My Conversation With Steinitz

Jun 21, 2012, 12:38 PM |

My friend Deb gave me this article from "Chessworld" magazine. "Chessworld" was created and published by Frank Brady (also the author of "Profile of a Prodgy" and "Endgame: Bobby Fischer's Remarkable Rise and Fall," the two most definitive studies of Robert J. Fischer) in 1964.  In spite of its relatively decent number of subscribers, the magazine folded after only three delicious issues.

The following article was written for "Chessworld" by Harold Meyer Phillips who was 89 at the time of publication: 

                                    A Recollection  of the First Official World Champion
                                    by the Only Living Chessplayer Who Remembers Him.
Harold M. Phillips is the Grand Old Man of Chess.  Champion of Greater New York in 1895, he still plays an imaginative and very strong game, wining the brilliancy prize for a Queen sacrifice made in the New York State Championship just a few years ago.   Former President of the U. S. Chess Federation, he has organized more teams, exhibitions and tournaments than practically any other living chess player.  Always a rebel and forever a fighter, Mr. Phillips has been practicing law for over a half century and still continues to practice daily in his downtown New York City office.

My Conversation With Steinitz
by. Harold M. Phillips

The first time I ever saw William Steinitz was during his match against Emanuel Lasker for the championship of the world, in 1894.  I was a sophomore at the City College of New York at the time, and since the match was held at the Manhattan Chess Club, of which I was not a member, I couldn't go to see it. I was curious, though.  The name "Steinitz" had been a household word to me as far back as my childhood in Lithuania.  I remember watching my father and a friend play (though I didn't understand the moves, I was intrigued by the movement of the Knight) and often a dispute would arise, whereupon one or the other would exclaim: "Who do you think I am? Steinitz?"
     Therefore, I was the bitterest enemy of Lasker, merely a young "boy" --- who dared to challenge the great Steinitz for the world's championship.  This was a criminal acr and I was determined to see Lasker.
     After college hours I went to the Manhattan Ches Club.  I wouldn't dare go into the club since I wasn't a member.  As I stood there, a gentleman came out and noticing I was embarrassed asked what I was doing there.  When I told him I was waiting for the match game to be over so I could catch a glimpse of the participants, he was amused and interested in me.  When he determined I was a chess player, he took me inside and since I was quite small for my age, brought me to the foot of the table where the great match between Steinitz and Lasker was being played.  It was here that I had the first opportunity to view these two great immortals and little did I know at the time that Emanuel Lasker would eventually become my lifelong friend.
     After that, I played Steinitz in two simultaneous exhibitions that he gave, both games being drawn, but I never had the opportunity to speak to him.
     In 1896 (or perhaps 1897, I'm not quite certain) I walked in the Manhattan Chess Club and Steinitz was seated at a table with several gentlemen.  After a few minutes passed, they all left with the exception of the Champion.  He was aloof, yet friendly, in that he would apparently never approach anyone he didn't know, yet would accept a friendly conversation if he was approached.  I went to him and began a conversation by telling him my childhood memories about his name being used almost synonymously with the word :chess."
     Steinitz was at least 10 feet in height at the time or at least, that was the impression that I had of him.  I was awed.  He really was not someone to be approached as I did -- he was not an ordinary mortal but a Superman.  Actually, though, he appeared to be an assistant to the Kaiser, he was dignified and pleasant.  He was a striking figure.  He had a massive head with a forehead that was almost a sculpture of a Greek god.  His shoulders and muscular arms would have done credit to a champion fighter.  Unfortunately, right below his chest there was a curious shortening of all his physical proportions.  His body was short and though his legs were not normal in size, they were very powerful looking.  He appeared to be a very strong man and no doubt he was, if he had to exert the upper portion of his body.  He always had a cane and there was evidence of a limp but not too pronounced.  He walked very slowly as though realizing that he had a handicap.  Seated, however, there was no evidence of a handicap.
     Our conversation lasted for about an hour.  He told me about his famed conversation with Morphy, during which it had been publicized that the subject of chess had never been mentioned.  Steinitz said that he and Morphy had "talked about general things and and we touched upon chess only as an educational and cultural activity but nothing in relation to it as a calling or a profession or as a science or an art."  Steinitz went of to say that "20 minutes passed between us and I waited for Paul Morphy to start any conversation along that line, for example, who was the greatest player of the day, or who he found the most difficult opponent during his own chess career but he never went on that subject.  After 20 or 25 minutes I just said goodbye, and being very courteous, led me to the door, shook hands, said goodbye and that was the first and last  I ever saw of Paul Morphy.  I did find that everything that was said of him was correct:  he was a gentleman, soft-spoken, kindly, but for some reason felt that chess was no blessing.  And who knows, maybe hewas right."
     Steinitz talked excellent English with a very pronounced Austrian accent but a truly remarkable command of the English language.  His grammar was correct and his rhetoric cultivated.  I remember, however, that his voice was very low and I had to listen intently to what he was saying.
     Steinitz talked about the problem a champion chess player had in order to earn enough money to live in comfort with dignity.  He was having this problem in America but things were not much better in Europe.  He was always having to depend on someone running a tournament, clearly indicating that it was being run so that Steinitz could pay his grocery bills. Still, he said he liked America.  In Europe there was always the possibility that a nobleman would take him under his wing but he never liked that type of patronage.  He spoke favorably of the Manhattan Chess Club and the opportunities they had given him to play in tournaments and exhibitions.
     We taked of other things -- living in Europe as compared to the United States and the conversation was a very pleasant one.  It got to be late int he afternoon, near the dinner hour, we said goodbye and he left.
     I saw him a few times after that but within months it was clear that Steinitz was not his old self.  He no longer sought exhibitions or matches.  He gave the appearance of being queer, crotchety and cranky.  A benefit was given for him and arout $700 or $800 was collected and given to him and he quieted down for a while, but not for long.  Within a year after that he came under the control of the authorities as a mental case and about year after that he died on Ward's Island as a pauper.  That is my recollection of Steinitz.


To supplement this article, "Chessworld" added the following:


     Chess champions, like old soldiers, never seem to die . . . they just fade away.  Whether one accepts the concept of a "life" after deth is unimportant here.. The memory, the respect, due to anyone who has achieved greatness should be perpetuated as long as there are people alive who acknowledge that the greatness existed in the first place.
     Recently, CHESSWORLD visited the grave of the late chess champion of the world, William Steinitz.  It was not an easy task to locate it -- no one in the chess world had ever visited the grave to our knowledge.  After much letter writing and research we discovered it in the borough of Brooklyn, in one of the oldest burial grounds in the city, Evergreen Cemetery, located at Bushwick Avenue and Conway Street.  Steinitz was buried on Bethel Slope and the grave number is 5893.  We cite this information in the hope that chessplayers will, from time to time, visit the grave of this great champion.


Copyright 1964 by Chessworld. Reprinted with the permission of Dr. Frank Brady