Wilhelm Steinitz

Early life

Wilhelm Steinitz was the first chess player to be officially recognised as the World Champion. Born in 1836 in the Jewish ghetto of Prague, at that time under Austrian Empire. He was the last of thirteen children in a very poor family. He learnt to play chess at the age of 12 and for a long time it didn’t look like this game could become his profession. His parents wanted him to become a rabbi, but he finally moved to Vienna to study mathematics and worked as a journalist to make a living. He studied for two years but dropped out due to his poor health and financial problems. He gained recognition as a strong player through his participation at the Vienna City Championships. He won the tournament at his third try in 1861 with a dominant score. Next year Vienna Chess Society sponsored his participation in the world’s second international chess tournament in London, where he finished 6th. He immediately challenged the 5th place contestant to a match. This victory marked the beginning of his incredible streak of 26 straight match victories. 

Professional Career

Wilhelm decided to become a professional chess player, and took up residence in London. There he could earn some money by beating amateurs, sometimes giving odds or challenging other strong players to a match. In 1866, he was established enough to challenge German master Adolf Anderssen, presumably the world’s best active player at the time. The match was a hard-fought battle, and Steinitz only came on top by winning the last two games, bringing the final score to 8-6. The prize he won was quite large for the time, £100 which in modern times can be converted to over £70,000. After this victory, many started regarding him as the best in the world. Later, he continued his dominant career with more match victories. However, he had yet to win an international tournament. In 1870 in Baden-Baden he came 2nd. The winner was Anderssen who beat him twice there… Steinitz won his first international tournament in London 1872 though.

Introduction of positional school of chess

At the beginning of his career Steinitz was dubbed the “Austrian Morphy” for his bold attacking performances in the style of the “romantics”. Yet, nowadays he is considered the first player to discover the positional style of play and is called “the father of modern chess”. In reality a lot of positional principles were known long before, but his contribution to positional knowledge cannot be denied. His attitude became much more pragmatic and he first adopted his new style at Vienna 1873 to win his second international tournament.


At that point, there were few who doubted he was the best in the world. However, between 1873 and 1882, Steinitz went on a hiatus from competitive chess. He didn’t play in a single tournament. He tutored chess and played some less serious games like simultaneous and blindfold exhibitions to support his income, but his main job was chess journalism. His columns appeared notably in “The Field”, Britain’s leading sports magazine. The long break from competitive chess undermined the position of Steinitz as the best chess player in the world. Some people started attributing this title to Polish-born Jew Johannes Zukertort.

Steinitz-Zukertort rivalry


The rivalry between the two became apparent as they had a bitter, sometimes even abusive analytical dispute over some chess analysis published in their columns. Their constant war of who possessed the right idea was so fierce that it was given the name ,,The Ink War”. But who was the better player? Over the board they first met back in 1872 when Zukertort was demolished in a match losing 7 games and winning only 1 with 4 draws. Ten years later things were obviously different. Nevertheless Steinitz proved to be in shape when he returned to competitive chess. In 1882 he shared first place in Vienna ahead of Zukertort. A year later however it was Zukertort who won the tournament in London ahead of our hero.

After that tournament Steinitz moved to New York and settled there for the rest of his life. “The Ink War” hasn’t finished though. Their rivalry after protracted negotiations eventually led to the first World Chess Championship match.

World Chess Championship

That event took place in 1886 in three cities across the United States: New York City, St. Louis and New Orleans. The match was played to 10 wins. Draws were not counted. In the event of a tie (9-9), none of the players would be the champion. After an even start (4-4), Steinitz dominated the rest of the match and ultimately won 10-5, thus becoming the first official World Chess Champion. Though, maybe it is more fair to say that it was Zukertort who fell apart and towards the end of the match was physically fatigued and on the verge of a mental breakdown. Historians attribute this to a heart condition that he had carried since childhood. Sadly, Zukertort died three years later of a heart attack. 

Defending the title

Steinitz defended his title successfully three times. Soon after he became a naturalised U.S. citizen and changed his name from Wilhelm to William he played the second World Chess Championship match. In 1889 in Havana he beat Russian Mikhail Chigorin whom he himself nominated as a worthy opponent. His next successful defence came at the end of 1890 in New York City against the Hungarian player Isidor Gunsberg. Then in 1891 in Havana, Steinitz once again faced Chigorin in a match for the chess crown. The encounter was very close this time but the last game featured the biggest blunder in world chess championship history. This allowed Steinitz to remain on the throne.

A Russian spy?

There was a funny story just two months before that match. Steinitz actually played two games against Chigorin by cable from New York. He lost and shortly after was arrested by the New York police for using the chess code, which they thought was an act of espionage for the Russian government. Fortunately, the situation was soon cleared.

End of reign

In 1894, at the age of 58 Steinitz for the first time in his career tasted the bitterness of defeat in a match. Earlier he spoke even about retiring, but as he might have desperately needed money he agreed to play even for a much smaller prize fund. He lost the World Chess Championship title to 32 years younger Emanuel Lasker from Germany. The event took place in New York, then went to Philadelphia, and ended in Montreal. Steinitz blamed insomnia as the reason for his defeat. Nevertheless he didn’t give up and continued to play in tournaments with decent results. He even managed to play a rematch for the title against Lasker at the end of 1896 in Moscow. Unfortunately he stood no real chance this time. He won just 2 games, but lost 10 with 5 draws.


Nearing the end of his life, Steinitz’s level of play and mental health started to decline. Like many other geniuses, he did go insane. He claimed that he could talk to his chess friends all over the world over an invisible phone, and spent hours during the day waiting for the phone to ring. He also bragged that over that telephone, he had beaten God in a game of chess, despite generously giving him the advantage of the first move and the odds of a pawn. In 1900, at the age of 64, he died in poverty in a New York mental asylum.