Zukertort; and the first tournament in which Steinitz finished ahead of Anderssen was Vienna 1873, when Andersen was 55 years old.

    All of Steinitz' successes up to 1872 inclusive were achieved in the attack-at-all-costs "Romantic" style exemplified by Anderssen. But in the 1873 Vienna tournament Steinitz unveiled a new "positional" style of play which was to become the basis of modern chess. He tied for first place with Blackburne, ahead of Samuel Rosenthal, Paulsen and Henry Bird, and won the play-off against Blackburne. Steinitz made a shaky start but won his last 14 games in the main tournament (including 2-0 results over Paulsen, Anderssen, and Blackburne plus the 2 play-off games - this was the start of a 24-game winning streak in serious competition.

    Between 1873 and 1882 Steinitz played no tournaments and only 1 match (a 7-0 win against Blackburne in 1876); his other games during this period were in simultaneous and blindfold exhibitions, which contributed an important part of a professional chess-player's income in those days (for example in 1887 Blackburne was paid 9 guineas for 2 simultaneous exhibitions and 1 blindfold exhibition hosted by the Teesside Chess Association; this was equivalent to about £4,600 at 2006 values.

    Instead Steinitz concentrated on his work as a chess journalist, notably for The Field, which was Britain's leading sports magazine. Some of Steinitz' commentaries aroused heated debates, notably from Zukertort and Leopold Hoffer in The Chess Monthly (which they had founded in 1879).This "Ink War" escalated sharply in 1881, when Steinitz mercilessly criticized Hoffer's annotations of games in the 1881 Berlin Congress (won by Blackburne ahead of Zukertort). Steinitz was eager to settle the analytical debates by a second match against Zukertort, whose unwillingness to play provoked scornful coments from Steinitz. In mid-1882 James Mason, a consistently strong player, challenged Steinitz to a match, and accused Steinitz of cowardice when Steinitz insisted the issue with Zukertort should be settled first; Steinitz responded by inviting Mason to name a sufficiently high stake for a match (at least £150 per player; equivalent to about £73,000 in 2006 money, but Mason was unwilling to stake more than £100. Mason later agreed to play a match with Zukertort for a stake of £100 per player, but soon "postponed" that match, "circumstances having arisen that make it highly inconvenient for me to proceed ..."

    Willi against

    Auf Deutsch

    Above...Johannes Zukertort

    Steinitz' long lay-off caused some commentators to suggest that Zukertort, who had scored some notable tournament victories, should be regarded as the world chess champion. Steinitz returned to serious competitive chess in the 1882 Vienna tournament, which was the strongest chess tournament of all time at that point. Despite a shaky start he took equal 1st place with Szymon Winawer, ahead of James Mason, Zukertort, George Henry Mackenzie, Blackburne, Berthold Englisch, Paulsen and Mikhail Chigorin; and drew the play-off match. While Steinitz was playing in Vienna and sending weekly reports on the tournament to The Field, there was a plot against him back in England. Just after the end of the tournament The Field published a xenophobic article that praised the efforts of the English players and those of English origin in Vienna but disparaged the victory of Steinitz and Winawer. Steinitz stopped working for The Field and was replaced by Hoffer, a close friend of Zukertort and a bitter enemy of Steinitz.

    Steinitz visited the USA, mainly the Philadelphia area, from December 1882 to May 1883. He was given an enthusiastic reception, played several exhibitions, many casual games, a match for stakes of £50 with a wealthy amateur, and slightly more serious matches with 2 New World professionals, Sellman and the Cuban champion Celso Golmayo Zúpide - the match with Golmayo was abandoned when Steinitz was leading (8 wins, 1 draw, 1 loss). His hosts even arranged a visit to New Orleans, where Paul Morphy lived.

    Later in 1883 Steinitz took second place in an extremely strong tournament in London behind Zukertort, who made a brilliant start, faded at the end but finished 3 points ahead. Steinitz finished 2½ points ahead of the 3rd-placed competitor, Blackburne.

