Visiting Steinitz and Lasker at Their Final Resting Places

9/27/2021 – William Steinitz, the first official World Chess Champion, was born in 1836 in Prague and died on August 12, 1900 in New York, where he was also buried. Emanuel Lasker, the second World Champion, was born in Berlinchen, which today is Barlinek, a small city in Poland. But Lasker also died in New York and was buried close to his former rival Steinitz. IM Yury Lapshun and FM Jon Jacobs visited the graves of the two chess legends. | Photos: IM Yury Lapshun and FM Jon Jacobs

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Born in Europe, buried in New York: Emanuel Lasker and William Steinitz

By IM Yury Lapshun and FM Jon Jacobs

When people entertain "American" and "World Chess Champion" in the same breath, the first name that springs to mind is Bobby Fischer. It may come as a surprise, then, that the very first two recognized World Chess Champions lived out their final years in the United States and are buried in New York City, within a mere mile of each other. In fact, the first champion, William Steinitz, was a U.S. citizen not only upon his death in 1900, but while contesting five of his six official world title matches.

Steinitz made a permanent move to New York from London in 1883 and became a naturalized citizen five years later. His successor as champion, Emanuel Lasker, resided in New York from 1892-94 (during which time he wrested the title from Steinitz), again from 1902-1911, and again for the final years of his life, from 1937-1941, after fleeing from Nazi Germany and later leaving the Soviet Union. Beyond their roles in the chess history of the United States and of England, both were prolific travelers whose activities reinforced the rich local chess traditions in Cuba, Russia, and Germany.

Their final resting places are situated in separate but almost adjacent cemeteries that straddle the dividing line between the New York boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens. Although the cemeteries are easy to locate, it is a challenge to find one’s way to the graves themselves. The cemetery maps do not display individual grave locations. We have prepared this article to assist readers who when visiting New York may wish to pay respects to the two giants of chess history.

Steinitz’s Grave

Steinitz’s grave is marked by a box-shaped headstone whose flat summit is decorated by an etched-in chessboard, as if in death he hoped to test his famous aphorism that even God couldn’t defeat him.

Evergreen Cemetery, where Steinitz lies, sprawls across 225 acres and houses the remains of a half-million people. Opened in 1850, it is non-denominational and is divided into sections for various religions and ethnic groups. Steinitz’s grave is in a section called Bethel Slope.

The main entrance is situated at 1629 Bushwick Avenue at Conway Street, Brooklyn, near the northern terminus of Eastern Parkway and the southern terminus of the Jackie Robinson Parkway. The grounds are open from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily.

Once inside, continue up the main road to a stone chapel that houses the cemetery office in front and rest rooms in back. Bear left, passing the chapel/office on your right. Upon reaching a circle marked by a Memory Gardens sign, turn right along the circle and bear left at the fork near Foale mausoleum. Turn left at the Bethany Street sign and proceed until you see a sign at left reading, "Grave of William Steinitz / First World Chess Champion." It was placed there by Kurt Landsberger, a Steinitz descendant who wrote or edited two important books about the champion.

Walking left at the sign across the lawn among the headstones, after approximately 200 feet you will see Steinitz’s headstone. It has an unusual, rectangular solid shape, and its square flat summit bears an engraved chessboard angled toward the approaching visitor. Engraved beneath the chessboard are the German words depicted in the photo, which translate to, "Here rests in peace William Steinitz, Born 14 May 1837, Died 12 August 1900."

On the day we visited, the board held a small stone left by a well-wisher – an ancient Jewish mourning tradition with many possible interpretations.

The birth year displayed on the headstone is inaccurate: published sources agree that Steinitz was born in 1836. (At birth he bore the name "Wolf", which he later changed to Wilhelm and eventually to the anglicized William.) His exact date of birth is also subject to some controversy since Steinitz himself once wrote that he was born on May 17. However, a birth registry on a Czech government website and Steinitz’s U.S. passport application both give the date as May 14.

