Friday, March 30, 2007

The Greatest Player Who Ever Lived ~ Steinitz

You don’t believe me right? You think it should be Kasparov, Karpov or Fischer? Maybe even Capablanca, Botvinnik, Alekhine or Lasker? How about Paul Morphy then? Of the ultra moderns, like Kramnik and Anand it is too soon to venture an intelligent opinion, but the others listed above are surely in a pack ahead of Wilhelm Steinitz.

Arpad Elo in his rating of great players, gave Steintz only 2650 for his best rating period. So maybe he would be on a par with lesser world champions such as Petrosian, Spassky, Smyslov, Tal and leading grandmasters Keres, Korchnoi, Rubinstein, Tarrasch, Ivanchuck, Nimzovich, Larsen, Gligoric, Pillsbury and so on.

But then again, there are ratings and then there are standards.

I used the word ‘greatest’ instead of finest, or best, because it is often used in describing legendary accomplishments ('I am the greatest! Ali). I think Steinitz has earned that accolade because of his achievements. By objective standards of accomplishment he is the greatest player. Consider the following.

He was no child prodigy. He learned to play chess late compared to many other great players, yet he triumphed over them all

He was a pioneer in the understanding and teaching of chess principles. To borrow from the philosophical adage that ‘all philosophy consists of footnotes to Plato’, we can say that all subsequent discussions of chess praxis consist of footnotes to Steinitz.

Steinitz did not duck any challengers. He played the best quality opponents of his era from Andersen and Zukertort to Chigorin and Lasker, spanning 28 years. He even met with, and no doubt tried to entice into a match, the great Paul Morphy. Contrast this with the avoidance techniques of a Lasker, Alekhine or even Fischer.

He played in all the leading tournaments of his era, facing all comers, up until his miserable end. No premature retirement for Steinitz.

His ideas about chess and theoretical analyses were made public property. Others could, and therefore did, use his own weapons against him. Contrast this state of affairs with the hoarding of information in later times, in order to surprise an opponent. In fact, contrast it with ‘team analysis’, including the use of amazingly strong computers, which later champions were and are able to employ today.

Steinitz was the greatest fighter in chess history. Among champion level players, where mental toughness is as much a requirement for success as sheer talent, Steinitz stood above them all. He fought hard, coming from behind to win matches or crush an opponent comprehensively and in his final years against Lasker, to fight on to the bitter end. Again contrast this with the tossing in of the towel by Lasker against Capablanca, and recall that Lasker had a great reputation as a fighter.

His longevity is another important sign of his greatness. Much has been made about Lasker’s dominance over 27 years, but he ducked strong opponents like Pillsbury, Rubinstein, and Capablanca for as long as he could. Steinitz fought the best available all the time, and he lasted 28 years. In fact, he could have retired in his forties or after the second match with Chigorin, and he would have been an undefeated world champion. History would then have had no choice but to recognize him as ‘the greatest'.

He was reputed to be stubborn, but in fact he was wilful and of strong character, and had a powerful belief in himself which he proved in battle. He was unafraid. For instance, he incurred great risks to his King in order to prove a point. His mettle was often severely tested, and he was triumphant.

He completely altered his approach to chess as a result of his theoretical work, going from a slash and burn combinative player to a positional player without peer. In fact, let me remind you, he discovered positional play.

He lost his title against a much younger man, conceding 32 years in age. Think about that. The difference in age between Steinitz and Lasker is equivalent to the age of a fully formed grandmaster of the first rank. Incidentally, he did not duck the match.

Then there are his wonderful games featuring wildly exciting play from his ‘romantic period’ to ultra exact positional masterpieces.

To their everlasting credit, players like Lasker, Capablanca, Nimzovich, Euwe, Kasparov and Fischer, have acknowledged the greatness of Steinitz.

Steinitz belonged to another era – the era before computers – and what he initiated took chess in directions that he would have only dimly perceived, if at all. He died in poverty, afflicted by mental problems. But his legacy is gigantic, and it is to the shame of modern players and writers, that his games and achievements are neglected.

In Steinitz we have a uniquely individual approach to chess, which through his sheer force of will and talent, became the standard by which sound and attractive chess could be further developed.

I discovered his games in my middle age, and thus I too deserve to be censured for my neglect of the great man. I was also pleased to discover that I liked the early ‘romantic era’ Steinitz. He played King’s Gambits and the Vienna Opening, my personal favourite.

So I present to you a game which could have been played in the cafes of old 19th Century Vienna by a couple of ordinary players, imbued with the spirit of the great Viennese master Steinitz, but alas, not by his talent. Still, it is a ‘Viennese game’, and one can imagine a youngish Steinitz wondering by, looking at the game being played, and saying to himself dismissively, ‘This is coffee-house chess. I can do better than this. I can do so much better I can be world champion!’

To be dismissed by a Steinitz is honour indeed.

