150 years ago: The Vienna Chess Tournament 1873

by André Schulz
9/13/2023 – 150 years ago, from 21 June to 29 August 1873, the “First International Vienna Chess Congress” was held in Vienna. Some of the best players in the world accepted the invitation and played mini-matches against each other. In the end, Wilhelm Steinitz and Joseph Blackburne tied for first place. A play-off match decided the tournament’s winner.

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The Vienna Chess Tournament 1873

In 1851, at the suggestion of Prince Albert (more precisely: Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha), the husband of the British Queen Victoria, the first World’s Fair was organised in London under the name “Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations”.

The exhibition’s stands were located in a huge, 600-metre-long glass palace, the Crystal Palace (burnt down in 1936) in Hyde Park. The London Chess Tournament of 1851, which is counted as the beginning of modern tournament chess, was not part of the official programme of the World’s Fair, but was inspired by the industrial awakening of this exhibition. In the following years, such world exhibitions were regularly held in the large metropolises and often there were also important international chess tournaments organised in these cities.

The Vienna Chess Tournament of 1873, the first major international tournament to be held in Vienna, which at that time was still the capital of a major European power, belongs to this series. The tournament celebrated its 150th anniversary this year.

The 1873 World’s Fair opened on May 1 in the Rotunda (which burned down in 1937) built especially for the event. With a diameter of 108 metres, the building had the largest dome in the world as its roof at the time. At the opening of the exhibition, however, the building was not even finished and because it had rained for a long time beforehand, the building and the surrounding grounds were not very inviting at the time of the opening.

In other respects, too, this World’s Fair was not particularly successful. The world economic crisis that soon followed the stock market crash of 9 May 1873 and a cholera epidemic that had already broken out in the Prussian army in 1866 and was also carried to Austria and Vienna as a result of the Prussian-Austrian War ensured that many people stayed away from the Fair. Instead of the expected 20 million visitors, only a little over 7 million people came, and the exhibition had a huge deficit.

The Rotunde

“The First Vienna International Chess Congress” was one of the side events to the World Exhibition and was held from June 21 to August 29 in the rooms of the Vienna Chess Society in Reichsratsstraße. There had been several tournaments in Vienna before, but this was the first major international tournament in which seven strong representatives from the territory of Austria-Hungary participated. At that time, the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy included, in addition to the present-day territories of the two countries, half of the Balkans down to the south to Herzegovina, Bohemia and Moravia, northern Romania and eastern and western Galicia, i.e. western Ukraine.

The players from the Austro-Hungarian territory were Wilhelm Steinitz, born in Prague but already living in London, Josef Heral (Vienna), Dr Phillip Meitner (Vienna), Adolf Schwarz (Vienna), Karl Pitschel, Oscar Gelbfuhs (Altenburg), a native of Austrian Silesia, and Dr Maximilian Fleissig (Vienna), a native of Hungary.

The international players were the Englishmen Joseph Henry Blackburne and Henry Bird (both London), the two Germans, Adolf Anderssen (Breslau) and Louis Paulsen (Nassengrund), as well as Samuel Rosenthal (Paris), a native from Poland who had immigrated to France.

Dr. Carl Theodor Göring (Leipzig) had also firmly registered, but he had to forego participation for undisclosed reasons. Emil Schallopp (Berlin) also declined the invitation due to time constraints. Johannes Zukertort had first registered, but then did not send a firm acceptance. Louis Paulsen’s brother Wilhelm still wanted to play, but his confirmation did not arrive in time. Dr. Emmerich Engel (from Maros-Vásárhely) also registered too late. Johannes Minckwitz, Dr. Max Lange (both from Leipzig) and Johann Jacob Löwenthal (from London) did not want to play in this tournament, but announced their visits.

In addition to the players listed, the Viennese organisers had also invited the Americans Paul Morphy and the Scottish-born Captain George Henry Mackenzie. Morphy, however, had not played for a long time. Mackenzie, a professional soldier, had fought on the Union side in the American Civil War after immigrating, but had also been reported as a deserter in 1864. He was the leading player in the USA for many years after Morphy’s retirement, but did not accept the invitation to Europe because of the gruelling journey.

