World Champions – reclaiming a lost century (2)

by Paul Lillebo
4/24/2014 – In part one of his article Paul Lillebo claimed that the list of “official” world champions of chess, which begins in 1886 with the Steinitz-Zukertort match, does not do justice to the several earlier masters who were acclaimed by their contemporaries as the champion of chess. To the two masters from part one, Philidor and La Bourdonnais, he adds three more who were supreme in their time.

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The world chess championship – reclaiming a lost century

By H. Paul Lillebo

The history of world champions goes back nearly a century and a half before 1886. In the previous article the author suggested that the official list should begin with Philidor in 1742, followed by La Bourdonnais up to 1840. Here Paul Lillebo continues the list of masters who were supreme in their time and should be regarded officially as world champions.

Howard Staunton

As cited in part one, Henry Bird, a younger contemporary and competitor of Staunton, specifically called Staunton “the admitted world champion of chess, until … 1851.” Kasparov writes in My Great Predecessors, Vol. 1 (hereafter MGP): “... by the early 1840s he was already superior to all his rivals ...”

Wood cut in the Illustrated London News of July 14, 1855, showing Johann Jacob Löwenthal, Jules Arnous De Riviere, Marmaduke Wyvill, Ernst Falkbeer, Howard Staunton, George William 4th Baron of Lyttelton and Hugh Alexander Kennedy. [Scan by British Chess Sets]

Of Staunton’s 1843 match against Charles de Saint-Amant in Paris, Kasparov writes: “His opponent Saint-Amant was then the best player at the Café de la Régence, ... Staunton won the ‘match of his life,’ (+11 -6 =4) ... Fischer included him [Staunton, ed] in his ten best masters of all time...” And Kasparov quoting Fischer: “Staunton ... was the strongest player of his day. ... he understood all of the positional concepts which modern players hold so dear, and thus – with Steinitz – must be considered the first modern player.”

In the above painting Jean Henri Marlet depicts the 19th game in a chess match between Howard Staunton and Pierre Charles Fourrier de Saint-Amant which took place on 16 December 1843. Howard Staunton (1810–1874) was a British actor and Shakespeare scholar. He only learnt to play chess at the age of 20, and between 1843 and 1851 was regarded as the world’s best player. Pierre Charles Fournier de Saint-Amant (1800–1872) was a secretary in the Paris city government. He was the leading French chess master and publisher of the chess periodical “Le Palamède”. In the summer of 1843 Saint-Amant won a match against Howard Staunton in London. Consequently Staunton challenged Saint-Amant to a further match in November/December 1843 in the famous Parisian chess coffee house Café de la Régence. This match was regarded as the world championship. Staunton won the match decisively: of 21 games he won 11, lost 6 and drew 4. [Source: Wikipedia]

The Staunton chess set [image: ChessUSA] is one of the most popular competition chess sets in the game. The pieces were designed by architect Nathaniel Cook, who combined a variety of popular chess sets with Victorian London’s Neoclassical architecture. The pieces were named after Howard Staunton, who hand signed and numbered the first 500 sets.

We should recognize Howard Staunton as World Champion from his 1843 match win over Saint-Amant to the London tournament of 1851.

Karl Ernst Adolf Anderssen

Adolf Anderssen was born in Breslau in 1818 and lived there for most of his life. He studied mathematics and philosophy, and became a Professor of Mathematics, although his hobby and passion was playing chess. He won the first great chess tournament in London in 1851, ahead of the world elite: Staunton, Kieseritzky, Löwenthal, Szén, Horwitz, Bird, etc. Recall Bird’s quote in part one, to the effect that Anderssen was acknowledged by his peers as having taken the world champion’s title from Staunton in 1851. After the 1851 tournament, Anderssen was in Kasparov’s words (MGP): “The new uncrowned king of chess ...” He remained that until the arrival in Europe of Paul Morphy of New Orleans in 1858.

On Anderssen’s 1858 match loss to Morphy, Kasparov writes in MGP: “... after Morphy’s departure he [Anderssen, ed] restored his reputation of the strongest player in the world, by winning a match against the next challenger Ignác Kolisch (1861) and then also the second major London international tournament (1862) ...”

Anderssen (left) during his match against Steinitz (right) in 1866. Kasparov quotes
Steinitz' description of Anderssen (MGP): “This was the greatest master of all times.”

We should recognize Adolf Anderssen as World Champion from his tournament victory in London, 1851 to his match loss to Morphy in 1858, and again from his match win over Kolisch in 1861 (recognizing that Morphy was no longer competing) to his match loss to Steinitz in 1866.

Paul Morphy

Paul Charles Morphy was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1837, and by watching games of chess as a young child he intuitively grasped both the tactical and positional elements of the game. He routinely beat the best players of New Orleans before he was ten years old, and when the great Hungarian master Löwenthal in 1849 paid a visit to the Morphy home, curious to test the reputed prodigy, he found himself losing to the 12-year-old.

