by Bill Wall

Wilhelm (later changed to William) Steinitz (vil'helm shti'nits) was born to Jewish parents in a Prague ghetto, Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) in 1836. His exact birth date is unknown. The best research comes from Dr. Hermann Neustadtl who establishes his birth date on May 14, 1836. The traditional date is set at May 17,1836. Steinitz was born lame and grew to barely 5 feet in height. He was the 9th child of a Talmadic scholar and tailor (some sources say his father was a hardware retailer). Four more children were born after Wilhelm Steinitz, but they all died in early childhood. William (Wilhelm) Steinitz said he was the 13th child. After the death of Wilhelm’s mother, his father re-married and had another child at the age of 61.

Steinitz may have learned chess in 1848, at the age of 12, from a school mate or his father, but did not take it seriously until he moved to Vienna.   He did play chess once a week at a café where chess players convened.

In 1849, at the age of 13, Wilhelm Steinitz was acknowledged the best Talmudist among the young men of Prague.  However, he became more interested in mathematics and wanted to complete his studies in Vienna.

Steinitz moved to Vienna in 1856 and attended the Vienna Polytechnicum as a mathematics student but dropped out of school after the first year because of insufficient funds and poor health (he had problems with his lungs and eyes).   He may have been dismissed due to lack of progress and failure to take exams.  For a time, he joined the staff as a journalist of one of the leading Vienna papers, but the state of his eyesight compelled him to give that up.

In 1858, Steinitz started hustling chess at the Cafe Romer and played most of his opponents blindfolded.  He also established his reputation at the Vienna Chess Club.

He took 3rd place in the 1859 Vienna championship, won by the Swiss player Carl Hamppe (1814-1873), a senior government official in Vienna.

In 1860, Steinitz took 2nd place in the Vienna championship (again, won by Hamppe).

In 1861, and won the Vienna championship with the score of 33 out of 34. His first place prize was a suitcase. He was the acknowledged champion of Austria.

In 1862 Steinitz, age 26, was invited to play in the second international tournament (the first was London 1851) in London. He traveled to London and played in his first international tournament (held from June 16 to August 2, 1862). He was the Austrian delegate to the tournament and was sponsored by the Vienna Chess Society. He took 6th place (out of 14) behind Adolf Anderssen, Louis Paulsen, John Owen, George MacDonnell, and Serafino Dubois. His score was 8 wins, 5 losses (draws did not count). His prize money for 6th place was 5 pounds sterling. He was awarded the brilliancy prize of the tournament from his win over Augustus Mongredien, a Center Counter game. He sacrificed his rook and later forced mate.  His games earned him the name of “Austrian Morphy.”

After this tournament he challenged the 5th place finisher, Serafino Dubois, to a match. Steinitz won (5 wins, 1 draw, 3 losses). After the tournament, Steinitz decided to stay in London.

He won the London championship in September, 1862 with a perfect 7-0 score. He was given the nickname of 'the modern Calabrese' by the English master George Walker. This was in reference to Greco of Calabria.

In 1862, chess was Steinitz’s main source of income and he was the resident chess pro at the London Chess Club.

In 1862, Steinitz played a match with Adolf Anderssen (1818-1879).  Steinitz lost the match with one win and two losses.  After this match, Steinitz would not lose another match until 1894, when he lost to Emanuel Lasker in the 1894 World Chess Championship match.  From 1863 to 1894, 31 years, Steinitz played 29 matches, winning 27,  losing one, and drawing one (to Szymon Winawer in 1882), for the best record of match play by any world chess champion.

Steinitz became a chess professional after this tournament. He defeated London's best player, Henry Blackburne (1841-1924), in a match in 1862-3 with 7 wins, 2 draws, and 1 loss.

In March, 1863, Steinitz apologized in a letter (dated March 20, 1863) to Ignac Kolisch (1837-1889) for not repaying a loan.  While Steinitz was playing a match with Blackburne, Daniel Harrwitz took over as the resident chess pro at the London Chess Club, leaving Steinitz with fewer clients to draw money from.

He traveled throughout the British Isles giving simultaneous exhibitions and winning tournaments. In 1863 he defeated Frederick Deacon and Valentine Green, two top English masters.

He won the Irish championship in Dublin in November, 1865.

