Anthony Guest – Steinitz and Other Chess-Players

The Contemporary Review, v78, (Nov 1900)
A. Strahan, 1900
p 727-737

The same article, with a nice background section on Guest, has been published by batgirl: ( link)

A. Guest, the article’s author, was the chess editor for the Morning Post, and is mentioned in as being a very strong amateur player in MacDonnell’s “Knights and Kings”. This article is perhaps most noteworthy for the details as concerns Lord Russell’s comments on the Steinitz–Andersen (1866) match, which Russell sponsored as Steinitz’ patron.


THINGS have not stood still with chess-players since Steinitz began his career in London nearly forty years ago. It was the tournament of 1862 that attracted him. to this country at a period of temporary eclipse, so far, at least, as English chess was concerned. Staunton’s empire was at an end, the lustre of his great achievements for the moment dimmed by the dazzling radiance of Morphy’s brief appearance. When challenged by Morphy, and not, as it was supposed, quite relishing the encounter, he is said to have exclaimed, “I wish this young man would attend to his chess and leave me to my “literary studies.” For Staunton, besides being a great chessplayer, was also an accomplished Elizabethan scholar, and was then engaged on his edition of Shakespeare. Thus the match between Morphy and Staunton never came off, much to the disappointment of the amateurs of the day, though there can be little doubt as to what would have been the result; for the Englishman was an elderly and somewhat laborious player, while the American was young and seemed to win his games by easy flashes of inspiration; and when youth meets age, the Fates usually side with the rising star, as was exemplified when Steinitz played Anderssen, and again when Lasker deprived Steinitz of his time-worn laurels.

Morphy’s astonishing but momentary display was also ended when Steinitz came to London. It may be looked upon as the climax of a great period, and though it had undoubtedly aroused fresh interest in chess, it was followed by a reaction, as has sometimes been the way with supreme manifestations of the arts. Blackburne had not “arrived,” and Zukertort had not been heard of, so that there was an admirable opening for a young player of genius. Steinitz, however, did not at once come to the front. The great tournament was won by the old champion, Anderssen, and the ambitious young Austrian only succeeded in taking the sixth prize. It is rather curious to observe, in comparing the tournaments held in London in 1862 and 1899, that out of the fourteen or fifteen competitors engaged in each, only two took part in both, namely, Steinitz and Blackburne. In 1862, Steinitz was a young man of twenty-six, and Blackburne a youth of twenty. It may be that in 1899 both these players made their last appearance in an international contest. Both looked old and worn; and, broken in health as they were, it was not without a feeling of melancholy regret that those who remembered their great encounters in the past watched them twice more sit opposite each other to play their two last games, which resulted in a victory for each. Blackburne, on the whole, acquitted himself well in the tournament, winning two games of Pillsbury and one of Lasker, and taking the sixth prize; finishing, in fact, next after the five players who are now acknowledged to be the best in the world, namely, Lasker, Pillsbury, Maroczy, Janowski, and Schlechter. But Steinitz, the older man by six years, the champion of over a quarter of a century’s standing, was for the first time in his experience left out of the prize list, and this, though there were nine prizes among fifteen competitors. He took his defeats like a man, with resignation and dignity, occasionally going over positions and explaining to sympathetic onlookers how, in his former days, he would have forestalled combinations, or grasped opportunities that had presented themselves and had been neglected.

But the Steinitz of 1862 was full of resolution and vitality. His position in the tournament of that year was by no means in accordance with his conception, never particularly modest, of his own capacity; and Dubois, who had been fifth, was promptly defeated by him in a match. This was followed by other similar contests, including an engagement with Blackburne, which ended in a signal victory for Steinitz by seven games to one.

