By Davide Nastasio
It is often difficult to find a good Christmas gift for a chess player, but thanks to Thad Rogers, I bought this book just 12 days before Christmas, and enjoyed it during the holiday season. Steinitz, the first world champion, is clearly a character coming out from another century. An age we cannot easily understand. As an example of such a different historical period, Steinitz was the seventh of thirteen siblings, of which six died at a very early age! (Landsberger’s biography on Steinitz seems to disprove Wikipedia’s claim that Steinitz was the last born. This is one of the many sad cases in which we don’t know whom to believe, because it is difficult to check the historical documents.)
By the time Steinitz was 9 his mother had died, and by 15 Steinitz had already moved out of his father’s house. Now if we think of today’s economical conditions for playing chess, and how hard they can be for many professionals, I don’t think it’s possible to imagine how hard it was in Steinitz’s time.
Returning to the more technical part: once, following the course of a Romanian GM, I came to know Steinitz as the father of the idea that in chess we must strive for small advantages, and together, many of these small advantages can become a big one.
Steinitz’s elements, which were considered relatively “permanent advantages,” were the following:
1. Material Advantage
2. Bad king position
3. Passed pawn in the middlegame
4. Opponent’s weak pawns
5. Strong and weak squares
6. Pawn islands
7. Strong pawn center
8 Control of a diagonal
9. Control of a file
10 Bishop Pair
11. Control of a rank
Now the reader can obviously peruse some of Steinitz’s games in search of these elements. But there were more. Some were just temporary, like the following:
1. Bad piece position (a bad bishop, can become good, if the pawn structure changes)
2. Inharmoniously placed pieces
3. Advantage in development (this can be seen in most Morphy’s games)
4. Concentration of the pieces in the center (that later Nimzowitsch will call it as: “centralization”)
5. Space advantage
These that I just enumerated can be considered the main elements which can help a player to evaluate a position on the chessboard, and eventually come out with a plan. Before Steinitz there wasn’t such a systematic idea, so his contribution to the game is fundamental.
Now, forgive me for the digression, but I believe it is important. If you have seen a few of Fischer’s games, surely you have noticed that Fischer exchanges some of the “permanent advantages” for some other advantages which are more important in a certain moment of the game. This can seem strange for the inexperienced player, but it is the idea that each position has dynamic and static factors, like the one mentioned above, and the way we understand this river, which is always flowing during the game, creates the conditions for a victory or loss.
Obviously my curiosity in this book was relative to see how a modern author would treat all these ideas which came from Steinitz.
The author has decided for a chronological structure which shows the development of Steinitz’s ideas, making the book a collection of games and biographical data. At the same time he retains the “move by move” concept, which is based on asking some questions throughout the game to the reader, who in such manner is more involved in understanding the game itself.
Chapter one covers the years from 1857 to 1866. Let’s remember that Steinitz was born in 1836. In this chapter Pritchett covers five games. The beginning year of 1857 was chosen because there are no previous records of Steinitz’s chess activity. Also we are informed from the book that he learned to play when he was twelve.
A very important year for Steinitz was 1862, because thanks to the result in London, a mere sixth place, he moved to live there up to the moment he immigrated to US. London, being the capital of the empire, offered him the chance to improve as chess player in a way he couldn’t have done it in Vienna.
I’ve chosen three games which I consider interesting for the period treated in Chapter One, which are not the ones chosen by the author of the book. In this way, if the reader of this review decides to buy the book, he will be more acquainted with the Steinitz style:
In these three games one can see that Steinitz completely mastered Morphy’s ideas regarding quick development, initiative, and sacrifice for mating attacks. After all it is obvious that every world champion must have understood all the lessons from the giants who walked on earth before him in order to become world champion.
Notice that in the following game Steinitz is playing WITHOUT the Rook A1, and once more he sacrifices a queen and gives checkmate with a pawn!
In this game we witness a double sacrifice before the nice final checkmate!
