Chess in the Turbulent Era – vol. 1

Looking into chess development after ancient times brings us to the turbulent era before and during the First World War. In the first article from the new series on chess history meet Steinitz, one of the crucial figures in the world of 19th-century chess. 

It was the best of times it was the worst of times

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” nothing but the first sentence of the novel A Tale of Two Cities can better describe the chess development before the First World War. The 19th century witnessed the prosperity of Europe and the emergence of a number of talented chess players, but some burgeoning European nations had the ambition to break the balance of the dominant powers. War was inevitable. Such a crisis brought endless challenges to the players.

The Café de la Régence in Paris
Chess tournament in the 19th century

In 1836, our first World Chess Champion, Wilhelm Steinitz, was born in Austro-Hungary, one of the most powerful empires in Europe at that time, and one of the Central Powers during the First World War. As a Jew, Steinitz was lucky to be born in the right place at the right time. For a long time after the Black Death, Jewish people were discriminated against and persecuted because the Europeans thought that it was the Jewish people who spread the plague to Europe. This situation did not change until in the 19th century when the traditional aristocracy declined and the bourgeoisie emerged. The Jewish people, one of the major groups of the bourgeoisie and one of the wealthiest minority groups, gave away money to prominent people in exchange for connections and protection. Another good thing was that the Jewish people were tolerated in Austro-Hungary compared to other European countries. And although Steinitz’s family was not the richest, his wealth was enough to sustain his life and support him to learn chess.

Wilhelm Steinitz portrait
Wilhelm Steinitz

Steinitz dreamed of becoming an engineer when he was young, and he went to Vienna’s polytechnic to study mathematics at the age of 21. But then just after two years at university, he became obsessive about chess. He soon decided to give up his career as an engineer and became a professional chess player, devoting his whole life to chess. At that time, chess players were not valued and there were hardly any tournaments per year, which provided Steinitz less chance of defeating prominent players and winning honors. But he persisted and finally became one of the top players.

In 1866 Steinitz won the tournament against Adolf Anderssen, the famous Prussian chess player, but Steinitz was not happy. Steinitz lost his first two games in this match and finally won the match with great difficulties. On the other hand, Paul Morphy, the talented American player, defeated Anderssen with great ease. Morphy might have become a world champion, but suddenly he disappeared from the chess world and was never willing to talk about chess. No one knew what happened. There were many rumors about Morphy, and Morphy remained a myth in the chess world.

Anderssen played against Morphy
Anderssen played against Morphy

After the match against Anderssen, Steinitz began to study the games of all the prominent chess players of the 19th century. He was not satisfied to be the best player in Europe, but he kept the ambition to become the world champion. In 1886 Steinitz moved to the United States and had a match against the Prussian player Zukertort. He declared that this match would determine who would be the 1st world champion. The match was not easy for Steinitz. He only got 1 point in the first five games. But he was tenacious and finally defeated Zukertort.

Anderssen played against Morphy black and white painting
1st World Chess Championship

Steinitz’s victory not only brought him the honor of world champion but also proved that his approaches to chess were applicable: accumulating small advantages and strengthening the position before attacking. He also introduced the ideas of the weak square, the pawn chain, and the advantage of two bishops, which were completely new and unacceptable in his era. As the first positional player, Steinitz made great contributions to the development of scientific chess theories.

Continue reading about chess in the turbulent era of the 19th century in vol. 2 of the series. Learn even more in vol. 3, vol. 4 and vol. 5



Young and active tournament player with excellent results including a 1st place at the BSSZ Aranytiz International Master, 1st place at the Chinese Youth Chess Championship G16, and part of the top 10 contenders in two World Chess Championships for girls G16 and G18.

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