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Chess in the 19th Century: 25 Historical Facts & Insights (Players, Events,…)

Last Updated on January 25, 2024 by Gamesver Team and JC Franco

The chess story is interesting; some experts believe the game’s most significant growth spurt might have happened in the 19th century. Not only did the game evolve, but the players did, too. In this article, we’ll discuss the evolution of chess during this century.

Chess pieces were finally standardized in the 19th century. People became more liberal about experimenting with various strategies, leading to multiple chess publications. The 19th century also formalized the game to the extent that the world chess championships became a reality.

The 19th century is characterized by some drastic but essential changes to rules and other aspects of chess. The history is dotted with exciting things like the rise and demise of “The Turk.” Whether or not you like chess, it’s a fascinating time to reflect on.

These are 25 interesting things that happened in the world of chess in the 19th century:

1. Romanticism Made Chess More Popular

The romanticism movement originated in the 18th century but spread so rapidly during the 1800s that people started embracing chess for its romantic aspects. These include the beauty of a chess board and pieces, the aesthetics a chess display could add to a home, and the allure of strategic planning learned through the game. 

2. Romanticism Changed How People Played Chess

Romanticism had an impact on how chess was to be played. Almost every game started with the Open Game, and it was considered unsportsmanlike if you declined a game of gambits. For example, it was popular to start a tactical game of King’s Gambit or the Evans Gambit. The dominance and strength of this movement had a strong influence until the late 19th century.

3. Chess Became A Popular Feature In Art

In the early 1800s, Nevasi Lai painted the “Noblewomen Playing Chess,” which would survive through the centuries and is showcased in Paris. It shows how popular the game was among the nobles of the era, including women.

4. Steinitz Became The First Official World Chess Champion

Wilhelm Steinitz became the first world chess champion during a tournament in 1886. He disliked aggressive chess matches and would begin with quiet openings and gain small advantages instead. These openings were commonly played until 1920 and included The Queens Gambit, Ruy Lopez, The French Defense, the Giuoco Piano, and the Four Knights’ Game.

5. Chess Sets Were Standardized

Up until this point, different countries had different chessboards. Nathaniel Cook had a simple but modern design for chess sets. It was finalized around 1835 and patented in 1849. Howard Staunton endorsed this chess set and, due to his influence in the chess world, it also was known as the Staunton Pattern. This is still the standard chess set for modern international tournaments.

6. Howard Staunton Published “Chess Praxis”

Howard Staunton published his book “Chess Praxis” in the 1860s. Among other things, it included the revised code of stalemate. Finally, everybody could agree that this was a new rule which should be abided by. 

As for Howard, he made a name for himself in the chess community and was regarded as the unofficial world champion from 1843 to 1851.

7. The Rules Of Stalemate In Chess Were Finalized

People were divided about stalemate rules. Some supported the rule of stalemate, and others could not be bothered. Throughout the 19th century, people from around the world almost simultaneously decided that there should be a fixed stalemate rule, which was finalized in 1860.

8. New Pawn Promotion Rule Was Established

A significant change to chess rules came in the form of pawn promotion. Before the 19th century, a pawn did not receive a promotion at level 8, but at some point during the 1800s (it’s not entirely clear when), the rule changed to allow pawns to be promoted to any role, whether a corresponding piece had been captured or not.

9. Chess Became A Time Commitment

Players in the 19th century soon realized that chess required time commitment. Some games would last 8 to 10 hours, with one reportedly running for over 14 hours. In the mid-1850s, organizers started to use sand timers or watches to monitor and limit the duration of matches. Players would lose and be fined if they took too long to make a move.

10. The Mechanical Turk Emerged

The Turk was a chess-playing automaton created in 1770 by German inventor Wolfgang von Kempelen. It was most popular during the 1800s, though, and it deceived people for almost 84 years. The truth that a chess master was hiding inside the machine eventually came to light, after which the Turk was donated to a Chinese Museum, where a fire destroyed it in 1854.