Chapter Two is entitled Achieving Supremacy, and covers the years from 1867 to 1876. This chapter is composed by seven games. In this section we come to know Steinitz’s main rivals, and how in that time he wasn’t considered superior in the eyes of many of the chess players of that period. In particular, the rivalry was with Ulf Anderssen, who in tournament play had clearly better results than Steinitz. This would finally change in 1872 when Steinitz would win his first international tournament, and repeated the performance in 1873! Let’s remember that in those times the tournaments were quite long.
For example, in the crosstable of Vienna 1873, we can see the tournament lasted more than one month:
Like many authors who write about champions, Pritchett shows us only wins. Here I’d like to illustrate some losses Steinitz had against the main players of that era to better show why he wasn’t considered superior.
Here we see a game Steinitz lost against Ignatz von Kolisch, who in that time was one of the top ten players in the world. Kolisch, just to give an example of his strength, drew a match against Anderssen with +5 =1 -5, but he also had a Karpov-Kasparov match against Paulsen which was abandoned, and considered drawn with the following result: +6 =18 -7. The match would have been considered won by the first player reaching 10 wins.
Joseph Henry Blackburne was another of these players who could match Steinitz play. But 6 years after this game, Steinitz would obtain a crushing result against Blackburne in a match, with a score of 7-0!
Then, of course, we have Anderssen, a giant of that age, if likely declining when Steinitz was arising.
Chapter three is titled Attaining the Unchallenged Crown. The period covered goes from 1877 to 1886. While he began to be considered the world’s best player, it is not until 1886 when Steinitz wins a match against Zukertort that he is crowned World Champion. Notice that Steinitz was playing under the American flag!
This beautiful game is given at the end of the chapter, and I found it with notes by Fischer:
The fourth chapter describes the period from 1887 to 1892 in which Steinitz is at the top of the chess world. Now, an interesting point is that Steinitz became world champion at 50 years old! An age which would be quite unbelievable nowadays.
This chapter is important because describes the “modern school” compared to the “romantic” one. There are a lot of good ideas that Steinitz had, which I believe are fundamental for every chess player to know. In the book it is mentioned how Steinitz, at 55, had increasing physical problems. I must add a factoid: in the 1900s, the average life span for a man was 49 years old! So Steinitz was already 6 years beyond. However, his main rival for the world championship, Chigorin, surely had physical problems too.
Steinitz vs Chigorin 1889 was a great match.
Obviously all the games are interesting, but the following three are surely instructive. They show us a clear fighting upon an opening system, and also the level of their technique, how they would convert an advantage or miss to convert it, as in this first game.
We finally reach chapter five, titled Gradual Decline, covering the years from 1893 to 1900. It seems quite a short period, but we must remember that Steinitz was living in a different age. The loss of his daughter, at 21, and his wife, at 45, were huge blows in his life, as they surely would be for every man. By 1894, Lasker, thanks to his tournament successes, felt ready to challenge the world champion, and won. Steinitz tried to regain the title in 1896-97, but by that time Lasker was a giant, and Steinitz was clearly too old. Lasker won the second match crushing Steinitz with 10 wins, 2 losses, and 5 draws.
Let’s enjoy and remember this great world champion with these last three games from the first match:
A disaster in the Spanish exchange, maybe due to the fact that Lasker had already an advantage in the match and wanted to close it.
In the following game one needs to pay attention to the 21st and 27th moves.
In conclusion, I’d like to remark on some possible improvements for the books in this series. The first point is that the diagrams are all from the White side, even when Steinitz is not White, and clearly the questions made by the author are intended for Black. If the diagrams would be turned in the correct direction, then the reader could do a further exercise, and follow the games in his mind with the help of the diagrams.
Then of course there are no cross tables of tournaments or the matches Steinitz played. As a consequence, this “biographical material” is just a copy and paste of other sources. Often we also understand better the strength of a player when we see his tournament results in comparison to his peers.
Another question could be asked: are 35 games enough to describe a champion like Steinitz? Or the ugly truth could be that most games were low quality or with a big gap between the champion and the amateur, and as result useless for learning? One of the positive sides of this series of books is to let the amateur know chess history, and most important players, while having an active approach in understanding their games, thanks to the questions provided by the authors.
I wish the readers of Georgia Chess News the best wishes for a happy new year!
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