Perhaps no chess player represented the spirit of nineteenth century America better than Wilhelm Steinitz (1836-1900). His intelligence, innovation, arrogance, and shameless self-promotion led some to call him the "father of modern chess."
Born in the Bohemian city of Prague on May 17, 1836, Steinitz was the last of thirteen children in a very poor family. His Jewish parents raised their son to be a Talmudic scholar. Chess first entered his life in 1848, but did not gain importance until he moved to Vienna in 1856, where he studied math at the Polytechnic. Money problems and poor health forced him to drop out of school. Chess matches involving a wager, helped supplement the income he made as a journalist.
Less than five feet tall, balding, and born with weak legs, Steinitz was not physically impressive. At the chess-board, he was transformed into an imposing figure. His dependence on canes and crutches strengthened his upper body. A powerful swimmer, when seated across from an opponent, his broad chest and shoulders added to his aura. Reports describe his face as having had a benevolent air. Eyewitnesses claim that, while concentrating on a match, he was positively beautiful.
Steinitz traveled to London in 1862 for his first appearance in an international tournament. For his sixth place finish he won five pounds. A few months later he won the London championship. Steinitz decided to remain in London and become a professional chess player. In 1866 he played against Adolf Anderssen, considered to be the world's best player at the time. In response to the extreme length of previous matches, time limits were imposed. Games were to be completed in one sitting, and twenty moves must be made within two hours. The time was kept with hourglasses. The first man to win eight games would be the winner. Steinitz took eight games to Anderssen's six and declared himself to be the world champion. No governing body substantiated his claim, but neither did anyone in the chess world dispute it. Thus, he became the first world champion of chess.
Steinitz set about defending his title in match play, in which his record was even better than his tournament play. He never lost a match until he played Emanuel Lasker in 1894. For the twenty-eight years from 1866 to 1894, he retained his championship title. However, from 1873 to 1882, he played almost no serious chess. The only exception was an 1876 match against Joseph Henry Blackburne, in which Steinitz won all eight games. The match was also notable for two other innovations. It was the first match to be timed with mechanical clocks, and the first for which admission was charged.
What set Steinitz apart from his predecessors and contemporaries was that he was the first to fully articulate a system of positional play, in which the position of each piece is appraised and plans are made based on that appraisal. Steinitz began his career playing in the style of the "romantics." Their game was one of sacrifice and attack, where the king must be protected at almost any cost, attacks were many and spontaneous, and the better man was expected to win. Before Steinitz, a few players who had success combining a traditional attack with a carefully constructed defensive position—a position that romantic opponents would repeatedly attack until weakened. The most notable of these was the American, Paul Morphy, who was considered by most to be the greatest chess player in history.
In Steinitz's theory, the game became impersonal. Both players start on completely even terms. There is no "better player." The pieces on each side and what they can do are in perfect equilibrium. For one player to win, the initial equilibrium must be disturbed to the point that one side is powerless against the other. If no one makes a mistake, the equilibrium remains. One can only win if the opponent makes an error. By playing from a strong defensive position, awaiting that error, then capitalizing upon it, Steinitz replaced the play of the romantics with pragmatism. He once referred to it as "trigger chess," in which he would slowly pull back his pieces until the target was right, then released—not unlike Morphy—but with the added fillip that Steinitz's sense of positional play allowed. Even the King had the potential of attack. No longer just a target, the King could not be safely attacked without the support of a strong offensive position. Although his contemporaries considered Steinitz's style crabbed and unaesthetic, it is still used today, and has won Steinitz the sobriquet "the father of modern chess."
Steinitz may easily have been the most unpopular chess player who ever lived. He was considered by his contemporaries to be bad loser. And a bad winner as well. Not only was he a man of short temper—he once spat on an opponent—but he annoyed more people because he was generally able to demonstrate that his theories and opinions worked. The Westminster Papers, a London chess publication, wrote about Steinitz in 1875: "Everyone who knows the great chess player knows also that it is his misfortune to be afflicted with a conviction that every mundane matter has some reference to himself."
His tongue was called the bitterest in Europe. The gentility associated with chess was not his, nor did he contain his opinions to chess. "Once, in a heated discussion of politics," Steinitz wrote with his usual modesty, "my opponent, being pressed hard, fancied he made a great hit by remarking to some bystanders, 'He thinks he understands politics because he can play chess.' 'And you think,' I answered, 'that you understand politics because you can't play chess."'
Steinitz is considered by many to be one of the all-time greatest chess writers in the English language, no small feat for one who adopted the language late in life. He wrote a column on chess for the London Figaro in 1876 to 1882. Steinitz also contributed articles to Ashore or Afloat (1883), the New York Tribune (1890-93) and the New York Herald (1893). His most important columns appeared in The Field from 1873 to 1882. These columns featured annotated games that were a vast improvement on previous annotations.
