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From An Art To A Science
December/January 2016/17

Wilhelm Steinitz plays the New Orleans Chess Amateurs, c. 1894


I have been writing this column since June 2008 — the glorious month of Standpoint’s first issue — but have never yet devoted one to the first official world champion, Wilhelm Steinitz. By some chess historians’ accounts, we are just passing the 150th anniversary of that achievement: it was in 1866 that Steinitz won a 14-game match in London against the man then generally regarded as the world’s best, the German Adolf Anderssen.

However, it was only 20 years later that Steinitz won the first match contractually described as “for the Championship of the World”. This was against the Polish-born, London-based Johannes Zukertort, who, following victory in the great London tournament of 1883 three points ahead of Steinitz, was the obvious challenger.

The mercurial Zukertort went into a 4-1 lead, but as the event travelled around three cities of the US in sapping conditions, was mercilessly ground down by Steinitz. Zukertort never recovered from this exhausting and, in the end, humiliating experience. He died two years later at the age of 45.

Steinitz met his own nemesis in the form of Emanuel Lasker, who — 35 years younger than the champion — took the title in 1894 and then crushed Steinitz in a second match in Moscow over the winter of 1896/97. This had a devastating effect on the old ex-champion, almost an echo of what he had done to Zukertort a decade earlier. He suffered a mental breakdown and was confined for months in a Moscow asylum, before being released to travel back to New York, his home since leaving England in 1883.

He was, on and off, an inmate in various similar institutions in New York until what was described as “a pauper’s death” in the Manhattan State Hospital on Ward Island in 1900. Legend has it that Steinitz, in one of his final periods of confinement, boasted he could “beat God giving Him odds of a pawn and the move”. There’s no conclusive evidence that he said any such thing, but it has helped — unjustly — to make Steinitz almost more remembered as an example of a lunatic world champion than for the epitaph he deserves: the inventor of modern chess.

This was recognised by the man who precipitated his first nervous collapse. After Steinitz’s death, Lasker declared: “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.”

There was a clear connection between Steinitz’s theories and what Lasker referred to as “the wrongs he suffered”. Born with a club foot into a poor Jewish family in Prague, Steinitz moved to Vienna in his early twenties to make a living as a journalist — with earnings from chess played for stakes in coffee houses a mere supplement. It was only after he won the Vienna championship in 1861 that it occurred to him that he could become the best. But when he moved to London, his chess journalism led to the so-called Ink War, an increasingly vitriolic battle with British commentators on the game.

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