The Steinitzian Forest

This evening is our second venture into the Dawn of Modern Chess. We’re going to get into our Way-Back machine again and hop into history. We’ll be visiting Wilhelm Steinitz, first world champion, to see if can pick his brain a little bit.

Steinitz was really the first important theoretician of chess and his theories formed the basis of early chess theory. Ex-world champion Vladimir Kramnik has commented that Steinitz was important, but that naturally the first attempts at forming a body of chess theory were not complete nor entirely correct.

Old Willy was certainly one of the strongest players for many years, with a 25 year span of match play without defeat! He lost to Lasker in the 1890s in his late 50’s, but until then was alone at the top. It was a sudden change in style, very deliberately done, that marked Steinitz’s theoretical work. He changed from an ‘old school’ romantic like Morphy to a positional player – and in practical terms did it nearly over night.

Here is some of what he had to say:

  1. At the beginning of the game the forces stand in equilibrium.
  2. Correct play on both sides maintains this equilibrium and leads to a drawn game.
  3. Therefore a player can win only as a consequence of an error made by the opponent. (There is no such thing as a winning move.)
  4. As long as the equilibrium is maintained, an attack, however skilful, cannot succeed against correct defence. Such a defence will eventually necessitate the withdrawal and regrouping of the attacking pieces and the attacker will then inevitably suffer disadvantage.
  5. Therefore a player should not attack until he already has an advantage, caused by the opponent’s error, that justifies the decision to attack.
  6. At the beginning of the game a player should not at once seek to attack. Instead, a player should seek to disturb the equilibrium in his favour by inducing the opponent to make an error – a preliminary before attacking.
  7. When a sufficient advantage has been obtained, a player must attack or the advantage will be dissipated.

Source: David Hooper, ‘Steinitz’ Theory’, British Chess Magazine Vol. 104, p.370 Sept 1984.

Steinitz’ ideas, which he wrote prolifically about, were completely opposite the previous ‘Romantic’ view that inspired play could generate advantages and attacks. Steinitz proposed that such brilliance lies in setting problems for the other player such that your opponent makes a mistake…

If you would like a little more, google ‘steinitz ink war’. Steinitz was a professional chess writer for newspapers for many years and his outspoken opinions caused quite the kerfuffle!

Steinitz wasn’t alone in generating theories for discussion: Louis Paulsen had previously declared (quite unfashionably) that all gambits can be defended, so he predated Steinitz’ more fully formed theory and point #7 in the list is outright attributed by some to Lasker.

“Place the contents of the Chess box in a hat, shake them up vigorously, pour them on the board from a height of two feet, and you get the style of Steinitz.”  –  Henry Bird


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