11. The First Chess Newspaper Column Was Published

Chess became so popular in the early 1800s that Liverpool Mercury Newspaper published a new chess column in 1813.

12. Chess Clubs Emerged And Boomed

As mentioned, the 19th century was characterized by a newfound love and appreciation for chess. Men worldwide wanted to play chess and be part of this significant movement. One easy way to do that was to establish and open a chess club, which happened worldwide in the 1800s.

13. A Russian Published One Of The First Chess Books

Ivan Botrimov was the first Russian chess player to publish a book on chess called “Chess Play,” in 1821. 

14. The First Chess Club In America Opened

In 1827, Philadelphia opened its doors to the first chess club in America. Well, technically, a chess club in New York City predated the club in Philadelphia, but this club quickly shut its doors.

15. Chess Featured In Satire

Such was the popularity of chess that cartoonist George Cruikshank drew a satiric cartoon in 1814 and called it “Game of Chess.” This piece is now in the Brooklyn Museum.

16. American Chess Association Got Its President 

Charles Dillingham Mead became the president of the American Chess Association and was to be known as one of America’s strongest chess players in the 19th century.

17. Serafino Dubois Became Italy’s Strongest Chess Player

In the mid-19th century, Serafino Dubois was Italy’s leading and strongest chess player. He would later be recognized as one of the world’s strongest players.

18. Leeds Chess Club Opened Its Doors

In 1820, Leeds opened a chess club with a chess library, which sounds more impressive than it was since the club met in the Leeds Public Library. In 1825, this club won a chess match against players from Liverpool. Although the club closed for a short while in 1834, it is still going strong to this day. 

19. The United States Actively Promoted Chess

Thomas Frere was one of the leading chess promoters in the United States during the 19th century. He also played a huge part in organizing the First American Chess Congress in 1857.

20. The Oldest Continually-Existing Chess Club Opened

The Edinburgh Chess Club is the oldest existing chess club that never had to close for a while. They first started gathering in 1822 and continue to operate as an active chess club.

21. The “Other” Chess Automaton Was Created

Phineas Bennett and Joseph Burit built another chess automaton in 1827. The “American Automaton,” as they called it, was part of a display in New York City. It could never play as well as the Turk, but if only they employed better chess players, then maybe they could have gone a bit further with their invention.

22. The First Major Chess Match Was Played Outside of Europe

Two chess clubs in India played a chess match according to western chess rules in the mid-1800s, which is interesting, knowing that chess origins might have come from India. But the game evolved and matured in other countries, so India adopted western chess standards.

23. Chess Master Deacon Lost His Popularity

Frederick Horace Deacon was a competent chess player from 1849 to 1864, but he lost his popularity when he made false claims that he was in a deadlock against chess player Paul Morphy in 1859; claims that Morphy publicly denied.

24. 1878: The First Chess Match Played Over The Telephone

The first chess match played over the telephone occurred in 1878 (or 1877 by some accounts). The two players were Mr. Treadwell and Dr. White, and Treadwell won the game.

25. Lasker Became The Second World Champion In Chess

Emanuel Lasker became the world’s second chess champion in 1894 when he defeated reigning champion Wilhelm Steinitz. He is also known as the longest-reigning chess champion, only losing his title in 1921.

In Closing

The 19th century was an eventful period for chess. It was the time when chess became increasingly popular among the general population and started to spread across the globe. Rules were changed, fixed, and changed again. People were enamored with the idea of a chess-playing machine (which is the norm today). Chess would not be the same today if not for the events of the 19th century.

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This article was co-authored by our team of in-house and freelance writers, and reviewed by our editors, who enjoy sharing their knowledge about their favorite games with others!

JC Franco
Editor | + posts

JC Franco serves as a New York-based editor for Gamesver. His interest for board games centers around chess, a pursuit he began in elementary school at the age of 9. Holding a Bachelor’s degree in Business from Mercyhurst University, JC brings a blend of business acumen and creative insight to his role. Beyond his editorial endeavors, he is a certified USPTA professional, imparting his knowledge in tennis to enthusiasts across the New York City Metropolitan area.