In June-July, 1866 Steinitz won the London Knockout tournament with 8 wins, 3 draws, and no losses. He won the British Chess Association Congress held in London with 12 wins.

On July 18, 1866 Steinitz took on Adolf Anderssen, age 48, in London, considered the strongest active chess player in the world. Play was to the first to win 8 games, draws not counting. He defeated him on August 10, 1866 with 8 wins and 6 losses. There were no draws. After 12 games, the score was 6-6. Steinitz won the last two games to win the match. This was the first match that ever used mechanical clocks (sandglasses). The time control was 20 moves in 2 hours. Steinitz's prize money for this match was 100 pounds sterling. Anderssen received 20 pounds sterling.

Steinitz then played a match in London with one of England's top players, Henry Bird (1830-1908) in September, 1866. Steinitz defeated Bird with 7 wins, 5 draws, and 5 losses.

In the 1866, Steinitz married  Caroline Golder (born in 1846).  They had a daughter, Flora, born at St. Lukes, Middlesex, in 1867.

In 1867 Steinitz traveled to Paris where he took 3rd place (Ignac Kolisch took first, followed by Winawer). In this event Steinitz got in an argument with Blackburne. Steinitz finally spat on Blackburne and Blackburne punched out Steinitz.

In September, 1867 Steinitz took second place in the Dundee International in England (won by Neumann). This was the first tournament in which draws were not replayed, but counted as a half a point.

In 1868 Steinitz traveled to Germany where he took 2nd place in the 7th German championship (Anderssen was first). He then returned to London where he won the 1868 London Handicap.

In 1869 Steinitz defeated Joseph Blackburne in a match and won 6 pounds.

In 1869, Steinitz tutored chess at Cambridge and one of his students was Winston Churchill's father, Lord Randolph Churchill (1849-1895).  Steinitz helped organize the Cambridge-Oxford chess matches which began in 1873 and still continues today.

In 1870 he took 2nd place at Baden-Baden, won by Anderssen. Steinitz scored 9 wins, 3 draws, and 4 losses and missed tying for first by 1/2 point. He played Anderssen twice, losing both games.

At the Second British Chess Association Championship, held in London in July, 1872 he took first place with 7 wins and 1 draw. Blackburne took 2nd place, followed by Zukertort.

In August, 1872 Steinitz played a match against Dr. Johannes Zukertort (1842-1888) in London. Steinitz won decisively with 7 wins, 4 draws, and 1 loss. This was the first time that time pieces were used in a match.

In 1872, Steinitz participated in the first telegraph match between London (St. George’s Chess Club) and the Vienna (Vienna Chess Club, headed by Kolisch).  It was completed in 1874, with London, headed by Steinitz, winning the match.

In Vienna, 1873 Steinitz played in an international tournament, winning 18 games, drawing 5 games, and losing one. Almost everyone now conceded that Steinitz was the strongest chess player in the world. His first place prize money of 200 ducats was presented to him by the Austrian Emperor. 2nd place went to Blackburne, followed by Anderssen.

Between 1873 and 1882, Steinitz played no chess tournaments and only one match.  In 1876 Steinitz defeated Blackburne in a match held in London with a perfect 7-0 score.

From November, 1873,  to August, 1882, Steinitz was a regular chess columnist for the English magazine, the Field.

In February, 1876 Steinitz played Joseph Blackburne in London and made a clean score of 7 wins, no losses or draws. This was the first time spectators were charged and entrance fee (half a guinea) to see a chess match. After this match, Steinitz did not play any serious chess for 6 years. He did give simultaneous and blindfold exhibitions during this period.

In 1876 Steinitz began a chess column in the London Figaro, which lasted until 1882. The magazine was owned by Napoleon III.

From 1880 to the end of 1881, Steinitz was invited to Randolph Churchill’s mansion to play chess and give him chess lessons.  He met Lady Churchill (Jennie) and discussed politics with Lord Randolph.  Winston Churchill was 6 years old at the time.

In July, 1880, Steinitz visited Wiesbaden, Germany to report on an international tournament, held July 4-11.  The tournament saw a three-way tie between Blackburne, Berthold Englisch, and Adolf Schwarz.

In Vienna, 1882 Steinitz tied for first place (with Szymon Winawer) with 20 wins, 8 draws, and 6 losses (24 out of 34 points). This was an 18-player double round robin.   This tournament was described as the strongest chess tournament of all time at that point. 