Among the most enthusiastic amateurs of those days was the late Lord Russell of Killowen, then a rising young barrister, who, however, did not find the demands of clients so pressing as to prevent him from indulging freely in his favourite games of whist and chess at the old Westminster Club. It was owing to his exertions, in combination with those of a few friends, that the match between the young aspirant, Steinitz, and the veteran champion, Anderssen, was arranged. Lord Russell, however, told me only two or three months before his death, at the last chess function he attended—the annual dinner of the Metropolitan Chess Club—that all his sympathies had been with Anderssen, of whom he was the backer. He admired the old man’s dashing and dauntless style of play, and the cautious, subtle tactics of the younger expert did not appeal to his taste. Moreover, Steinitz had not the gift of making himself popular, even in his youth. His character was independent and aggressive, and he loved a fight, in which it must be said he always bore himself sturdily; for never was there a bolder or more determined opponent. Thus it was a great disappointment to Lord Russell, and to many other amateurs of the old school, that Steinitz defeated Anderssen, and by this victory gained the championship of the world, a distinction that he held against all comers for twenty-eight years. Lord Russell always held that Anderssen, who only lost by a margin of two games out of fourteen, was in reality the better player, and doubtless there were many others of the same opinion, for, even at the present time, no one would regard such a narrow victory as conclusive. In any case, it is certain that Steinitz’s powers at that time were far from having reached their maturity. He had not developed the theories that revolutionised the existing ideas on chess and established the “modern school.”

It was part of Steinitz’s nature, and no doubt one of the reasons of his success, that he would take nothing for granted. His mind was essentially analytical, and there was ample scope for its activity in the game of chess, the analysis of which had scarcely gone beyond its fringe at the time when he took it in hand. Several books had been published professing to give instruction in chess, but these were mainly occupied in explaining the comparatively limited knowledge that had been obtained from experience in the openings, and many of them were untrustworthy. Staunton had improved on the previous works, and had done much towards systematising the existing knowledge, codifying the openings, and correcting the errors of previous writers. But in his works the tone of personal prejudice and ipse dixit, the desire to establish his own, often valuable, opinions, was more pronounced than the love of purely scientific investigation. His teaching, on the whole, was rational and useful, but it did not touch the root of the matter. Experts of the midcentury, following the example of such potent and imaginative players as McDonnell and Labourdonnais were accustomed to rely on the force of attacks usually directed against the adverse king. They would endeavour to obtain a favourable position for a grand assault, and, given the opportunity, they would generally carry it out with intrepidity, and often with brilliance. It was a fascinating and exciting style of play that had many attractions for both combatants and spectators. Even at the present day, when analysis has done so much to discourage the Ruperts of chess, their methods are those that arouse the most general admiration. No doubt the uncertainty of such “sporting” tactics lends them an additional charm, and commends them to those who seek rather the excitement of play than the scientific exactitude that has now been brought to bear on the game. Certain it is that many attacks proved premature, and were repulsed with loss, often severe enough to make ultimate defeat unavoidable; for pieces that had been diverted from defensive functions to take part in an attack necessarily left a weakness in the main position, and if the enemy could find his way to the weak spot, the advanced forces could not be withdrawn in time to save the situation.

It occurred to Steinitz to search for strategy of a more trustworthy character. Pressure on the queen’s side was one method of averting a king’s side attack, for the men could not be advanced to the assault without creating a weakness that would eventually prove fatal; but Steinitz did not rely on this alone. His method was not only to maintain so much pressure on a given point as would prevent his adversary’s pieces from becoming dangerous elsewhere, but at the same time to work for some slight advantage in position, an advantage so apparently trifling that it had scarcely been adequately valued in the days of hot attacks, such as a doubled pawn, an open file, a majority of pawns on the queen’s side; and this once obtained, to patiently and scientifically build on it until it grew into a winning preponderance. It was a method demanding extraordinary perseverance and precision, but so effective that others had to adopt it, and thus Steinitz’s teaching entirely changed the manner of play, and his strategy held the field for many years, until, in fact, it was further improved upon by Lasker, and, perhaps, also by other young players who have lately come to the front.

