Culture and Civilisations

Prelude to Armageddon

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Prelude to Armageddon

Although five of the great early masters of the art and science of chess (Philidor, Labourdonnais, Staunton, Anderssen and Morphy) might claim to have been world chess champion, the first official World Championship match was contested in 1886. It took place in the cities of New York, St Louis and New Orleans, between Johannes Zukertort and Wilhelm Steinitz. There had been no official title until that time, but now there was no ambiguity. The match was announced as being “for the chess championship of the world“ and the stakes of $2,000 were the highest hitherto offered.

What brought about this new globalist perception — apart, perhaps from the modesty of the five proto-champions, or the unabashed ambition and self-confidence of Steinitz? I suggest that the new dispensation, concerning the formal existence of a World Title, was, at least in part, bound up with the increasing ease, safety and frequency of transatlantic travel. Under sail, the voyage could take over sixty days. With the advent of steam in the mid-19th century, this trip was reduced to eight. The New World no longer seemed so far away.

Steinitz and Zukertort also represented a new era in chess leadership, in that both men were representatives of the rich Central European, specifically Jewish, cultural heritage. They were not alone. As we shall see, the next Titan to claim the world chess crown was Emanuel Lasker, who hailed from the same cultural milieu as Zukertort and Steinitz. Meanwhile, waiting in the wings, was Dr Siegbert Tarrasch, the talented but erratic Jacques Mieses, and then the next generation of Jewish maestros, including Rubinstein, Nimzowitsch and Spielmann.

Back to 1886, when both Zukertort and Steinitz had claimed the title before the match even started. Steinitz argued his own case as early as 1874, when he wrote about himself, in glowingly flattering terms, in his chess column in The Field magazine: “Steinitz, who has not yet lost any set match on even terms, and who has come out victorious in the last two international tournaments, London 1872 and Vienna 1873, could claim the title of champion.” For those further interested in following Steinitz’s career, in 2020 Dr Tim Harding PhD, an expert on 19th-century chess, published his latest monumental piece of research: Steinitz in London: A Chess Biography with 623 Games. 

While Steinitz was the complete chess professional, Zukertort cut a more flamboyant figure, claiming to be an accomplished soldier, pianist and linguist. His reputation had been made in 1883 at the great London tournament, where he had finished no less than three points ahead of his archrival Steinitz. In spite of this devastating victory, there were already disturbing signs of Zukertort’s future mental and physical deterioration. Towards the end of the gruelling London tournament he admitted that he was taking opium to calm his nerves. It was widely believed that, as a result, the Prussian lost his final three games to inferior opponents.

Zukertort started brilliantly in the 1886 showdown for the inaugural World Chess Championship with Steinitz, but was the less resilient of the two and ultimately suffered a humiliating loss, winning five, drawing five, but losing 10 games. The Oxford Companion to Chess describes the terrible effect this defeat had on the loser: “His spirit crushed, his health failing, Zukertort was advised to give up chess, but there was nothing else he could do. ‘I am prepared‘ he said, ‘to be taken away at any moment‘. Seized by a stroke, while playing at London’s famous coffee house, Simpson’s Divan, he died next day, aged 46.”

Thus the first man to become official World Chess Champion was Wilhelm Steinitz, who held the title from 1886 to 1894. Born in Prague, he moved to Vienna, where he tried to make a living as a journalist. The lure of chess, however, proved too strong and he eventually became a chess professional. In his first international tournament, played in London in 1862, he represented Austria. He subsequently decided to make his home in London, which had become the capital of world chess. 

CIRCA 1976: A stamp printed in Cuba shows former World Chess Champion Wilhelm Steinitz

Great tournaments were frequently held there after Staunton‘s pioneering efforts in staging the first ever international tournament held in London, 1851. Moreover, London’s chess centres were renowned as meeting places for the world’s leading players. Simpson‘s, the most famous of these centres, was a natural extension of the chess playing coffee houses of the 18th century. It was known as a “Chess and cigar divan“, and there amateurs could challenge the great masters for a stake, matches and tournaments were held and the enthusiast could catch up on the latest games and publications. Indeed, the Immortal Game, between Anderssen and Kieseritsky, was played in Simpson‘s as a casual game in 1851. For those interested in playing over the Immortal Game, here is a YouTube video with commentary. Simpson’s very much resembled a chess version of the London gentlemen’s clubs of the day.