Until his first loss in this tournament, Steinitz did not lose a game from August 4, 1873 to May 11, 1882, almost 9 years without a loss and 25 straight wins.  He won his last 14 games at Vienna in 1873, then beat Blackburne 2-0 in the play-off.  Then he beat Blackburne in a match 7-0 in 1876, then won his first two games at Vienna in 1882.

Steinitz and Winawer then had a 2-game play-off match, which they drew by winning one game each.

In late 1882, the publisher of The Field closed down Steinitz's chess column. After London, 1883, the publisher brought back the chess column, but under the authorship of Hoffer and Zukertort.

From November, 1882 to May, 1883, Steinitz visited the United States, mainly the Philadelphia area (Franklin Chess Club) at the invitation of David Thompson.

In January, 1883, Steinitz met Paul Morphy (1837-1884) in New Orleans.  Steinitz interviewed Morphy for about 20 minutes.  His experience with Morphy was published in the New York Tribune on March 22, 1883.

In London, 1883 Steinitz took 2nd place, behind Johannes Zukertort, with 19 wins and 7 losses. This was the first time double chess clocks were used in a tournament. After the tournament a reception was held at the St George Chess Club. Someone made a toast to the best chess player in the world. Both Steinitz and Zukertort stood up. Neither one yielded to the other.

In October, 1883 Steinitz immigrated to the United States, changed his first name from Wilhelm to William, and eventually took American citizenship.   Steinitz first resided in Brooklyn.

In 1884 Steinitz was giving blindfold, simultaneous exhibitions. He would even play cards between moves while doing his exhibitions.

In January, 1885 Steinitz began editing the International Chess Magazine, which he continued to do so until December, 1891. He also wrote chess articles in the New York Tribune and the New York Herald.

Back in England, Zukertort was claiming he was the world's best chess player because of his victory in the London 1883 tournament. Steinitz challenged him to a match and they both agreed that the first person to win ten games would be declared world champion, but that if each won nine games, the title would not be awarded.   The contract for the match said it would be “for the Championship of the World.”

On January 11, 1886 the first game for the official world chess championship began in New York. Steinitz wanted the U.S. flag to be placed next to him during the match, even though he still was an Austrian citizen (he became an American citizen almost three years later).  Less than 40 people were present at the start of this historical match, despite Steinitz's daughter, Flora, selling programs and photographs to earn a few extra dollars for the family. Steinitz couldn't even afford a winter coat for her daughter. The New York site was at the Cartier's Rooms on Fifth Avenue. The time control was 30 moves in 2 hours, with a 2 hour dinner break, then 15 moves an hour.

Steinitz and Zukertort agreed to play the match in New York, St. Louis, and New Orleans. The first 5 games in New York were disastrous for Steinitz. Although he won the first game, he lost the next 4 games in a row and was trailing the match with 1 win and 4 losses. The match was the first time a chess demonstration board was used. The demonstration board was run by master George Mackenzie.

During this period, Steinitz wrote in the New York Tribune “I would rather die in America than live in England.”

The match was moved to St. Louis in February, where Steinitz won 3 games and drew 1 game.

Finally, they went on to New Orleans.  The match was held at the New Orleans Chess, Checkers and Whist Club, at the corner of Baronne and Canal streets.  Steinitz won 6 games, drew 4 games, and lost only 1 game. He had won the first world chess championship, a title he had invented, with a score of 10 wins, 5 draws, and 5 losses. Steinitz was 49 years old (Zukertort was 43) and had been considered the unofficial world champion for the past 20 years. The stakes were $4,000.  Steinitz received $1,000 in prize money and $3,000 was paid to those who bet on the winner.  Steinitz returned home to New York and Zukertort left for San Francisco.

In 1888, Steinitz’s daughter, Flora, died in Brooklyn at the age of 21.

On November 23, 1888, William Steinitz became a naturalized U.S. citizen. He had resided 5 years in New York.

Also in 1888, the Havana Chess Club invited Steinitz to choose a worthy opponent and to play the next match for the world championship in Havana. Steinitz named Mikhail Chigorin (1850-1908) as his next opponent. The play would be to the best of 20 games.

