Steinitz, Lasker, Potter and ‘Modern Chess’

Edward Winter

(1988 and 1989, with updates)

An important article by C.J.S. Purdy entitled ‘The Great Steinitz Hoax’ appeared in the September/October/November 1978 issue of the Australian magazine Chess Player’s Quarterly (and was subsequently reprinted in issue two of Lasker & His Contemporaries). Purdy’s basic tenet was that Lasker, in his Manual of Chess exposition of ‘the Steinitz principles or the Steinitz theory’, gave his world championship predecessor undue credit, since in reality it was Lasker himself who was responsible for the new ideas. Purdy believed the explanation was that Lasker ‘harboured feelings of guilt’ about ‘Steinitz’s sad end’, adding that ‘I have always been infuriated by his [Lasker’s] self-abnegation and the almost unanimous acceptance of it by even great writers – pre-eminently Euwe and Réti – who have actually assumed, without verification, that among Steinitz’s admittedly voluminous writings are to be found the formularization of chess principles simply on Lasker’s say so’. It is impossible to summarize the complete Purdy article, which needs to be read in extenso.

The March/April/May 1980 Chess Player’s Quarterly (page 15) contained a letter from Albrecht Buschke which pointed out ‘one serious flaw which makes the entire article suspect’: Purdy had said that ‘Potter wrote a book of chess maxims which were eminently sane and hardly indicate that he was motivated in chess in any abnormal way ...’ (Potter was being discussed because of Lasker’s reference to him on page 200 of the Manual of Chess as having exercised great influence on Steinitz.) However, Buschke pointed out that no such book existed. By then Purdy was dead, so this literary mystery remained unresolved.

In the June/July/August 1980 issue of the same magazine Bob Meadley confirmed that the Potter book did not exist but queried whether one such matter of detail was sufficient to undermine Purdy’s article. He also made the interesting point that Lasker had implied that Potter had already influenced Steinitz by 1866, whereas other sources demonstrated that Potter did not become a prominent chess figure until several years later. Mr Meadley expressed the view that Purdy’s theory was convincing.

The magazine had a further contribution on the subject, from James Schroeder (on pages 23-25 of the January/February/March 1981 issue). Under the title ‘Purdy was Wrong’ J.S. provided an analysis of the playing styles of Steinitz and Lasker and claimed that Steinitz did expound his theory on some occasions (e.g. The Modern Chess Instructor). The Editor, Robert Jamieson, added a footnote to the effect that Schroeder’s interesting comments on Steinitz’s style did not persuade him that Purdy’s theory was wrong. R.J. concluded: ‘If Steinitz was in fact a great teacher who devised these revolutionary new principles of play, where then does he lay down these principles? Certainly not in two pages in the preface of The Modern Chess Instructor. Lasker may have drawn his principles from Steinitz’s play, but I agree with Cecil – Lasker was the teacher, not Steinitz.’ There was no further debate in the Chess Player’s Quarterly, which closed down after the next issue.

Mr Meadley reminds us that a number of articles in C.J.S. Purdy, His Life, His Games, and His Writings by J. Hammond and R. Jamieson (Melbourne, 1982) deal with Steinitz and Lasker (see those beginning on pages 49, 99, 149, 162, 192, 199, 204, 214, 221 and 239). These were published between 1930 and 1967, which shows the length of Purdy’s interest in the subject.

It is possible that C.N. readers will welcome the opportunity to give their views on this controversy, particularly now that Olms have reprinted The Modern Chess Instructor and the International Chess Magazine. See, for instance, page 10 of the January 1890 issue of Steinitz’s magazine, which replies to a BCM review of The Modern Chess Instructor. We quoted a little of this in C.N. 1075, but it is now useful to give Steinitz’s full item:

