Steinitz: The Official World Chess Champion
Not the actual world chess championship belt.

Steinitz: The Official World Chess Champion

| 29 | Chess Players

1886 was an epic year. Though past players were viewed as the world chess champion, there never was an official title. Now the two best players in the world (Zukertort and Steinitz) would butt heads and the fans of both players would have to accept that the victor was the real deal.

The match was played in three cities: New York, St. Louis, and New Orleans (in honor of Morphy, who died in 1884). It started badly for Steinitz, who won the first game but then lost four games in a row.

After losing four games in a row, giving Zukertort a 4-to-1 lead, you would think that Steinitz would be depressed and Zukertort would be dancing in the street. Instead, Steinitz demonstrated his enormous willpower while Zukertort collapsed. Steinitz rolled over him by winning nine more games, losing one, and drawing five. The final score was a dominating 10 wins for Steinitz, five for Zukertort, and five draws (12.5 to 7.5).

Wilhelm Steinitz

Wilhelm Steinitz via Wikipedia.

Here’s the ninth game in the match, which shows that Steinitz’s positional skills were just too much for Zukertort.

Here’s what I said in an old article about Zukertort.

After the match it goes without saying that Zukertort was a total wreck. Thomas Seccombe, in an article about the gutted challenger, had this to say:

He returned from the States a broken-down man. His nerves seemed overstrained, an impediment in his speech was noticeable, and he had not the energy to rouse himself from a kind of mental torpor.

Tim Harding, in his excellent book, Eminent Victorian Chess Players (McFarland), wrote, “It seems likely that he had already suffered a minor stroke.” I have to agree with Mr. Harding. In fact, I asked Dr. Saidy if Zukertort’s symptoms pointed to a stroke, and he felt it was a very real possibility.

Clearly, Zukertort needed rest and lots of time to recuperate (if recuperation was at all possible). Unfortunately, he was now penniless and if he didn’t play he wouldn’t make any money. Thus he played and, in general, did horribly. It was very clear that Zukertort was no longer the same man that he was before the match. Oddly, he was doing very well in his final event (in 1888) but became ill (he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage), fell into unconsciousness in the hospital, and died the next day—he was only 45 years old.

Though Zukertort had supporters and friends, his final years were lived in poverty and ill health. I feel he was a lonely man, fueled by his desire to reach the highest chess heights. Once he was unable to do so, his flame burned out.

After this match Steinitz was challenged for the world championship several times. But life isn’t just chess, and when Flora, his 21-year-old daughter, died in 1888, he was gutted. His wife, Caroline Holder (they married in 1865), his constant companion, died in 1892 from hepatitis (she was 45 years old).


Zukertort via Wikipedia.

As for the matches, he played a world championship match against Mikhail Chigorin in 1889. Steinitz joked that “it would be a match between an old master of the new school and a young master of the old school.” Steinitz was 52 years old during the match, while Chigorin was 38. Steinitz beat Chigorin by 10.5 to 6.5. Amazingly, there was only one draw!

After that he played a world championship match against Isidor Gunsberg (Steinitz won by 10.5 to 8.5).

Now let’s see if you can solve this little puzzle (Hint: I’m looking for a positional move that strives to create small weakness in White’s position.):

After the Gunsberg match, a match against Chigorin was held in 1892. It was as close as close could be. After 21 games it was tied, and then Steinitz won the last two games, winning the match.

Steinitz, low on money (he was always low on money) and getting old, accepted a challenge in 1893 from a 25-year-old man named Emanuel Lasker. Who would have known that Lasker was going to be one of the greatest players in the history of chess?

The match was made in 1894 and Lasker won, 12-7 (10 wins, five losses, four draws).

Of course, Steinitz wanted revenge, so another match was arranged (the sixth official world championship match) in 1896. But age doesn’t stop, and Steinitz wasn’t close to his prime. To make it worse, Lasker was better than before. Though old, he still was a force to be reckoned with. For example, in the powerful St. Petersburg tournament (won by Lasker) Steinitz came in second, ahead of Pillsbury and Chigorin.

That must have given Steinitz some confidence, but in the next tournament, Nuremberg, Steinitz came in sixth, while Lasker once again came in first.

The second Lasker match was held in November, and it was stopped when Steinitz became ill. The score was 10 wins for Lasker, two for Steinitz, and five draws. Four weeks later he was sent to a psychiatric clinic.

One source claimed that he went “hopelessly mad.”