     Zukertort's victory again led some commentators to suggest that Zukertort should be regarded as the world chess champion, while others said the issue could only be resolved by a match between Steinitz and Zukertort.

    In 1883, shortly after the London tournament, Steinitz decided to leave England and moved to New York, where he lived for the rest of his life. This did not end the "Ink War": his enemies persuaded some of the American press to publish anti-Steinitz articles,and in 1885 Steinitz founded the International Chess Magazine, which he edited until 1895. In his magazine he chronicled the lengthy negotiations for a match with Zukertort. He also managed to find supporters in other sections of the American press including Turf, Field and Farm and the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, both of which reported Steinitz' offer to forgo all fees, expenses or share in the stake and make the match "a benefit performance, solely for Mr Zukertort’s pecuniary profit".
    Eventually it was agreed that in 1886 Steinitz and Zukertort would play a match in New York, St. Louis and New Orleans, and that the victor would be the player who first won 10 games. At Steinitz' insistence the contract said it would be "for the Championship of the World".After the five games played in New York, Zukertort led by 4-1, but in the end Steinitz won decisively by 12½–7½ (10 wins, 5 draws, 5 losses). Though not yet officially an American citizen, Steinitz wanted the U.S. flag to be placed next to him during the match. He became a U.S. citizen on November 23, 1888, having resided for five years in New York, and changed his first name from Wilhelm to William.

    In 1887 the American Chess Congress started work on drawing up regulations for the future conduct of world championship contests. Steinitz actively supported this endeavor, as he thought he was becoming too old to remain world champion - he wrote in his own magazine "I know I am not fit to be the champion, and I am not likely to bear that title for ever").

    Steinitz' only daughter, Flora, died in 1888 at the age of 21.

    In 1888 Havana Chess Club offered to sponsor a match between Steinitz and whomever he would select as a worthy opponent. Steinitz nominated the Russian Mikhail Chigorin,on the condition that the invitation should not be presented as a challenge from himself. There is some doubt about whether this was intended to be a match for the world championship: both Steinitz' letters and the publicity material just before the match conspicuously avoided the phrase; the proposed match was to have a maximum of 20 games, and Steinitz had said that fixed-length matches were unsuitable for world championship contests because the first player to take the lead could then play for draws; Steinitz was at the same time supporting the American Chess Congress' world championship project. Whatever the status of the match, it was played in Havana in January to February 1889 and won by Steinitz (10 wins, 1 draw, 6 losses).

    The American Chess Congress' final proposal was that: the winner of a tournament to be held in New York in 1889 should be regarded as world champion for the time being, but must be prepared to face a challenge from the 2nd or 3rd placed competitor within a month. Steinitz wrote that he would not play in the tournament and would not challenge the winner unless the 2nd and 3rd placed competitors failed to do so. The tournament was duly played, but the outcome was not quite as planned: Mikhail Chigorin and Max Weiss tied for first place; their play-off resulted in four draws; and neither wanted to play a championship match - Chigorin had just lost a match against Steinitz and Weiss wanted to get back to his work for the Rothschild Bank. The third prize-winner Isidore Gunsberg was prepared to play Steinitz for the title in New York, and Steinitz won their match in 1890-1891. The American Chess Congress' experiment was not repeated and Steinitz' last 3 world championship matches were private arrangements between the players.

    Willi against Mikhail Tchigorin


    Above...Willi competes with Emmanuel Lasker for the World championship in New York City 1894

    In 1891 the Saint Petersburg Chess Society and the Havana Chess Club offered to organize another Steinitz-Chigorin match for the world championship. Steinitz played against Chigorin in Havana in 1892 and won narrowly (10 wins, 5 draws, 8 losses). This was his last successful defense of his title.
    In 1892 Steinitz' first wife, Caroline, died.He married his second wife a few years later and had 2 children by her; his second family were all alive at the time of his death. But in 1897 he dedicated a pamphlet to the memory of his first wife and their daughter.