On January 20, 1889, Steinitz started his world championship title defense against Mikhail Ivanovich Chigorin of Russia. Their match was held in Havana, Cuba. Steinitz won with 10 wins, 1 draw (the last game), and 6 losses. The match ended February 24, 1889.  Steinitz received the smallest prize fund ever for a world championship match, $1,150.

In May, 1889 Steinitz wrote The Modern Chess Instructor, Part I and published in New York and London by G.P. Putman & Sons. He then organized the 6th American Chess Congress in New York. He spent the rest of the year writing a book on this tournament, annotating every one of the 432 games. The book was published in 1891.

In 1889, Steinitz moved to Upper Montclair, New Jersey.

In 1889, Steinitz helped organize the Sixth American Chess Congress, held in New York.  He did not play in the event, but edited the book on the tournament.

In 1890 Steinitz played a cable match with Chigorin in Havana from New York, but lost that match.  They both were experimenting with variations in the Evans Gambit and the Two Knights Defense.

In December, 1890 Steinitz defended his title against Isidor Gunsberg (1854-1930) of England (born in Hungary). Their match was held at the Manhattan Chess Club in New York. Steinitz won with 6 wins, 9 draws, and 4 losses. Steinitz received 2/3 of the total prize money ($3,000), and Gunsberg received 1/3. This was the first time a loser of a match took a share of the purse.

In March 1891, he wrote The Book of the Sixth American Chess Congress, which was held at New York in 1889.

In 1891 Steinitz again played Chigorin in Havana by cable and lost. Shortly afterward, the New York police arrested Steinitz as a Russian spy for using chess code over a cable. This was cleared up later on.

In 1891 the St Petersburg Chess Society and the Havana Chess Club made offers to organize another Steinitz-Chigorin match for the world championship. Steinitz chose Havana to play the match.

On January 1, 1892 Steinitz, age 55, defended his title against Chigorin again and, again, played in Havana. Steinitz won with 10 wins, 5 draws, and 8 losses. The event was held at the Centro Asturiano Club. Chigorin blamed his loss on the heat. Chigorin lost the last game (game 23) by what was called the blunder of the century, allowing mate with the rooks on the 7th rank.  The match ended on February 28, 1892.

On May 27, 1892, Steinitz’s first wife, Caroline Golder (1846-1892), died in New York of hepatitis. Steinitz himself was crippled with gout.   She was buried in Montclair, New Jersey.

In July, 1892, William Steinitz’s only brother died.

In November, 1892, an accidental shooting occurred in Steinitz’s house in Upper Montclair, New Jersey.  His previous American secretary, Williams, accidently shot his new German secretary, Treital,  in the house.  Treital lost on arm.

In March, 1894 William Steinitz, aged 57, took on Emanuel Lasker (1868-1941) of Germany, aged 25, in New York. Steinitz finally lost his title after winning 5 games, drawing 4 games, and losing 10 games. The match started in New York, went to Philadelphia, and ended in Montreal. On May 26, 1894 Emanual Lasker became the second official world chess champion. Steinitz held the official title for 8 years and the unofficial title for 28 years. Steinitz was the oldest world champion at 58 years, 10 days. Steinitz did offer an excuse as to why he lost the match. He said it was due to insomnia.  The stakes were for $2,000 a side, or $4,000 combined (about $500,000 in today’s money).

In October, 1894 Steinitz was back playing tournaments and won the New York championship, winning 8, drawing 1, and losing 1 game.

In 1894, Steinitz married his second wife and had two children by her.

In May, 1895 he participated in the Hastings International where he took 5th place (11 wins, 4 draws, 6 losses).  He won the first brilliancy prize for his win against Curt von Bardeleban.

In 1895, Steinitz published volume II of his Modern Chess Instructor.

In December, 1895 he participated in a quadrangular match-tournament in Saint Petersburg and took 2nd place, behind Lasker. He won 7 games, drew 5 games, and lost 6 games.

In 1895 Steinitz wrote The Modern Chess Instructor, Part II.

In 1896 Steinitz defeated Emanuel Schiffers of Russia in a match, held in Rostov, winning 6 games, drawing 1, losing 4.

In July, 1896 he took 6th place at Nuremberg (won by Lasker) with 10 wins, 2 draws, and 6 losses.

In November, 1896 Steinitz played a return match with Lasker in Moscow. Steinitz won only 2 games, drawing 5 games, and losing 10 games. This was the last world chess championship for the next 11 years.

