Howard Staunton

Howard Staunton

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Howard Staunton (1810 – 22 June 1874) was an English chess master who is generally regarded as having been the world’s strongest player from 1843 to 1851, largely as a result of his 1843 victory over Saint-Amant. He promoted a chess set of clearly distinguishable pieces of standardised shape—the Staunton pattern promulgated by Nathaniel Cook—that is still the style required for competitions. He was the principal organiser of the first international chess tournament in 1851, which made England the world’s leading chess centre and caused Adolf Anderssen to be recognised as the world’s strongest player.

From 1840 onwards he became a leading chess commentator, and won matches against top players of the 1840s. In 1847 he entered a parallel career as a Shakespearean scholar. Ill health and his two writing careers led him to give up competitive chess after 1851. In 1858 attempts were made to organise a match between Staunton and Morphy, but they failed. It is often alleged that Staunton deliberately misled Morphy while trying to avoid the match, but it is also possible Staunton overestimated his chances of getting physically fit and of making time available for a match.

Modern commentators consider Staunton’s understanding of positional play to have been far ahead of his contemporaries’. Although not an all-out Attacking player, he Attacked when his preparations were complete. His chess articles and books were widely read and encouraged the development of chess in the United Kingdom, and his Chess-Player’s Handbook (1847) was a reference for decades. The chess openings the English Opening and Staunton Gambit were named for his advocacy of them. Staunton has been a controversial figure since his own time, and his chess writings could be spiteful. On the other hand he maintained good working relationships with several strong players and influential chess enthusiasts, and demonstrated excellent management skills.

Playing strength and style

There is a famous story that Paul Morphy described Staunton as the author of “some devilish bad games”. Chess historian Edward Winter traced this back to a book published in 1902, whose author said he had seen a copy of Staunton’s The Chess Tournament in which Morphy had written “some devilish bad games” on the title page: Winter was unable to trace the copy. Around the time of Staunton’s death Morphy is said to have commented that Staunton may have been the strongest player of his time, had great analytical ability and judgement of positions but lacked the imagination required to deliberately create opportunities for combinations.

Twentieth-century opinions of Staunton’s play varied enormously. Fred Reinfeld, Al Horowitz and Reuben Fine all condemned it. On the other hand, Savielly Tartakower wrote, “A remarkable feature of Staunton’s play is the number of ultra-modern ideas with which he was familiar, e.g. the restricted centre, the fianchetto development, bilateral work, the theory of the local engagement, etc., and, last but not least, the English Opening (sometimes called the Staunton Opening).” Garry Kasparov considered Staunton “by the early 1840s … superior to all his rivals”. Bobby Fischer opined that “Staunton was the most profound opening analyst of all time. He was more theorist than player, but nonetheless he was the strongest player of his day… In addition, he understood all of the positional concepts which modern players hold dear, and thus—with Steinitz—must be considered the first modern player.”

The website Chessmetrics ranks Staunton as world number one from May 1843 to August 1849, in the top ten from July 1851 to May 1853, and in the top five from June 1853 to January 1856.

From the early 1840s to 1851 Staunton could successfully give odds to almost any UK-based player, including eventually John Cochrane: the exceptions were Henry Thomas Buckle, to whom Staunton gave pawn and move in 1843 and lost their match (six losses, no draws, one win), and Elijah Williams in 1851, against whom Staunton won more games but lost the match because he had given Williams a three-game start. According to match records collected by Jeremy P. Spinrad, the only players who were successful against Staunton without receiving odds from 1840 to 1852 were: Saint-Amant, who won their first match in London in 1843 and lost their second, longer match in Paris the same year: Adolf Anderssen, who eliminated Staunton from the 1851 London International tournament: and Elijah Williams, who beat Staunton in the play-off for third place in the same tournament. Before 1840 Staunton was still a relative beginner, and after 1851 his health was too fragile for serious competition. In the late 1840s some UK commentators wrote that Buckle was stronger, and von der Lasa was regarded by some as the world’s best. Staunton did not play von der Lasa until 1853, and was forced by ill-health to abandon the match.

In his own time Staunton was regarded as belonging to the “closed” category of chess players (along with for example Philidor and József Szén) rather than to the “heroic” category (which included La Bourdonnais, Morphy and Anderssen)—instead of seeking immediate combat, Staunton deferred it until he was ready. The closed English Opening got its name from Staunton’s frequent use of it, especially against Saint-Amant in 1843. However he was noted for the accuracy and incisiveness of his combinations.


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