Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Ultimate Chess Sacrifice

Isidor Gunsberg. Image credit:

This time, something from the distant past -- Steinitz's and Gunsberg's wit. (Source for this post is  Kasparov's My Great Predecessors, vol. 1, pp. 80-85 of the Hebrew Edition). Both, of course, were Jews.

In his first match with Chigorin (Havanah 1889), Steinitz noted that his young opponent of the old (romantic, sacrificial) school sacrificed pawns and pieces, but he, the old player of the new (positional) school, went further: he sacrificed entire games, to "illustrate what I understood to be sound positional principles."

In their short cable match (which Chigorin won 2-0), 1890/1, Steinitz, as Black, also "sacrificed" the first game, when he played 6. ... Qf6?! and then 7. ... Nh6!? in the Evans gambit, as he recommended in his book The Modern Chess Instructor:

Steinitz eventually lost that game.

Later, in his match with Gunsberg (see above picture), in the 12th game, Gunsberg as white played the Evans gambit for the first time. Before playing 6. ... Qf6?!, Steinitz asked Gunsberg, surprised: 'Do you think I am morally required to play against you just like I played against Chigorin?' Gunsberg replied, 'Not exactly required, but the public demands you defend your principles!'

Steinitz eventually lost that game, too.

I wonder if it's possible to "sacrifice" more than one game. In recent times, Topalov's public declaration (through his manager) before their world championship to neither offer nor accept draws from Anand during the games in their world might qualify (hat tip: A. Weiler). Topalov's "sacrifice" is not in the decision itself,  but in binding himself publicly to it in advance. He thus put himself at a disadvantage for the entire match. Indeed, he stuck to it: only one (the 10th) game was drawn by agreement, in a dead-draw position where it was pointless to play on.

Sacrificing the world championship by playing according to one's principles when safe draw would assure one the championship is surely the greatest possible chess sacrifice. If so, the last game of the Lasker-Schlechter match (possibly! -- see below) qualifies. Schlechter, after losing none of the previous games and leading 5-4, lost the last game by playing for a win at all costs (which, Tal notably remarked, is 'practically equivalent to playing for a loss'...). Perhaps this was because of a clause requiring a two-game lead to gain the title (though current evidence is that such a clause probably did not exist), but more likely because he did not want to win the match on the strength of his "fluke" victory in the 5th game.

(Edited: a commentator on this post added that it is unclear whether the Lasker-Schlechter match was for the world championship. Edward Winter, careful as always, notes that the terms of the match are an 'unsolved and probably insoluble mystery'. Hooper and Whyld's The Oxford Companion to Chess also notes (under 'Schlechter') that 'it is not known whether the title is in the balance'. Whatever the exact conditions, certainly the match itself, if not the world championship, was in stake.)


  1. די מפתיע שלא הזכרת את הצהרתו של טופלוב בדו קרב האחרון על אליפות העולם בסופיה. עם אנאנד. לדעתי זה משתלב יפה במה שרצית להגיד בפוסט זה.

    I am surprised you have not mentioned in a word the Anand Topalov match. Anyway, that's what came to my mind when I read this post.

  2. I believe the drawing is of Weiss playing Chigorin (facing us) at the Sixth American Chess Congress in New York, 1889. The portly spectator is Gunsberg and the man in the hat is Lipschütz.

    Whether the 1910 match between Lasker and Schlechter was for the World Championship is uncertain.

    Stephen Davies

  3. Thank you for your comments! I revised the post accordingly. Mr. Weiler -- can you post or email me what Topalov said?


    I hope this will do.
    Best wishes.