Every chess player and their buddy know Wilhelm Steinitz — the first undisputed world chess champion — as “the father of positional play.”
Steinitz discovered the most critical aspect of winning positional play… namely, the continuous accumulation of small advantages. And as far as this subtle side of chess is concerned, pawn structures, patient maneuvering, weak and strong squares quickly come to mind.
But did you know that, in his quest for the advantage, Steinitz also sent his king into the thick of the fight?
In the endgame, with gusto. But in the opening and middlegame? Average me would like to castle, please.
But Steinitz isn’t an average player. With supreme confidence in his defensive skills, he doesn’t mind dangling his king in front of the enemy cavalry if it meant securing a long-term advantage.
Take the Steinitz Variation in the Scotch for example: 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 exd4 4.Nxd4 Qh4 Black wins a pawn after 5.Nb5 Qxe4+ but loses castling rights to keep the loot 6.Be3 Kd8.
In this double-edged position, games end in one of two ways.
Either the black king gets hounded to checkmate by the enemy queen and rooks…
Or White overplays their hand and drops even more material as a result.
Nowadays, 5…Qxe4+ and 6…Kd8 almost never get air time. In his Chessable course, 1.e4 e5 Club Player’s Dynamite, Grandmaster Simon Williams recommends sacrificing not just castling rights… but a full rook too with 5…Nf6!? 6.Nxc7+ Kd8 7.Nxa8 Bc5.
In exchange for the rook, the second player has four ready-to-strike pieces aimed at the enemy king. Having the king on d8 actually helps Black as the sleeping h8-rook can slide to e8 and strengthen the attack. This modern strategy takes a 180-degree turn from Steinitz’ plan of winning a pawn and hanging onto it for dear life. But…
Steinitz has another “iron king” opening whose original ideas stayed intact and remains playable against unprepared competition. It’s called the Steinitz Gambit in the Vienna Game. Let’s see the first world champion and one of his crazy ideas in action.
Wilhelm Steinitz – Louis Paulsen, Baden Baden 1970
Our hero took up the white side in the 13th round of Baden Baden 1870 — one of the strongest chess tournaments at the time. It included most of the world’s strongest players, and it was also the first event of its kind to use chess clocks.
Steinitz’ opponent, Louis Paulsen, was a German master who had a solid, defensive style. He was the world’s best player for 39 months, and he attained a peak rating of 2710 according to Chessmetrics. Unfortunately for Paulsen, the following game demanded precise aggression which wasn’t his forte.
We now reach the starting position of the Steinitz Gambit.
White gave up castling rights to get the classic pawn duo on d4 and e4, while the far advanced position of the enemy queen allows White to develop their pieces with the gain of time. Black must open lines against the centralized White king before the first player can consolidate their positional advantages.
In the game, Black gave back the pawn on f4 with 5…d6 to activate his queenside pieces. But what should you do if the second player tried to hang on to the pawn with 5…g5?
Answer: Play 6.Nf3 and 7.Nd5, exploiting the fact that the black queen lost contact with the d8-square after 5…g5.
Back to the game…
Black played 5…d6 and rapidly brought out his queenside pieces after 6.Nf3 Bg4 7.Bxf4 O-O-O.
Black’s 9…Qa5? is far from the energetic move his position demands, and White now enjoys a sizeable space advantage and lead in development. How will you take over the initiative?
Answer: With 10.a3!, threatening b2-b4 and starting a queenside pawn storm.
Black shot back with 10…Bxf3 to which White answered with the alert 11.Kxf3! What would happen if the latter played the seemingly logical 11.Bxf3 instead, relocating the bishop to the long diagonal?
Answer: Black will lash out with 11…g5! and direct all of his firepower towards the center. Here’s how…
Pat yourself on the back if you saw Black’s devious idea and avoided it with 11.Kxf3. The variation above shows us that you can never put your guard down when your king is stuck in the center. All of the positional advantages in the world amount to nothing if the enemy gets their hands on your VIP.
Let’s continue with the game.
After seven moves, the black queen returns to h4 with little to show for her frolicking. White has the edge… but he now has a serious opportunity to stabilize and grow his advantage. What should you play?
Answer: Play 13.d5 and 14.Qd4 to finally connect the rooks. After which, White will bring his a-rook to the center and evacuate his king to the queenside.
Steinitz missed 13.d5 and played 13.b4?!. It was consistent with 10.a3, but it also allowed Black to bounce back with 13…f5! Fortunately for the Steinitz, his opponent missed the best continuation.
You just need to glance at Black’s fianchettoed queen to know that White’s already winning. The latter’s queenside pawns are ready to crash through, while Black’s pieces cower on the other side of the board. How will you seal the deal?
Answer: With 21.b6!, White pries open the queenside and prepares to invade with his heavy pieces. Do you see the correct follow-up though?
With the queen, rook, knight and bishops eyeing the almost-mated king on b8, your majesty’s days are numbered. Steinitz missed a couple of shorter mates… but he didn’t have to play with the precision of a computer because his attack is just overwhelming. Here’s how the game ended:
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