Perhaps the greatest natural chess talent of all time, Morphy eschewed chess books and apparently did little structured study of the game. He put chess aside during his university years – to 1855, yet he was invited to the first American Chess Congress in 1857 on the strength of his reputation. He swept through the field with fourteen wins against one loss, and was proclaimed U.S. champion. Morphy’s chess friends sponsored a trip to England in 1858 to challenge the great Staunton to a match, but Staunton chose not to risk his reputation against the western upstart.

Johann Löwenthal was one of the first masters to play a match against Morphy after the latter's
arrival in London in 1858. Morphy won nine games, lost three and played two draws.

After easily winning matches against diverse British masters, Morphy traveled on to the continent, where he continued his winning streak against European masters, culminating in a December, 1858 match against Adolf Anderssen – the strongest player in Europe – in which Morphy triumphed with seven wins against two defeats.

After the match, Anderssen opined that Morphy was the strongest chess player of all time. Kasparov in MGP refers to this “historic match between the two most striking and undoubtedly the strongest players of the mid-19th century,” and concludes that “in just one year he [Morphy] had demonstrated that he had no equal in the world.”

A 3D image of Paul Morphy for use in a stereopticon – instructions on viewing here

Henry Bird, who played against Morphy in London, wrote in 1892 of “the invincible Paul Morphy of New Orleans, considered by some superior even to La Bourdonnais, Staunton and Anderssen, the three greatest players who had preceded him.”

We should recognize Paul Morphy as World Champion from his match win over Anderssen in 1858 to Anderssen’s match win over Kolisch in 1861, when Morphy had retired from competition.

Thus, we ought to extend our official history of the chess world championship by 139 years to recognize these great champions. The revised list will then begin as:

1. François-André Philidor   world champion 1747-1795
2. Louis La Bourdonnais world champion 1824-1840
3. Howard Staunton world champion 1843-1851
4. Adolf Anderssen world champion 1851-1858, 1861-1866
5. Paul Morphy world champion 1858-1861

As to Steinitz, we should recognize him as the sixth World Champion from his match win over Anderssen in 1866, when Steinitz was 30 years old, rather than from the Zukertort match in 1886 when he was 50. This would better reflect his era of dominance and recognize his championship from his match defeat of the previous champion, Anderssen.

And so the line merges with FIDE's already accepted list. We’ve added five worthy champions, with Anderssen having a broken reign, like Alekhine and Botvinnik. When we look at this inspiring list of the founding champions of modern chess, added to the great champions who followed them, right up to the equally towering figures of Kasparov, Kramnik, Anand and Carlsen, we see a truer and more satisfying history of our game than in the abbreviated list of “official” champions that FIDE has accepted up to now. We are also reminded of the nations – France, UK, Germany, etc. - that nourished the tradition of chess competition in its earlier days.

In short, we ought to reclaim our history. Our proper list of champions, back to the mid-1700s, will serve to illustrate to the world outside chess that our history as a competitive game did not begin shortly before the 20th century, as it now appears. 1886 is not a year of chess beginnings; it is a late year in the history of chess competition, and for a century and more prior to that, chess players hailed one player as their champion. We should do the same, for the sake of their memories and our own appreciation of our roots. I hope FIDE will act on this proposal to legitimate these past champions as our official world champions, and that it will gain support from our leading players and historians and from the community of chess players and chess lovers.


Topics: History

Paul Lillebo, life-long chess lover, is a retired biologist and earlier U.S. naval aviator with a recent master's degree in early American history, who divides his time between Oslo, Norway and North Carolina, USA.
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GraemeCree@aol.com GraemeCree@aol.com 4/30/2014 04:27
re: the last comment. Pre-1948 World Championship events, were called "World Championships" and recognized as such by players, press and the chess community alike. Whether FIDE itself sanctioned those at the time they were played seems to be a minor side issue. Morphy-Anderssen was not called a world championship by its participants, it was just a private match played in a hotel room.

As for Steinitz, from what I've heard, he did not claim to be World Champion at the time. As far as I know, the earliest time that he claimed the title was at that infamous toast in 1883. He was not considered the defending champion in the 1886 match regs. It was only late in life that he started claiming to have been champion for 28 years.

As for Morphy, I could be completely mistaken about this, but Soltis names him as US "Champion by Acclamation". It was generally recognized that the winner of the American Congresses was the best player in the US, but there was no official title until 1889 (and even then it seems to be a bit murky for several years afterwards.) Even Soltis seems a bit uncertain as to whether Morphy won the Unofficial US Championship by winning the Congress, or by beating C.H. Stanley in an offhand match after the tournament. He might possibly have played in an official world championship, but it seems very questionable.