I do not wish to go into technicalities in this article, but as some may be curious as to how Lasker has improved on Steinitz, I may briefly say that the present champion, besides finding new ways of treating the openings, has evolved certain principles of play, and he requires not only that a move should be a strong move, but that it should be in accordance with these principles. Further, Lasker is not always content with the slow building up of a winning position, but having established an advantage, however trifling, he is always on the alert for an opportunity to make it the basis of a decisive combination. Lasker, moreover, is not subject to the moods that often led to Steinitz’s defeat. The old champion would persist in playing variations that he advocated, even though he knew his opponents had discovered effective means-of meeting them. He never refused gambits or played close defences, and he was ever ready to meet his adversaries on their own ground, allowing them to select their own form of opening, and firmly believing in his ability to beat them, whatever they might do. These were peculiarities of which his rivals had many opportunities of taking advantage. In tournaments his idiosyncrasies frequently led to his defeat, for, meeting a different player every day, as is the custom in such competitions, he had no opportunity of making up lost ground; but in matches they were of little account, for Steinitz could afford to give away a game or two at the beginning of these encounters in order to obtain the measure of his opponent. Consequently, it was in match-play that his greatest successes were achieved.

It has sometimes been said that Steinitz was not an imaginative player; but, if it were necessary to prove the fallacy of this view, one need only point to his marvellous game with von Bardeleben, which won the first prize for brilliancy in the Hastings tournament of 1895. This was after Steinitz had lost his first match with Lasker; he was still a great player, and his undaunted spirit adhered to the belief that he could yet recover the championship. His self-confidence was to be still more forcibly shaken later on, but it may be doubted whether it ever deserted him completely. The game with von Bardeleben was one of his happiest efforts. In a peculiarly intricate position that had been brought about in Steinitz’s very best manner, von Bardeleben perceived that he had a lost game. Being in bad health, and having been disturbed by the applause that had on previous occasions greeted striking achievements of which he had been the victim, he took the unusual course, instead of resigning, of absenting himself from the room and leaving Steinitz’s victory to be marked by the clock. Steinitz employed the time in working out a magnificent mating combination in ten moves, which, much to their gratification, he demonstrated to the spectators and the committee, at the same time announcing his intention of entering the game for the brilliancy competition, in which it was easily successful.

It would be possible to cite many other proofs that Steinitz could be as brilliant as anyone when he liked. The truth is that he saw many tempting and surprising variations that others could not have resisted, but often rejected them in favour of the slower and more subtle strategy that enabled him to crush his opponents by mere weight of position, preferring, in fact, to rely on the methods that he had himself originated. His play at its best had the gathering force of a snowball rolled in snow, and placed his opponents helplessly at his mercy. He had a joking way of warning young players to “never combine”; perhaps some of them took this seriously. As to his own powers of combination there can be no two opinions, and there are many of his games on record to prove it equal to that of any of his contemporaries, and not inferior to that of the best of his successors. All the same, Steinitz was far from being a perfect player. There was a vein of eccentricity in his methods, and it was his custom to play against the board rather than against the player. This, of course, is not the whole art of the game, for the personal element must tell in chess, as in everything else.