‘The December number of the British Chess Magazine contains the first part of a courteous and even complimentary review of The Modern Chess Instructor by “W.W.” (the Rev. W. Wayte). But at the outset the critic warms himself up to a protest against the “claim, put forward” by myself, “to be the sole inventor of ‘the principles’ and ‘the modern school’.” In proof of this alleged claim, the following passage is quoted from the preface of my book: “The openings have been hitherto analyzed by the authorities chiefly in an empirical manner.” “W.W.” then proceeds to demonstrate that “the principles”, to his thinking, “have been evolved gradually during a long series of years and are not the product of any single mind”. Now let me point out in the first place that in speaking of “authorities” I evidently referred only to writers of chess books and not to annotators and commentators in chess periodicals and columns, for otherwise I would have charged myself with analyzing in “an empirical manner”. In the above explained sense I shall adhere to my opinion, but I do not wish to evade in any way the main question which “W.W.” raises, and therefore I have to add some further remarks. “W.W.” admits “the fairness with which borrowed variations are referred to their sources”, and perhaps I need not therefore assure him further that I have taken the greatest pains, as far as I could possibly remember or ascertain, to credit new ideas to those to whom they belonged.

But having done that, I beg to claim to the best of my belief and knowledge as my own entirely what is not distinctly acknowledged as belonging to somebody else, including “the principles” and “the modern school”, on which subject their full due is given in my book to Heydebrand, Staunton, Winawer, Paulsen, etc., and some more will be said in my second volume about a still more important forerunner of modern play, Herr Hammppe [sic] of Vienna. But otherwise I reiterate that “the principles” and “the modern school”, as far as their development is demonstrated in my book, belong to me and nobody else. It has gone with the modern school like with other discoveries. It was ridiculed and pooh-poohed for a long time, and since it came to be recognized, investors try to make more profit out of it than the inventor. W.W. somewhat mixes up occasional new ideas in play with systematic analysis on principles. But of the masters whom he enumerates as having had such a prominent share in the development of modern ideas, I duly admit that Anderssen and Paulsen were my own masters for a considerable time. However, as regards Potter and Zukertort, whom he mentions in reference to this subject, I do not think that the former will deny that he was my pupil direct for some time and indirectly for nearly two years when we consulted together in the match between London and Vienna. And still more can I conscientiously claim Zukertort as my disciple and “imitator”, and I say this merely in the interest of true criticism and at the risk of being charged by “W.W.” with some “private grudge” such as he attributes to some former compiler of the German Handbuch. On that subject I could give some personal evidence, but it has already been admitted even in the Chess Monthly that a considerable number of the novel ideas that had been published in that journal without any special acknowledgement for years did not belong to Zukertort, as was led to assume. In addition I might ask “W.W.” to search his memory and his library, which are both better than my own, for any trace of modern principles in Zukertort’s play or analysis before he (Zukertort) arrived in England in 1872. In fact I think that the systematic analytical development of modern ideas dates from the match between London and Vienna, by myself and Potter, which appeared in The Field and the City of London Chess Magazine. Further steps in that direction were taken by myself-alone in my reviews of Wormald’s book in the City of London Chess Magazine and of Cook’s Synopsis in The Field. Those essays mark not alone the beginning of my own literary career but that of the analytical development of the “modern school” as well ...’

Note that most interesting reference to Hamppe. Who can say more about this unsung hero?


G.H. Diggle (Hove, England) provided some information on Hamppe in C.N. 1714. As regards the Lasker/Steinitz/Potter matter, in C.N. 1698 K. Whyld (Caistor, England) wrote: ‘Relevant to the debate is Hooper’s article in the September 1984 BCM, pages 370-374.’


William Norwood Potter (C.N. 5936). Courtesy of Jonathan Manley (Oxford, England)

From Louis Blair:

‘With regard to C.N.s 1635 and 1698: on page 203 of Lasker’s Manual of Chess, Lasker attributes to Steinitz the idea of using a hole in an opponent’s pawn structure. Steinitz does indeed talk about holes on page xxxix of The Modern Chess Instructor and there he claims that he himself introduced the term in the November 1886 issue of the International Chess Magazine. This one item is certainly not enough to settle the matter, but it strikes me as more significant than all the attack-when-you-have-an-advantage stuff. The notion of holes seems to me to be a true chess principle. The advice to attack only when you have an advantage could apply to almost any game, such as Shogi or even Go.’


