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.