From An Art To A Science

Wilhelm Steinitz was the inventor of modern chess, yet died a pauper's death

Dominic Lawson

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.

The final straw, for Steinitz, came when The Field, for which he had been sending weekly reports from the Vienna international tournament of 1882, published an  anti-Semitic article sneering at his victory in the event, while celebrating the (less successful efforts) of the British-born competitors. It was this that impelled Steinitz to emigrate to New York — from where he continued to articulate his contempt for the English chess analysts. Of one’s game annotations, he wrote: “No man can have gathered so much ignorance, even at an English University: it must have been gathered by a syndicate.”

This war of polemics was in large part based on the distaste of the English chess commentators for Steinitz’s attempt to turn chess from an art into a science. In the first part of his career Steinitz faithfully imitated the prevailing so-called “Romantic” style, which favoured attack at all costs, and a cavalier attitude to mere material gain. But in the late 1860s he began to study the games of the German Louis Paulsen, who had gained some success by demonstrating that defence, when carried out systematically, could defeat all but the most well-justified attacks.

In the Vienna tournament of 1873, Steinitz finally felt sure enough to launch what amounted to a completely new way of playing chess, based not on the sudden inspiration of genius (which so captivated the chess writers of the day) but on what he called “accumulation theory” — later popularised by his admiring conqueror Lasker as “the accumulation of small advantages”.

Although almost one and a half centuries have passed since Steinitz first set out those theories, they remain as valid and as important now as they were then. And Steinitz’s opponents in the Ink War, anti-Semitic or otherwise, lie in the dustbin of history.

Anyone who has studied Steinitz’s games knows his anti-Romantic “accumulation theory” did not rule out brilliant finishes. Perhaps the most glorious example of Steinitz combining profound positional harmony with a glittering cadenza of tactics came during a successful defence of his world championship against the first Russian grandmaster, Mikhail Tchigorin, in 1892. This game certainly made a profound impression on me, when I first played through the moves.

1.e4 e5. 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6 4.d3
(This is typical mature Steinitz: he plans to manoeuvre his pieces behind a “closed” pawn structure: the clash of forces will be deferred) d6 5.c3 g6 6.Nbd2 Bg7 7.Nf1 0-0 8.Ba4 Nd7 9.Ne3 Nc5 10.Bc2 Ne6 11.h4! (Steinitz was the first to set out how a flank pawn attack was most appropriate when the centre is blocked. Tchigorin therefore attempts to open things up) Ne7 12.h5 d5 13.hxg6 fxg6? (Positionally, it was better to capture towards the centre with 13…hxg6. Tchigorin’s choice leads to trouble on the now completely open a2-g8 diagonal) 14.exd5 Nxd5 15.Nxd5 Qxd5 16.Bb3 Qc6 17.Qe2 Bd7 18.Be3 Kh8 19.0-0-0 Rae8 20.Qf1! (Despite its innocuous appearance, this is actually part of a plan to deliver checkmate) a5 21.d4 exd4 22.Nxd4 Bxd4 23.Rxd4! Nxd4?? (Tchigorin completely misses the point of Steinitz’s play. After 23…Rf7 24.Rdh4 Kg8 his position would be horrible, but not hopeless) 24.Rxh7+! Kxh7 25.Qh1+ (now we see the idea behind 20.Qf1!) Kg7 26.Bh6+ Kf6 27.Qh4+ Ke5 28.Qxd4+ and Tchigorin resigned: it will be mate next move.

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