The Early Masters
and Their Games
Howard Staunton (1810-1874)
Howard Staunton learned the moves of chess when he was 20 and dominated the game in Europe for nearly 15 years. He established himself as the "lord and master" at the prestigious Chess Divan club in London (England's counterpart to the Café; de la Régence in Paris), defeating all adversaries and declaring himself the world champion in 1843.
As an analyst Staunton had no peer, and as a chess player very few could offer a significant challenge. As a human being, however, he was somewhat lacking. In his book, Grandmasters of Chess, Harold Schonberg describes Staunton as "irascible, unlovable, stubborn, vengeful, disliked, admired . . . a man of high principles and low dealings."
He often insulted the readers of his newspaper chess column and behaved contemptuously toward those who differed with his opinions. His behavior regarding the challenges put forth by Paul Morphy in 1858 was childish and undignified, dodging a competition match and essentially laying the blame at Morphy's feet.
In spite of all this, his contribution to the world of chess was significant, not so much for his play but rather for his insightful analysis and organizational efforts. (He was responsible for organizing the world chess tournament of 1851; a significant event in the history of chess. For the record, Staunton placed fourth; Anderssen took first.)
He's also known for lending his name and promotional acumen to the standardized design of the popular chess set. (The design was actually created by Nathaniel Cook, but is now known as the Staunton design.)
How much greater the tribute to this man would have been had he possessed a more gracious and considerate character.
Adolf Anderssen (1818-1879)
Two men of more opposite characteristics and temperaments couldn't be found than Howard Staunton and Adolf Anderssen. Anderssen was the consummate gentleman and sportsman. Augustus Mongredien, president of the London Chess Club, called Anderssen "except Morphy, the most splendid and chivalrous player whom I ever encountered."
Anderssen was born in Breslau, Germany, and learned chess at the age of 9 from his father. He became a university mathematics professor but played chess at every opportunity. His abilities in chess matched his manners in life.
Throughout his adult life, and particularly after winning the 1851 world chess tournament, Anderssen was consistently considered one of the top three players of the world. (His two significant losses were to Morphy in 1858 and Steinitz in 1866, though he did return in 1870 to defeat Steinitz at an even more prestigious tournament.)
He was a master of combination play and a champion of the aggressive attack. Two of his games are considered classics: the Immortal from 1851 and the Evergreen, played in 1852.
Adolf Anderssen died in Breslau in 1879, and all who knew the man mourned for their great loss.
Wilhelm Steinitz (1836-1900)
Wilhelm Steinitz was the first official Chess Champion of the World, declaring himself (somewhat prematurely) as such after defeating Adolf Anderssen in 1866. (No one could argue the point, however, as he truly was the greatest player at the time.) He anchored his title in a stunning performance at the 1873 Vienna tournament (16 successive wins) and held it fast until 1894.
Steinitz was raised to be a Talmudic scholar, but he wanted to study mathematics instead. As a young man he traveled to Vienna to pursue math at the Polytechnic Institute, but his progress was interrupted in 1858 when Morphy's amazing exploits were published in the local newspapers, creating a huge interest in chess almost overnight.
Steinitz knew he had the capacity to play well and he recognized an opportunity to increase his meager income by playing chess for money. He began playing chess in earnest and in a short time he was Austria's champion, anxious to take on the world.
He placed sixth at an important tournament in London in 1862. While this wasn't bad for his first international appearance, Steinitz wasn't satisfied with anything but first. His great opportunity for preeminence arrived in 1866 when he met and defeated Anderssen.
Along with his magnificent skill, Steinitz was known for his blatant pugnacity and rudeness. His ill temper and poor sportsmanship (whether he won or lost) earned him the reputation of being the most unpopular chess player who ever lived. In Grandmasters of Chess, Schonberg relates an incident from the Paris tournament of 1867 where "in a trifling dispute, he (Steinitz) spat on his opponent, a British player -- some say it was Blackburne -- who promptly knocked his head through the window."
Sadly, one of the greatest players of the 19th century lived the last few years of his life in financial hardship and failing mental health. Wilhelm Steinitz died in August 1900.
Emanuel Lasker (1868-1941)
Lasker was a man well-versed in philosophy, mathematics, drama, poetry, and chess. He learned the game at age 11 from his older brother and soon found he could make a little money playing at the local chess club.
