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Wilhelm Steinitz | Biography: 30 Important Facts (1st World Chess Champion)

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

If you are a chess lover and wish to know something about the first official world champion and founder of the classical or modern style of playing chess, then read on.

Wilhelm Steinitz became the first chess world champion. He became the father of modern chess by convincing chess masters to think strategically and to play a positional rather than the bold and aggressive game popular in his time. Steinitz was also a writer, journalist, and theorist.

In 1866, Steinitz partook in the first-ever chess game introducing chess clocks. That wasn’t his only first, though. Let’s have a look at other intriguing facts about this remarkable chess champion.

These are 30 interesting facts about Wilhelm Steinitz:

1. Steinitz Was The 1st Official World Chess Title-Holder

In 1886, Steinitz won the first official world Chess competition. He retained the title until 1894. 

2. He Was A Chess Theoretician 

As a chess journalist and theoretician, Steinitz wrote a book on the 1889 New York tournament, describing all 432 games. 

3. Steinitz Invented A New Chess Style

In 1873, he invented a new way of playing competitive chess and showed how his version was better than the usual ‘attack style’ that was common in the 1860s.  

4. He Helped Define Chess Rules

Between 1888 and 1889, in collaboration with the Chess Congress of America, Steinitz developed a plan to decide definitive rules for playing chess. All subsequent chess world championships used these rules. 

5. Chess Title-Holder Steinitz Was From Prague

Steinitz came into the world on May 14, 1836, in Prague’s Jewish quarter. Prague was known as Bohemia when it formed Austro-Hungarian Empire. 

6. Steinitz Masters Chess At Young Age

At the young age of twelve, Steinitz was playing chess competently. He was also an avid mathematics scholar. For two years, he attended the Polytechnic in Vienna.

7. Steinitz Played The World Title Match For Free

Although he felt strongly about repaying debts, his decisions about his personal finances were often questionable. An example is the 1886 world title game he played against Johannes Zukertort, which Steinitz offered to play for free.

8. Chess Maestro Steinitz Admitted To Psychiatric Ward

Steinitz was reported dead erroneously in February 1897 in a psychiatric ward. Some authors claim that he contracted syphilis. Before his death, his mental illness forced him to spend time in institutions.

9. Steinitz’s Chess Career Started In the 1850s

Steinitz’s chess game improved dramatically in the 1850s. At the Vienna City Championships where he managed third place. By 1861 he scored 30 / 31, where he placed first.

10. He Represented Austria In Chess Tournaments

At a chess competition in London in 1862, Steinitz placed sixth. He played for Austria. He played Serafino Dubois, the renowned Italian player, in fifth place. After this tournament, he became a professional chess player and moved to London.

11. Steinitz Beat A German Chess Master

Steinitz won in London against German chess master Adolf Anderssen in 1866. This established Steinitz as the world’s best player and earned him 100 pounds in prize money.

12. He Played Blind Chess 

To supplement his income, Steinitz played in simultaneous and blindfolded exhibitions. 

13. Steinitz’s First Chess Title Was In The USA

In 1886, the World chess championships took place in the USA between Steinitz and Polish / German Johannes Zukertort. The time controls were 30 moves in 2 hours and 15 every hour.

14. Steinitz Changed His Chess Name To William  

Before becoming an American citizen, Steinitz had a US flag beside him when playing chess. He lived in the US for five years before becoming a citizen in November 1888. He also changed his name to William. 

15. He Lost His World Chess Title To Lasker

Steinitz remained undefeated for 32 years, from 1862 to 1894. In 1894, he lost his world champion title to the German Emanuel Lasker. 

16. Steinitz Presented Ideas About Chess Strategy 

Steinitz worked at The Field as a chess writer, where he discussed his approach to chess. The magazine was trendy in Britain at that time. Steinitz worked here between the years 1873 and 1882.

17. His Comments Cause Heated Chess Debates

Steinitz engaged in various passionate debates in The Chess Monthly publication, and some of these got particularly heated. The magazine originated in 1879. 

18. He Was The Editor Of The International Chess Journal

In 1885, Steinitz developed the New York-based International Chess Magazine. Steinitz was the editor of the magazine until 1891. During his time at the magazine, Steinitz’s described Paul Morphy in many articles. Morphy was a brilliant chess player.

19. Steinitz Produced Chess Instructor in 1889

In 1889, Steinitz wrote the textbook The Modern Chess Instructor, in which he defined his chess philosophy. 

20. Steinitz Rated Low In Chess Ranking Systems

Steinitz was ranked a low 47th in the publication Warriors of the Mind‘. He was placed 15th in the Chessmetrics magazine. Steinitz did not play regularly and was therefore demoted in the chess-ranking systems; this was the norm.  

21. His Game of Chess Had A Romantic Style 

Steinitz played a ‘Romantic’ game of chess until 1872. This style was popular in the 1860s. The romantic game style is intensive and competitive, with the loss of many chess pieces. 

22. Steinitz Introduced A New Style To Chess

The world described chess style before 1873 as romantic. At the Vienna tournament in 1873, Steinitz introduced the ‘closed game’ or ‘Double Queen’s Pawn Opening.’ His approach to gradually outplay an opponent was also one of his strategies. His strategies became widely accepted. 

23. Nazis Defined Steinitz Style As Timid

The Nazis used chess as a way of spreading political propaganda. The Nazis claimed that Jewish chess players such as Steinitz and Lasker were using cowardly strategies to defeat German chess players. German chess players, such as Morphy and Anderssen, were known for their romantic styles of play.

24. Romantic Chess Style Lovers Criticized Steinitz

Many lovers of the Romantic chess style criticized Steinitz’s more relaxed strategic play and dubbed it boring. Romantic chess players included Anderssen and Lionel Kiesegeritzky. 

25. Steinitz’s Chess Style Compromised His Game

Steinitz’s biggest problems entailed playing in an inventive, experimental way. Unfortunately, by doing this, Steinitz would often end up in compromising positions and frequently had to protect himself from losing the game.

26. Steinitz Ushered In The Modern Age Of Chess

The “Modern,” or Classical school, introduced by Steinitz, lasted until the 1930s. After the 1930s, hyper-modernism began to become famous. 

27. Emanual Lasker Praised Steinitz’s Chess Style

Emanual Lasker acknowledged his debt to Steinitz for his new style of chess play at the time. Steinitz’s games showed that he could set up ferocious attacks like those still sporting the old chess style. 

28. Steinitz Created A Chess Ink War

Steinitz entered bitter and abusive arguments with Johannes Zukertort. These arguments became known as the Ink War. In 1881, Steinitz was very critical of Leopold Hoffer’s chess-gaming style.  

29. Steinitz Played Chess With Fellow Patients

Steinitz had a mental breakdown after a losing match with Lasker. He went to an infirmary in the Soviet capital for 40 days and practiced his skill with fellow inmates. 

30. Chess Hero Steinitz Died Penniless

Steinitz’s chess activities didn’t bring him any tremendous financial rewards. While in the state hospital of Manhattan, he passed away from heart failure in 1900. Steinitz died destitute.

In Closing

Wilhelm Steinitz was often dubbed controversial, confrontational, and always up for an argument. Nonetheless, there is no doubt that the ever-popular and ancient game of chess would not have been the same without the influence of this remarkable chess master.

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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.