"Chess Theory from Stamma to Steinitz - Review and Interview"

by André Schulz
5/24/2023 – In recent years there has been a revival of interest in the "old masters". Those who study the subject intensively, as Frank Hoffmeister does in his work "Chess Theory from Stamma to Steinitz, 1735-1894", will find that the ideas of the "old ones" are surprisingly young. Review and interview with the author.

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Frank Hoffmeister:
Chess Theory from Stamma to Steinitz, 1735-1894

In recent years, authors have developed a renewed interest in the "old masters" and their games. If you look at the old games with a fresh eye, as for example Willy Hendriks has done with his book "On the Origin of Good Moves: A Sceptic's Guide to Getting Better at Chess", you realise that the old masters do not look as "old" in their ideas about chess as some may have thought. Many sweeping judgements about the great players of past times turn out to be wrong, or at least distorted, on closer examination. Adolf Anderssen was no more a wild romantic than Wilhelm Steinitz was a bone-dry positional player. Both world-class players of their time understood the other facets of the game and used them to great effect. It is time to clear up these and many other misunderstandings and misinterpretations.

With Frank Hoffmeister's "Chess Theory from Stamma to Steinitz" another highly interesting book on the early chess pioneers has now appeared. The work was published in English at the end of last year by the renowned US publisher McFarland in the splendid presentation to which we are accustomed and presents the development of chess theory and practice in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The author has divided his "field of work" into seven chapters and seven periods, marked by the work of the best players of the time. In another chapter he summarises his observations.

The interested chess lover will probably be familiar with some of the names of the great players of that early period of tournament chess, but some players who are less well known today also made remarkable contributions to chess theory. And some important representatives of their time were simply ignored by the chroniclers of later times.

On almost 440 pages Frank Hoffmeister presents more than 30 great players in their biographies, their work and their legacy. In the chapters "From Bertin to Del Rio (1735-1775)", "From Allgaier to McDonnell (1775-1835)", "From Petroff to Staunton (1835-1850)", "From Anderssen to Morphy (1851-1859)", "From Paulsen to Neumann (1860-1871)", "From Rosenthal to Zukertort (1872-1885)" and finally "From Steinitz to Chigorin (1886-1894)" the reader walks through almost 200 years of chess history. Finally, in an eighth chapter, Frank Hoffmeister summarises his findings.

Each of the eight chapters is divided into three sections, beginning with a brief presentation of the 'theory' ('The Era'), followed in the main section by the practice ('The Players'), and ending once again with a brief presentation of the conclusions ('The Legacy') of the periods in question.

Frank Hoffmeister cannot be accused of superficiality. In his preface, the author reports that he began work on this book in 2009 and thought at the time that it could probably be completed in less time. It ended up taking more than ten years. Anyone who has ever studied a subject in depth knows the phenomenon. Every time you look at an object, a person or a development, you discover new facets that are worth exploring and presenting. The art often lies not in presenting an object thoroughly, but in drawing a line at the appropriate point and moving on to the next chapter. Frank Hoffmeister has done this well - nevertheless: almost 200 years of chess history need their place even in a brisk presentation. In Frank Hoffmeister's "Chess Theory from Stamma to Steinitz, 1735-1894" there are almost 440 pages of text. In addition, there is a 15-page appendix with tables showing how the protagonists of this period built on each other in their tactical exercises and endgame studies by themselves presenting successful motifs of their predecessors. This is followed by an extensive bibliography of eight pages, an index of the openings in the printed games and a general index.

The reader is introduced to over 30 players and a number of theoreticians. Biographies of the players are given. But the heart of the book are the 360 exercises, studies and annotated games. The book invites you to find a nice place, take your time and a chessboard, replay the games, solve the problems (if you can) and put yourself in the mind of the chess masters of the time. After all, we are dealing with the world's greatest players of their time and their intellectual legacy.

