Game Spotlight: Steinitz’s Rules

There is a tendency, as players get better as Chess, to follow history.  This is especially true when it comes to early Chess history.  So we get good at tactics first, and play like the Romantics in the early 1800s.  Then we focus on development, and model ourselves after Paul Morphy.  After that, we start figuring out how to defend and play positional Chess, and we encounter the first real theoretician, World Champion Wilhelm Steinitz.

The issue is that Steinitz’s reputation is that at some point around when he first became World Champion, he started playing boring, defensive Chess.  This is not borne out if you actually look at his games.  His most famous game, a tactical masterpiece against von Bardeleben, was played in 1895, well after he lost the World Championship to Emmanuel Lasker.  Even during his rein as World Champion, Steinitz regularly played such highly aggressive openings as the Evans Gambit and King’s Gambit.  So let’s look at what Steinitz’s Rules really are.

Steinitz believed that Chess was a draw.  If one player gets weaknesses in their position, that gives the opportunity to shift the game to a win.  It is therefore essential for the player without the weaknesses to attack where the opponent is weakest before there’s the chance to fix them.  On the other hand, the player on the defensive must defend by fixing these weaknesses, starting with the weakest.  What remains is what qualifies as a weakness.

As it happens, Steinitz had a fairly modern understanding of weaknesses.  Many of the ones he identified involve pawns — backward pawns, doubled pawns, isolated pawns, pawn minorities, etc.  He also knew that the Bishop pair was an advantage, as were secure outposts.

Let’s look at how he used these ideas in a game:


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