Los Angeles Times - - SUNDAY COMICS - cc­sknight@bell­ Bill Corn­wall

As­sum­ing that we learn from ex­pe­ri­ence, it would seem log­i­cal to con­clude that modern ways of do­ing things are bet­ter than those of the past. With re­gard to chess, that would mean that play­ers of to­day would gen­er­ally out­class their pre­de­ces­sors. While we can­not di­rectly pit them against each other, we can ex­am­ine their pre­served games and state­ments for some ver­i­fi­ca­tion. Choos­ing a prom­i­nent ex­am­ple, what would we con­clude about the play­ing strength of Wil­helm Steinitz, the first of­fi­cial World Chess Cham­pion?

Yes, we know that he was a gi­ant among his con­tem­po­raries in the 19th Cen­tury. A quick overview re­veals that clearly. He started in 1862 by de­feat­ing Adolf An­der­ssen, con­sid­ered the world’s best ac­tive player, in a 14-game match. Start­ing then, he won ev­ery se­ri­ous match he played in for over 30 years. Some were slaugh­ters. The dom­i­nat­ing English mas­ter Henry Black­burne, nick­named “The Black Death, was de­feated in ev­ery game when he faced Steinitz in a seven-game en­counter.

The first of­fi­cial World Cham­pi­onship match was played in 1886. Steinitz downed his clos­est com­peti­tor Jo­hannes Zuk­er­tort, win­ning twice as many games to be­come the cham­pion. When he fi­nally lost his ti­tle, it was to Im­manuel Lasker, the man who re­mained cham­pion for a record 27 years. De­spite all Steinitz’s achieve­ments, it is still worth­while to ask how he would com­pare with to­day’s best.

Re­gard­ing Steinitz’s po­si­tional un­der­stand­ing, his own words re­veal how he might fit in amongst to­day’s mas­ters: “...the mere weak­ness of any square on any part of the board will cause great in­con­ve­nience and trou­ble and very of­ten will be fatal.” “The task of the po­si­tional player is sys­tem­at­i­cally to ac­cu­mu­late slight ad­van­tages and try to con­vert tem­po­rary ad­van­tages into per­ma­nent ones, oth­er­wise the player with the bet­ter po­si­tion runs the risk of los­ing it.”

To­day’s fea­tured game, the first in his World Cham­pi­onship match, shows Steinitz achiev­ing a su­pe­rior game with Black. Then, he makes a sac­ri­fi­cial break­through to com­pletely ruin his foe’s po­si­tion and put him away.

So what is to be con­cluded about Steinitz? Given a short while to learn the lat­est open­ing nu­ances, he would be a good bet to de­feat many of to­day’s top pros.

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