Wilhelm Steinitz

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Wilhelm Steinitz
Wilhelm Steinitz

Wilhelm (later William) Steinitz (May 17, 1836August 12, 1900) was an Austrian chess player and the first official world chess champion. Known for his original contributions to chess strategy such as his ideas on positional play, his theories were held in high regard by such disparate chess players as Aron Nimzowitsch, Siegbert Tarrasch, and Emanuel Lasker.

Born in Prague, Czech Republic (then part of the Austrian Empire), Steinitz was regarded the best player in the world ever since his victory over Adolf Anderssen in their 1866 match. His 1886 match victory over Johannes Zuckertort is considered by most as the first World Chess Championship.

Steinitz defended his title from 1886 to 1894, retaining it in four matches against Zuckertort, Mikhail Chigorin (two times) and Isidor Gunsberg. He lost two matches against Lasker, in 1894 and 1896, who became his successor as world champion. Steinitz adopted a scientific approach to his study of the game. He would formulate his theories in scientific terms and "laws".

Steinitz became a US citizen on November 23, 1888, having resided for five years in New York, and he changed his first name from Wilhelm to William.

After losing the world title, Steinitz developed severe mental health problems and spent his last years in a number of institutions in New York, making a series of increasingly bizarre claims (including his having won—at pawn odds!—a game of chess with God conducted via an invisible telephone line). His chess activities had not yielded any great financial rewards, and he died a pauper in his adopted home city in 1900. Steinitz is buried in Cemetery of the Evergreens in Brooklyn, New York.

Lasker, who took the championship from Steinitz, once said, "I who defeated Steinitz shall do justice to his theories, and I shall avenge the wrongs he suffered." Steinitz' 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.

Contributions to Chess

Steinitz began to play professional chess at the age of 26 in England. His play at this time was no different than that of his current contemporaries: sharp, aggressive, and full of sacrificial play. In 1873 however, his play suddenly changed. He gave immense concern to what we now call the positional elements to chess: pawn structure, space, outposts for knights, etc. Slowly he perfected his new method of play that helped form him into the first Chess World Champion.

What Steinitz gave to chess could be compared to what Newton gave to Physics: he made it a true science. By isolating a number of positional features on the board, Steinitz came to realize that all brilliant attacks resulted from a weakness in the opponents defense. By studying and developing the ideas of these positional features, he perfected a new art of defense that sharply rose the current level of play. Furthermore, he outlined the idea of an attack in chess formed off of what we now know as "Accumulation Theory", the slow addition of many small advantages.

Though it was not immeadiately evident, Steinitz had just given the chess world its greatest gift. Though tactics were, and still are, the most basic element to strong play, his new theory gave greater opportunity to both defend and use the brilliant combinations the era was reknown for.

When he fought for the first World Championship in 1886 against Johann Hermann Zukertort, it became evident that Steinitz was playing on another level. Though he suffered a series of defeats at the beginning of the match, it becomes evident when watching the games who understood the game better (for example, in the third game he was strategically superior but failed to pull it together at the end). Over time however, Steinitz's level of play continued to improve and finished with a solid victory(+10 -5 =5).

Perhaps the evaluation of Steinitz's impact on chess can best be evaluated by a fellow master of strategy, Tigran Petrosian: "The significance of Steinitz's teaching is that he showed that in principle chess has a strictly-defined, logical nature."

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Preceded by:
World Chess Champion
Succeeded by:
Emanuel Lasker
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