Along the way you will learn many details of contemporary history. Philidor's special emphasis - or recognition - of the pawn as "the soul of chess" was borrowed from a chess variant that Philidor often played with his chess teacher Legall, reports Frank Hofmeister. In this game, the black queen is replaced by eight pawns, which are placed on the squares b6, c6, b5, c5, g6, f5 and g5 at the beginning of the game.

Chess is well known as a game that has mathematical and scientific aspects in addition to the playful and sporting ones. As soon as the game was born, theorists must have tried to unlock its secrets. Some of the early results of research have come down to us, the Persian and Arab manuscripts and the writings and textbooks of Lucena, Damiana, Ponziani or later Philidor. But chess research progressed, of course, mainly through practical tournament chess. This provided empirical results as a starting point for new theories. Theory and empiricism go hand in hand - as they always do in serious science.

The year 1851, with the famous tournament of the world's best players in London, is usually regarded as the beginning of modern tournament chess. This is only partly true. For even before that there had been sensational comparisons of the world's best players, but these were usually in the form of duels involving many games. The games were studied, analysed and commented on. Chess theory had advanced long before that. But when does "modernity" in chess begin?

Stamma and Philidor are still the best-known players of the first half of the 18th century, but there are some other excellent players of that period whose names, for one reason or another, are not so present or have been forgotten. The same is true of players from later periods. But they too had their share in the development of chess theory and Frank Hoffmeister presents the players and their contributions with their games and their writings.

With "Chess Theory from Stamma to Steinitz" Frank Hoffmeister invites you on a highly interesting journey through time. It is worth accepting this invitation.

In an interview, Frank Hoffmeister talks about his work:

How would you sum up your book "Chess Theory from Stamma to Steinitz" in a few sentences?

In chess history we get to know the great masters through their famous games: who doesn't think of the Immortal Game when they hear the name Anderssen? Behind this there is often the abridged story that the man from Breslau was a pure "romantic" who defeated his opponents mainly tactically. It is true that Anderssen also played great positional games, even against the supposed father of modern chess, Steinitz.

Furthermore, conclusions are often drawn from the nationality of a player. Thus long before the "Soviet" chess school there was the idea that strong players embodied the superiority of a certain nation in chess. My book does away with this by looking at the diverse literary legacy of the masters (textbooks, chess columns, etc.) and showing the cross-connections between the nations.

In the 19th century, for example, the discoveries of masters from other countries were often readily adopted without making this known. The Frenchman La Bourdonnais, for example, copied in his 1833 textbook not only earlier French authors such as Philidor, but also the strongest Englishman of his time, the now almost unknown Lewis.

The Dutch Defence owes its name to the first textbook in Dutch by Stein from the end of the 18th century: but he took the game 1. d4 f5 with a further 8 identical moves from a French work from 1775! Finally, I also deal with discoveries in the endgame by the forgotten authors Cozio, Chapais, van Nyevelt, Sarrat or Berger.

Can today's players still learn something from the games and theoretical works of the "old masters" for their own chess?

Absolutely! Despite an ELO rating of over 2000, for example, I haven't managed to solve some combinations of the 1737(!) Syrian Stamma: the solutions have certainly improved my tactical arsenal. After all, his themes such as distraction, desperado or suffocation occur constantly in practical chess. The openings are of course outdated, but the understanding of why some variations are no longer so up-to-date is incredibly well trained.

Finally, I show how certain principles were "discovered" in pawn or rook endings. I believe that readers can remember these principles much better if they follow the "path of discovery" and "pull out" the accumulated knowledge for their own games.

How did you become interested in chess?

In a raffle at the local library in Eppstein/Ts. near Frankfurt I won a chess book when I was 12. As nobody in my family played chess, I read through it and then tried my luck at the next town championship. The club's chess teacher, my current friend Bernd Steyer, then "cashed in" on me and I developed as a youth talent in Hesse. With my law studies in Frankfurt, Geneva and Heidelberg, however, my focus shifted and chess remained a hobby.

Where does your interest in chess history come from?