The second paragraph of C.N. 1635 referred to the mystery over a ‘book’ of chess maxims by Potter. Brian Donnell (Portland, OR, USA) notes that page 15 of Chess Openings Ancient and Modern by Freeborough and Ranken refers to ‘Mr Potter’s Minor Principles, published in Bland’s Chess Player’s Annual, 1882.’ Page 16 quotes them, 20 in all. The first 14 concern the relative values of the pieces (the worth of the bishop pair is stressed), while the remainder highlight matters such as open files for rooks and KB5 being a strong square for a knight when the opponent has castled on the king’s side.


We note that the 20 principles were also reproduced by Rev. E.E. Cunnington in his ‘General Hints’ chapter in The Modern Chess Primer.

Louis Blair (Pittsburgh, PA, USA) writes:

‘One of the things that C.J.S. Purdy said in his article “The Great Steinitz Hoax” was that “In the Manual, Lasker had shown for the first time that combinations could be classified.” I was wondering to what degree this is true. For example, did Lasker originate the notion of a “desperado” (page 124 of Lasker’s Manual) or did he borrow this idea from someone else?’


Regarding the origins of the term ‘desperado’, see C.N. 5924.

On page 272 of Chess Explorations we noted that a discussion of the Steinitz/Lasker/Potter controversy in connection with the origins of ‘modern chess’ had appeared in New in Chess, following on from the above C.N. material. See the article by Hans Ree on pages 61-63 of the 7/1990 issue of the Dutch magazine and the debate in the correspondence pages of the 1/1991 and 2/1991 issues.

Gene Gnandt (Houston, TX, USA) points out an article (‘Rules and Rudiments of the Royal Game, Chess’) by Emanuel Lasker on page 13 of The Times (Richmond, VA), 24 February 1901. The conclusion discussed Steinitz:

‘The English language speaks only of a strong attack, of a premature attack, and of a counter-attack. But it created a combination of words that is hardly translatable into other languages, namely “position judgment”. This apparently slight circumstance is not without importance. It was indeed by a man who lived the greater part of his life in England that the philosophy or theory of chess received a complete change. And probably the ideas of this man were guided by the national instincts of the English race. His name was William Steinitz, chess champion of the world for 28 years.

The old theory of chess knew only the few terms alluded to above, some of which are only partially tenable. Steinitz improved the whole theory by modifying the area of attack, replacing it to a large extent by that of “position”, and by creating the conception of the “weak points”. The essence of his theory may be given in a few principles:

1. In the initial position the “balance of position” is complete.

2. Do not attack when you have not tangible advantage in position.

3. Attack the “weak points”.

It would be interesting to enter into a fuller discussion of Steinitz’s theory, but space would fail us, wherefore we must leave this to another opportunity.

Steinitz was undoubtedly right in his general views on chess, except in one particular, where he went to extremes. It is remarkable, almost incomprehensible, that he did not admit the necessity for quick development. He carried these wrong views into practice, and that was the reason of the defeats he suffered during the seven or eight last years of his life. It was not alone the loss of elasticity and energy entailed by age which caused him to lose his high position, but the springing up of a newer school of chessplayers, who appreciated Steinitz’s theory, but combined it with what was good in the old theory.

Nowadays, by a few of the very first “masters”, the theory of chess above alluded to is applied, and their games are published in books and newspapers and are widely known. There are hundreds of thousands of chessplayers distributed all over the globe, in South Africa as well as in north Africa, in New Zealand, in Iceland, in India, at the court of the King of Siam and the Shah of Persia. Wherefore comes this universal fascination? It is because the game of chess is essentially just, and because this justice reveals itself often in a remarkably beautiful and surprising manner. There may exist another reason for this. It is perhaps connected with the well-known fact that all who love chess are also fond of music.’


See also Dr Lasker’s Chess History.

Latest update: 12 March 2023.

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