Eminent Victorian Chess Players

Tim Harding

Reviewer: John Watson
400 pages

Tim Harding has written many interesting books and columns over the years, on subjects ranging from opening theory to correspondence chess to chess history. I’ve reviewed several here. Next to his superb books on correspondence chess (the best out there that I’m aware of), I would place Eminent Victorian Chess Players at the top of his achievements as an author. The title might be lost on younger readers. It is a play upon Eminent Victorians, a 1918 book by Lytton Strachey which used to be compulsory reading for an educated person (and perhaps still is in Britain), which deals with four famous figures of Victorian England. Strachey’s work changed biographical writing forever, in part because he spoke ill of the dead, which in the modern English literary tradition had been considered bad form. Harding’s book isn’t critical in the same way, and is sympathetic in the main, but he doesn’t hesitate to point out the infighting and petty cruelties of the 19th-century chess world.

Here’s how Harding himself to describe the book (from his site ChessMail):

“Eminent Victorian Chess-Players consists of ten essays in historical biography about leading figures in British chess (amateur and professional) during the 19th century. All chapters have some games and pictorial illustrations.

“This large book begins with new revelations about Captain Evans, inventor of the Evans gambit, and ends with a chapter on the curious career of Isidor Gunsberg, the Hungarian-born British grandmaster who was Steinitz’s third opponent in world championship matches.

“Eminent Victorian Chess-Players also includes major reassessments of several other players including Howard Staunton, Henry Bird, and William Steinitz.

“Many chapters are full of human interest, delving into aspects of player’s careers that have rarely been discussed in chess books. This includes an investigation into the secret life of one of the “fighting reverends” of Victorian chess, the Rev. Arthur Skipworth. The other chapters in the book feature Blackburne, Burn, Löwenthal and Zukertort.

“Chapters include career summaries and personal notes on several other players tangential to the lives of the main ten, including Ernst Falkbeer, Daniel Harrwitz, Leopold Hoffer, the Rev. George Alcock MacDonnell, and Adolphus Zytogorski. Through these overlapping stories, a new picture of nineteenth century chess emerges.”

Beyond the assiduous research, an outstanding feature of this book consists of the original portraits and ‘major reassessments’ mentioned above. I particularly enjoyed, at the end of chapters, reading what contemporaries (including rivals) said about each player.

The book is simply packed with material so I won’t attempt to do it justice with a real description. I’ve always been interested in Steinitz, and Harding’s portrait of the first world champion is very original. It covers his years in London, 1862 to 1882. Early on, in 1866, he defeated Anderssen in a match 8-6 and claimed to be the champion. Harding questions that, but within a few years there was no doubt left, especially after he defeated Zukertort in a match. Here’s an excerpt from Harding’s concluding remarks:

“William Steinitz battled through life with the single-minded determination of a small man confident in his own superiority and determined to raise himself, from very humble origins, to the heights by his own largely unaided effort. Nobody can become a chess champion without a great intellect, big ego and a forceful personality, and in Steinitz these qualities, for good or bad, were even more apparent than they had been in Staunton. First let us consider Steinitz the chess master and then Steinitz the man, in so far as it is possible to separate them.

“He vanquished in turn a series of great rivals in matches: Anderssen, Blackburne (three times), Zukertort (twice), Chigorin (twice), and Gunsberg, before age caught up with him. His writings helped to educate a generation of amateur players and began to get masters think¬ing in a new way about how to achieve success at the board…

“Cecil Purdy, the first correspondence chess world champion, wrote an article in 1978 under the provocative title ‘The Great Steinitz Hoax’ in which he claimed that the ‘theory of Steinitz’ was really an invention by Lasker. Hooper answered this in a 1984 article which enumerated the basic principles that could be found in Steinitz’s own writings. As noted above, some of these principles can be found in embryo in Cluley’s Philosophy of Chess—especially the idea, which Hooper could not find expressed by Steinitz—that once an advantage is obtained, it must be explained by attack lest it dissipate…”

Harding goes on to quote Lasker, Fischer, Pritchett, and Kramnik about Steinitz’ play. Much of the chapter is devoted to Steinitz’ writings and relations (often bad) with his contemporaries. He was subject to much abuse, and fought back against his critics without a sense of diplomacy or compromise. This lead to the alienation of many in the chess community:

“Nowadays we tend to see Steinitz as the eccentric genius who transformed for all time the way chess is played, but to his London contemporaries in the mid-1870s that was not how he seemed. They saw an arrogant and argumentative individual who was in part annoying and in part a figure of fun. He had learned to write in good English and could express himself vehemently in conversation albeit with a strong Austrian accent.

“Needing at times to make money by casual play in the divans, he came in for the usual abuse from those who abhorred playing the game in public for a stake. Enemies like Duffy liked to portray the ‘shilling shark’ as an unscrupulous foreign villain preying on the naive visitor to a chess cafe. For the amateur up from the country for a short stay, it probably felt different. The chance to sit for half an hour at a table with the great Steinitz, to breathe the same cigar-laden air, maybe to absorb a lesson or two while losing a few games … This would make an after dinner story, and might help you win next time you played at your local club. This was worth the price of a few shillings.”

I had never read anything biographical about Lowenthal, who was Staunton’s favorite at first (a prote´ge´, as Harding describes it), and later his enemy. Because of Staunton’s influence, this caused him difficulties in surviving as a chessplayer (he did so primarily as a journalist). His lengthy 1853 match versus Harrwitz has some particularly well-annotated games. It finished 10-11-12 in Harrwitz’ favour. Lowenthal used the excuse that the new 20-minute-per-move rule caused his defeat! But he was always plagued by nerves. His match against Morphy (3-9) and mini-match versus Staunton (0-2) are the ones that stand out in terms of importance; and as always in this book, contemporary accounts are used to describe the circumstances and interesting sidelights.

The Contents:
Preface and Acknowledgments
Abbreviations and Annotation Symbols
1 William Davies Evans (1790-1872)
2 Howard Staunton (1810-1874)
3 John Jacob Löwenthal (1810?-1876)
4. Henry Edward Bird (1829-1908)
5 Arthur Bolland Skipworth (1830-1898)
6 William Steinitz (1836-1900)
7 Joseph Henry Blackburne (1841-1924)
8 Johannes Zukertort (1842-1888)
9 Amos Burn (1848-1925)
10 Isidor Arthur Gunsberg (1854-1930)
Appendix I. Career Records
Appendix II. Games by Captain Evans
Appendix III. Evans Family Financial Appeals
Appendix IV. Staunton’s contract with Routledge
Appendix V. Löwenthal’s Will
Appendix VI. The career of Mephisto
Chapter Notes
Select Bibliography
Index of Images
Index of Opponents
Index of Openings (by Name)
Index of Openings (by ECO Code)
General Index

The chapters on Evans and Gunsberg are incredibly well-researched and readable; I’m not a chess historian, but they strike me as the first time anyone has examined these players’ lives and careers in anywhere near this detail. The same doubtless applies to others (certainly to Skipworth, an amateur player but important organizer and editor); this impression is heightened by the fact that in his extensive bibliography, only a few books appear to be devoted to specific players in the way that a biography would be (as opposed to a games collection). Two exceptions are Steinitz and Burn, who have comprehensive biographies as described in my columns.

Surely this is one of the best and most accessible pieces of chess history ever written.