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 History of the World Championship

By GM Yuri Averbakh, Yuri Zelenkov
On the Occasion of the Kasparov - Kramnik Match
Part 2: Steinitz

W. Steinitz
The second half of the Nineteenth Century was characterized by the intensification of chess life in Western Europe. In 1851, in connection with an international exhibition, the first international tournament in chess history took place in London. Sixteen chess players from four countries participated in it. The tournament’s champion, A.Andersen, was considered the strongest European chess player.
In 1858 America’s strongest chess player, the winner of the first American Chess Congress, Paul Morphy, came to Europe. After a series of victories over the English top masters, he played Andersen in Paris.

This contest between the two continents’ strongest players can be considered the first, though informal, world championship match. The rivals decided to play till one of them won seven victories, draws not counting. And there was no time control. The match took nine days and finished after the eleventh game, the score being +7-2=2 in favor of the American player. The shortest (ninth) game lasted only half an hour. The longest (sixth) one –- lasted eight hours, though there were only 42 moves made in it. Morphy’s second was Saint-Amand.

Returning to the USA, Morphy soon gave up chess, and the second London international tournament, which took place in 1862, brought Andersen another victory. At the same time an array of other strong chess players emerged in Europe, and the question concerning chess leadership appeared on the agenda again. In the early 1860s, Wilhelm Steinitz, who was born in Prague, migrated to England and became hugely successful.

In 1866 the managers of the English clubs organized his match with Andersen. The match continued till one of the opponents won eight victories. W.Steinitz came out on top, scoring 8:6, but the public was not yet prepared to recognize the winner as the world’s best chess player. Twenty years passed before the official world championship match was organized. In the 1870s – 1880s the German player Johann Zukertort distinguished himself as one of Europe’s strongest masters. He soon migrated to England too.

It was not until J.Zukertort’s impressive victory at a large international tournament in London (1883), where the world’s strongest chess players participated, that W.Steinitz (who ranked second at that competition, being three points behind Zukertort) challenged Zukertort to a match and suggested that the winner of the match be called the world champion.

The first official world championship match between W.Steinitz and J.Zukertort was organized by a special committee which worked out the match’s program and regulations. It came about in 1886, 28 years after the A.Andersen – P.Morphy match. It was this first world championship match that proved the importance of organizational arrangements, and above all, regulations. It took two and a half years to organize the match. We can assume, though, that not all of this time was spent solely in organizing the match, and that there were other reasons for the organizational period’s being so prolonged. We can assume that most probably P.Morphy still retained his competitive spirit, and the chess community’s recognition of the match’s winner as champion was needed badly while the chess genius was still alive.

The following world championship matches proved that their organization took months and sometimes more than a year, and that there should be a special organizing group to hold them. At first, world championship matches were held by various organizations. As mentioned above, the first Steinitz – Zukertort match was held by a special committee, but the following matches were organized by chess clubs and at merchants’ expense. So the matches’ organizers were as follows:

The first and second Steinitz – Chigorin matches ---- The Havana Chess Club

The Steinitz – Gunberg match ---- The Manhattan Chess Club

The Lasker – Steinitz match ---- The USA chess clubs

The Lasker – Steinitz rematch ---- The Moscow Chess Circle under the supervision of merchants, including M.Bostanjoglo

The tournament’s organizers first of all had to face a financial problem. More to the point, chess was not so popular back in those times as it is today. The public was more attracted by other sports, where people could bet on games and competitions. Surely holding world championship matches boosted chess’ popularity, and simultaneously opened new opportunities of obtaining additional financial resources for organizing and holding matches. So they were very often held in a succession of cities: New York, Saint Louis, and New Orleans. The overall length of the match was gradually increased -– a forced necessity at that time.

In the late Nineteenth Century a total of six matches were held in eleven years. Their length (in days) was as follows:

Steinitz – Zukertort ---- 76 (including migrations and days off)
Steinitz – Chigorin ---- 34
Steinitz – I.Gunberg ---- 43
Steinitz – Chigorin ---- 57
Lasker – Steinitz ---- 71
Lasker – Steinitz (rematch) ---- 67 (owing to Steinitz’s illness)

In order to become world champion, a chess player had to beat the sitting champion. How were the candidates for playing in such matches selected? In those times there were no formal regulations, and as a rule the champion himself chose an opponent from among those who, in his opinion, most deserved to participate in such a match. Otherwise he was granted this right by the competition organizers who provided the prize money. Thus, the Havana Chess Club suggested that Steinitz should designate his future adversary himself, and the world champion chose Russia’s strongest chess player M.Chigorin, who scored +3-1 playing him in tournament games. Lasker’s way was different. After his success in a series of tournaments he challenged Tarrash, but was refused: The latter believed that Lasker should first win a more serious tournament. So Lasker set off for the USA, hoping to play the world champion there. He achieved success again in two years, and at last he beat America’s champion, Showalter (+6-2=1). Thus he obtained the right to play Steinitz in a match.
As we have already mentioned, world championship matches continued till one of the opponents won a certain number of victories or a certain number of games were played. These two tendencies go hand in hand throughout chess history. At first the preference was given to the former, the number of victories not exceeding ten. Draws did not count. But from the very first matches an attempt was made to impose certain limits on the overall length of the competition. In the second Steinitz – Chigorin match a rule was introduced to the effect that when opponents scored 9:9, they had to play three more games to make the victory more persuasive. Beginning from the sixth draw, each of the rivals scored half a point.
It is interesting to note that however the first matches were conducted, their outcome was basically determined by the twentieth game, and the winner’s advantage ranged from +2 to +8. And though the matches, played till a certain number of victories were won, were more prolonged, they were at the same time more hard-edged. The maximum number of draws in these games made up 30%, whereas it came to nearly 50% in the matches with a limited number of games.

When the first world championship matches were held, the time control did not experience considerable changes, and as a rule set aside 1 hour for 15 moves, there being many variations. For example, in the Steinitz – Zukertort match 2 hours were allotted for 30 moves, followed by 1 hour for 15 moves; and in the first Steinitz – Chigorin match the control was exercised every hour, and the participant also had to make 15 moves. As early as in the first match, a mechanical clock with two faces was used for controlling time.

The Nineteenth Century’s last match was the Lasker – Steinitz rematch. It was conducted in Moscow in late 1896 – early 1897. The next world championship match took place only 10 years later, but you will learn about that in our following issue.

See related articles:

  • On the Occasion of the Kasparov - Kramnik Match (8/17/2000)
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