World Chess Championship 1886 – Steinitz v Zukertort

1886 World Chess Championship - Wilhelm I

Meet the Players

The year 1886 saw the first world chess championship take place between arguably two of the best players of their time. Fittingly, the event was held in New York, 80 years later to be remembered for a certain Bobby Fischer's triumphant rise to the top!

Wilhelm Steinitz would win the match and go on to be the first world chess champion. He is rightly cited as being one of the founding fathers of modern chess play.

Steinitz Zukertort

The Steinitz - Zukertort world championship was the first official world championship recognised!

Johannes Zukertort is largely ignored in chess literature aside from this game.

Of original Polish descent, outside of chess he seemed somewhat of a polymath and renaissance man with interests in music and language. He passed into the great congress in the sky in 1888, 2 years after his world championship attempt.

Let's showcase a Zukertort brilliancy:

[Event "Berlin"] [Site "Berlin GER"] [Date "1865.??.??"] [EventDate "?"] [Round "?"] [Result "1-0"] [White "Zukertort, Johannes"] [Black "Anderssen, Adolf"] [ECO "C60"] [WhiteElo "?"] [BlackElo "?"] [PlyCount "23"] 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 Nge7 {normally a solid but slower system with ...f5 ideas} 4. c3 d6 5. d4 Bd7 6. O-O Ng6? (6...g6 {also looks edgy due to} 7. Bg5 )(6...a6 {was an option, forcing a decision from white and allowing some room for black to gain space}) 7. Ng5 h6? (7...Be7 {definitely looks more logical to allow castling}) {leading to a fatal weakening of the light squares - g6 and f7 are particularly vulnerable!} 8. Nxf7! Kxf7 9. Bc4+ Ke7 10. Qh5 Qe8 11. Qg5+!! hxg5 12. Bxg5# 1-0
Whilst one expects this to be from an offhand, casual or blitz game the ruthless Victorian attacking instinct is well embedded into Zukertort's arsenal! Steinitz would get a cold shock if he gave his opponent too many chances!

The Result

Steinitz won the game 12.5 - 7.5 (10+ 5- 5=). After an abysmal start seeing Zukertort 4-1 to the good after 5 games, Steinitz dug in and managed to win many of the subsequent 15 games, as detailed below.

Games 1 to 5 - Zukertort sets the pace

Game 1

Early Slav Steps

Steinitz starts off with a win against the plucky Mr Zukertort in game 1. The game begins with white taking a strong stake in on the queenside with the a3-b4-c5 pawn chain. Sadly, this is at the expense of central control. Steinitz plays the e5 break which would have been even stronger with a Qe7 follow up (increasing his options and making his opponent have to play incredibly carefully).

Break or gain space?

Instead Steinitz opted for a space gaining e4 push. The game goes haywire after this with a speculative sacrifice on e3 - it's stronger than it looks but with good defensive play (e.g. 19. Qf1) black may have played his hand too early. As it was, Steinitz's attack rolled out and Zukertort spends the latter part of game 1 desperately trying to organise his defences. All to no avail...first blood Wilhelm.

Game 1 in all its glory!

[Event "wcc"] [Site "New York"] [Date "1886.??.??"] [Round "01"] [White "Zukertort, Johannes"] [Black "Steinitz, Wilhelm"] [Result "0-1"] 1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.e3 {white plays in a very sensible, non-aggressive way. As subsequent years have shown, the theory of the Slav is very sharp and in this early era game, 3. e3 is a very practical choice} Bf5 4.Nc3 e6 5.Nf3 Nd7 6.a3 Bd6 7.c5 Bc7 8.b4 e5 {because of this break, the a3-b4-c5 setup seems a lot of investment for not a lot of reward} 9.Be2 Ngf6 10.Bb2 e4 (10...Qe7 {applying additional central pressure with the option of both side castling was more dynamic}) 11.Nd2 h5 {having clarified the situation in the centre, Steinitz concentrates his attention the kingside} 12.h3 Nf8 13.a4 Ng6 14.b5 Nh4 15.g3 Ng2+? {though it works out in the game, this isn't objectively too good} 16.Kf1 Nxe3+ 17.fxe3 Bxg3 18.Kg2 Bc7 19.Qg1?! (19. Qf1 {and black must spend time defending the f5 bishop, whilst white can further untangle}) Rh6 20.Kf1 Rg6 21.Qf2 Qd7 22.bxc6 bxc6 23.Rg1 Bxh3+ 24.Ke1 Ng4 25.Bxg4 Bxg4 {all black's pieces enjoy strong outposts, whilst white tries to co-ordinate his defensive resources clumsily} 26.Ne2 Qe7 27.Nf4 Rh6 28.Bc3 g5 29.Ne2 Rf6 30.Qg2 Rf3! 31.Nf1 (31. Nxf3? exf3 {picks up two pieces and a strong pawn on e2 for the rook}) Rb8 32.Kd2 f5 33.a5 f4 34.Rh1 Qf7 35.Re1 fxe3+ 36.Nxe3 Rf2 37.Qxf2 Qxf2 38.Nxg4 Bf4+ 39.Kc2 hxg4 40.Bd2 e3 41.Bc1 Qg2 42.Kc3 Kd7 43.Rh7+ Ke6 44.Rh6+ Kf5 45.Bxe3 Bxe3 46.Rf1+ Bf4 {no counterplay left for white and black is comfortable material up with strong passed g pawns} 0-1

Game 2

Immediate Revenge

Zukertort plays masterfully to get a good central grip, undermining Steinitz's inferior handling of the scotch.