The Viennese organisers had also written to and invited many other players, but most of them declined, including Ernst von Heydebrand und der Lasa (Copenhagen), Dr Antonius von der Linde, Jean Dufresne (both Berlin), Seraphim Dubois (Rome) and several others.

The organisers had also tried to get other players from the territory of Austria-Hungary to participate, who, although not world-class, were still serious opponents, for example Johann Berger or Dr. Jacoby, a lawyer from Pest (Hungary), who was considered the best player from that region, but in vain. Many players were unavailable for professional reasons. So there were only five local players and seven foreign contenders.

Emperor Franz Josef I of Austria and the chess-loving Barons Albert Salomon von Rothschild, also President of the Vienna Chess Society, and Baron Ignaz von Kolisch, Vice-President of the Vienna Chess Society and himself a very strong chess player who had come into money and noble titles through his contacts in Viennese chess, offered a handsome prize fund for this major chess event. Baron Rothschild gave 1000 gulden, Baron Kolisch 500 gulden (together about 20,000 euros in today’s purchasing power). Emperor Franz Joseph also donated 200 ducats in gold.

The prize fund:

1st prize: 200 ducats in gold and 1000 guilders (Austrian currency)
2nd prize: 500 guilders
3rd prize: 300 guilders
4th prize: 200 guilders

The time allowed for the game was twenty moves per hour. The tournament mode was special: each participant played a match against each other to the best of three. Three days of play were allotted for each match. The match winner received one point, the loser 0 points. If the overall score did not result in a winner, the match was considered a draw, with each player receiving half a point. This mode was intended to “reduce the harmful influence of drawn games to a minimum”, as it was stated in the tournament book.

In addition, the players were obliged by word of honour to play the tournament to the end and not to drop out beforehand. Apparently, the organisers of the time had to deal with this bad habit. Furthermore, the players were required not to make any private agreements about the result. So friendly draws were also commonplace 150 years ago.

The playing time lasted from 9 a.m. to noon-1 p.m. and from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. on the first day, and from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and from 3 p.m. to the end of the third game on the second day. The games were only allowed to be interrupted at the end of a period. Analysing before resuming was strictly forbidden.

The tournament was managed by Ignaz von Kolisch, who had already successfully conducted the big international tournament in Baden-Baden in 1870. The rules for the tournament in Vienna were also adopted from that tournament, with a few minor modifications. The rules of the game were based on the chess rules laid down at the London Congress of 1862, with the addition that a draw could be claimed in the case of a triple repetition.

A preliminary meeting of the players and organisers took place on Sunday, June 20, at which the drawing of lots was also made. On Monday, June 21, the first matches were played.

Wilhelm Steinitz, who had returned to Vienna from London, started the tournament with a match win over Pitschel, but then lost to Blackburne.

Steinitz showed great form from that point on. But Blackburne did not show any weakness either and was leading before the final round.

A win over Rosenthal in the last match would have given the Englishman the tournament title.

Samuel Rosenthal (via Europe-Echecs)

Blackburne, however, lost this important match and had to go into a play-off against Steinitz for the tournament win.

Adolf Andersson came third. He managed a beautiful combination against Louis Paulsen.

Steinitz won the play-off against Blackburne by a 2-0 score, and thus went down in history as the winner of the First International Vienna Chess Congress.

Blackburne and Steinitz

A festive greeting with eight stanzas was written especially for the final banquet, but it was not performed because only Wilhelm Steinitz, Dr Phillip Meitner and Dr Maximilian Fleissig were still present. The other players had already left. You see: some things never change.

With his tournament victory, Wilhelm Steinitz began to be considered the best player in the world, but then he took a long break from tournaments and for a while only played matches.

The Vienna Chess Society was dissolved in 1938. With it, the extensive chess library, which is said to have included photos from the first international Vienna Chess Congress, also vanished.


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