Wilhelm Steinitz; The 1st Ever World Champion

Wilhelm Steinitz

Did you know that Wilhelm Steinitz was the first ever World Chess Champion? He held the title from 1886 until 1894. And that as well as being a top level player, he was also a highly influential writer and chess theoretician. He shot to fame at the time as his new style of playing was considered controversial by many.

Wilhelm Steinitz played for both Austria and America during his career, and achieved many other things along the way. So we’ve decided to take a look at exactly how this man came to be at the top of the chess game for 28 years, and what it took for him to hold on to the World Champion title right up until he lost it to Emanuel Lasker.

Wilhelm Steinitz

The Early Life of Wilhelm Steinitz

Wilhelm Steinitz was the son of a tailor, and was born on the 14th May 1836, in the Jewish ghetto of Prague. He was the youngest of thirteen surviving sons, and he learned to play chess at the age of 12, taught by a school friend. It wasn’t until he was in his twenties that Steinitz began playing serious chess, following his decision to leave Prague in 1857 in order to study mathematics at the Vienna Polytechnic in Vienna for 2 years.

He dropped out of the university without fully completing the course, in order to concentrate on playing chess full time. Throughout the 1850’s Wilhelm Steinitz went from strength to strength, improving his game until he was recognised as the best chess player in Austria. He was referred to by many in the chess world as ‘the Austrian Morphy’ – named so after the American Paul Morphy, who was considered the greatest chess master of his era.

Wilhelm Steinitz’s Chess Career

Steinitz’s international debut came about in 1862, when he travelled to London to represent Austria in a world class chess tournament. Although he only placed in sixth position overall, this appearance put Willhelm Steinitz on the map so to speak, and more invitations to play came off the back of it.

Not satisfied with finishing in sixth, Steinitz challenged the player who had finished above him in fifth place, Italian Master Serafino Dubois, to a rematch shortly after the tournament ended. It was winning this rematch that ultimately convinced Wilhelm to take his game playing to the next level and turn professional.

The following few years contained a number of wins for Wilhelm Steinitz against some big name players, including Joseph Henry Blackburne, Frederic Deacon and Valentine Green. These successes meant that he was now considered to be amongst the world’s top players, but there was one man who was still seen to be a few steps ahead, and this was the German Adolf Anderssen.

Steinitz and Anderssen finally came head to head in 1866 in London, and after a long hard fight (after 12 games the scores were tied!) Wilhelm ultimately came out on top by winning the last 2 games. This result meant that Wilhelm Steinitz was now considered to be the best chess player in the world, although the first official claim to hold the title was not made until 1886.

Wilhelm Steinitz

In the years following this success, Steinitz won a number of other significant matches, against Henry Bird in 1866 and Johannes Zukertort in 1872. However, it took slightly longer for him to demonstrate the same level of dominance in tournaments. It took longer for Steinitz to reach the top in tournament play. He finished in third place at Paris 1867 and second place at both Dundee 1867 and Baden-Baden 1870. His first victory in a strong tournament was London 1872.

All of the victories of Wilhelm Steinitz up until this point had been achieved thanks to an ‘attack-at-all-costs’ style of play, demonstrated by all the world leading players at the time. But then in the Vienna 1873 chess tournament, Steinitz showcased a new positional style of play, which went on to become the basis of modern chess. With this method he tied for first place with Joseph Henry Blackburne, before going on to win the play-off.

For Wilhelm Steinitz, this was the start of an impressive 25-game winning streak in serious competition!

During 1873 and up until 1882, Steinitz took somewhat of a hiatus from plying competitive chess, although he still took part in several simultaneous and blindfold exhibitions as a means of income.

Instead, he used this time to focus on his chess journalism, most notably for Britains leading sports magazine of the time ‘The Field’.

Wilhelm Steinitz’s return to competitive chess came in the form of the Vienna 1882 chess tournament, described by many as the strongest chess tournament of all time up until that point, which despite a shaky start, he ended in joint first place.

He followed up this success with a tour of the United States, where he took part in several exhibitions, many casual games, and a match for stakes of £50 with a wealthy amateur, as well as several professional matches with New World players, Alexander Sellman and Celso Golmayo Zúpide.

Wilhelm Steinitz returned to London for only a brief stay in 1883, long enough to come second in the extremely strong London 1883 chess tournament, losing only to Johannes Zukertort. He then made the decision to relocate permanently to the US, where he founded the ‘International Chess Magazine’, which he edited until 1895.

 After a period of lengthy negotiations, terms were finally decided on for a head to head match between Steinitz and Zukertort. Steinitz insisted that the contract said it would be “for the Championship of the World”, and it was decided that the victor would be the first to win ten games, played across New York, St. Louis and New Orleans in 1886. And as we know, it was Wilhelm that ended as the winner.

Wilhelm Steinitz accepted several challenges throughout the next few years, and held onto his title until 1894. Around this time he had been considering retirement, but agreed to accept the challenge from Emanuel Lasker, who was 32 years younger and in comparison, untested at the top level of chess.

The match was played across venues in New York, Philadelphia and Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Despite Wilhelm’s confidence heading into the match, Lasker ultimately won with ten wins, five losses and four draws. A number of commentators at the time blamed Steinitz’s habit of playing ‘experimental’ moves for his downfall.

Wilhelm Steinitz
Zukertort vs. Steinitz during the first World Championship (1886)

Wilhelm Steinitz’s Life After

After his defeat, Steinitz continued playing in chess tournaments for a while, but his results slowly began to decline. Between November 1896 and January 1897 Wilhelm Steinitz played a return match with Lasker in Moscow, but faired even worse than the last time, winning only 2 games, drawing 5, and losing 10. This was to be the last world chess championship match for eleven years.

Shortly after the match, Steinitz unfortunately suffered a mental breakdown and as a result was confined for 40 days in a Moscow sanatorium. It was reported that whilst in there he played a lot of chess with the other inmates.

Wilhelm sadly ultimately died a pauper in the Manhattan State Hospital on the 12th August 1900, of a heart attack. He was buried in the Cemetery of the Evergreens in Brooklyn, New York.

Quick Facts

  • Wilhelm had 2 wives during his lifetime, and fathered 3 children. His first wife, Caroline Golder died in 1892, and their daughter Flora sadly died at the age of 21. He married his second wife a few years later, and they had two children together.
  • When Wilhelm Steinitz beat Adolf Anderssen in 1886, he won the prize money of £100. This was a huge sum of money at the time, to put it into perspective the equivalent is around £60,000 in today’s money!
  • In 1881, Steinitz was involved in an ‘ink war’ with fellow chess journalist Leopold Hoffer, after Wilhelm’s commentaries aroused heated debate from Hoffer, and so he retaliated by brutally criticising Hoffer’s annotations of games in the 1881 Berlin Congress.
  • Ahead of his 1894 World Championship match with Lasker, Steinitz had declared that ‘he would win without doubt’-so it came as a bit of a shock when Lasker won the first game!
  • First hand accounts of Steinitz described him as being barely five feet tall and having a sharp tongue and a violent temper. It was said that ‘Chess is his very life and soul, the one thing for which he lives.’