For most of the history of chess, there was no official world champion. Wilhelm Steinitz changed that, but it was not easy.

This is the first in a series of planned articles leading up the World Championship next November.

During the World Chess Cup tournament in Baku, Azerbaijan, last month, Vladimir Kramnik, the Russian ex-World Champion, suggested that one of the main assets of chess that contributes to its popularity is the prestige and history of the World Chess Championship title. “I have a feeling that the World Champion of chess is actually the most valuable title in the whole of sport,” he said.

If the wide acclaim of the World Champion is easy to appreciate, that does not mean that it has ever been easy to organize the competitions for the title. That was never more true than with the first match for the championship in 1886 between Wilhelm Steinitz and Johannes Zukertort.

Prior to the match, the title World Champion had often been used in writing about chess, and various players had been hailed as the champion, but always on thin grounds. Steinitz himself later claimed to have been the titleholder since 1866, the year he won a match against Adolf Anderssen (the victor of the great London 1851 tournament). But since Anderssen was badly beaten by the American Paul Morphy in a match in 1858, few accepted Steinitz’s claim.

Morphy, who completely retired from chess by 1869, when he was only 32, died in 1884. His death cleared the way for a match that everyone could recognize between the two strongest players in the world. Steinitz had won the Vienna 1873 and 1882 tournaments, and Zukertort the London tournament of 1883, which was the most recent competition in which nearly all the world’s top players had participated. Those successes opened the way for a match between Steinitz and Zukertort that could be recognized as for the World Championship.

Steinitz was born in 1836 in Prague in a Jewish family. A short, stocky red-bearded man, with a broken nose and a limp, Steinitz had a tendency to become involved in bitter arguments but he was a great writer on the game and had a deeper understanding of positional play than any of his contemporaries until the 1890s.

After winning the championship of the Vienna chess club in 1861-1862, he moved to London, where he lived for the next 20 years. He took up residence in the United States after the London 1883 tournament.

Zukertort was born in Lublin, Poland, in 1842 and was the son of Jewish converts to evangelical Christianity. He had the good fortune to be brought up in Breslau, the home-town of Anderssen and became Anderssen’s pupil and later his colleague on a chess magazine.

Zukertort had studied to be a doctor but never completed his medical training. Instead, he moved to London in 1872, and subsequently played Steinitz in a match, losing badly. But his skills improved markedly over the next few years, leading to his victories in Paris (1878) and in London in 1883.

Steinitz challenged Zukertort to a match in June 1883 and again in 1884 but there was a great deal of animosity between the players and it was only after negotiations were placed in the hands of their seconds, Thomas Frère (in America) and James Innes Minchin of the St. George’s Chess Club in London, that progress was made.

The match began in Manhattan in New York City on the 11th of January 1886 in the Cartier’s Dancing Academy at No. 80 Fifth Avenue.

Zukertort had wanted to play in the St. George’s Club, where he was the resident professional, but Steinitz refused. Zukertort eventually agreed to play in America. The stakes were set at $2000, with a purse and expenses for the loser.

Zukertort wanted a fixed number of games, perhaps 25, but Steinitz pressed for the match to be decided by the first to win ten games, draws not counting. They finally agreed that if the score reached 9-9 it would be drawn with the champion title not awarded.

The match began in Manhattan in New York City on the 11th of January 1886 in the Cartier’s Dancing Academy at No. 80 Fifth Avenue.

Steinitz won the first game, but Zukertort struck back immediately, taking the next four games in succession, after which, according to the terms of the match, they moved on to St. Louis, where they arrived on January 30.

Steinitz found his form in St. Louis, winning three of the four games played, the other being drawn. The match was now level.

Play was suspended for two weeks (by prior agreement, so that Steinitz could edit his journal International Chess Magazine) and resumed on February 26 in New Orleans.

After a draw in Game 10, Steinitz won two games in succession. Zukertort rebounded with a fine win in Game 13 and came close to winning Game 14, but it ended in a draw. 

After a brief break for Mardi Gras, the match resumed. But Zukertort’s play was much weaker and Steinitz won the final three games required, conceding only two draws.

He won the 19th and final game on March 24 in only 19 moves, employing his Steinitz Gambit for the first time in the match. It was the shortest game in World Championship history until Viswanathan Anand beat Boris Gelfand in 17 moves in Game 8 of their title match in 2012.

Zukertort never fully recovered from this crushing defeat and died in 1888.

In International Chess Magazine, Steinitz had not given much emphasis to the title in case he lost but the May issue carried the headline, “The match for the championship of the world,” and nobody could or did deny him this accolade. He was thus recognized as the first truly official World Champion.

In the June 1886 issue of his magazine, Steinitz made it clear that he was not open to impertinent challenges and would set the terms for any defenses of the title. For the next 60 years, the world championship would be the personal property of the champion.

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Dr. Timothy Harding, who has a PhD in history from Trinity College Dublin, is a senior international master of correspondence chess who has written many books on the game. His most recent, “Joseph Henry Blackburne: A Chess Biography,” published by McFarland, has received favourable critical reviews. 

Dr. Harding is on on Twitter (@TimDHarding). He has a Web site and a list of his books can be found at GoodReads.