50 games you should know: Steinitz vs. von Bardeleben

by Johannes Fischer
11/6/2017 – In chess the goal of the game is to checkmate the enemy king. However, most chess games are not decided by elegant mating attacks but because one side is materially superior. You first take the pieces of the opponent, then you mate. Sacrifices suspend these brutal rules of materialism, that makes them so enchanting. And some sacrifices seem to be almost magical.

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The magic rook

Wilhelm Steinitz against Curt von Bardeleben

One of the most famous example of such a magic is a game between Wilhelm Steinitz and Curt von Bardeleben which has enchanted generations of chess players.

It was played on August 17, 1895, in the tenth round of the Hastings tournament. After energetic opening play, Steinitz enters the seventh rank with his rook and causes havoc even though the rook is not defended and for several moves could have been taken by the black queen or the black king...at least theoretically.


A fantastic game, and one that Steinitz thought it was the best he ever played. However, Steinitz is not famous for such brilliant attacks but because he lay the foundations of positional and because he realised that many of the wild sacrificial attacks that were common at this time were premature and would have failed against better defense.

Steinitz was born on May 17, 1836 in Prague, about a year before Paul Morphy who was born on June 22, 1837 in New Orleans. At the beginning of his chess career Steinitz was often called the "Austrian Morphy" because he had excellent tactical skill which he demonstrated in a number of scintillating attacking games full of sacrifices. One example:


The ABC of the Vienna

Old fashioned? Certainly! Infrequent ? Definitely! Underestimated ? Without doubt! Dangerous? You must draw your own conclusions...... The Vienna Game deserves a place in the repertoire of all players. With 2 Nc3 White prevents the freeing thrust ...d7-d5 and keeps open the option of f2-f4, hoping to transpose to a superior King’s Gambit For the Grandmaster, the Vienna can be used as a surprise weapon.

This fine game was played in the Baden Baden tournament 1870 in which Steinitz finished second behind Adolf Anderssen. For Steinitz this result was a disappointment because after match victories against the leading players of his time he was considered to be the world's best player. In 1866 he won 8-6 (no draw) against Anderssen and in the same year he defeated Henry Edward Bird 9½-7½. In 1870 he demolished Joseph Henry Blackburne 5½-½ and in 1872 he beat Johann Hermann Zukertort 9-3. But in tournaments Steinitz was less superior. In Paris 1867 he finished third behind Ignaz von Kolisch and Gustav Neumann and in Dresden 1867 he again finished behind Neuman and had to content himself with second place.

But finishing on a — for him — disappointing second place in Baden-Baden turned out to be fruitful and motivated Steinitz to reconsider his game. He started to play more carefully, more positional, and much more successful. In 1886 and after a multitude of bitter quarrels Steinitz played a match against Zukertort — the first official World Championship match in the history of chess.

Contemporary picture of the match between Steinitz (right) and Zukertort (left)

After five games Steinitz trailed 1-4 but in the end he convincingly won 10-5 (5 games were drawn) and became the first World Champion in the history of chess. In this match Steinitz showed more positional understanding than his opponent. The following game is typical.


A World Champion's Repertoire against the Queen's Gambit Declined

This DVD offers a complete repertoire for handling this solid opening, often featuring a dynamic approach to pose the opponent more practical problems. Both of the main continuations 3...Nf6 and 3...Be7 are covered in two separate parts.

Steinitz played the brilliancy against von Bardeleben at the end of his career. One year before, 1894, he had lost his World Championship match against Emanuel Lasker, and five years later, on August 12, 1900, Steinitz died in poverty in Wards-Island, the New York hospital for the mentally ill after suffering a number of attacks of mental illness.

50 games every chessplayer should know...

  1. McDonnell - Labourdonnais
  2. Anderssen - Kieseritzky, The Immortal Game
  3. Morphy vs Duke of Brunswick, Count Isouard

Johannes Fischer was born in 1963 in Hamburg and studied English and German literature in Frankfurt. He now lives as a writer and translator in Nürnberg. He is a FIDE-Master and regularly writes for KARL, a German chess magazine focusing on the links between culture and chess. On his own blog he regularly publishes notes on "Film, Literature and Chess".


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KonShess KonShess 1/17/2018 05:46
I'm intrigued by the board position in the picture. I'm pretty certain it is the position after move 8 of the second game of their match in London 1872! In their World Championship match in 1886 no position occured that comes close to the board position in the picture.So could this mean that the original photograph (by Sarony) was taken during theit match in 1872? All sources I could find however give 1886 as the year of the picture.
Johannes Fischer Johannes Fischer 11/10/2017 09:54
Ich glaube, wir sollten auf der englischen Seite Englisch diskutieren. Aber nun zu Ihrem Vorschlag: Ich finde, ein bisschen Spannung, welche Partien auf der Liste sind, sollte sein. Außerdem bin ich (noch) offen für Vorschläge. Und dann gibt es immer wieder Partien, bei denen ich denke, sie könnten in eine solche Liste aufgenommen werden, z.B. Ding Lirens Glanzpartie gegen Bai Jinshi, die Daniel King im Video kommentiert hat.
Sorry that this discussion is in German, although this is the English ChessBase site, but for those who wonder, here's a translation:
hansj asked me to show the complete list of the 50 games, adding "that there are so many excellent games". My reply:
"I think, some excitement which games will be included into the list is fine. Moreover, I am (still) open for suggestions. And again and again modern tournament practice produces games that might be included into the list, e.g. Bai Jinshi vs Ding Liren from last week."
hansj hansj 11/9/2017 05:09
Hr. Fischer,
lassen Sie uns doch ihre komplette Liste schon sehen, also nur die Liste, nicht die Partien. Es gibt doch so viele hervorragende Partien.
Everden Everden 11/8/2017 02:21
You'd think they'd have found a less flimsy-looking table to play on for such an important match.
BeFreeBusy BeFreeBusy 11/7/2017 09:22
Yeah the answer is simple, the match was first to 10 wins so in that calculation draws simply don`t count - although they can be mentioned.
Samuel Stolpe Samuel Stolpe 11/7/2017 04:03
Hi Mssr. Chow, what Fischer meant was that the final score was 10 wins, 5 loses, 5 draws for Steinitz.
Timothy Chow Timothy Chow 11/7/2017 03:38
I'm confused about the Steinitz-Zukertort match. If Steinitz trailed 1-4 after five games then there could have been at most 2 draws among the first five games. If he ended up winning 10-5 then Zukertort gained exactly 1 point out of the final 10 games and hence there were at most 2 draws among the final 10 games. So how could there have been 5 draws?