Why bother to bone up on Steinitz? (2/2)

10/16/2016 – "I have always been hooked on the game’s history," writes IM Craig Pritchett, a leading Steinitz authority, in the British magazine CHESS. In part one he took our readers through the history of the game’s so-called ‘Romantic Age’. In this second part Craig expands on Steinitz’s more nuanced, strategically based chess understanding and primacy, and the ways in which his greatest games and writings substantively helped move chess forward towards a radically new and long-lasting, early ‘modernity’.

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Why bother to bone up on Steinitz? (2/2)

IM Craig Pritchett explains why we should all study the 19th Century Greats

Part One took the reader briskly through the history of the game’s so-called ‘Romantic Age’, from Bourdonnais’ early 1830s’ combinative example to the high point of those two great mid-century giants, Anderssen and Morphy. By the 1860s, chess knowledge had hugely expanded and these more innocent, open attacking times were ripe for seismic change.

Steinitz eventually evolved his own theory of the accumulation of small advantages. He and others, consciously or not, had to adapt. The evergreen Anderssen, who continued to compete successfully at the very top, despite giving away two decades or more to almost all of his peers in his last two decades, was among the successful adapters. Consider the following game, whose spectacular brilliance derives far less from anything ‘romantic’ in character than from the stricter dictates of a thoroughly sound and hard-hitting opening.

Adolf Anderssen (1818-1879) features in an instructive Everyman work by Pritchett, "Chess Secrets: Great Chess Romantics".

[Event "Breslau m"] [Site "Breslau"] [Date "1862.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "Rosanes, Jacob"] [Black "Anderssen, Adolf"] [Result "0-1"] [ECO "C32"] [Annotator "Pritchett,Craig"] [PlyCount "38"] [EventDate "1862.??.??"] [EventType "match"] [EventRounds "5"] [EventCountry "GER"] [SourceTitle "EXT 99"] [Source "ChessBase"] [SourceDate "1998.11.10"] 1. e4 e5 2. f4 d5 3. exd5 e4 4. Bb5+ $6 c6 5. dxc6 Nxc6 6. Nc3 Nf6 7. Qe2 $6 Bc5 8. Nxe4 $2 {Games like this, in which White plays to win Black's cramping e-pawn, rather than coax its early exchange, did much to establish Black's opening as a very dangerous, 19th century weapon. White's most challenging lines tend to arise from 4.d3.} O-O 9. Bxc6 ({Or if} 9. Nxc5 Re8 {and wins material}) 9... bxc6 10. d3 Re8 11. Bd2 Nxe4 12. dxe4 Bf5 13. e5 Qb6 14. O-O-O $6 {[#] This is the natural way to defend against Black's double-attack against g1 and b2. But Black's lead in development, raking pieces and direct attacking chances in the b-, a- and c-files, are now decisive. White perhaps had to try} (14. Nf3 {, although after} Qxb2 {, and if} 15. Rc1 Rab8 16. Qc4 Qa3 17. Nd4 Be4 {, Black's attack still rages.}) 14... Bd4 15. c3 Rab8 16. b3 { Black softens White's queenside pawns.} ({(or if} 16. Be1 Be3+ {and mates)}) ({ White also clearly struggles after} 16. b4 Qa5 {, and if} 17. Be1 Qa3+ 18. Qb2 Rxb4 $1 {and if} 19. Qxa3 Be3+ {, followed by 20...Rb1 mate.}) 16... Red8 17. Nf3 $6 {White develops his last piece and goes down in flames. But if} (17. cxd4 Qxd4 {, threatening 18...Qa1 mate, and wins.}) ({White also loses after} 17. g4 Qa5 {and if} 18. Kb2 Bc5 19. gxf5 Rxb3+ 20. Ka1 Rdb8 21. Be1 Qa3 22. Qc2 Rb2 23. Qb1 Qa4 $1 {, threatening both ...Rxa2+, and mates, and to take twice on b1, followed by ...Ba3!.}) ({After} 17. Kb2 {, perhaps White's sole practical chance, Black continues the attack, with every hope of success, by playing} Be6 {, and if} 18. Rb1 Bc5 19. Nf3 Qa5 20. Ka1 Rxb3 21. Rxb3 Bxb3 22. Bc1 Rb8 {threateningly principally ...Rb6-a6, and winning White's a-pawn.}) 17... Qxb3 $3 18. axb3 Rxb3 19. Be1 Be3+ $1 {[#]This beautifully quiet finish still takes my breath away. White cannot prevent 20...Rb1 mate.} 0-1

Steinitz also recognised that the great Paul Morphy would have effortlessly coped with the game’s changing trends, if he hadn’t abruptly ‘retired’ from all top-class competition, the ‘Pride and Sorrow’ of the game, at the very end of the 1850s.

