Equilibrium, An Important Chess Concept Of Steinitz
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Equilibrium, An Important Chess Concept Of Steinitz

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Few technical points about chess have influenced me as much as the views on equilibrium by Wilhelm Steinitz (1836-1900), who many consider to be the first true theoretician of chess.

GM Julio Becerra Rivero considers Steinitz “the foundation upon which all modern technique of chess has been built.” As Steinitz developed a series of concepts, he was virtually unbeatable and was the leading player for 28 years (from 1866 when he defeated Adolf Anderssen until 1894 when he lost to Emanuel Lasker). During this time, he was considered “the first undisputed world chess champion.”

Wilhelm Steinitz
Wilhelm Steinitz advises to attack only when you have an advantage. Image by ChessCentral.

For many years, Steinitz concentrated on being a chess journalist. A prolific writer, he founded the International Chess Magazine in 1885 which he edited for several years. As he wrote, he developed and expanded many of his chess concepts. 

International Chess Magazine
Steinitz edited International Chess Magazine for many years. Photo by Amazon.

In the article “Steinitz’ Theory” published in British Chess Magazine in 1984, David Hooper summarizes the theory of Steinitz in seven key points:

  1. At the beginning of the game, the forces stand in equilibrium.
  2. Correct play on both sides maintains this equilibrium and leads to a drawn game. 
  3. Therefore, a player can win only as a consequence of an error by an opponent. (There is no such thing as a winning move.)
  4. As long as the equilibrium is maintained, an attack, however skillful, cannot succeed against correct defense. Such a defense will eventually necessitate the withdrawal and regrouping of the attacking pieces, and the attacker will then inevitably suffer disadvantage.
  5. Therefore, a player should not attack until he already has an advantage, caused by the opponent’s error, that justifies the decision to attack.
  6. At the beginning of the game, a player should not at once seek to attack. Instead, a player should seek to disturb the equilibrium in his favor by inducing the opponent to make an error—a preliminary before attacking.
  7. When a sufficient advantage has been obtained, a player must attack or the advantage will be dissipated. 
Adolf Anderssen
Adolf Anderssen, whose loss to Steinitz began an amazing string of victories for Steinitz. Image from Chess.com.

According to Steinitz, “Only the player with the initiative has the right to attack.” Unlike Romantic style players at the time who pursued an all-out attacking approach, he changed to focus on positional play—which helped him to establish complete dominance over his rivals—and attacked only when his position was ready.

Wilhelm Steinitz (seated right) and New Orleans Chess Amateurs (photographed in New Orleans in January 1883 by Theo. Lilienthal). Wikimedia Commons.

Steinitz believed that chess requires the skill to maintain a “balance or respectively to disturb it at the proper time in one’s own favor.” He was noted for saying, “Capture of the adverse king is the ultimate but not the first object of the game,” a clear reference to his view that the equilibrium must first be disturbed before launching an attack.

Contestants at the Hastings 1895 International Chess Tournament. Wikimedia Commons.

When I play blitz games, I cautiously prepare my pieces tactically and try to be patient before launching an attack. A premature attack can lead to a disadvantage if the opponent plays carefully. However, in blitz games, an opponent’s defensive play may be weakened by time constraints, and an attack even without adequate means may succeed. Thus, if the opponent’s play indicates that he’s susceptible to tactical errors, I attack prematurely, even though I know that I’m deviating from the theory of Steinitz.

Hastings 1895 Chess Tournament
About Steinitz, the players at Hastings wrote,"Chess is his very life and soul." Photo by Amazon.

How Steinitz boldly separated himself from the Romantic style of chess so prevalent in the 19th century should encourage us to be creative in our games. The book of the Hastings 1895 chess tournament that was written by the players describes Steinitz this way: “Chess is his very life and soul, and the one thing for which he lives.” His writings and concepts still offer us a lot of inspiration. (For more on the life of Steinitz, see the article “The Godfather of Chess.”)

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