The chessboard that crowns Steinitz’s headstone displays chessmen etched onto four of its squares: a king on e4, queen on a8, rook on d5, and knight on a5, along with a plus (+) sign on e5. Although the pieces’ colors are not evident and they do not comprise a legal chess position, the display might nevertheless signify that in death Steinitz finally managed to test his famous boast that even God could not defeat him.

Lasker’s Grave

A simpler, traditional headstone marks the grave of Emanuel Lasker. The multiple stones resting on its crest when we visited suggest that admirers still come by to pay their respects to the man who held the chess crown for almost 27 years after dethroning Steinitz in their initial match in 1894.

Lasker is buried in Beth Olam Cemetery, one of a dozen memorial parks placed side by side in a three-mile stretch of Brooklyn and Queens. Three Manhattan synagogues that established Beth Olam in the 1850s continue to jointly manage it as well as host active congregations. A fraction of Evergreen’s size, it occupies a little over 12 acres and holds almost 8,000 graves. Lasker lies in Row 24, Grave 81.

We walked to Lasker’s grave site from the "lower" or southeastern entrance, one of two gates situated on different portions of Cypress Hills Street between the Jackie Robinson Parkway and Jamaica Avenue. That entrance is not marked with the Beth Olam name, but displays only a weathered, obsolete metal plaque on its right-hand stone pillar and the number "13" spray-painted in black on its left-hand pillar.

If driving, take the Cypress Hills Street exit (Exit 3) from the Jackie Robinson Parkway and go right, heading southeast along Cypress Hills Street. The entrance will be the second gate on your right. Note that the published address for Beth Olam Cemetery, 2 Cypress Hills Street, does not correspond with any existing building and might not work properly in a vehicle’s GPS. Driving is not permitted within the cemetery, but visitors can park in the traffic circle near either entrance.

Beth Olam is open from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily except for Saturdays and Jewish holidays. Requests for information before or during a visit can be directed to either Shearith Israel synagogue (212-873-0300) or B’nai Jeshurun synagogue (212-787-7600).

Upon entering the gate, mausoleums marked "Aaron Buchsbaum" and "Sylvester" sit at the left of the road, and one marked "Leipzig" is visible at right. The uphill road leads to a circle with two tall vertical monuments at its far end. Past the circle, make a quick right onto the pathway just beyond the first mausoleum, marked "Zion D. Bernstein." Continue on that pathway, passing a row of hedges at right followed by a sturdy tree. Roughly 20 feet beyond the tree, turn left onto a narrow concrete walking path. Turn right off the concrete path onto the grass upon reaching the fourth row of parallel headstones.

After walking approximately 60 feet between the third and fourth rows of graves, you will see Emanuel Lasker’s headstone. It is dark and glossy, unlike the mostly light gray limestone ones in its vicinity. The relatively small grave marker displays no text but Lasker’s name, beneath two Hebrew letter that signify "Here lies." A much larger one immediately behind it, marked "Oppenheimer," may be useful as a landmark to find Lasker’s headstone.

This map is provided courtesy of US Chess / Natasha Roberts. It originally appeared in the December 2020 issue of Chess Life.

Steinitz’s Life and Chess Career

Wilhelm (William) Steinitz was born in 1836 into a Jewish family in Prague, then part of the Austrian Empire. He learned to play chess at age 12 but his love and gift for it became manifest only in his twenties, after moving to Vienna in 1858. He moved to London soon after competing in the 1862 London International tournament, and remained in England for 20 years. Many chess authorities unofficially date Steinitz’s reign to a 1866 match victory over Adolf Anderssen, who was widely regarded as the world number one after Paul Morphy withdrew from competition. However, Steinitz first officially claimed the title of world champion only two decades later, after defeating Johannes Zukertort in a 20-game match in 1886 divided among New York, Saint Louis, and New Orleans. Steinitz left London to take up permanent residence in New York in 1883 and went on to become a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1888.