Of Kolisch, who also effectively abandoned chess in the mid-1860s (eventually to become a wealthy financier, chess patron and Austrian ‘baron’), Steinitz allowed, too, not just that he “was gifted with most remarkable powers of originality, brilliancy and depth of combination [...] in the kingside attack”, but that in his most important encounters he also “showed some indications of the circumspective style which tends to hold the balance all over the board and seizes the slightest advantage at any point” (International Chess Magazine, May 1889).

Wilhelm Steinitz (1836-1900), the first official world champion and the subject of a fine "Move by Move" work by Craig Pritchett.

Life changes... even for ‘oldies’! In the next two or three decades, Steinitz changed his own game more radically than all of his peers and perhaps just as importantly gave expression to these momentous trends in chess not just in his many great games, but also in his incomparable writing, in The Field (1873-1882), International Chess Magazine (1885-1892), Modern Chess Instructor: Part 1 (1889) and elsewhere. Not just the world’s best player by acclaim (certainly through most, arguably all of the period, from around 1873 until the early 1890s), he was also a great teacher and, especially, chess innovator par excellence.

Contemporaries were certainly in awe of Steinitz’s remarkable facility for innovation. He pushed the boundaries of what most considered playable, at times, to extraordinary lengths. Among his greatest successes, to name but a few, must count:

  1. His profoundly strategic reinterpretation of the long-neglected Salvio Gambit, which completely confounded Anderssen in their match, at London 1866, and his own, almost surreally conceived Steinitz Gambit, first unleashed on an unsuspecting world, at Dundee 1867.

  2. Demonstrating the weak points in Anderssen’s favourite interpretation of Spanish: d3 Systems (generally involving an early Bxc6, followed by Nc3), and then subsequently refashioning the line (along myriad c2-c3 variants), which played an especially significant role in his world championship match victories against Zukertort (1886) and Chigorin (1889 and 1892).

  3. Devising the first, recognisably modern anti-Isolated Queen’s Pawn defences, with which he repeatedly frustrated Zukertort’s attempts to attack (with White), in their 1886 match, and destroying Chigorin’s earliest attempts, in their 1889 match, at making his embryonic Chigorin Defence work, with a range of ideas that indicated an astonishingly accurate grasp of how to defuse such systems.

In addition to his profound chess understanding, it should also simply be stressed that Steinitz was a born fighter, who understood psychology and the value of calculated risk-taking and surprise in chess. Moreover he never lost his delight in combination or belief that tactics ultimately decide games. Far ahead of his time, Steinitz acted on the thoroughly modern principle that the scope in chess for innovation and test by concrete analysis was, in effect, near-endless. If he began to doubt any of his innovations, he would instantly ditch them.

It is scarcely possible to offer one game that provides more than the merest, limited insight into Steinitz’s great contribution to chess. Here, however, is one of my own personal favourites and one that is by any stretch of the imagination a combinational masterpiece. Any top 21st century player would be proud to play such a game, even today. It certainly takes us several other large steps from the Bourdonnais, Paulsen and Anderssen wins above to the very threshold of our own ‘modernity’.