Shortly after the match, Steinitz had a mental breakdown and was confined to a Moscow Sanatorium (Korsakov Clinic) for 40 days against his will. He played chess with the inmates.

In February, 1897, the New York Times prematurely reported Steinitz’s death in a New York mental asylum.

In August, 1897 Steinitz tied for first place in the New York State Championship. He then went on to Vienna where he played 22 games simultaneously blindfolded, winning 17 games. He was 61 years old. Soon after, he developed heart trouble (mitral stenosis) and had periods of irrationality and delusions.   Some sources say that Steinitz contracted syphilis.

In May, 1898 Steinitz came in 4th place in Vienna (won by Tarrasch) where most of the world's best players were competing.

In August, 1898 he took 5th at the 11th German Chess Federation Congress in Cologne, winning 8, drawing 3, and losing 4 games.

His last tournament was London in June, 1899. He took 11th place and it was the first time he had not won any prize money since 1859. For 40 years he had been in the top places of every tournament he had ever played. Steinitz was now 63 and in very poor health.

Upon returning to the U.S., Steinitz was making claims that he could move chess pieces at will by emitting electric currents, that he could phone anyone in the world without wire, and that he was trying to contact God, offering a pawn and move in a match. In 1900 his wife committed him to the insane asylum at Ward's Island, New York.

During his stay at the hospital, Steinitz’s second family used their last savings to buy a candy store in Manhattan.

On August 12, 1900 William Steinitz, former world champion for 28 years, died of a heart attack in the Manhattan State Hospital at Ward's Island, New York.

In September he was buried in a pauper's grave.  The German Press Club made the final funeral arrangements.  His grave stone is written in German.

Steinitz is buried at the Bethal Slope in the Cemetery of the Evergreens in Brooklyn, New York (grave number 5893).

His lifetime Elo rating has been calculated at 2650.

William Steinitz won 43, drew 29, and lost 43 world championship games, for a total of 57.5 points in 115 games. He was the official world champion for 8 years, despite winning every match of the best players in the world for 28 years. He played in 6 official world championship matches and died penniless. He played over 400 match and tournament games in his lifetime and won over 64 percent of his games.



1859 Vienna Championship – 3rd

1860 Vienna Championship – 2nd

1861 Vienna Championship – 1st

1862 London International – 6th

1862 London Championship – 1st

1865 Dublin – 1st-2nd

1866 London Handicap – 1st

1867 Dundee Handicap – 1st-2nd

1867 Dundee – 1st

1867 Paris – 2nd-3rd

1870 Baden-Baden – 2nd

1872 London – 1st

1873 Vienna – 1st-2nd

1882 Vienna – 1st-2nd

1883 London – 2nd

1894 New York Championship – 1st

1895 Hastings – 5th

1896 Saint Petersburg – 2nd

1896 Nuremberg – 6th

1897 New York – 1st-2nd

1898 Vienna – 4th

1898 Cologne – 5th

1899 London – 10th-11th


Major Matches:


Steinitz–Lange, Vienna 1860 – won (+3=0-0)

Steinitz-Anderssen, London 1862 – lost (+1=0-2)

Steinitz-Blackburne, London 1862-63 – won (+7=2-1)

Steinitz-Anderssen, London 1866 – won (+8=0-6)

Steinitz-Bird, London 1866 – won (+7=5-5)

Steinitz-Blackburne, London 1870 – won (+5=1-0)

Steinitz-Zukertort, London 1872 – won (+7=4-1)

Steinitz-Blackburne, London 1876 – won (+7=0-0)

Steinitz-Mackenzie, New York 1883 – won (+3=2-1)

Steinitz-Zukertort, New York, St Louis, New Orleans 1886 – won (+10=5-5)

Steinitz-Chigorin, Havana 1889 – won (+10=1-6)

Steinitz-Gunsberg, New York 1890-91 – won (+6=9-4)

Steinitz-Chigorin, Havana 1892 – won (+10=5-8)

Steinitz-Lasker, NY, Philadelphia, Montreal 1894 – lost (+5=4-10)

Steinitz-Schiffers, Rostov-on-Don 1896 – won (+6=1-4)

Steinitz-Lasker, Moscow 1896-97 – lost (+2=5-10)