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Wilhelm (later William) Steinitz (May 17, 1836 – August 12, 1900) was an Austrian and later American chess player and the first undisputed world chess champion from 1886 to 1894. From the 1870s onwards, commentators have debated whether Steinitz was effectively the champion earlier. Steinitz lost his title to Emanuel Lasker in 1894 and also lost a rematch in 1896–97.
Statistical rating systems give Steinitz a rather low ranking among world champions, mainly because he took several long breaks from competitive play. However, an analysis based on one of these rating systems shows that he was one of the most dominant players in the history of the game. Steinitz was unbeaten in over 25 years of match play.
Although Steinitz became “world number one” by winning in the all-out Attacking style that was common in the 1860s, he unveiled in 1873 a new positional style of play and demonstrated that it was superior to the previous style. His new style was controversial and some even branded it as “cowardly”, but many of Steinitz’s games showed that it could also set up Attacks as ferocious as those of the old school. Steinitz was also a prolific writer on chess, and defended his new ideas vigorously. The debate was so bitter and sometimes abusive that it became known as the “Ink War”. By the early 1890s, Steinitz’s approach was widely accepted, and the next generation of top players acknowledged their debt to him, most notably his successor as world champion, Emanuel Lasker.
As a result of the “Ink War”, traditional accounts of Steinitz’s character depict him as ill-tempered and aggressive: but more recent research shows that he had long and friendly relationships with some players and chess organizations. Most notably from 1888 to 1889 he co-operated with the American Chess Congress in a project to define rules governing the conduct of future world championships. Steinitz was unskilled at managing money and lived in poverty all his life.
Playing strength and style
Statistical rating systems are unkind to Steinitz. “Warriors of the Mind” gives him a ranking of 47th, below several obscure Soviet grandmasters: Chessmetrics places him only 15th on its all-time list. Chessmetrics penalizes players who play infrequently: opportunities for competitive chess were infrequent in Steinitz’s best years, and Steinitz had a few long absences from competitive play (1873–76, 1876–82, 1883–86, 1886–89). However, in 2005 Chessmetrics’ author, Jeff Sonas, wrote an article which examined various ways of comparing the strength of “world number one” players, using data provided by Chessmetrics, and found that: Steinitz was further ahead of his contemporaries in the 1870s than Bobby Fischer was in his peak period (1970–72): that Steinitz had the third-highest total number of years as the world’s top player, behind Emanuel Lasker and Garry Kasparov: and that Steinitz placed 7th in a comparison of how long players were ranked in the world’s top three. Between his victory over Anderssen (1866) and his loss to Emanuel Lasker (1894), Steinitz won all his “normal” matches, sometimes by wide margins: and his worst tournament performance in that 28-year period was third place in Paris (1867).(He also lost two handicap matches and a match by telegraph in 1890 against Mikhail Chigorin, where Chigorin was allowed to choose the openings in both games and won both.)
Initially Steinitz played in the all-out Attacking style of contemporaries like Anderssen, and then changed to the positional style with which he dominated competitive chess in the 1870s and 1880s. Max Euwe wrote, “Steinitz aimed at positions with clear-cut features, to which his theory was best applicable.” However, he retained his capacity for brilliant Attacks right to the end of his career: for example in the 1895 Hastings tournament (when he was 59) he beat von Bardeleben in a spectacular game in which in the closing stages Steinitz deliberately exposed all his pieces to Attack simultaneously (except his king, of course). His most significant weaknesses were his habits of playing “experimental” moves and getting into unnecessarily difficult defensive positions in top-class competitive games.
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