I'm not saying the idea has no merit. Some kind of official recognition may not be a bad idea. I just wouldn't support calling it "World Championship", and confusing a retroactive award with a competitive title. Some other name might be good. "Best of Era" perhaps. Or "FIDE Champion". I'd be fine with that. But I definitely don't agree with the idea that we need to invent retroactive titles to reclaim the era. Those early players are indeed well worth studying, but you can and should study those games even if we don't attach new names to them.

hpaul hpaul 4/26/2014 07:48
It has been commented that it is wrong to convert unofficial "champions" in the past into official champions, retroactively, especially long after the players are deceased. As I pointed out in the article, that this was precisely what FIDE did when they started their "official" championship list with 1886. FIDE, which was not the official sanctioner of the world championship until 1948, at that point turned the long-deceased winners of the "unsanctioned" championship matches in 1886 and following into sanctioned champions. The championships of Steinitz (who considered his title to date from 1866, not 1886), Lasker, Capablanca, and Alekhine were decided in private matches supported by friends, clubs, and subscriptions, just like the wins of the earlier champions mentioned in the article. Those earlier champions played for the title of champion of the world of chess - a concept that most definitely did exist -, and they were often referred to as such. I argue that FIDE should revisit their decision and do the same for the earlier champions who were equally recognized in their time.

One commenter adds that Morphy would not have competed for a "world championship" as he didn't want to be seen as a professional. I will note that shortly before his trip to Europe in 1858, Morphy competed in and won the 1st American Chess Congress, and was crowned American Champion.
sarahbeth1973@yahoo.com sarahbeth1973@yahoo.com 4/26/2014 04:47
While there is probably little no doubt in most chess lovers' minds about the greatness of the above historical figures, the concept of world champion didn't exist even into Morphy's time. A Paris champion playing a London champion doesn't equate to a world championship. Before Staunton and St. Amant, any "world" claim would be far less tenuous. Even Morphy, who could have made at least a credible assertion to being a world champion, never aspired to gain that title, especially not in the sense we understand it today. Not giving these players titles that have no meaning in context of their times doesn't dishonor them in the least but rather recognizes that chess evolved and that the world championship was a part of that development.
brianleekaren@gmail.com brianleekaren@gmail.com 4/25/2014 11:16
This is correcting a problem that doesn't exist. Worse, it would lead to ambiguity and confusion. Anderssen, Staunton, Morphy, etc. are not forgotten champions. They are all well known to anyone who picked up a history book .

It would make sense to give them an 'official' title if they were still alive. But to do it now is pointless and harmful. It creates a slippery slope wherein we have to debate who is or is not an official world champion.
GraemeCree@aol.com GraemeCree@aol.com 4/24/2014 07:07
As St. Amant said in 1843, "If I'd known this was for the championship of the world, I'd have played harder."

(If we can assign titles retroactively, why not quotes too?)
jdjohndrake@gmail.com jdjohndrake@gmail.com 4/24/2014 07:04
also 1795-1798 giuseppe verdoni,france 1798-1821 alexandre honore deschapelles,france 1821-1840 la bourdonnais,france 1840-1843 pierre st.amant,france
jdjohndrake@gmail.com jdjohndrake@gmail.com 4/24/2014 06:57
1475-1495 franci di castellvi,valencia,spain 1495-1512 francesch vicent,spain 1512-1544 pedro damiano,portugal 1544-1556 alfonso ceron,spain 1556-1575 ruy lopez,spain 1575-1587 giovanni leonardo di bona da cutri,italy 1587-1598 paolo boi,italy 1598-1619 alessandro salvio,italy 1619-1634 gioachino greco,italy 1634-1640 alessandro salvio,italy 1640-1656 gustavus selenus,germany 1656-1675 thomas hyde,england 1675-1730 alexander cunningham of block,scotland 1730-1747 legall de kermeur(philidor's teacher),france.
jdjohndrake@gmail.com jdjohndrake@gmail.com 4/24/2014 06:44
i researched this years ago and came to similar conclusions.my list is more extensive and i'm okay separating "official world champion" from world's best player at the time.see what you think and comment on improvements.
GraemeCree@aol.com GraemeCree@aol.com 4/24/2014 05:01
To say that Philidor and Anderssen should be recognized as official champions is to misunderstand what the word "official" means.

And to argue that Morphy should be considered to hold a title that he would have avoided competing for had it existed, due to his desire to not be perceived as a chess professional, is more than a bit perverse. All of these people were the best in their respective times. There's no need to try to fudge the data to try to show something that everyone already knows.
philippe.hodapp@gmail.com philippe.hodapp@gmail.com 4/24/2014 11:47
Would be great if this list could be approuved by FIDE
I'm 100% agree to recognize this great champions
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