It’s a new year, and for a chess columnist that means a whole bunch of anniversaries and milestones to celebrate in 2023.
We’re not likely to match the hoopla surrounding 2022’s 50th anniversary of the epic Spassky-Fischer world championship duel in Reykjavik, Iceland, but there are some chronologically significant dates that we can use as an excuse to meet a column deadline for the coming 12 months. (See, for example, if we can get through the entire year without noting the centenary of the great Yugoslav grandmaster and writer Svetozar Gligoric, born Feb. 2, 1923.)
Today we celebrate two of the great players of the early modern era and one of the most significant chess tournaments of the 19th century, played 150 years ago this year.
The 1873 First Vienna International Chess Festival was organized, as was the practice at the time, in conjunction with a world’s fair in the western capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The event proved a triumph for the Prague-born, London-based Wilhelm Steinitz, who built on his narrow match win over German star Adolf Anderssen seven years earlier to cement his status as the first “official” world champion, a title he would hold for another 21 years.
Steinitz and English star Joseph Henry Blackburne tied for first in the 12-player round-robin event, with Blackburne dealing Steinitz his only loss in the unique three-game mini-matches that constituted each round. (Anderssen would finish third, losing to both Blackburne and Steinitz.)
But Steinitz proved his superiority in the playoff with his English rival for first prize, easily winning both games.
Chess historians have also painted Vienna 1873 as a coming-out party for Steinitz’s more modern approach to the game, a more analytical, theory-based approach to play compared to the swashbuckling “Romantic” attack-at-all-costs style favored by Anderssen and his peers.
Play through the games, though, and you get the sense this era could more accurately be described as the game’s awkward teenage years, moving toward a more rigorous style of play but very uncertain about how to get there. Brilliant ideas and what to a club player of 2023 would seem elementary positional blunders and tactical oversights occur side by side in game after game, including those of the two at the top of the leaderboard.
Take, for instance, the third of the three-game match played between the two — likely the best players in the world at the time — in Round 2. The rare Cozio Defense to the Ruy Lopez (3 … Nge7) has its partisans to this day, but the follow-up by both players strikes one as a little bizarre today: White gives up a bishop for no good reason on Move 7, Black rejects the obvious and stabilizing 8 … d6, and after 9. e5!? (both 9. c4 and 9. Bf4 look better) d5?! (Be7 was indicated) 10. exd6 cxd6, Blackburne declines to win the pawn on offer after 11. Qe4+ Kf7 12. Qxc6 Rb8 13. Nc3, perhaps because he’d rather attack than settle for a measly pawn.
Anyway, by 16. Qd3 g6 17. Qg3 Bf5 18. Bh6, Steinitz has managed to equalize with a very playable defense, only to throw it all away immediately: 18 … Qb6?! (Qd7 19. h3 Bd6 20. Qf3 Rxe2 21. Rxe2 Re8, and Black might even claim a small positional edge) 19. b3 Qa5? (Steinitz was renowned for his defensive prowess, but here he appears determined to take his queen as far away from his still-shaky king as possible) 20. Bd2 g5?? (Rac8 21. h3 Qc7 and Black is still OK), opening up some fatal holes on the kingside.
White, who had been floundering himself, suddenly locks on the target and wraps up the affair with panache: 21. Qf3! Bxc2 22. Bxg5 (already threatening 23. Rxe7+ Rxe7 24. Qxf6+) Be4 23. Nxe4 dxe4 24. Qxe4 Qxg5 (temporarily winning a pawn, but putting his own king in the meat grinder) 25. Qxh7+ Kf8 (Qg7 26. Rxe7+! Rxe7 27. Rxe7+ Kxe7 28. Qxg7+ Ke6 29. h4 and wins) 26. Rxe7 Rxe7 (Qg8 27. Qh6+) 27. Qxe7+ Kg8 28. Re3!, neatly blocking any back-rank mate tricks while giving the Black queen no way to escape the coming pin; Steinitz resigned.
In the first playoff game, the Ruy Lopez Morphy Defense (3 … a6) looks a lot more modern, with both players employing tried and true strategies in the fight for central pressure. But even here, Blackburne rejects what seem now blatantly obvious moves (15. Ne3, instead of 15. Qc2?!, eyeing some great squares for the knight, and 17. Bxe7 instead of the game’s 17. Bg3?!, which saves the bishop only by putting it on an inferior square.
