The first World Champion controlled the terms and conditions under which other players could challenge for the title. The second World Champion used this prerogative to evade his most dangerous rivals and control the title for 27 years.

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

After organizing and winning the first world championship in 1886, Wilhelm Steinitz, who changed his name to William after he became an American citizen, set the rules under which people could challenge for the title. He also picked his opponents. The control that Steinitz and his successors could exert over the title became the accepted norm.

Steinitz did not duck challengers. Indeed, he successfully defended the title three times in the next six years against the Russian champion Mikhail Ivanovich Chigorin, Isidor Gunsberg (a Hungarian master resident in England), and in a rematch with Chigorin. But the system for organizing the championship was ad hoc and largely depended on negotiating with the champion on his terms.

In 1887, the Augustea Chess Club of Leipzig asked Steinitz to name the terms on which he would be willing to defend the title in Germany against Louis Paulsen. Steinitz acknowledged Paulsen was a worthy challenger, but replied that because of the difficulties involved in running his International Chess Magazine from a distance, he would require expenses alone of $850, in case he lost, or $600 if he won or drew the match. Some discussion followed about whether Paulsen might travel to America but no formal challenge ever issued.

Instead, Steinitz’s first title defence took place in Havana, at the initiative of a dedicated group of fans who later financed other important matches. Early in 1888, the Cubans had invited Steinitz to propose a challenger. He named Chigorin, who was probably the most dangerous opponent he could have selected.

Their match, which began on the 20 January 1889, was best of twenty games with stakes of $1000 a side. Cuba put up much of the money. It was very closely-contested at first with both players remaining faithful to their favorite openings: the Evans Gambit for Chigorin while Steinitz opened 1 Nf3 whenever he had White. Almost every game was decisive. Chigorin struck first, but lost the next, and after eight games the score was 4-4. Then Steinitz won two games in succession. Following another series of alternate victories, Steinitz won the 15th and 16th games. He then only needed a draw, which he secured in the 17th game.

Both men then went to New York for the 6th American Chess Congress, which had a novel feature: the winner would earn the right to play a match “of at least seven games” against Steinitz.

The tournament ended in a tie between Chigorin and the Czech-born Max Weiss. Steinitz announced in the International Chess Magazine that a match could only have been played against one of them, and as neither of the two first prize-winners “was inclined for such a contest, the Committee decided that the contemplated Championship Match could not be arranged.”

In 1890, the Manhattan Chess Club proposed that Steinitz play a match against Gunsberg, who had finished third in New York. Gunsberg, who had drawn a match with Chigorin in Havana earlier in the year, also had wealthy backers in America and England.

The match between Steinitz and Gunsberg was played in New York between 9 December 1890 and 11 January 1891, again for the best of 20 games. The challenger performed better than expected but Steinitz eventually won 6-4 with 9 draws, the final game not being required.

Meanwhile Steinitz and Chigorin contested a much-publicized two-game telegraph match in which the opening variations were agreed in advance. Chigorin convincingly out-analysed the champion in both a Two Knights Defence and an Evans Gambit. As soon as that ended, in April 1891, both the St. Petersburg and Havana clubs proposed a new championship match be arranged, and Steinitz agreed to play again in Cuba.

The re-match began on 1 January 1892, and lasted two months. The stakes were $2,000 a side and this time it was for the first to win ten games, with an additional three games should the score reach 9-9 (draws not counting).

A succession of match and tournament victories in Britain and America during 1892/3 had made Lasker a credible challenger although Steinitz probably underestimated him.

Steinitz’s next challenger was Emanuel Lasker, a German polymath with many interests outside chess. He was awarded a doctorate in mathematics in 1900 and taught that subject at a Manchester college before emigrating to America in October 1902. A succession of match and tournament victories in Britain and America during 1892/3 had made Lasker a credible challenger although Steinitz probably underestimated him. The main condition was that Lasker had to raise $3000 before the match could start.

When they played, in the early summer of 1894, Lasker defeated the much older Steinitz 10-5 (with four draws) in a series divided between New York, Philadelphia, and Montreal. After six games they were level but then a run of five successive Lasker victories essentially settled the contest. A re-match in Russia between November 1896 and January 1897 was even more one-sided, with Lasker winning the first four games and scoring 10-2 with five draws. Steinitz’s only wins came after a ten-day interruption due to illness. He died on 12 August 1900.

Lasker wound up having the longest reign of any World Champion — almost 27 years, partly because World War I delayed his dethroning, but also because he took long breaks from chess and evaded his most dangerous challengers. In all, Lasker defended his title successfully five times and only one match was a close contest. In the decade up to the outbreak of war he played just three tournaments: Cambridge Springs 1904 (where he was joint second) and his victories at St. Petersburg in 1909 and 1914.

In 1906, Lasker agreed to defend the title against Hungarian master Géza Maróczy, in a match to be played later in the year in three countries. But negotiations fell through because of political problems in Cuba and disagreements with the Vienna Chess Club.

Instead, Lasker accepted a previous challenge from Frank J. Marshall, the American victor at Cambridge Springs, on condition that a fund of $1000 was raised.  Lasker’s second title defense (ten years after his first!) was played in seven United States cities between 26 January and 8 April 1907. Lasker won eight games and drew five; Marshall could not win a game.

The opponent Lasker should have met in the late 1890s or early 1900s was Dr. Siegbert Tarrasch, the winner of many strong tournaments. Partly because they were not on good terms and because the Nuremberg physician could not spare the time to cross the Atlantic, their match did not take place until August-September 1908 when they met in Düsseldorf and Munich. By then Tarrasch was well past his prime and Lasker scored 8 wins against 3 losses with 5 draws.

Franco-Polish master Dawid Janowsky had meanwhile played a non-title match with Lasker in October-November 1909 in Paris, which Lasker won 7-1 with two draws. In a re-match in Berlin, this time for the title, in November-December 1910, Lasker easily beat Janowsky, 8-0, with three draws.

The co-winner at St Petersburg 1909 was Akiva Rubinstein of Poland (1882-1961), who is considered by many to be one of the greatest players of all time. Rubinstein issued challenges to Lasker in 1912 and 1913, but he had difficulty raising financial backing. Soon after, the outbreak of World War I ruined his chances of securing a match .

Lasker was nearly defeated by a lesser challenger, Carl Schlechter of Vienna (1874-1918) in a match played in Vienna and then Berlin between 7 January and 10 February 1910. Originally scheduled to be 30 games, a shortage of funds forced a reduction in the length of the match to 10 games. The brevity of the contest is one reason why it is still debated whether this was a match for the title. Schlechter, a notoriously difficult man to beat, drew the first four games and won the fifth, after which four draws followed. Lasker had to win the tenth game to tie the match, which he managed to do in a complicated game where both players missed chances.

In 1911 the Havana Chess Club proposed a match between Lasker and the young Cuban star José Raúl Capablanca (born in 1888) who had won the San Sebastian tournament that year. Negotiations broke off in 1912 and when their match was finally played in 1921, Capablanca surged ahead before Lasker unexpectedly resigned, conceding the title. The world had a new champion.


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.