Yet another source had this to say: “Just four weeks after the match, Steinitz lost his mind and had to seek psychiatric help. Lasker, on the other hand, took a three year long break from chess, devoted himself to mathematical studies and went on to hold the title longer than anyone else in history (25 years).”

Wikipedia: “Shortly after the match, Steinitz had a mental breakdown and was confined for 40 days in a Moscow sanatorium, where he played chess with the inmates.”

I very much like what I.A. Horowitz wrote about this match:

One is of two minds about the second Lasker-Steinitz match: on the one hand it is tempting to assert that it should never have been played at all. Steinitz was then over 60 years old and in poor health physically, and had driven himself close to nervous collapse through trying to regain the prestige he had lost in losing the title. On the other hand, had Lasker denied him the opportunity to regain the crown he had worn for so long, it would have been considered, and rightly so, the rankest injustice. Perhaps it is sensible, therefore, to look on the second match as one of those sad things that, for better or worse, just had to happen.


A lot of people have criticized Steinitz for his defensive, “I dare you to hurt me” stance. The fact is, he did walk into some horrific over-the-board situations. Sometimes he held on and won, and other times he was mashed into sludge. A stubborn man, I think he enjoyed the challenge.

Of course, sometimes he went overboard (and sometimes over, over, OVERboard) trying to defend dangerous situations. The Evans Gambit with Black was one of his favorites:

Here are two games where he makes his point and wins:

Steinitz completely outplayed Mr. Vasquez. Here’s another example of Steinitz standing tall in the face of an enemy attack:

As for Steinitz’s hardheaded desire to prove he could defend anything…well, he absorbed a lot of unnecessary pain. Here is a typical debacle:

 I will end with one of Steinitz’s most celebrated games. Some denizens on the web have said that this game “has been analyzed to death” and that it’s “lost its luster.”

Really? I’ve gone over this game dozens of times and I never tire of it. It was a thing of beauty when it was played, it’s still a thing of beauty now, and it will always be a thing of beauty.

Steinitz died, penniless, in 1900.

Steinitz matches from 1886 to his death:

  • Steinitz vs. Zukertort, First Official World Championship Match (1886) 12.5-7.5
  • Steinitz vs. Andres Vasquez (1888) 5-0
  • Steinitz vs. Celso Golmayo (1888) 5-0
  • Steinitz vs. A. Ponce (1888) 4-1
  • Steinitz vs. Chigorin (1889), Second Official World Championship Match 10.5-6.5 (just one draw!)
  • Steinitz vs. Gunsberg (1890-91),  Third Official World Championship Match 10.5-8.5
  • Steinitz vs. Chigorin (1892), Fourth Official World Championship Match 12.5-10.5
  • Steinitz vs. Emanuel Lasker (1894), Fifth Official World Championship Match 12-7 (Steinitz must have done an about face when he saw Lasker win a strong tournament in New York with a 13-0 score!)
  • Steinitz vs. Alfred Ettlinger (1894) 10-0
  • Steinitz vs. Emmanuil Schiffers (1896) 6.5-4.5
  • Steinitz vs. Emanuel Lasker (1896-97), Sixth Official World Championship Match 12.5-4.5

Steinitz tournaments from 1894 to his death:

  • New York 1894 — Steinitz (1st) ahead of Albin and Pillsbury.
  • Hastings 1895 — Pillsbury (1st), Chigorin (2nd), Lasker (3rd), Tarrasch (4th), Steinitz (5th), etc.
  • Saint Petersburg 1895-96 — Lasker (1st), Steinitz (2nd), Pillsbury (3rd), Chigorin (4th).
  • Nuremberg 1896 — Lasker (1st), Maroczy (2nd) Pillsbury and Tarrasch tied for (3rd & 4th), Janowski (5th), Steinitz (6th), etc.
  • Vienna 1898 — Tarrasch and Pillsbury (tied for 1st & 2nd), Janowski (3rd), Steinitz (4th), etc.
  • Koeln 1898 — Amos Burn (1st), Cohn, Charousek, and Chigorin (2nd - 4th), Steinitz (5th), etc.
  • London 1899 — Emanuel Lasker (1st), Janowski, Pillsbury, Maroczy (tied for 2nd - 4th), Schlechter (5th), Blackburne (6th), Chigorin (7th), Showalter (8th), Mason (9th), Cohn (10th), Steinitz (11th), etc.

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