He successfully defended his title in a match with Isidore Gunsberg and two separate matches with Mikhail Chigorin. The Steinitz-Chigorin matches took place in Havana – a milestone in Cuba’s chess history, three decades before that city hosted the 1921 Lasker-Capablanca world championship match.

At age 58, Steinitz was dethroned by Emanuel Lasker in an 1894 match. He then returned to the tournament scene, competing in major events in England, Russia, Germany, and Austria. Soon after losing a rematch against Lasker in Moscow in 1896-97, he reportedly suffered a mental breakdown and was involuntarily confined to a Moscow mental hospital for more than a month. His mental state fell under a cloud again two years later when he reportedly experienced delusions while returning by ship from the London 1899 tournament and at home in New York early the next year. Commitment to a series of mental hospitals followed beginning in February 1900. He died in the state mental hospital on Ward’s Island on August 12, 1900, from "chronic endocardia (mitral stenosis)" and "acute melancholia" according to the death certificate. He was then nearly penniless; the German Press Club paid for his funeral and the German-inscribed headstone that marks his grave.

Lasker’s Life and Chess Career

Emanuel Lasker was born in 1868 to a Jewish family in what was then the Prussian province of Brandenburg but is now part of Poland. A gift for mathematics led his parents to send the 11-year-old boy to a top-quality high school in Berlin, where his brother Berthold was a medical student. Berthold Lasker, who went on to become a strong chess master himself, soon taught Emanuel how to play.

As the young Steinitz had done in Prague and Vienna, the teenage Emanuel Lasker frequented Berlin’s many chess cafes along with his brother, who he joined in hustling chess games there. One report has Emanuel receiving knight odds at the Café Kaiserhof from his future world championship rival Siegbert Tarrasch, six years his senior. In 1889 Lasker won that club’s championship tournament with a score of 20-0. A month later he earned the German master title by taking 1st at a tournament in Breslau.

After placing second in his first foreign event, Amsterdam 1889, the 21-year-old Lasker ventured to England early the following year to seek a match with a top British player. Over the following three years he racked up an impressive string of tournament and match victories in England, Austria and Germany, ultimately leading him to move to New York in 1892 to challenge Steinitz for the world title. In an 1894 match divided among New York, Philadelphia, and Montreal, the 25-year-old Lasker bested the 58-year-old Steinitz by a decisive margin: 10 wins, 4 draws, and 5 losses.

Between 1896 and 1910, Lasker successfully defended his title against Steinitz, Frank Marshall, Dr. Siegbert Tarrasch, Carl Schlechter, and David Janowski. The latter three matches took place in Germany, with a portion of the Schlechter match held in Austria. He also negotiated match terms with at least three other challengers (Maroczy, Capablanca and Rubinstein) that didn’t bear fruit. While still residing in America, Lasker married Martha Bamberger Cohn in Berlin in July 1911. The couple then moved back to Germany and purchased land outside Berlin.

Lasker retained the world title for almost 27 years, until a 1921 match with Capablanca in Havana that he resigned due to ill health while trailing with 4 losses and 10 draws out of 14 games. In 1933 the Nazis seized Lasker’s property in and around Berlin and he fled to England. His older sister Theophilia Hedwig Lasker later died in a gas chamber in the Sobibor Nazi death camp.

In 1935 Lasker and his wife relocated to Moscow with support from Nikolai Krylenko, the Soviet Minister of Justice and a principal architect of Stalin’s purges. This coincided with the aged ex-champion’s participation in two top-level international tournaments in Moscow in 1935 and 1936. He was given a Moscow apartment, a university appointment in mathematics and honorary membership in the USSR Academy of Sciences, and a paid position training the national chess team.

Lasker had visited Russia many times before his stint as a Soviet chess luminary: the Moscow title rematch with Steinitz, top finishes in St. Petersburg 1895-96, 1909, 1914, and second place at Moscow 1925. Important Soviet GMs including Botvinnik, Averbakh and Simagin later said that seeing Lasker lecture or give simultaneous exhibitions during their schoolboy years in the 1920s and 30s helped inspire their own interest in chess.