In terms of social history this was not the sort of milieu which would attract female players; moreover, despite the Victorian example of a queen regnant, women were heavily discouraged from entering male professions throughout that era. We should look to the historical development of a professional body of male chess players in the mid- to late-19th century for a partial explanation, at the very least, of why women have seemingly been held back as exponents of the chess playing art.

Steinitz, although a foreigner, suffered no such disadvantages in the London chess scene of his time, and he rapidly became a denizen of Simpson‘s, where challenges from amateurs helped to augment his income. Once in London, Steinitz dominated British chess. In 1866 he won a match against Anderssen, the victor of the tournament in London in 1851, and he went on to crush both Bird and Blackburne, two of the leading English masters, in set contests. In 1872 the Amos Burn recognised Steinitz as “now probably the strongest living player”. The Field invited Steinitz to contribute regular columns from 1873 to 1882 and he also wrote for the French newspaper Le Figaro during the same period. His main journalistic effort was as proprietor and editor of the International Chess Magazine from 1885-91, a controversial and distinguished publication that is now a collector‘s item.

In the 1880s Johannes Zukertort emerged to challenge Steinitz’s dominance. A fierce rivalry developed between the two men after Zukertort won the 1883 London tournament ahead of Steinitz and both men claimed to be the world‘s strongest player. Here is a link to Zukertort’s most brilliant game from the 1883 tournament, against Joseph Blackburne. In 1886, as we have seen, the issue was settled in the first World Championship Match in America, won overwhelmingly by Steinitz. The demoralised Zukertort was now broken in health and died two years later. Steinitz succeeded in sweeping aside challenges from powerful rivals, such as Tchigorin and Gunsberg, but in 1894 Steinitz suffered a painful defeat at the hands of the youthful Emanuel Lasker, who at the age of 25 wrested the World Championship from his veteran opponent. A return match was held in Moscow two years later, but it would have been better for Steinitz if he had never played. He lost 10 games, drew five and won only two. This stinging humiliation caused a mental breakdown, with Steinitz insisting he could make telephone calls without the need for any apparatus. He was briefly interned in the Moscow Morossov asylum. The full account of his brutal maltreatment can be read in Ludwig Bachmann’s book Schachmeister Steinitz. Mercifully he recovered and was detained at Morossov for just a month before his release. For some years Steinitz continued to play, quite successfully, in tournaments, but in 1900 he died in utter poverty in New York aged just 64, and was given a pauper‘s burial at the Evergreen Cemetery, Brooklyn. The memory of his final destitution has haunted masters of the game ever since and had bitter echoes in the death of Alexander Alekhine, the fourth man to hold the World Title.

Steinitz, however, left a legacy of profound influence on the strategic development of the game. Indeed, he displayed a deep understanding of defensive play, which included the accumulation of small advantages, and the creation of weaknesses for the opponent, such as isolated and doubled pawns. His ideas are published in his book Modern Chess Theory in 1889.

Steinitz’s successor, Emanuel Lasker, held the World Championship title for a record 27 years from 1894 to 1921. No one since has ever equalled this achievement. Not only did he defend the title regularly against powerful opposition, he also won nearly every tournament that he entered during his long reign. Even after he lost the title, he continued to notch up first class tournament victories and he was still competing successfully at the age of 67.

Lasker’s play always fascinated the public, as he overcame outstanding Grandmasters in droves. Some even accused him of hypnotising or bewitching his hapless opponents. In reality he was one of the first players to apply psychology to the chessboard, deploying moves which may not have been the strongest, but which he felt were unpleasant for an individual opponent. He was the perfect fighter, rejoicing in the struggle for its own sake, never afraid of risks and possessed of an amazingly intricate understanding of the game. His special skills centred on the middle game, where he created incredible complications. If his adversaries survived these, then they were remorselessly ground down in the endgame. If chess is, as I maintain, a mirror of intellectual developments in other spheres, it is fascinating to observe that’s Lasker’s reliance on psychological warfare, probing the weaknesses of his opponents’ chessboard psyche, was developed at approximately the same time that Sigmund Freud was analysing the subconscious mind in Vienna.

