Wilhelm Steintz (1836-1900) was the best chess player in the world for roughly twenty-two years from 1872 to 1894. He was the first officially recognized world champion of chess, an important writer and chess theorist (helping to largely lay the foundation of modern chess theory), a brilliant blindfold chess player, and one of the most colorful and interesting personalities the world of chess has ever known.
Wilhelm was born in Prague on the 17th of May, 1836, one of the younger children in a very large Jewish family. At the age of twelve, he learned the game from a schoolmate; since he and the friend were poor and unable to afford their own chess set, they built their own. Steintz, in his later teen years, demonstrated a fair amount of aptitude in mathematics and was sent to the Polytechnic in Vienna to study. However, all Steintz did in Vienna was fall in love with the royal game.
In the spring of 1862, Steintz won the championship of the Vienna Chess Club, ahead of several masters. He made a slim living throughout his twenties and early thirties through some freelance journalism, but his life revolved around chess. In the summer of 1862, Steintz made his international debut at a chess tournament in London, finishing sixth and losing a solid match to Adolf Anderssen, widely considered to be the best player in the world at the time.
After the tournament, Steintz took up full time residence in London, playing chess avidly. His skill improved dramatically throughout the 1860s, such that in 1866 he defeated Anderssen in a match, surprising many. Many people believe that this is when Steintz's recognition as the world's best player, but he wouldn't truly be recognized as such until 1872, where he won the London tournament decisively. In 1873, he won the Vienna tournament with a score of 83%, utterly trouncing a world-class level of competition.
From 1873 to 1882, however, he only played one public game of chess (destroying the supposed second best player in the world 7-0). Instead, he spent the years writing and developing modern chess theory, laying the foundations for the great players to come in the 20th century.
He returned to active play in 1882 in Vienna, winning the tournament handily. He left London and moved to the United States in the mid-1880s, where he would play what he would call his greatest match, a defeating of the second best player in the world, Zukertort, by a score of 10-5 for the first true modern era world chess championship.
He would defend the title several times until 1894, where at the age of fifty-eight, he finally succumbed the title to twenty-five year old Emanuel Lasker. He continued to play throughout the 1890s with great success, but by the end of the decade his health was failing him and he failed to qualify for the London 1899 tournamen. He took ill in the spring of 1900 and passed away in New York in August of 1900.
Besides his play, his appearance and outgoing demeanor made him a splendid representative of the old game. He was a sturdy, powerful man with rugged features, looking much like a war-weary general. His features were rugged, and his deep-set eyes and bead gave off an impression of a man of great seriousness. His occasional jocularity added to the effect, creating a great public impression of himself and of the game in general.
Besides being the first modern world champion, Steintz helped to develop modern chess strategy. He developed the Steintz Gambit, a wonderful opening sequence that helps to gain control of the center of the board early in the game. His chess playing legend lives on today through this gambit and much of the underlying theory of modern chess.