In late 1937, the Laskers traveled to the U.S. to spend time with Martha’s daughter from her first marriage and her grandchildren. According to Martha’s unpublished memoirs, the visit became a permanent move after Martha, age 70, fell ill and her doctors warned that she could not survive a return voyage to Europe. Emanuel himself fell sick in late 1940 and died on January 11, 1941, reportedly from a kidney infection while a charity patient in New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital.

This article was adapted from an article published in Chess Life, December 2020.

Illustrative Games

We conclude by showing a game played by Steinitz and one by Lasker during their years as ex-champions. The games demonstrate what a powerful punch both men could still deliver at the board, even within a year or two of the ends of their lives. (Analysis by IM Yury Lapshun)

 

 

 

 

About the authors:

IM Yury Lapshun has taught chess for more than 15 years, including coaching several national scholastic championship winners and World Youth Championship participants. He currently teaches for New York’s Chess in the Schools. As a player, Yury is a three-time former Marshall Chess Club champion and participated in three U.S. Closed Championships. Yury is also the author of Play 1.b4! (Everyman, 2008) and Seven Ways to Smash the Sicilian (Everyman, 2009; both co-authored with Nick Conticello), and contributed a chapter to the Fifteenth Edition of Modern Chess Openings.

FM Jon Jacobs contributed 12 Chess Life articles between 2005 and 2020, six of which won awards in the annual Chess Journalists of America contests. Jon is working on a book and video series showcasing beautifully played upset games by club-level players, called The Fish That Roared, and runs a related Facebook group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/942969445790845.

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fishthatroared fishthatroared 9/30/2021 02:18
Even in the post-1993 period, the chess public continued to widely recognize Kasparov as the true champion, even if FIDE did not. (The claim to the title was perhaps more cloudy in 2005-06 and again in '07-08, before match-champ Kramnik faced off in matches against FIDE's "tournament WCC" winners Topalov and Anand, respectively.)

Of course all this bears no relevance to the article, since conditions in the mid-19th century were entirely different.
sivakumar R sivakumar R 9/28/2021 12:15
Good Article.... "the dead are not dead until they are forgotten".....
lajosarpad lajosarpad 9/28/2021 12:07
@Keshava, Steinitz is the first official World Champion, because before his reign, Adolf Andersen, Paul Morphy and other players were widely considered to be the best players in the world, but the chess world was not yet organized-enough to organize a world championship. So, while earlier great players were considered in their prime to be the best players in the world, from Steinitz onward there was actually a world championship title (except the period between 1993 - 2006, when there were two titles) and since then the chess world never lost its level of organization in such a manner to be unable to determine who is the best. Of course, the spllit title was an anomaly, but both titles had an official champion, even though it was always debatable whose title is the real one.
Keshava Keshava 9/27/2021 10:48
This idea of 'official world champion' is interesting. How should value an 'official world champion' compared to the world champion as recognized by most of the public? For instance, 'In 1993, Nigel Short broke the domination of Kasparov and Karpov by defeating Karpov in the candidates semi-finals followed by Jan Timman in the finals, thereby earning the right to challenge Kasparov for the title. However, before the match took place, both Kasparov and Short complained of corruption and a lack of professionalism within FIDE in organizing the match, and split from FIDE to set up the Professional Chess Association (PCA), under whose auspices they held their match. In response, FIDE stripped Kasparov of his title and held a championship match between Karpov and Timman. Kasparov defeated Short while Karpov beat Timman, and for the first time in history there were two World Chess Champions. FIDE and the PCA each held a championship cycle in 1993–1996, with many of the same challengers playing in both. Kasparov and Karpov both won their respective cycles. In the PCA cycle, Kasparov defeated Viswanathan Anand in the PCA World Chess Championship 1995. Karpov defeated Gata Kamsky in the final of the FIDE World Chess Championship 1996.' So if Karpov was the FIDE champion while Kasparov was the PCA champion then what does 'official world champion' really mean?
ref: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_Chess_Championship#Split_title_(1993%E2%80%932005)
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