Imagine a time when the headline, ‘Great Discovery in Chess’, could appear in a daily newspaper, as in fact happened in the New York Sun for 2 June 1895.
And what was the nature of this ‘great discovery’? Wilhelm Steinitz had just announced that he had discovered a perfect defence to the Evan’s Gambit. It was a different age.
This is an enthralling biography of William (or Wilhelm) Steinitz, the first world chess champion and the father of modern chess. Steinitz was the player and theorist who laid the foundation for our current understanding of chess, and he was probably the game’s deepest thinker. His only other rival for this honour is Nimzowitsch, who reacted to Tarrasch’s simplified codification of Steinitz’s thought.
Many years of research have gone into the writing of this book, which is clearly a labour of love. Landsberger traces the trajectory of Steinitz’s life from his childhood in the Prague ghetto, about which relatively little is known, to his short time in Vienna as a young man and his later emigration to London, where he stayed for 20 years. It was in London that Steinitz came to prominence, most notably by defeating Adolf Anderssen in a match in 1866. From that point on, he was regarded as the
world’s best player until his defeat by Lasker in 1894. By that time, he had settled in America.
There were elements of tragedy to Steinitz’s life, and the author does not shy away from these. As is generally known, he had mental health problems in the last years of his life and he had difficulty in eking out a living as a chess player and journalist. In sum, though, his life was one of immense intellectual achievement; he revolutionized our understanding of chess.
Some excellent extras enhance the text. Andy Soltis provides deep annotations to 15 of Steinitz’s best games and two other games, played by correspondence between London and Vienna in 1872-1974, are annotated by Steinitz and Potter: they were significant as a test of Steinitz’s ideas. David Hooper’s perspicacious article on Steinitz’s theory of chess is reprinted from the British Chess Magazine, September 1984; and there are 46 black and white plates, which include photographs of the great man and his contemporaries, some facsimiles of his letters and an array of stamps issued in his honour.
The author includes many contemporary accounts and profiles of Steinitz, as well as excerpts from his letters and writings, and those with an interest in chess history will find this deeply-researched book engrossing.
By Kurt Landsberger
McFarland & Company, 2006
You can read a description of William Steinitz, Chess Champion: A Biography of the Bohemian Caesar by Kurt Landsberger at the publisher’s website here.