I have always enjoyed reading biographies - also about chess players. I find it fascinating to trace the life stories of masters and to understand more about the circumstances of the time. Morphy's brilliance fades somewhat when you know that he achieved little outside the 64 squares.

Conversely, I also find Lasker fascinating because he was universally educated.

How did you get the idea to write a book about chess theory in the 18th and 19th centuries?

In the beginning I gave lectures on the masters of the past to my fellow members of our chess club in Brussels, always choosing 3-5 representative games. Then I noticed that some of the available biographies were written from a very national pen: Philidor, the French genius; Howard Staunton, the British chess champion; Tarrasch, the "Teacher of Germany" etc. I wanted to dig a little deeper and find out if these people themselves thought so, and put their own books under the microscope.

It ended up being a very large and thick book. Was that the plan all along?

No! In the beginning I limited myself to the big names, but I soon found out that there were also important "minor figures". The Italian Cozio, for example, wrote a thick tome with the old notation in the 18th century. Understanding the moves alone is an art in itself and requires a certain comprehensible summary. However, he covered a lot of ground and I think he deserves the respect due to his achievement.

In the 19th century, for example, Daniel Harrwitz and Gustav Neumann wrote important textbooks (around 1860) that are unknown today. They were among the top 5 of their time, wrote in German and made important positional points.

Steinitz knew both of them, received their work and was much more influential as a later world champion. He had many readers in England and the USA, and even later his English-language books remained more accessible. So I thought it only fair to highlight his predecessors and their literary achievements - and so my book ended up a little thicker than planned.

The book is also full of interesting details in the game commentaries - the result of a very intensive study of the sources. How did you find all these sources? Do you have a large collection of books and magazines yourself, or did you have access to such a collection? Or do you have to search in libraries?

I collected a few books, but nowadays you can find a lot of digitised originals on the internet, including the old journals. For very rare copies I had to go to the library, e.g. Samuel Rosenthal's tournament book on Paris 1900 - but luckily it was available in Brussels.

The book reports on the work of some people who have been overlooked in the consideration of chess history. You have basically rediscovered some important authors and players. What was the most interesting discovery from your point of view?

In my opinion, Carl Ferdinand von Jänisch revolutionised opening analysis in 1842/1843 on his own, Louis Paulsen is the real father of the positional game and Johann Berger brought endgame technique to new heights. Conversely, there have been a few disappointments: Petroff, the supposed father of the Russian Defence, found the move 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nf6 "bad" without any lasting analysis, and the celebrated genius Paul Morphy got some endgames quite wrong.

How do you manage to juggle so much work and professional commitments?

With an understanding family who allowed me to "study" old chess books for years, mostly late at night or during holidays.

Is it worthwhile for an author to do such work?

It was a great experience for me. A real role model for me is Michael Negele, whose contributions to chess history I have always found exciting and brilliantly written. The fruitful exchange with the outstanding researcher Herbert Bastian is also a reward in itself. In addition I got to know many chess historians in other countries, e.g. from Italy, France or Poland, who helped me immensely. This solidarity inspired me and in the meantime I also like to be active in the international association of chess historians ("Chess History and Literature Association" - CHLS).

Are you planning further books on chess history?

Next will be the anniversary of FIDE in 2024 and the birthday of the German Chess Federation in 2027. With the CHLS we will certainly accompany the FIDE jubilee scientifically at our annual meeting in Paris next year, and I have heard from Herbert Bastian that the German Chess Federation is prepared to ask a collective of authors to illuminate its own history for its jubilee somewhat more critically than is the case with home-made products.

Should an interesting concept emerge here, I would be happy to contribute. If the response to "Chess Theory from Stamma to Steinitz 1735-1894" is generally positive, I would probably be interested in the period from Tarrasch to Tartakower. I am therefore very curious about the reactions of the ChessBase readership and thank you for the nice interview!

Thank you for the interview!

Frank Hoffmeister: Chess Theory from Stamma to Steinitz, 1735-1894 

McFarland, January 2023, €95.50


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André Schulz started working for ChessBase in 1991 and is an editor of ChessBase News.