[Event "World Championship 04th"] [Site "Havana"] [Date "1892.01.07"] [Round "4"] [White "Steinitz, William"] [Black "Chigorin, Mikhail"] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "C65"] [Annotator "Pritchett,Craig"] [PlyCount "55"] [EventDate "1892.01.01"] [EventType "match"] [EventRounds "23"] [EventCountry "CUB"] [SourceTitle "MainBase"] [Source "ChessBase"] [SourceDate "1999.07.01"] 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 Nf6 4. d3 d6 5. c3 g6 6. Nbd2 Bg7 7. Nf1 O-O 8. Ba4 {A novelty, still sometimes seen in similar positions today: White seeks to ensure that he can retain his potentially useful attacking, light square bishop. Black's simplest reply might actually be the equally surprising 8...a6, followed by ...b5, reaching fairly standard ground on the queenside. Game 14 saw Chigorin try 8...d5!?, but after 9.Qe2 Qd6 10.Bc2 b6!? 11.Ng3 Ba6 12.0-0 dxe4 13.Nxe4 Nxe4 14.Qxe4, White enjoyed central light square and kingside pressure (eventually winning). Steinitz-Lasker, 1894 world championship (Game 2), continued 8...Bd7 9.Ne3 Ne7 10.Bb3, and White again won after a hugely complex battle.} Nd7 9. Ne3 Nc5 10. Bc2 Ne6 11. h4 $1 {[#] An alert thrust that throws some doubt on the Black knight manoeuvre from f6-d7-c5-e6. This is, however, no 'old' style attacking move, rather an attempt to exploit a momentary opportunity to get in h4-h5 and open the h-file.} Ne7 12. h5 d5 13. hxg6 fxg6 $6 ({Perhaps trusting to his coming, optically healthy-seeming piece development, Chigorin may have underestimated the danger in now allowing White to isolate his e-pawn and weaken Black's central light squares. But White is also better after} 13... hxg6 14. Ng4 {, attacking e5 and playing to gain the bishop pair (by eventually playing Nh6+), or perhaps after the even more ambitious} (14. Qe2 {, followed by Bd2 and 0-0-0})) 14. exd5 Nxd5 15. Nxd5 Qxd5 16. Bb3 Qc6 17. Qe2 Bd7 18. Be3 Kh8 19. O-O-O Rae8 20. Qf1 $1 {[#] This modest retreat underlines Black's strategic difficulties. It was extremely rare in the 19th century to see such a build-up of attacking force by pieces, as here, restricted solely to the attacker's first three ranks. We now understand the power that can be unleashed in such Hedgehog-like set-ups. White threatens d4, forcing open the centre and battling for control of both the light and dark square diagonals directly aimed at Black's king. Meanwhile, there remains that path to Black's king on the half-open h-file.} a5 21. d4 exd4 22. Nxd4 Bxd4 ({Black treads on egg-shells. Not} 22... Nxd4 $2 {, which loses at once to} 23. Rxh7+ $1 Kxh7 24. Qh1+) 23. Rxd4 Nxd4 $6 {I suspect (but can't corroborate), that Chigorin deliberately permitted Steinitz to cap his extraordinary attack with its justly famous finish. Chigorin apparently thought that Black must in any case lose after} (23... Re7 24. Rdh4 Rff7 25. g3 $1 {, threatening 26.Bd4+ Kg8 27.Qd3, attacking g6. He was almost certainly correct. But he might still soldier on, by playing} Kg8 {, and if} 26. Qd3 Qb5 {, though the engines scream that White wins at least a pawn (if nothing else) after} 27. Qxb5 Bxb5 28. Re1 {, threatening Bg5 and forcing} a4 29. Bxa4 Bxa4 30. Rxa4) 24. Rxh7+ Kxh7 25. Qh1+ Kg7 26. Bh6+ Kf6 27. Qh4+ Ke5 28. Qxd4+ { [#]White mates next move.} 1-0

Along with other past (as well as present) greats, Steinitz continues to inspire me. What do you think?

Main Sources – my own Everyman Chess books:

  1. Heroes of Classical Chess (2009), especially the chapters on Rubinstein and Fischer;
  2. Giants of Innovation (2011), especially the chapters on Steinitz and Lasker;
  3. Great Chess Romantics (2013), especially the chapters on Anderssen and Chigorin;
  4. Steinitz: Move by Move (2015).
  5. And: Ignaz Kolisch: The Life and Chess Career, by Fabrizio Zavatarelli (McFarland & Company, 2015).

About the author

IM Craig Pritchett (photo by Sally Pritchett) is a former Scottish champion and chess writer and retired Chartered Public Finance Accountant, who lives with his wife and two daughters in Dunbar, Scotland. Still an active national and senior international competitor, he narrates: "I knew long ago that I wouldn't be World Champion on that fateful day when Karpov took me out on board one at the 1974 Nice Olympiad, after I missed a winning line that, yes, was pointed out by Bobby Fischer and conveyed to the Scottish team by Tony Saidy a week or so later!"

Craig was a longstanding chess correspondent for The Glasgow Herald (1972-2006) and has published ten chess books.

The above article appeared in the October 2016 of the British magazine CHESS

CHESS Magazine was established in 1935 by B.H. Wood who ran it for over fifty years. It is published each month by the London Chess Centre and is edited by IM Richard Palliser and Matt Read. The Executive Editor is Malcolm Pein, who organises the London Chess Classic.

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Chandragupta Maurya Chandragupta Maurya 10/17/2016 04:31
IM Craig Pritchett is probably the best writer among the present crop of chess authors. I own a number of his books, among them "Masters of Innovation" and "Heroes of Classical Chess," and they are all exquisitely written.

It is very admirable for someone to be a chess master and an excellent writer at the same time, because developing a high level of proficiency in chess and writing could take a lifetime. His writing style is of the formal and grand, and I take his works to be examples of clear and beautiful expression. I have been re-reading his write-ups about past and contemporary masters in the books I mentioned, yet they are as fresh as before.

IM Craig, if you could write a sweeping history of chess and of all its colorful personalities, you would do great service to many chess players. Your writing skill is made for the history of the game, and you would inform and entertain us at the same time.

I have a few questions for you, IM Craig, and I hope you won't mind my asking for your email address. My email address is alekhine1973@yhoo.com.