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Wilhelm (later William) Steinitz was the first undisputed World Chess Champion and one of the first players to study rather than simply play chess. Born in Prague as the thirteenth son of a Jewish merchant he began to take chess seriously while studying Mathematics in Vienna. He scored 30/31 at the 1861 Vienna Championship and was invited to London 1862, one of the world’s first major international tournaments. A creditable sixth place encouraged him to become a professional chess player, and while various players could compete with him in tournaments Steinitz’s match record is phenomenal – he won almost 30 matches in a row between 1862 and 1894.
The start of Steinitz’s World Championship reign is the subject of debate. Some date it from his 8 wins to 6 victory over Adolf Anderssen in 1866, at a time when his opponent was considered the world’s strongest active player – the all-conquering American genius Paul Morphy had already given up the game at the age of only 22. The first match that was officially billed as a World Championship, however, took place 20 years later in 1886, after Steinitz had moved to America. Johannes Zukertort led 4:1 after five games but Steinitz came storming back to win 12.5-7.5. He defended his title against Mikhail Chigorin and Isidor Gunsberg but would eventually meet his match in 1894. Emanuel Lasker, 32 years his junior, won convincingly and was even more dominant in a rematch two years later.
Steinitz’s place in chess history rests not only
on his results but on the way in which he attempted to transform his own style
from the Romantic attacking chess that typified the period to a more positional
approach based on newly-formulated laws of chess. He was willing to defy common
sense and accept “ugly” positions for the sake of demonstrating his ideas. Such
determination and impracticality made him a pioneer of modern chess, but also
defined his behaviour away from the chessboard. As a chess journalist – and for
long periods he was more of a journalist than a player – his sharp tongue saw
him embroiled in bitter disputes, and despite all his success he ultimately
died in poverty.