Steinitz’s Immortal Chess Game
By GM Lubomir Kavalek
Enough is enough and you throw in the towel. That’s the elegant way to give up in boxing. In chess, there are more ways of resigning a game before you get actually mated. The manner Curt von Bardeleben did it 115 years ago during the legendary tournament at the English seaside resort of Hastings, still generates controversy. Having been brilliantly outplayed by William Steinitz, the German count got up from his chair, left the tournament hall and disappeared in the streets. Consequently, he lost on time.
Von Bardeleben was playing the tournament of his life and in the first nine rounds went undefeated, scoring six wins and three draws. Could a single loss upset him so much? Was he disgusted because he was being thoroughly and beautifully crushed? Was it simply an emotional outburst ? Did he talk to Steinitz about his intentions? And was it before he left the hall or the next day? Can we look at it as a fine gesture of a German nobleman, trying to spare his colleges from being disturb by an applause usually awarded to magnificent victories? We know he spoke about it with the organizers. Can we believe the newspaper accounts or should we let imagination rule?
The speculations should not distract from the actual game. The winner, William Steinitz, became the first official world chess champion in 1886, defeating Johann Zukertort in a match played in the United States. But he was considered the world’s best chessplayer from 1866, when he defeated Adolf Anderssen, to 1894, when he lost to Emanuel Lasker.
Steinitz created his masterpiece against von Bardeleben on a very hot Saturday, August 17, 1895.
It was awarded the top brilliancy prize of the Hastings tournament and earned Steinitz five pounds sterling. The committee noted that "the whole of the play was extremely artistic and beautiful, as well as brilliant." Steinitz considered it the best game of his chess career.
During the last 115 years several commentators tried to decipher the game. It is a shining example of what happens to a king left in the middle of the board and it is being cited in many chess manuals. It adheres to one of Steinitz’s positional principles: the player with the advantage must attack. GM Igor Zaitsev analyzed it scrupulously as a model game for his Russian book Ataka v silnom punkte (Attacking the strong point). Steinitz leads his combination with a pawn sacrifice on a square that seems to be overprotected by Bardeleben’s forces. The seemingly impossible becomes possible. Steinitz proceeds with a rook sacrifice, leaving all his pieces under attack. As long as the rook is not taken, the German is fine. But the rook is able to dance along the seventh rank and Steinitz finds a way to force the capture. An amazing feast!
I believe that many brilliant games are created out of desperation and it may be the case with Steinitz’s game. Had he waited with the pawn sacrifice one more move, von Bardeleben would have blocked the isolated pawn, consolidated his forces and even looked for a win. Instead, Steinitz composed an immortal game.
Note that in the replay windows below you can click on the notation to follow the game.