Wilhelm Steinitz

The Fighting King

The chess principles that guided Steinitz in his games and writing have been completely absorbed by today's player. The World Champion's ideas about doubled pawns, the isolated d-pawn, and pawn islands ("groups," he called them) are now basic to our understanding of chess. Accumulating small advantages, maintaining balance in the game, and patient maneuvering for position have all been accepted and refined by succeeding generations. But the most fundamental tenet held by Steinitz concerns the role of the King itself in chess play, and here his teaching remains largely unassimilated by modern players.

In the Modern Chess Instructor, Steinitz writes that "... it is specially as regards the powers of the King that the modern school deviates from the teaching and practice of old theorists... and we consider it established that the King must be treated as a strong piece both for attack and defense." Far from being an abstract theory, Steinitz made his belief in a strong King one of the chief characteristics of his playing style. It can easily be seen in this volume how often Steinitz delays castling until after his opponent has done so, or forgoes castling altogether, or even leaves his King completely unmoved. This trait allows Steinitz to complete other piece maneuvers, in the opinion that "a few simple precautions" are needed for the King safety, only perhaps a single minor piece "within convenient reach."

Steinitz devised or adapted entire opening systems built around the strength of his self-reliant King. For example, in the Scotch Game after 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 exd4 4.Nxd4 Qh4 Black will win the e-pawn but have to play ...Kd8, and Steinitz used various lines of the King's Gambit in which White cannot castle but has compensation. However, the most dramatic test of the strong King theory is the famous "Steinitz Gambit," following the moves 1.e4 e5 2.Nc3 Nc6 3.f4 exf4 4.d4 Qh4+ 5.Ke2.

Steinitz, The Fighting King

First seen in Steinitz-Neumann, Dundee 1876 (game 109), this amazing position was upheld by Steinitz throughout his career. In the London 1883 Tournament Book he wrote "the main object of this Gambit is to make the King available for both wings in the ending. There is hardly any real danger for White in the present position, and he ought to obtain some advantage in consequence of his King being in the center, if he succeeds in exchanging Queens..." Steinitz held that direct attempts to exploit White's King position "...will be more dangerous for the opponent than for himself." In particular, any such attack would leave behind pawn weaknesses or uncoordinated pieces to be targeted in the endgame.

It is interesting that opening variations, so strange at first sight, have never been refuted - a testament to the basic corrections of Steinitz's idea, and just how strong is the King? Noting that previously the King was considered stronger than the Knight or Bishop in the endgame, Steinitz declared himself "...inclined to extend this valuation to all parts of the game...," and goes on to describe the King plus one nearby pawn as equal to an unsupported Rook. Yes, the King is a powerful piece, and Steinitz employed its fighting qualities just as efficiently and economically as those of his other forces. There is much to be learned from Steinitz's theory of the fighting King.