    Around this time Steinitz publicly spoke of retiring, but changed his mind when Emanuel Lasker challenged him. Initially Lasker wanted to play for $5,000 a side and a match was agreed at stakes of $,3000 a side, but Steinitz agreed to a series of reductions when Lasker found it difficult to raise the money, and the final figure was $2,000 each, which was less than for some of Steinitz' earlier matches (the final combined stake of $4,000 would be worth over $495,000 at 2006 values. Although this was publicly praised as an act of sportsmanship on Steinitz' part,Steinitz may have desperately needed the money. The match was played in 1894, at venues in New York, Philadelphia and Montreal. Lasker won convincingly (5 wins, 10 losses, 4 draws). The scores were even after 6 games but Steinitz lost the next 5 in a row. Some commentators thought Steinitz' habit of playing "experimental" moves in serious competition was a major factor in his downfall.

    After losing the title, Steinitz played in tournaments more frequently than he had previously: he won at New York 1894 and was fifth at Hastings 1895 (winning the first brilliancy prize for his game with Curt von Bardeleben); at Saint Petersburg 1895, a four-players round-robin event with Lasker, Chigorin and Pillsbury, he took a very good second place. Later his results began to decline: 6th in Nuremberg 1896, 5th in Cologne 1898, 10th in London 1899.

    In early 1896 Steinitz defeated the Russian Emanuel Schiffers in a match (winning 6 games, drawing 1, losing 4). In November, 1896 Steinitz played a return match with Lasker in Moscow but won only 2 games, drawing 5, and losing 10. it was the last world chess championship match for 11 years. Shortly after the match, Steinitz had a mental breakdown and was confined for 40 days in a Moscow Sanitorium, where he played chess with the inmates.

    In February 1897 the New York Times prematurely reported his death in a New York mental asylum.

    Some authors claim that he contracted syphilis, so that this may have been a cause of the mental breakdowns he suffered in his last years. His chess activities had not yielded any great financial rewards, and he died a pauper in the Manhattan State Hospital (Ward island) of a heart attack on August 12, 1900. Steinitz is buried in the Cemetery of the Evergreens in Brooklyn, New York. His second wife and their two young children were still alive at his death.
    Lasker, who took the championship from Steinitz, wrote, "I who vanquished him must see to it that his great achievement, his theories should find justice, and I must avenge the wrongs he suffered." Steinitz's fate, and Lasker's keenness to avoid a similar situation of financial ruin, have been cited among the reasons Lasker fought so hard to keep the world championship title.

    Willi's defense i

    A minority of chess writers date Steinitz as becoming World Chess Champion from 1866, when he beat Anderssen. However there is no evidence that he claimed the title for himself at the time, although in the 1880s he claimed to have been the champion since his win over Anderssen. It has been suggested that Steinitz could not make such a claim while Paul Morphy was alive.(Morphy had defeated Anderssen by a far wider margin, 8–3, in 1858, but retired from chess competition soon after he returned to the USA in 1859, and died in 1884). The 1886 Steinitz-Zukertort match was the first that was explicitly described as being for the World Championship,but Howard Staunton and Paul Morphy had been unofficially described as "World Chess Champion" around the middle of the 19th century. In fact one of the organizers of the 1851 London International tournament had said the contest was for "the baton of the World’s Chess Champion", and in mid-1840s Ludwig Bledow wrote a letter to Tassilo von Heydebrand und der Lasa suggesting they should organize a world championship tournament in Germany. Some commentators described Steinitz as "the champion" in the years following his 1872 match victory against Zukertort. In the late 1870s and early 1880s some regarded Steinitz as the champion and others supported Johannes Zukertort; and the 1886 match was not regarded as creating the title of World Champion but as resolving conflicting claims to the title.