Break or gain space?

The resulting middlegame gives Zukertort a bishop for the knight and the later pressure along the a8-h1 diagonal forces concessions and a pawn advance. The game is notable for the kingside attacking motif - the bishops very unsubtle line of attack should have given Steinitz a clear picture of what was to come.

Game 2 annotated

[Event "wcc"] [Site "New York"] [Date "1886.??.??"] [Round "02"] [White "Steinitz, Wilhelm"] [Black "Zukertort, Johannes"] [Result "0-1"] 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 exd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 (5. Nxc6 {is more common now, otherwise Bb4 indeed puts white in a bind}) Bb4 6.Nxc6 bxc6 7.Bd3 d5! {astute and strong central play} 8.exd5 cxd5 9.O-O O-O 10.Bg5 c6 11.Ne2 Bd6 {black has a clear target in mind} 12.Ng3 h6 13.Bd2 Ng4 14.Be2 Qh4 15.Bxg4 Bxg4 16.Qc1 (16. f3 Bc5+ {and black will enjoy long-term pressure against white's broken king cover}) Be2 {unnecessary - Be6 or Bd7 both prevent Bg5} 17.Re1 Ba6 18.Bc3 f5! {this ups the ante} 19.Re6 Rad8 20.Qd2 d4! {a nice interference move} 21.Ba5 (21. Qxd4 Bxg3)(21. Bxd4 Bxg3 22. hxg3 Qxd4) Rd7 22.Rxd6 Rxd6 23.Bb4 Qf6 24.Rd1 Rd5 25.Bxf8 Qxf8 26.Nh5 Qe8 27.Nf4 Re5 28.h4 c5 29.h5 Re4 30.c3 Qb8 31.g3 Qe5 32.Ng6 Qd6 33.Nf4 d3 34.b3 c4 35.Rb1 Kh7 36.Kh2 Qb6 37.Kg1 Bb7 38.Rb2 Qc6 39.f3 Qc5+ 40.Qf2 Re1+ 41.Kh2 Qxf2+ 42.Rxf2 Bxf3 43.g4 Be2 44.Ng2 d2 45.Ne3 cxb3 46.axb3 Bxg4 0-1

Game 3

Zukertort wins again!

A frankly bizarre game. Steinitz is way ahead by move 24; his pieces are stronger and he has a lot more space. By move 31, Zukertort has a knight on h1 and has just lost a pawn. It should be all over.

The turnaround

Unfortunately it can only be said Steinitz takes his eye off the ball. With a dominating position, he allows Zukertort to counter by opening the h file and misses a nasty fork on f6. From here, the game shifts gear dramatically and Steinitz goes down in flames!

Game 3 annotated

[Event "wcc"] [Site "New York"] [Date "1886.??.??"] [Round "03"] [White "Zukertort, Johannes"] [Black "Steinitz, Wilhelm"] [Result "1-0"] 1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.e3 Bf5 4.a3 e6 5.c5 a5 6.Qb3 Qc7 7.Nc3 Nd7 8.Na4 Ngf6 9.Ne2 Be7 10.Ng3 Bg6 11.Bd2 O-O 12.Be2 Rfb8 13.O-O b6 14.cxb6 Nxb6 15.Nxb6 Rxb6 16.Qc3 Qb7 17.Ra2 Nd7 18.Bd1 c5 19.Ba4 c4! {white is so cramped - up to move 32 Steinitz makes this count well} 20.Qc1 Nf6 21.Bc3 Bd6 22.f3 Qb8 23.f4 Bd3 24.Re1 h5 25.h4 Qd8 26.Bd1 g6 27.Qd2 Rbb8 28.Qf2 Be7 29.Bf3 Ne4 30.Bxe4 dxe4 31.Nh1 Bxh4 {it really should be all over now - Steinitz just needs to slowly improve and white will fall in due course} 32.g3 Be7 33.Qd2 Qd5 34.Nf2 a4 (32...f5 {kills off any counterplay and black can slowly build pressure with Rh8, h4 ideas - the concern is that maybe it could lead to a clogged position. Either way, preventing the h file activity from white was key!})(34...h4 35. g4 g5!{is another plan - white is forced to clarify his pawn structure at the expense of opening lines. In the game, he had time to organise with 35. Kg2 and 36. Rh1 - with the line shown, it is black would benefit from the opening of the position.}) 35.Kg2 Rb3 36.Rh1 Kg7 37.Raa1 Bd8 38.g4 hxg4 39.Nxg4 Ba5 40.Rh7+ Kf8 (40...Kxh7 41. Nf6+ Kg7 42. Nxd5 exd5 {leaves white with a dominant queen and an edge}) 41.Rh8+ Kg7 42.Rh7+ Kf8 43.Qf2 Bd8 44.Ne5 Kg8 45.Rah1 Bf6 46.Rxf7 Rf8 47.Rxf6 1-0

Game 4

Zukertort wins yet again!