White resorts to tricks as Black’s positional advantage grows, but this time Steinitz is up to the challenge: 20. Nd5 (interesting was 20. Nxe5!? Nxa4 21. Qxa4 Nxe5 22. Qxe8 Rfxe8 23. Bxe5 Rab8 24. Rd2 Rb7, and Black’s two bishops and better-placed pieces look to be worth the pawn) Bd6 21. Nh4 Rb8 (logical and strong, but the computer also likes 21 … Nb4!? 22. Nxb4 [Bxe8? Nxc2+ 23. Kd2 Na3 24. bxa3 Nxe4+ 25. Kc2 Raxe8, with an extra pawn and a better game] Qxa4 23. Qxa4 Nxa4 24. Nxa6 Rxa6 25. Rb1 Rb8 and a White queenside pawn must fall) 22. Nf6? (this shouldn’t work and it doesn’t; best for White was 22. b3 and hope to survive) Qe6!? — and here even modern players might not find the engines’ recommendation of 22 … gxf6 23. Qc1 Rxb2!! 24. Qxh6+ Kg8 25. Nf5 Ne6 26. Bh4 Bc5 27. Qh5 (Bf6 Bxf2 mate) Re2+ 30. Kf1 Rxf2+ 29. Ke1 Re2+ 30. Kf1 Rxe4+ and wins.
Still, Black’s doubled rooks on the b-file prove devastating and, as in the first game, Black efficiently administers the kill: 28. c4 Rb2 29. Nxd6 cxd6 (Rxc2, of course, was also plenty good after 30. Bxe5 Qg6 31. Nxf7+ Kh7 and White’s attack fizzles out) 30. Qc3 R8b3 31. Qxa5 (see diagram; despite his sometimes dour reputation, Steinitz had a fine eye for the combination when necessary) 31. Re3+ 32. Kf1 Rxf3+! 33. Kg1 (gxf3 Qxf3+ and mate next) Rxg3!, and Blackburne resigned as it’s over after 34. hxg3 Qf2+ 35. Kh2 Qxg2 mate.
(Click on the image above for a larger view of the chessboard.)
Blackburne-Steinitz, Round 2, Vienna, July 1873
1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 Nge7 4. d4 exd4 5. Nxd4 Nxd4 6. Qxd4 Nc6 7. Bxc6 bxc6 8. O-O f6 9. e5 d5 10. exd6 cxd6 11. Re1+ Be7 12. Bf4 Kf8 13. Nc3 d5 14. Re2 Kf7 15. Rae1 Re8 16. Qd3 g6 17. Qg3 Bf5 18. Bh6 Qb6 19. b3 Qa5 20. Bd2 g5 21. Qf3 Bxc2 22. Bxg5 Be4 23. Nxe4 dxe4 24. Qxe4 Qxg5 25. Qxh7+ Kf8 26. Rxe7 Rxe7 27. Qxe7+ Kg8 28. Re3 Black resigns.
Blackburne-Steinitz, First Playoff Game, Vienna, August 1873
1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 a6 4. Ba4 Nf6 5. Qe2 b5 6. Bb3 Bb7 7. d3 Bc5 8. c3 O-O 9. Bg5 h6 10. Bh4 Be7 11. Nbd2 Kh8 12. Nf1 a5 13. a4 bxa4 14. Bxa4 d5 15. Qc2 dxe4 16. dxe4 Nd7 17. Bg3 Nc5 18. Rd1 Qe8 19. Ne3 Ba6 20. Nd5 Bd6 21. Nh4 Rb8 22. Nf6 Qe6 23. Bxc6 Qxf6 24. f3 Rb6 25. Bd5 Rfb8 26. b3 Nxb3 27. Nf5 Nc5 28. c4 Rb2 29. Nxd6 cxd6 30. Qc3 R8b3 31. Qxa5 Re3+ 32. Kf1 Rxf3+ 33. Kg1 Rxg3 White resigns.
• David R. Sands can be reached at 202/636-3178 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.