    Willi against Berthold Englisch

    The book of the Hastings 1895 chess tournament, written collectively by the players, described Steinitz as follows:
    Mr. Steinitz stands high as a theoretician and as a writer; he has a powerful pen, and when he chooses can use expressive English. He evidently strives to be fair to friends and foes alike, but appears sometimes to fail to see that after all he is much like many others in this respect. Possessed of a fine intellect, and extremely fond of the game, he is apt to lose sight of all other considerations, people and business alike. Chess is his very life and soul, the one thing for which he lives.

    [ Influence on the game Steinitz' play up to and including 1872 was similar that of his contemporaries: sharp, aggressive, and full of sacrificial play. This was the style in which he became "world number one" by beating Adolf Anderssen in 1866 and confirmed his position by convincingly beating Zukertort in 1872 and winning the 1872 London International tournament (Zukertort had claimed the rank of number 2 by beating Anderssen in 1871).

    In 1873, however, his play suddenly changed, giving priority to what we now call the positional elements in chess: pawn structure, space, outposts for knights, the advantage of the two bishops, etc. Although Steinitz often accepted unnecessarily difficult defensive positions in order to demonstrate the superiority of his theories, he also showed that his methods could provide a platform for crushing attacks. Steinitz' successor as world champion, Emanuel Lasker, summed up the new style as: "In the beginning of the game ignore the search for combinations, abstain from violent moves, aim for small advantages, accumulate them, and only after having attained these ends search for the combination – and then with all the power of will and intellect, because then the combination must exist, however deeply hidden."

    Although Steinitz' play changed abruptly, he said had been thinking along such lines for some years: "Some of the games which I saw Paulsen play during the London Congress of 1862 gave a still stronger start to the modification of my own opinions, which has since developed, and I began to recognize that Chess genius is not confined to the more or less deep and brilliant finishing strokes after the original balance of power and position has been overthrown, but that it also requires the exercise of still more extraordinary powers, though perhaps of a different kind to maintain that balance or respectively to disturb it at the proper time in one’s own favor."

    During his 9-year lay-off from tournament play (1873–1882) and later in his career Steinitz used his chess writings to present his theories — while in the UK he wrote for The Field;in 1885 he founded in New York the "International Chess Magazine" of which he was the chief editor; and in 1889 he edited the book of the great New York 1889 tournament (won by Mikhail Chigorin and Max Weiss), in which he did not compete as the tournament was designed to select a challenger for his title.Many other writers found his new approach incomprehensible, boring or even cowardly; for example Adolf Anderssen said, "Kolisch is a highwayman and points the pistol at your breast. Steinitz is a pick-pocket, he steals a pawn and wins a game with it."

    But when he fought for the first World Championship in 1886 against Johannes Zukertort, it became evident that Steinitz was playing on another level. Although Zukertort was at least Steinitz' equal in spectacular attacking play, Steinitz often out-maneuvered him fairly simply by the use of positional principles.

    By the time of his match against Gunsberg (1890-91) some commentators showed some understanding of and appreciation for Steintitz' theories.Shortly before the 1894 match with Emanuel Lasker even the New York Times, which had earlier published attacks on his play and character,paid tribute to his playing record, the importance of his theories, and his sportsmanship in agreeing to the most difficult match of his career despite his previous intention of retiring.

    By the end of his career Steinitz was more highly esteemed as a theoretician than as a player. The comments about him in the book of the Hastings 1895 chess tournament focus on his theories and writings, and Emanuel Lasker was more explicit:

    He was a thinker worthy of a seat in the halls of a University. A player, as the world believed he was, he was not; his studious temperament made that impossible; and thus he was conquered by a player ... Vladmir Kramnik emphasizes Steinitz' importance as a pioneer in the field of chess theory: "Steinitz was the first to realise that chess, despite being a complicated game, obeys some common principles. ... But as often happens the first time is just a try. ... I can't say he was the founder of a chess theory. He was an experimenter and pointed out that chess obeys laws that should be considered."