He had participated in relatively few tournaments before confronting the legendary Steinitz in 1894. (Chess has been called a game for the young, and this match proved the point once again.) Ten wins, five losses, and four draws for Lasker. Steinitz demanded a rematch and was rewarded two years later with 10 wins, two losses and five draws again, for Lasker.
Emanuel Lasker maintained his title for 27 years but only defended it six times. As an unapologetic professional chess player, he demanded relatively large amounts of money (by comparison to other chess players of his day) and required that games be played under his dictated circumstances. It wasn't that he was afraid to play, but by his own admission, "I don't want to die like Steinitz or live on charity like a beggar." He took his chess seriously and had no desire to fritter away his champion status.
In 1921 José Raúl Capablanca, the Cuban master, challenged Lasker. After 14 games the score was four wins, no losses and 10 draws for Capablanca. The 53-year-old champion no longer had the stamina to compete with his much younger opponent and resigned the match and his title. Capablanca, who had no love for Lasker, nonetheless recognized the superb skill of the former world champion. Sixteen years later he said Lasker was too old for a match, but for a single game he was still the most dangerous player in the world.
As Capablanca noted, Lasker remained a force to be reckoned with long after losing his title. At a tournament held in Moscow in 1935, Lasker placed sixth overall and only one-and-a-half points behind Capablanca and Botvinnik, who were tied for first. Considering that he was 67, this was quite an accomplishment -- one that is even more impressive when you consider that the competition included some of the greatest chess players on the planet.
Emanuel Lasker spent his last years living in New York, where he made his primary income as a professional bridge player and giving an occasional lesson or demonstration in chess. He died in January 1941.
José Raúl Capablanca (1888-1942)
As a 4-year-old, Capablanca learned the moves of chess from watching his father play the game. When José was only 12 years old he was matched against Juan Corzo, Cuba's national champion. The outcome was four wins, three losses, and six draws for Capablanca.
His game improved from there. Capablanca was a true genius of chess. Compared to all other players of his day, his games were fluid and smooth, almost effortless, and they were masterful. During his career he played more than 700 games and lost only 35. His play built upon the classical style begun by Steinitz, emphasizing precision and simplicity, but, as some would say, lacking adventure.
While José's genius for chess brought him adulation and fame, his aloof manner and supreme ego brought him few friends. His unnerving demeanor can be attributed to the fact that he truly was in a class by himself. Reuben Fine said, "His speed of play was incredible. What others could not discover in a month he saw in a glance." Capablanca is often listed as one of the top three natural chess players of all time, along with Paul Morphy and Bobby Fischer.
Capablanca lost his title to Alexander Alekhine in 1927 after an incredibly grueling match that lasted two-and-a-half months. The match resulted in six wins, three losses, and 25 draws for Alekhine. José continued playing tournaments, taking first place in one and sharing first place in another in 1936 (defeating the ex-champion Alekhine in the latter), but was never given the opportunity for a rematch while Alekhine was still the world champion.
In March 1942, José Raúl Capablanca was watching a chess game in Manhattan and suffered a stroke. He died the following morning.
Alexander Alekhine (1892-1946)
It would be easy to dismiss Alexander Alekhine (Al-YEKCH-in) as just one more chess-playing, social Neanderthal in a long line of cave dwellers had he not been such a magnificent player. It should be understood at the outset that Alekhine was a blatant racist, Nazi collaborator, and social degenerate. On a personal level very little good can be said of the man. As a chess player he was ferocious and single-minded.
Alekhine was known to be a man for whom winning at chess was second only to winning at everything else. He was constantly experimenting and analyzing the game, seeking new ways to defeat anyone who dared challenge him. Being first in whatever he attempted was his deepest motivation.
José Capablanca, as the world champion, was a marked man. Alekhine pursued his moves like a tiger pursues dinner, looking for whatever weaknesses could bring him down. It was only a matter of time before he would catch his prey.
In Buenos Aires in 1927 that time came. Alekhine and Capablanca faced off for the world championship match. It took the challenger 34 games over 73 days, but he finally prevailed. Alexander Alekhine was the new chess champion of the world. He retained his title until losing it to Max Euwe in 1935, regained it in a 1937 rematch, and held it until his death in March 1946. He was the only person to lose and regain the world champion title.
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