Clash of Champions: Steinitz vs. Zukertort

  • GM BryanSmith
  • | Jul 3, 2014

Dear readers! Over the next couple months I will be doing a series of articles covering the endgames played in world championship matches over the years. Through this series, we will be seeing how endgame play evolved as well as learning about some of the personalities who ruled the chess world of old.

We begin with what is regarded as the first official world championship match, the 1886 contest between Wilhelm Steinitz and Johannes Zukertort, which took place in New York, St. Louis, and New Orleans.

Paul Morphy had died a few years previously, so the chess world felt it could now declare a world champion without the specter of the great Morphy hanging over the title.

Steintz had widely been regarded as the best active player in the world since his 1866 match victory over Adolf Anderssen; while Zukertort, by virtue of his dominating win in the 1883 London tournament — where almost all of the best players in the world competed — was the logical opponent.

Johannes Zukertort | Image Wikipedia

Johannes Zukertort was born in 1842 in Lublin, Poland, and later settled in England. One of the best players of the day, his was a natural, attacking style. Although he had a great feel for the game and was an excellent tactician, Zukertort suffered from poor health (he died at 46 years old).

His greatest triumph was his win at the London 1883 tournament. Here we can see an example of his tactical brilliance from that tournament: 

Wilhelm Steinitz | Image Wikipedia

Wilhelm Steinitz, born in 1836 in Prague, was the first world champion of chess and is credited with introducing the concept of a "scientific" approach — including the idea that the game is governed by abstract principles. Although he was originally a typical — although great — attacking player of the time, seeking victory in outsmarting the opponent with tactical flair, Steinitz abruptly changed his style in the middle of his career when he began to understand chess on a deeper level than his contemporaries.

We will be looking at the twelfth game of the match. In this game, Steinitz comprehensively out-maneuvered his opponent from a harmless Berlin Defense endgame. Although White's opening play would today not be considered anywhere near critical, it is not immediately obvious exactly where Zukertort went wrong. Steinitz' positional play flowed smoothly, and he simply out-played his opponent.

The players have just entered the endgame. Admittedly, Steinitz approach to Zukertort's Berlin Defense is not exactly threatening. Black has a very pleasant position with his pieces well placed and two bishops. His only weakness, the c7-pawn, is well shielded. But now Zukertort had a basic misunderstanding — he underestimated the importance of the battle for space on the queenside; a battle in which the a-pawns should have played a critical role.

Black had played imprecisely, and from a somewhat better position, he has reached a somewhat worse one. White's position is completely secure, while Black has some weaknesses in the form of the c-pawns. Meanwhile the a6 pawn is very threatening — I described such pawns in an article from a couple years ago, Hammering the Nail. Nevertheless, with simplification imminent, Black should have good chances of drawing. But then came a heavy mistake by Zukertort.

Naturally, Zukertort's blunder 25...Rd7? had a huge influence on the outcome of the game. But a very important lesson can be learned from the advance of White's a-pawn. Rook-pawns are great for gaining space since they only weaken one (rather than two) squares as they advance. Modern players understand this. Thus we can see how you might develop an understanding of chess ideas, a "feel," an intuition.

You will never get the position after move twenty here in your own games — that I can assure you. But you will — frequently — come across positions were a similar idea applies. Perhaps before seeing this game, you would not even be aware of the strength of this a-pawn advance. Or maybe you would underestimate its value. Now in a similar position it would be perfectly natural.



  • 2 years ago


    I think the russians call the pawn on a6 a "potential passed pawn".

  • 2 years ago


    @yureesystem: I share your admiration of the masters of the past. I too have used ideas learned from classic games to score the ocasional upset. :) I just think that glorifying the idea that they did not have modern technology to train with is silly. They used every means at their disposal to get better and if you could bring one of them back now they would undoubtedly embrace compruters and modern training techniques. Given your statement in your first post I found your choice of avatar slightly ironic.

    Thank you, however for your permission to diagree with you. I was worried about that. :)

  • 2 years ago


    Pawnslinger1, you don't have to agree what I express; I learn more from past masters and made use of their ideas. You have no idea facing a strong master playing otb game and winning or drawing because using lessons I learned from the past master. 

  • 2 years ago


    fantastic article of two savvy players;  very informative.  thank you.

  • 2 years ago



  • 2 years ago


    Great! Undertsood the rook pawn advance was good but now that I know why I shouldn't underestimate it like Zukertort.

  • 2 years ago


    Beautiful article. I will say to those who romaticize the old players because they didn't use computers or trainers, its only because they didn't have them available. Do you think that if they had such options in the past that Steinitz or Morphy would have said, "No, I'd rather play without tools that will let me get better". ?

    Morphy was completely current with the opening theory of his time and Steintz published and improved upon theory all of the time in his famous magazine.

    Yureesystem, Its ironic that you make such a statement while your avatar has a picture of Alekhine who was the transitional figure between classical and modern chess. Of course he didn't have a computer but do you really think that he wouldn't have used one if he could have? His greatest disciple, Kasparov certainly used computers and trainers.

    Bottom line don't be a Luddite. :)

  • 2 years ago


    Waiting for the next article!

  • 2 years ago


    Wonderful article. The one thing I like abt history is that the players did not rely on theory and computers, but were original thinkers with fresh ideas baked over the board.

  • 2 years ago


    Thank you for the great article, I love history in general, and specially the history of chess! 

    BTW, if someone is interested, here is a link at the Prague Chess Society website, with a picture of Wilhelm Steinitz's plaque, placed at the Faculty of Philosophy of the Charles University in Prague (Steinitz's birthplace was situated around the corner). 

  • 2 years ago


    Pure genius!

  • 2 years ago


    thank you for this wonderful article !

  • 2 years ago


    V Good!

  • 2 years ago


    Excellent article!!! I love the past master, so pure and they rely on their natural talent and not on computers or trainers.

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