    Willi against Von Bardeleben


    Statistical rating systems are unkind to Steinitz. "Warriors of the Mind" gives him a surprisingly low ranking of 47th, below several obscure Soviet grandmasters; Chessmetrics places him only 15th on its all-time list.But Chessmetrics penalizes players who play infrequently; opportunities for competitive chess were infrequent in Steinitz' best years,and Steinitz had a few long absences from competitive play (1873-1876, 1876-1882, 1883-1886, 1886-1889). In 2005 Chessmetrics' author, Jeff Sonas, wrote an article which examined various ways of comparing the strength of "world number one" players, using data provided by Chessmetrics, and found that: Steinitz was further ahead of his contemporaries in the 1870s than Bobby Fischer was in his peak period (1970-1972); that Steinitz had the third-highest total number of years as the world's top player, behind Emanuel Lasker and Garry Kasparov; and that Steinitz placed 7th in a comparison of how long the great players were ranked in the world's top 3. Sonas' 2005 article is more consistent with Steinitz' record between his victory over Anderssen (1866) and his loss to Emanuel Lasker (1894): he won all his "normal" matches, sometimes by wide margins; and his worst tournament performance in that 28-year period was 3rd place in Paris (1867).(He lost 2 handicap matches and a match by telegraph in 1890 against Mikhail Chigorin, where Chigorin was allowed to choose the openings in both games and won both

    Initially Steinitz played in the all-out attacking style of players like Anderssen, and then changed to the positional style with which he dominated competitive chess in the 1870s and 1880s. Max Euwe wrote, "Steinitz aimed at positions with clear-cut features, to which his theory was best applicable." But he retained his capacity for brilliant attacks right to the end of his career; for example in the 1895 Hastings tournament (when he was 59) he beat von Bardeleben in a spectacular game in which in the closing stages Steinitz deliberately exposed all his pieces to attack simultaneously (except his king, of course).

     His most significant weaknesses were his habits of playing "experimental" moves and getting into unnecessarily difficult defensive positions in top-class competitive games

    Willi against Serafino DuBois


    Traditional" accounts of Steinitz describe him as having a sharp tongue and violent temper, perhaps partly because of his short stature (barely 5 feet) and congenital lameness. He admitted that "Like the Duke of Parma, I always hold the sword in one hand and the olive branch in the other", and under severe provocation he could become abusive in published articles.He was aware of his own tendencies and said early in his career, "Nothing would induce me to take charge of a chess column ...Because I should be so fair in dispensing blame as well as praise that I should be sure to give offence and make enemies." When he embarked on chess journalism, his brutally frank review of Wormald’s "The Chess Openings" in 1875 proved him right on both counts. But his personal correspondence, his own articles and some third-party articles show that he had long and friendly relationships with many people and groups in the chess world, including Ignác Kolisch (one of his earliest sponsors), Mikhail Chigorin, Harry Nelson Pillsbury, Bernhard Horwitz, Amos Burn and the Cuban and Russian chess communities. He even co-operated with the American Chess Congress in its project to regulate future contests for the world title that he had earned.

    Steinitz strove to be objective in his writings about chess competitions and games, for example he attributed to sheer bad luck a poor tournament score by Henry Edward Bird, whom he considered no friend of his, and was generous in his praise of great play by even his bitter enemies.

    He could poke fun at some of his own rhetoric, for example "I remarked that I would rather die in America than live in England. ... I added that I would rather lose a match in America than win one in England. But after having carefully considered the subject in all its bearings, I have come to the conclusion that I neither mean to die yet nor to lose the match."At a joint simultaneous display in Russia around the time of the 1895-96 Saint Petersburg tournament, Emanuel Lasker and Steinitz formed an impromptu comedy double act.

    Although he had a strong sense of honour about repaying debts,Steinitz was poor at managing his finances: he let a competitor " poach" many of his clients in 1862-1863, offered to play the 1886 world title match against Johannes Zukertort for free, and died in poverty in 1900, leaving his widow to survive by running a small shop.

    Mikhail Tchigorin
    against Willi


    July 2008



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