Steinitz moved to the United States in 1883. He began writing and publishing the International Chess Magazine from 1885 to 1891. The magazine's reporting of news and analysis of games was conscientious and insightful. Its opinions, in Steinitz's own column, Personal and General, were inflammatory and occasionally scatological. Chess master and writer Fred Reinfeld (1910-61) once wrote that Steinitz was "a fine writer of English prose, equally bold in expression when he is conveying some nuance of technical judgement and when he is grinding his teeth over some fancied insult."
In 1885, Steinitz accepted the challenge of Johannes Zukertort, a German-born physician, writer, editor, pianist and chess player. Zukertort had moved to England and founded the Chess-Monthly, one of the era's most influential chess magazines. He shared Steinitz's temperament and egotism. The two became rivals before ever meeting at a chessboard. After protracted negotiations, Steinitz and Zukertort met for the first official world chess championship match on January 11, 1886. After losing four of the first five games in New York, Steinitz came back to win in St. Louis and New Orleans, and took the match ten to five.
In 1889, the first part of his Modern Chess Instructor was published. Considered by some to be his most important literary contribution, the book explains some of his theories of chess and analyzes some openings. The first section of the second part was published in 1895, but the work was never completed. In 1891, he published an anthology of the Sixth American Chess Congress of 1889, in which he annotated each of the 432 games.
After Zukertort, Steinitz's next major opponent was Russian Mikhail Tchigorin, whom he met in 1889. Steinitz won ten to six. After losing two games to Tchigorin via cable (Steinitz in New York, Tchigorin in Havana—matches which led to the New York police to arrest Steinitz as a spy when the chess moves were misinterpreted), the two met again in Havana in 1892. The results were much closer, with Steinitz winning 121/2 to 101/2. Steinitz had retained his championship once again.
Emanuel Lasker was only twenty-five and had participated in very little international chess when he challenged Steinitz. The reigning champion must have thought that the inexperienced youngster would be easy to beat. They met in New York City in March 1894. The winner would be the first man to take ten games. Three games a week were scheduled, at fifteen moves an hour. Steinitz lost the first game, and blamed it on exhaustion. After eight games in New York, the two played three games in Philadelphia. Steinitz was now five games behind. He blamed it on insomnia. They continued the games in Montreal. Steinitz was able to gain two games, but weakened as Lasker strengthened, winning the match ten to five, with four draws. No longer the world champion, Steinitz immediately challenged Lasker to a rematch. Perhaps having learned from his predecessor, Lasker put Steinitz off until 1896. The result was even more conclusive, with Lasker winning ten to two. The chess world looked for excuses why the relative unknown should have beaten Steinitz, blaming the older man's insomnia and stress. But perhaps his time had just come. Even Lasker admitted years later that a man of Steinitz's age could not be expected to always beat a much younger man.
After losing to Lasker in tournament play in 1895, the 59-year-old Steinitz was depressed. He told Rhoda Bowles, the chess editor of Womanhood, that it was his "fourth successive loss, I shall never win again. I am utterly broken down." The next day, Bowles pinned a buttonhole to his coat for luck before his game against Kurt von Bardeleben. Revitalized, Steinitz won the game handily; it has come to be known as "Steinitz's gem," and has often been annotated and anthologized.
Like many immigrants to the United States in the 1880s, Steinitz found that the streets of the New World were not paved with gold. Still, he became an American citizen in 1886. To supplement his income while publishing his magazine, he also taught and gave exhibition matches, taking on numerous opponents simultaneously, sometimes blindfolded, and sometimes playing cards between moves. Short of cash in 1897, he played chess against 22 opponents in a simultaneous exhibition.
In June 1899, Steinitz competed in his last tournament. Taking eleventh place in London, it was the first time he did not finish among the leaders in his 40-year professional career. Returning to his home in New York, his mental health began to deteriorate rapidly. He claimed that he could telephone any person anywhere without wire, and that he could move chess pieces by thought alone. He would spend each morning walking barefoot in the small yard behind his New York home, in all weather, then try to call people with his wireless phone. He also tried to call God, challenging the Almighty to a match. He was committed to the East River Sanatorium, at Ward's Island in Manhattan, in early 1900. Destitute and insane, Steinitz died there on August 12, 1900.
Steinitz continues to impact the chess world today. Experts argue whether or not Morphy or Steinitz was the greatest player of their age. Bobby Fischer named Steinitz to his list of the top-ten players of all time. In 1987, the second year of induction, Steinitz was named to the United States Chess Hall of Fame. The chess game that drives the plot of John Brunner's 1965 science-fiction novel, Squares of the City, is taken from the World Championship match played between Steinitz and Tchigorin in 1893.
Further Reading on Wilhelm Steinitz
Divinsky, Nathan, The Chess Encyclopedia Facts on File, 1991.
Hooper, David and Kenneth Whyld, Oxford Companion to Chess, Second Edition, Oxford University Press, 1992.
Reinfeld, Fred, Great Chess Masters and Their Games Hanover House, 1960.
Schonberg, Harold C., Grandmasters of Chess J.B. Lippincott, 1973.