Lasker was born, also in Prussia, in 1868 and established his reputation in tournaments and matchplay in Germany, England and the United States in a burst of activity from 1889 to 1893. His astounding breakthrough came in the world championship match of 1894 against the old warhorse Steinitz. At the outset Lasker, aged 25, was regarded as an inexperienced contender, but his mastery developed as the match progressed.

The following year, Lasker played in the inaugural Hastings tournament, the strongest chess competition ever held up to that time. With three rounds to go the young World Champion led the field, which included Steinitz and Tchigorin. Lasker was, however, recuperating from a severe case of typhoid fever and was overtaken by Harry Pillsbury, a young American who was making his first appearance on the international circuit. No one had ever won such an event at their first attempt. The fact that Lasker could only come in third place at Hastings encouraged his successful rivals, Pillsbury and Tchigorin, to believe that they could demonstrate their superiority even more clearly over a man who was beginning to look like a stop-gap champion.

Accordingly, Tchigorin invited the winners from Hastings to participate in a multi-round tournament in St Petersburg, the cultural capital of Czarist Russia. Pillsbury and Tchigorin were regarded as the likely victors, because Steinitz was nearing 60 and Lasker was erroneously believed to be too frail. Indeed, at the halfway stage, Pillsbury was a point clear of the field, but around this time it is believed that he had contracted syphilis and his morale collapsed. Lasker played in brilliant form to take the victory in this event, clearly confirming his right to the World Championship.

After St Petersburg, Lasker continued to record a sensational series of firsts: in Nuremberg that same year, in London 1899 and Paris 1900. Perhaps he now found chess too simple and withdrew temporarily from active play to the study of mathematics and philosophy, but in 1908 he returned to the fray, defending his World Title against in turn Marshall, Tarrasch, Janowski and Schlechter, a string of formidable opponents. His last great tournament win as champion came when he returned to St Petersburg in 1914. World War I served to undermine Lasker’s financial resources and his health, and in 1921 he lost the title to the young Cuban star Capablanca in a match held in Havana. Sadly, Lasker failed to win a single game in this, his last championship appearance.

Nevertheless, he continued to best his younger rivals in tournament play, including taking first prize at New York in 1924 ahead of both Capablanca and the Russian Alekhine. It was here he demonstrated that in certain circumstances a lone knight can draw against the opponent‘s rook and pawn, an amazingly complex discovery.

The advent of the Nazis in Germany forced Lasker, a Jew by birth, into exile, and he travelled the tournament circuit once again in order to make a living. His results were still outstanding. He died in New York in 1941.

The games that I have chosen to illustrate Steinitz’s and Lasker’s prowess are both from the St Petersburg tournament of 1896. The first Steinitz’s win over Lasker; and second, Lasker’s talent is shown in his game against Pillsbury.  This was the true test for Lasker. He faced the victor of Hastings 1895, and had to prove that he, and not Pillsbury, was the real World Champion.

His opponent, Pillsbury, was capable of astonishing feats of mental exertion. One of his specialities was to play 12 games of chess, six games of draughts and a hand of duplicate Whist simultaneously. He would also memorise a series of 30 incredibly obscure words, then write them out and repeat them verbally in sequence, first forwards and then backwards. The list included words such as “antiphlogistine”, “staphylococcus” and “salmagundi”. Many congratulations to any readers of TheArticle who know what these words mean without needing to google them!

So, the scene is set. A corpus of Jewish masters had established a significant presence in the global halls of chess fame. Meanwhile, the greater ease and safety of transatlantic travel, combined with the peripatetic, cosmopolitan inclinations of the Central European Jewish giants of the game, led naturally to the perception of the entire world as their natural arena, thus reinforcing the novel concept of a championship in chess, which embraced the entire planet. There was, however, to be a backlash. Next week, Armageddon.

Raymond Keene’s latest book “Fifty Shades of Ray: Chess in the year of the Coronavirus”, containing some of his best pieces from TheArticle, is now available from Amazon, and Blackwell’s.  

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Member ratings
  • Well argued: 97%
  • Interesting points: 98%
  • Agree with arguments: 96%
55 ratings - view all

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