The London 1851 chess tournament was the first major international chess tournament ever held. With London hosting the Great Exhibition, leading British chess player Howard Staunton (who lends his name to the standard chess pieces used in sets around the world today) believed that the international spectacle would be the perfect opportunity to bring in players from across Europe to compete.
Along with the tournament itself, Staunton also suggested that the meeting serve as a “Chess Parliament” or Chess Congress, with the idea being to standardize many aspects of the game. This included establishing standard time limits, notation, and even standardizing the moves and rules themselves, as while these were mostly established at this time, there were still slight regional variations to how the game was played.
The main event was certainly the tournament, though. With 16 of the top European players participating, a few commentators even suggested that the winner of the tournament might have a claim as World Champion, though this wasn’t widely accepted. The tournament featured a £500 prize pool – the equivalent to nearly £400,000 in today’s terms – and was held in a knock-out format. In the first round, all matches were best-of-three (draws not counting), while later matches were best-of-seven.
Given the difficulties of travel and some political issues, not all invited players were able to attend. To make matters worse, a rivalry between Staunton’s club and the London Chess Club meant that some strong players from London (chiefly Daniel Harrwitz) couldn’t participate, and also couldn’t fill in as reserves when some of the foreign players proved unavailable. Still the tournament proved successful, and drew six foreign players along with ten British participants.
Participants are listed in pairs that represent their first round pairings. Foreign participants have their country of origin in parenthesis:
Adolf Anderssen (Germany)
Lionel Kieseritsky (France)
Ozsef Szen (Hungary)
Bernhard Horwitz (Germany)
Henry Edward Bird
Johann Lowenthal (Hungary)
James R. Mucklow
Hugh A. Kennedy
Cary Mayet (Germany)
Two of the favorites met in the semifinals, as Adolf Anderssen and Howard Staunton were both on the same side of the draw. Anderssen dominated this match by a 4-1 score to move into the final, where he would play Marmaduke Wyvill. That match proved to be closed, but Anderssen still prevailed, winning 4.5-2.5. As a result, Anderssen was widely regarded as the top player in Europe – and effectively the world, at least until the emergence of Paul Morphy.