The reign of Wilhelm Steinitz

Wilhelm Steinitz dominated chess from 1866 to 1894, and his reign raised most of the issues that have since affected the world championship.

Wilhelm Steinitz’ reign is notable for: the first recorded suggestion that a world champion could forfeit the title by declining a credible challenge or by prolonged absence from competition; the first recorded instance of a disputed world championship; the first actual contest that was defined in advance as being for the world championship (Bledow’s 1846 proposal came to nothing); the first attempt to regulate contests for the world championship; debates about whether the championship should be decided by a match or a tournament; and differences between commentators about when his reign began, which persist right down to the present day.[5][20]

There is no evidence that Steinitz claimed the title for himself immediately after winning a match against Adolf Anderssen in 1866, although in his International Chess Magazine (September 1887 and April 1888) he claimed to have been the champion since 1866.[5] It has been suggested that Steinitz could not make such a claim while Paul Morphy was alive.[21] Morphy had defeated Anderssen by a far wider margin in 1858, but retired from chess competition soon after he returned to the USA in 1859, and died in 1884.[22] The earliest known reference to Steinitz as world champion was in the Chess Player’s Chronicle (October 1872), after he beatJohannes Zukertort in their first match.[5] But the New York Times (11 March 1894),[23] British Chess Magazine (April 1894) and Emanuel Lasker (Lasker’s Chess Magazine, May 1908) dated his reign from 1866,[5] and in the early 1950s Reuben Fine followed their example.[22] On the other hand many recent commentators divide Steinitz’ reign into an “unofficial” one before he beat Zukertort again in 1886 and the first “official” world championship from that time onwards;[24][25][26][27]Steinitz had insisted that the contract for the 1886 match must specify that the match was “for the Championship of the World” (Chess Monthly, January 1886).[5]

The Irish Times (6 March 1879) argued that Steinitz had forfeited the title by prolonged absence from competitive chess and therefore Zukertort should be regarded as champion. The Chess Player’s Chronicle (18 July 1883) made a more complex argument: other commentators had suggested that Zukertort should be regarded as champion because he had won a major tournament (London 1883, 3 points ahead of Steinitz[28]); the Chronicle thought tournaments were an unreliable way of deciding the championship and Steinitz’ victories in matches gave him the better claim; but, if Zukertort were the champion, he should forfeit the title if he declined a challenge, especially from a challenger with Steinitz’ credentials, and in that case the title should revert to Steinitz.[5]

In 1887 the American Chess Congress started work on drawing up regulations for the future conduct of world championship contests. Steinitz supported this endeavor, as he thought he was becoming too old to remain world champion. The proposal evolved through many forms (as Steinitz pointed out, such a project had never been undertaken before), and resulted in the New York 1889 tournament to select a challenger for Steinitz, rather like the more recent Candidates Tournaments. The tournament was duly played, but the outcome was not quite as planned: Mikhail Chigorin and Max Weiss tied for first place; their play-off resulted in four draws; and neither wanted to play a match against Steinitz – Chigorin had just lost to him and Weiss wanted to get back to his work for the Rothschild Bank. The third prizewinner Isidore Gunsberg was prepared to play Steinitz for the title in New York, and Steinitz won their match in 1890–91.[20][29][30] This experiment was not repeated and the 1894 match in which Steinitz lost his title was a private arrangement between the players.[23]

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