120 years before Kramnik ground down Kasparov with it, we see the Berlin defence in action in this first World Championship bout.

Simple but effective

Steinitz almost burns out of ideas too fast in this game. Zukertort doesn't play anything exceptional; he simply improves his position and calmly quells any white pressure. On move 37, Steinitz miscalculates a tactic, leaving himself a piece down for no compensation.

Game 4 annotated

[Event "wcc"] [Site "New York"] [Date "1886.??.??"] [Round "04"] [White "Steinitz, Wilhelm"] [Black "Zukertort, Johannes"] [Result "0-1"] 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6 4.O-O Nxe4 5.Re1 Nd6 6.Nxe5 Nxe5 (6...Nxb5?? 7. Nxc6 {is obviously not good}) 7.Rxe5+ Be7 8.Bf1 {both sides have pieces on less than ideal squares} O-O 9.d4 Bf6 10.Re1 Re8 11.c3 Rxe1 12.Qxe1 Nf5 13.Bf4 d6 14.Nd2 Be6 15.Bd3 Nh4 16.Ne4 Ng6 17.Bd2 d5 18.Nc5 Bc8 19.Qe3 b6 20.Nb3 Qd6 21.Qe8+ Nf8 22.Re1 Bb7 {Zukertort just develops out of trouble} 23.Qe3 Ne6 24.Qf3 Rd8 25.Qf5 Nf8 26.Bf4 Qc6 27.Nd2 Bc8 28.Qh5 g6 29.Qe2 Ne6 30.Bg3 Qb7 31.Nf3 c5 32.dxc5 bxc5 {a dynamic duo which can start to do some damage} 33.Ne5 c4 34.Bb1 Bg7 35.Rd1 Bd7 36.Qf3 Be8 37.Nxc4?? {this is just an outright blunder - perhaps Steinitz just missed the knight on e6 covering the d8 rook and covering the queen on b7} dxc4 38.Rxd8 (38. Qxb7? Rxd1) Nxd8 39.Qe2 Ne6 {white is simply a piece down. 3-1 to Mr Zukertort} 0-1

Game 5

Zukertort makes it 4-1!

What a dreadful start for Steinitz. We are 5 games in and he's 4-1 down. Thankfully, there is a happy ending to the match but what a rotten few yards from the start line!

Simple but effective

Steinitz almost burns out of ideas too fast in this game. Zukertort doesn't play anything exceptional; he simply improves his position and calmly quells any white pressure. On move 37, Steinitz miscalculates a tactic, leaving himself a piece down for no compensation.

Game 5 annotated

[Event "1886 World Chess Championship"] [Site "New York"] [Date "1886.??.??"] [Round "05"] [White "Zukertort, Johannes"] [Black "Steinitz, Wilhelm"] [Result "1-0"] 1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.e3 Bf5 5.cxd5 cxd5 6.Qb3 Bc8 {already an admission that somehow the opening strategy had gone awry} (6...Qd7 7. Nf3 {is also fairly unpleasant}) 7.Nf3 Nc6 8.Ne5! {making use of the extra tempi} e6 (8...Nxe5 9. dxe5 Ne4 10. Qb5 Bd7 11. Nxe4! {is very pleasing} {+-}) 9.Bb5 Qc7 10.Bd2 Bd6 11.f4 O-O 12.Rc1 {Zukertort just develops very logically and it's clear black has no easy plan to stop himself being tied up} Bxe5 13.fxe5 Ne8 14.O-O f6 15.Bd3 Rf7 (15...f5 16. g4! g6 17. Kh1 {and white's attack will flow easily on the open g file}) 16.Qc2 f5 17.Ne2 Bd7 18.Rf2 Rc8 19.Bc3 Qb6 20.Qd2 Ne7 21.Rcf1 Bb5 22.Bb1 Qa6 23.g4 g6 24.h3 Rc7 25.Re1 Ng7 26.Nf4 Nc8 27.gxf5 gxf5 28.Rg2 Kh8 29.Kh2 Qc6 30.Reg1 Ne7 31.Qf2 Qe8 32.Rxg7 {an eventual Nxe6 will net white material} 1-0

All the Games

Lots of sharp games and excellent play for the time. The elite chess players were leagues ahead of their contemporaries. Whilst their play was good, it is interesting to read how they had much more to learn, as demonstrated by Kasparov's analysis in My great Predecessors, volume 1:

Having said that, it is also a testament to their ability to find some really profound moves, years before the advent of the computer support.

Steinitz would hold on to his world title until the arrival of Lasker in 1894.

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