I have, I hope, made it clear that through Steinitz’s influence chess has undergone a complete revolution in regard to strategical methods during the latter part of this century, but the revolution that has taken place among the players is no less striking and interesting. Notwithstanding that the game has grown gradually more scientific and difficult, it has slowly but surely become democratised. Formerly the “royal game,” as it is traditionally called, was patronised by kings, and was the pastime of prelates, nobles and scholars. We read of the young Venetian, Leonardo, travelling to Madrid to encounter the renowned Ruy Lopez in the presence of the King of Spain, and being loaded with honours and riches as a reward for his victory. Great chess-players were made much of in the sixteenth century; but I wonder what his Majesty would have said to a Pillsbury who could play his twenty games simultaneously blindfold! The game long flourished as an exclusively aristocratic amusement. It was practised by Napoleon, and served to while away many of his dreary hours at St. Helena. I believe I am correct in saying that no chess club existed before the present century. Several had grown up in London and the provinces at the time when Steinitz first came to England, and some of these were under aristocratic patronage. But, compared with the number that exist to-day, they were very few and far between, nor was their life of that sturdy, vigorous character that marks the many assemblages of young men, who now, from autumn to spring, and sometimes in summer too, enthusiastically play their tournaments, handicaps and matches entirely to their own satisfaction, and generally without the need of encouragement from patrons. Chess has passed from the hands of the aristocracy to those of the people. Chess clubs exist by hundreds; there must be at least a hundred in the metropolitan area alone; every big city has several, and a multitude of others flourish in small towns. They are affiliated with county associations, and these again are organised into separate divisions, while a project is on foot to combine the whole in a National Union. To those who remember the days when Steinitz made his first appearance in London, the change must be astounding.

My own recollections of chess go back about five-and-twenty years. In 1876 I saw Steinitz play one of the games of his match with Blackburne at the West End Chess Club—a match in which the late master gained a hollow victory. I was struck at the time by his leonine appearance and by his determined expression. I remember, also, being deeply absorbed in the game, in which, I think, Blackburne tried a gambit, making an attack on the king’s side, while Steinitz pressed him on the queen’s side. I recall the period of intense excitement while one wondered which attack would get home, and I have not forgotten the deadly force of the advance by which Steinitz eventually succeeded. To these two players, more than to any other individuals, is no doubt to be attributed the increasing popularity of chess. They were opposites in method and appearance. Blackburne, tall, calm and essentially English; Steinitz, short, tawny, full of suppressed excitement, and deadly earnest. Blackburne played in a manner that developed the grace and beauty of chess as they had never been exploited except by Morphy; he gave exhibitions of simultaneous play and of blindfold chess that captivated all beholders, and tempted them to emulate, generally with disappointing results, his elaborate combinations. Steinitz was inculcating his scientific strategy, and each master had his followers. But even twenty-five years ago a chess-player was “a rare bird on earth.”

The present extraordinary growth, of the popularity of the game must surely have some significance. Many of the players are young men engaged in offices, shops, and factories; that their numbers include several clergymen, doctors, lawyers and members of other professions is not so remarkable. What strikes me as important is that so many young clerks, and others of similar occupation, should find their chief recreation, at least in the winter months, in the game of chess. It is an aspect of the social problem that deserves consideration, suggesting, as it does, an increasing tendency towards the exercise of the mental faculties. Moreover, if it were not for the cosy and sociable atmosphere of their chess clubs, and “the charm of the game, many of these young men might be getting into mischief, or at least spending their time to less advantage. Nor can it be said that the influence of chess is harmful, for it is invariably unaccompanied by gambling, it undoubtedly has a stimulating effect on the mind, and the social advantages of the clubs where men of all grades meet on an equality are not to be overlooked. Not less remarkable is the growing popularity of chess among women. The Ladies’ Chess Club was only established four or five years ago, and it already takes rank among the most energetic and successful of the London clubs. It is not long ago that scientific chess was regarded as altogether beyond the capacity of women; but they have brilliantly proved the contrary; the members of the Ladies’ Chess Club are rapidly increasing in numbers, the club successfully engages in matches with others supported by the opposite sex, and there is no reason to doubt either the suitability of the game for women, or their ability to hold their own at it with men. One would like to ascertain why so large a portion of the community that until recently knew nothing of chess has fallen under the spell of its fascination. Chess has sometimes been condemned on account of this very quality; it has been said that it is so enticing as to tempt men from their duties and to absorb their intelligence.

