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Steinitz vs. Morphy: The style of systematic strategy vs. impulsive genius ?

Steinitz vs. Morphy: The style of systematic strategy vs. impulsive genius ?

KetilWig
Sep 15, 2009, 8:52 AM 0

Wilhelm Steinitz (1836 - 1900) represented a completely different chess style compared to the "classical play" which dominated around the 1850s.

As argued in another blog post, Morphy represented the idea of "continuous development" (usually answering a threat with an aggressive development or attack move) and is mainly associated with forceful attacks combined with sacrifices, applied early in the game. I don't think there exists any factual confirmation of to what extent his play was based on "systematic analysis" or on "genial intuition", or which combination thereof. I have computer analyzed some of Morphy's games, and without any scientific verification - what strikes me is that in critical phases his positions seem to be "high risk" - basically showing one "genius move" and many inferior ones (of course, Morphy selected the genius one).

However, compared with Morphy, Steinitz may be characterized as the "first modernist". He emphasized a scholastic approach to the game, characterized by the concept that a strategic advantage is made up of a multitude of marginal advantages in positioning and mobility. His key point was that a forceful attack or combination should only be attempted once such a strategic advantage had been reached (which of course, made it necessary to define such strategic advantages in detail). Looking at his games, they seem to be characterized by low risk early play, strong defense, and gradual improvement - until he strikes!

Steinitz' theoretical work was substantial; here are a couple of games as an illustration (comments are included): In the first one, Steinitz focuses on systematically limiting the mobility of his opponent's bishop/knight by using his own pawn structure; in the second game his scholastic theories of how to play against closed positions comes into play (one of his thesis were: If you play against an opponent with a closed positions, do not be tempted to exchange, as this will give your opponent the room to maneuver he does not have):

 In the previous game it is striking how Steinitz totally immobilizes the officers of Rosenthal from the 16th move on.

In the following game he applies his principles of how to play closed positions, narrowing down his opponent's room to maneuver, and avoiding all bishop exchanges that are being offered. Take a look:

Steinitz emerged on the scene around 1862, played "classical chess" for a decade, and then intensively promoted his ideas for the rest of his life. His style was controversial at the time, and the recognition of Steinitz' contributions came mainly after his death in 1900.

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