Modern Chess with Wilhelm Steinitz

Wilhelm SteinitzThis is kind of crummy day for birthdays. I’m not Tarzan but Maureen O’Sullivan was Jane, and she was born on this day in 1911. Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox was born in 1912. Songwriter Bob Merrill was born in 1921. Heaven’s Gate cult leader Marshall Applewhite was born in 1931. If he’s alive on that spaceship, he’s 82 today. And Dennis Hopper was born in 1936.

Film producer A. C. Lyles is 95 today. Computer scientist Alan Kay is 73. Blues legend Taj Mahal is 71. And comedian Bob Saget is 57. Here he is discussing the most disgusting joke of all time “The Aristocrats.” I recommend not watching it:

The day belongs to an unusual man: chess great Wilhelm Steinitz who was born on this day back in 1836. He pretty much single-handedly changed chess into what it is today. What I mean by that is that it used to be all about clever combinations. But after him, it became a game of position. That isn’t to say that clever combinations weren’t still important. But the focus of the game became controlling the board.

This is something that annoys me to this day about the way that I was taught to play chess. The idea that you can teach a child the moves and just expect them to figure out the rest is madness. It is like telling a child you are going to teach them how to play the piano and then only show them that this key is a C, this key is a C-sharp… No one would consider that a music education and yet that is the extent of most chess education. In fact, it’s even worse. There is a kind of social Darwinian aspect to it. Step one: teach the moves. Step two: see if anyone figures out the games. Step three: properly teach the game to the survivors.

It was only in graduate school that I learned to play chess. And I did it by studying master games. By trying to understand why they moved this way rather than that, I finally figured out the nature of the game. At that point I got so that I could beat people who previously had trounced me. All that was missing between my being a hopeless player and being all right, was an understanding of the game that I think I could teach a child is a short period of time. What’s key is that without this knowledge, you end up in games that are extremely frustrating. After a few moves you are in a position were even your best moves are bad.

Combine the lack of proper elementary chess instruction with the hyper-aggressive style that is encouraged and you end up with a game that very few people enjoy. Although I enjoy the game, I don’t much like the people I’ve played against. I’m not an aggressive person. My interest in chess is more academic. In a sense, reading those master games was perfect for me. It can be as thrilling to analyze a game as it is to listen to a symphony. Thus, I have no interest in destroying my opponent. My desire in playing is to have a good game. As a result, I commonly have opponents redo bad moves. I don’t ever recall anyone reciprocating. This seems to be because of this aggressive chess mentality that teaches that the purpose of chess is to crush the opponent. I recall one time allowing an opponent to take five moves back before eventually beating me. He was very full of himself after the game. And that’s fine with me because I think he’s pathetic.

Anyway, the point of all this is that understanding positional play and the overall theory of the game makes it fun to play. It also makes it beautiful and even artistic. And we largely have Wilhelm Steinitz to thank for that. Of course, this style of play would have come along eventually. But the fact is that he is the one who did it. Unfortunately, over the last 50 years, this has been taken to extreme to the point where serious players spend much of their time studying openings that can go up to 40 moves or more. This more than anything is the reason that computers are now the best “players” in the world. That’s why I think we need to move on to something like Chess960. But for the average player, chess is still a great and fun game, and that is largely thanks to Steinitz.

So happy birthday Wilhelm Steinitz!

0 thoughts on “Modern Chess with Wilhelm Steinitz

  1. I was a medium-level chess whiz as a teenager, which had its own social repercussions in a poor school district. Let’s just say the football players didn’t like chess nerds, and demonstrated that vividly — often with the "look away" compliance of teachers, sometimes with their encouragement. I suppose, though I didn’t understand this at the time, the "jocks" hated the "nerds" because kids with good grades had a better chance of escaping poverty. The same teachers who didn’t mind big kids abusing wimpy ones also didn’t bother trying to reach kids who struggled with academics. It was a rotten, rotten school.

    Like most nerds, getting beaten up (and worse) made me more determined to stay the course. I read books on gambits and such. I won a few qualifying matches for the age-appropriate state tournament, and I had to quit. The pure hatred players had for each other was making my shit black with blood. To this day, I can’t enjoy logical rule-based games. (The silly social ones where the point isn’t winning but making people laugh are fun, I can play those.)

    Oddly enough, 10 years later I was working in a hardware store in the same area (the broke-dick white trash Portland suburbs — those junior high football players resenting my opportunities for escape needn’t have worried), and one of my co-workers was an ex-con and ex-chess master. He’d been runner-up for the state championship in his age group. He’d quit for the same reasons I had. He’d turned away from nerddom and started running with the "bad kids." One night he shot a paintball gun from a joyriding car at a house. The paintball broke a window and hit an old lady, who fell down and hit her head badly enough to be fatal. So much for that young man’s life — JV halls and a "record."

    We didn’t talk much, but we’d smoke his weed on lunch breaks. Weed’s never agreed with me (to each their own) but I enjoyed being quiet with a fellow failure and getting stoned enough to tolerate the rest of the shift. Something about that worked.

    I’ve played chess once since junior high — a few years back, with the SO, who really wanted to try it and needed instructions on how the pieces moved. I lost in, like, fifteen moves . . .

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