A moment’s consideration will show the weakness of such an argument. The essential qualification of a game is its fascination; if it is not alluring it is nothing. To call a game fascinating, therefore, is to pay it the greatest possible compliment, but if it prove too engrossing the fault must lie with the player and not with the game. It is at least better that he should be attracted by chess than by cards or billiards. I do not wish to say anything against these games, but the truth remains that they do not offei the scope for enjoyment without the added temptation of gambling and drink that is afforded by chess. A game at chess is in itself sufficient to stimulate its votaries without the additional excitement depending on a stake; but few can play cards or billiards for nothing. No doubt the cheapness of chess attracts many who require recreation, but cannot afford expensive amusements, and if this were the only recommendation of the game it would be something. It may be also that in this competitive age the need of mental recreation grows stronger, and chess and draughts are the only games that can be ranked as a purely mental exercise.

But I believe that in most of us there is some kind of artistic instinct, some aesthetic tendency, that finds no outlet in the humdrum of everyday life. If this is true it will sufficiently account for the increasing popularity of chess, for it is an art as well as a game. Its intricacies and combinations arc capable of affording esthetic delight that may be compared with the emotions produced by poetry, pictures, or music—different, no doubt; but, to many, similarly sufficing. One need not be an expert to enjoy the pleasure of play; to the beginner it is like a voyage through an unknown country teeming with beautiful surprises. Every sitting reveals some new and captivating feature, suggests some tempting path, or affords some hint as to the best mode of pursuing the journey. Those from whose organisation the artistic temperament is not entirely absent, and who do not play solely with the object of scoring up victories, may well be excused for turning to the game with zest and leaving it with regret. It is, therefore, all to the good that young men whose opportunities of pursuing the arts are so limited should have such an easily-available means of artistic expression. If chess is an art, how can we blame Steinitz for being its slave? It is as though Shakespeare might be justifiably attacked on the ground of his absorption in play-writing, or Phidias for his subjection to the chisel. There would have been no progress in any art had there been no devotees, and Steinitz, I maintain, was an artist. Perhaps, from some points of view, he may even be regarded as a benefactor of the human race. In any case, chess was his profession, and a man cannot be blamed for giving as much attention as he pleases to his means of livelihood. But, as a matter of fact, the game was far from having absorbed the whole of Steinitz’s mind, for he often got out of practice through abstention, though he certainly regarded chess as of the first importance to his scheme of life.

Despite the advance of chess there seems to remain a good deal of misapprehension in regard to the game and its influence. I believe that there still exist those whose conception of a chess-player is a man of ascetic appearance, whose mind works in a groove, and who is continually puzzling out variations and combinations, oblivious of the affairs of the world. I have encountered (in both senses) a great number of chess-players, but have never met with one who answers this description. On the contrary, I have almost invariably- found them to be alert and versatile—men who have a wide grasp on affairs, who are capable of expressing interesting opinions on a great variety of subjects, and who are much less given to the common habit of loose thinking than others. They include many of athletic, literary and musical tastes, though, singularly enough, I have met among them but few artists—I should say painters, for of artists in other directions there are plenty. I can, in fact, only recall one graphic artist, Boden, who was a first-class chess-player; though Sir J. E. Millais was fond of a game, Horwitz had some artistic ability, and Sir Wyke-Bayliss plays enthusiastically in his infrequent leisure. Among literary men, however, there have been several good chess-players, the most notable, for he excelled in both capacities, being Buckle, the author of the “History of Civilisation”; but the names of Ruskin and R. D. Blackmore are also memorable.

