The First World Chess Champion - Wilhelm Steinitz

Updated: Aug 19, 2021

(1886 to 1894)

Wilhelm Steinitz

The first Official World Chess Champion was Wilhelm Steinitz. He was World Champion from 1886 to 1894, however many believe that he was the world's top player from 1866, this date taken from the match he won against Adolf Anderssen (8 wins vs 6 wins). In this same year he won a match against Henry Bird (7 wins, 5 draws, 5 losses). In 1872 Steinitz conclusively beat Johannes Zukertort (7 wins, 4 draws, 1 loss). During this time his strongest tournament win was in the London Tournament in 1872.

Steinitz gained the crown as the first official World Chess Champion when he played a match against Johannes Zukertort in America in 1886. The match was played at three venues; New York, St Louis and New Orleans. The winner was to be the first to win 10 games no matter how many draws. Steinitz won the match with in impressive score of 10 wins, 5 draws and 5 losses (total score: 12.5 vs 7.5). Though this win made Wilhelm Steinitz the first official World Chess Champion it should be noted that it was Steinitz himself who insisted that the match contract include the wording that the match was for "the Championship of the World"!

The American Chess Congress began in 1887 to draw up conditions for future World Championship matches. In 1889, they finally proposed that the World Chess Champion would be determined as the winner of a tournament to be played in New York in 1889. Steinitz refused to play in this tournament and said he would be not be willing to play the tournament winner in a match unless they were first challenged by the the 2nd and 3rd place holders in the tournament. The New York Tournament ended in a tie for first place by Chigorin and Max Weiss. A playoff resulted in 4 draws and then Max Weiss conceded the match so he could get back to work at the Rothschild bank.

Isidor Gunsberg

The second match for the World Championship was played in New York in 1890 when Steinitz was challenged by the third place holder in the 1889 New York Tournament. This match was a win for Steinitz

(10.5 vs 8.5). The American Chess Congress concept of a tournament to decide the world champion was discontinued and any further World Championship matches were organised privately by the champion and potential contenders. The problem with this system was that the Champion could refuse to play a strong contender who they may fear would beat them. This does not seem to have become an issue during Steinitz reign.

Mikhail Chigorin

The third match for the World Championship was played between Steinitz, the reigning champion, and Mikhail Chigorin in Havana in 1892. It follow the format of the two previous World Championship matches being a contest won by the first to reach 10 won games. After a very close and strongly fought match (10 wins, 5 draws, 8 losses) Wilhelm Steinitz won the match to retain his title. This was not the first match between Steinitz and Chigorin. In 1889 the Havana Chess Club sponsored a 20 game match between these two players. Steinitz strong insisted that the format of only 20 games disqualified this from being a World Championship match and nowhere in the advertising was it declared a fight for the World Championship. Steinitz won that match by 10 wins, 1 draw, 6 losses.

Steinitz was unbeaten in match play for 32 years (1862 to 1894).

The Fall of the Champion

In 1894 Wilhelm Steinitz was 58 years old when 26 year old Emanuel Lasker challenged him to a match for the World Championship. This match was played in three venues; New York, Philadelphia and Montreal in Canada. The match was won by Lasker (10 wins, 4 draws, 5 losses) and the crown passed to the next World Champion. Steinitz kept playing in tournaments with some strong results and then played Lasker in a return match in 1896 in Moscow but only managed to win 2 games (2 wins, 5 draws, 10 losses). It is believed that not long after the match Steinitz experienced a breakdown and spent 40 days in a Moscow Sanitarium. Mental health was a problem for Wilhelm from then till his death on 12 August 1900.

The Champion of the "Positional" Style

Wilhelm Steinitz changed the face of chess strategy from 1872 onwards. The "Romantic Style" of the time was all about sacrificing everything, including the kitchen sink, to deliver checkmate against the opponent's king. Sacrifice and daring play was standard for players following the play of Morphy and Anderssen. But Steinitz introduced a "Positional Style" of chess that looked at the development of pieces and movement of pawns in a cohesive way to ensure your position on the board was solid and lasting. His style is best described by his rival and successive world champion Emanuel Lasker. To quote him,

“In the beginning of the game ignore the search for combinations, abstain from violent moves, aim for small advantages, accumulate them, and only after having attained these ends search for the combination – and then with all the power of will and intellect, because then the combination must exist, however deeply hidden.” (Emanuel Lasker)

It is interesting that from 1873 to 1882 while, Steinitz developed his "positional style", he played no tournaments and only one match which he won against Blackburne (1876, 7 win & 0 losses). However, as a chess journalist, he promoted his chess style in his writings.

"The task of the positional player is systematically to accumulate slight advantages and try to convert temporary advantages into permanent ones, otherwise the player with the better position runs the risk of losing it." (Wilhelm Steinitz)

"A win by an unsound combination, however showy, fills me with artistic horror."

(Wilhelm Steinitz)

We owe much of our current understanding of how to play chess to Wilhelm Steinitz, our first official World Chess Champion.

"Wilhelm Steinitz was the first man to appreciate

the inherent logic behind the game of chess. (William Hartson)


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