George Eraclides VERSUS Anton Nincevic

Box Hill Chess Club
(pretend it’s in Vienna a 150 years ago)
Winter Inter-club 1999 - Sixty minutes each player for the whole game

Vienna Game transposing into a King’s Gambit Declined

1. e4 e5
2. Nc3 Nf6
3. f4 d6
4. Nf3 Nc6
5. Bc4 Be7

Fearful of the Vienna he transposes to the King’s Gambit Declined. Note that 5…Nxe4 is too risky for Black after 6. Qe2 e.g. 6…Nxc3 7. dxc3! or if 6…f5
7. Nxe4 fxe4 8. Qxe4 and White is good. White can also play the conventional
6. Nxe4 d5 7. Bb5 dxe4 8. Nxe5 Qd6 (best) then 9. Bxc6+ or Qe2 are fine.

6. d3 Na5?!

Note that 6…Bg4 7. h3 Bxf3 8. Qxf3 Nd4 9. Qd1 (Qf2 Nh5) 0-0 10. Be3 c5 is slightly better for White who intends a King-side expansion after f5 and g4, with an interesting struggle.

7. Bb3 Nxb3
8. axb3

Larsen used to love these positions because Black is dead in the centre and the Queen-side while White can attack on the King-side almost at will, without worrying about a Black Knight on d4. White is now better.


If 8...Bg4 9. h3 or 9. f5 are good for White as well; Black will be attacked on the King-side.

9. Bxf4 Bg4
10. 0-0 0-0
11. Qe1

Breaking the pin and threatening Qg3


Fearful of the attack to come, he risks annihilation.

12. Qg3 g5?

Part of a faulty plan as it allows the following combination. Better was 12…Bxf3 as after Qxf3 (best) he can play Kh7 or Nh7 or Qd7 and try to regroup.

13. Nxg5!

Because of the relatively fast time control we were playing under, I had quickly analysed (and liked) Nxg5. I thought 13. Be3 Kh7 was unclear.

14. Bxg5 Nh5

There is nothing better, and White will regain his piece and two Pawns.

15. Qxg4 Bxg5
16. Qxh5

Possible but more complicated is Rf5.

17. Kh1 Qg5?!
18. Qxg5 Bxg5
19. Rf5

Black’s f7 Pawn is weak and King exposed. By combining attacks on the king with pressure on the Pawn White should win. Swapping pieces will also do the job.


If 19…Be3 threatening Bd4, simply 20. Nd5.

20. Raf1 Kg7?!

He hopes to get his Rooks mobile but Bg7 may be better.

21. g3 a6
22. Kg2 Rae8
23. Nd5

Intending to play Nf4 and threaten an important check. This is very much a Tarrasch type of position where constriction must be maintained and slowly increased.

24. Nf4

Planing Nh5+ and if Kg6, then g4 and h4.


The compromised Bishop is exchanged for the good Knight.

25. R1xf4

I knew I would have to exchange Rooks to win but I was concerned because getting to a ‘won’ position took up valuable time, and now I still needed to do a lot of careful calculating.

26. g4!?

Possible, but not worked out due to a concern with time-trouble, was
26.Rg4+ Kh6 27. Rh4+ Kg6 28. R4h5!? with the threat of driving the King back by Rh6+ Kg7 (if Kg5, R4h5+ Kg4, h3++). In the time I had available I could not see a clear path.

27. Kg3

Bringing up the King is critical as will become apparent.


Hoping to be allowed to play Rf7 and Kf8/e7.

28. g5?!

White wants his pund of flesh – h4 is safer. I had too long a think trying to see everything but failed, so I played riskily with one eye on the clock.


If 28…Rxg5 29. Rxg5 fxg5 30. Rxf8+ Kxf8 31. Kg4 wins. My opponent thought he had found a way out of losing and made a run for the toilet – his point is that the Pawn on g5 can capture with check. When he came back he was met by:

29. Rf4g4!

Now if 29…Rxf5 30. exf5 Rf6 31. Rxg5+ Kh6 32. Kg4 or just h4 win; if 30…Rh6 then 31. Rxg5+ Kf6 32. h4 and Kg4 wins. He sat down to think again, and I remembered Tarrasch’s famous observation about when a player makes a bad move, it is usually the precursor to a series of bad moves.

30. Rf5xg5 Kh6?

Thank you Tarrasch. See what he meant? 30…Rxg5 31. Rxg5+ Kh6 would have made life more difficult for White. I could play 32. h4 Rf1 33. Rf5 Rb1 (better than c1; if Rh1 34. Rf6+ Kh5 35. Rxd6 Rxh4? 36. Rh6+! wins) 34. Rf6+ and Rxd6 or 34. Rf2 Rxb2 35. d4 is even simpler. Now his game implodes after the realization that what he played was wrong.

31. Rxg6+ Rxg6
32. Rxg6+ Kxg6
33. Kg4 d5?
34. e5 d4
35. h4 c5
36. h5+ Kh6
37. e6 Resigns


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