I should like, before bringing these discursive remarks to a close, to say a word about Zukertort, for his influence on the chess of the time, though he has been dead twelve years, is scarcely less marked than that of Steinitz or Blackburne. He was the rival of both these masters, and he had his triumphs against them, for he vanquished Blackburne, and won the great tournament of 1883, in which all three were engaged; but was defeated by Steinitz in the memorable match of 1886. The analytical work accomplished by Zukertort was scarcely less than that of Steinitz, and in many respects it helped to elucidate the complicated problems of the game. The controversies that occurred between these two masters were like the contact of flint and steel, and elicited sparks that helped to illuminate the way for lesser chess-players. Zukertort, like Blackburne, aided in popularising the game by his wonderful blindfold displays, and though he never manifested the brilliance of the Englishman in this department, he had the distinction of playing the greatest number of games simultaneously, for he encountered a strong team of sixteen at the West End Chess Club, occupying two evenings in the performance of the feat; and this achievement held the record until the present year, when it was surpassed by Pillsbury. Zukertort was a thorough artist, who combined immense technical knowledge with a brilliant imagination, and probably no player ever displayed greater form than he did in the tournament of 1883. He was an exceptionally nervous man, of delicate constitution, and he was, moreover, perhaps a trifle vain. It is a thousand pities that he engaged in a contest with such a redoubtable match player as Steinitz was fourteen years ago. But for that Zukertort might have been alive to-day. His physique was not equal to the
strain, his nervous system suffered a terrible reaction after his defeat; he never recovered his health, and died two years later.

But the rewards of chess are small, and it offers few temptations to those who would adopt it as a means of earning a living. Zukertort was compelled to pursue his profession to the end, and there was similar compulsion, apart from his indomitable self-confidence, to induce Steinitz to accept the challenge of Lasker. I believe, however, that, whatever his circumstances, Steinitz would have played Lasker, for he had a fighting spirit that nothing could quell. There is little to recommend chess as a profession, and perhaps the present movement is, in some respects, the stronger because it is entirely supported by amateurs. The professionals grow fewer in number, and there is no accession to their ranks in this country; but it cannot be said that their achievements are not appreciated, and it must always be remembered that it is to their exertions that the improvement in the science of the game is chiefly due.

Among the young players of the present time Pillsbury, the American champion, and Schlechter, the Austrian champion, are prominent. Last year it seemed probable that the French player, – Janowski, might prove a formidable rival to Lasker for the championship. But Janowski, for the time, at least, has sunk into the background, partly, perhaps, through departing from the patient and scientific methods advocated by Steinitz, and relying too much on his great resourcefulness and ingenuity to get him out of tight places at critical moments, or to enable him to win by brilliant coups. Pillsbury is a fearless player, who has an admirable record of games with Lasker, and Schlechter is a young man whose gradual and steady improvement has brought him to the front, and gives great hope for his future. Steinitz, who was an excellent judge, had a very high opinion of his play. Maroczy, the young Hungarian, whose record is even better than that of Schlechter, seems to have but indifferent health, and altogether it is probable that if Lasker has to fight for the championship in the next few years it will either be with Pillsbury or Schlechter.

Meanwhile, the chess movement in this country is rapidly gaining force. It has produced an abundance of clever young players, and it remains to be seen whether it can bring to the front a champion who is capable of following in the footsteps of the great men whose memory I have recalled. There are many others to whom I might have referred. A tribute is owed to Bird, the veteran enthusiast, who has probably played more games than any other living man, and who is now, after some fifty years of almost incessant play, in a condition of health that, I fear, precludes the possibility of his ever again enjoying his favourite pastime with the same zeal and spirit as of old. I might have mentioned Burn, who has long been in the front rank of English players, and on whom, since Blackburne’s partial retirement, has devolved the task, which he has manfully and creditably undertaken, of holding up the standard of English chess in International contests. But, after all, Blackburne is the player who has done most to earn the goodwill of English amateurs. He won the Championship of England in 1868, and since then has not only maintained that position, but has delighted us with his play, and has brought honour to this country in a long list of competitions with the experts of the world at home and abroad. He played some beautiful games in the tournament of 1899, but this year the failure of his eyesight has obliged him to abandon tournament play, it is to be hoped but temporarily. If tho present popularity of chess can give rise to another Blackburne, it will, in my opinion, have justified itself; but I have given other reasons, of a different kind, and not, I hope, without their potency, why it deserves to be regarded with satisfaction.

Antony Guest.


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