Adolf Anderssen was one of the great players of the 19th century. In fact, it's easy to consider him an "unofficial world champion," as he was likely the world's strongest player for most of the middle of the century. But at the time when Anderssen played, such titles were only dreamt about, and today Anderssen is know for his tournament successes, his great games, and as standing as the ultimate obstacle to another chess legend's own claim to being the world's greatest player.
Karl Ernst Adolf Anderssen was born on July 6, 1818 in what is today Wroclaw, Poland but was then named Breslau and part of the Kingdom of Prussia. As a child, he learned to play chess from his father, learning strategic concepts with the help of a book on the games from the legendary match between Labourdonnais and McDonnell.
Anderssen was not a child prodigy, though, and his rise to the top of chess happened uncharacteristically slowly. Even in the mid-1940s, he was only strong enough to play good games against the best players of Berlin. While these players were likely among the strongest in the world, there was no indication that Anderssen was the best of the group, let alone one of the world’s elite players.
Anderssen’s big break came after he drew a high-profile match with the German professional Daniel Harrwitz in 1848. That was enough to raise his profile to the top level of European chess, which in turn earned him an invitation to London 1851, the first ever international chess tournament. At first, Anderssen did not wish to spend the time or money to travel, but Howard Staunton – the tournament organizer – offered to pay for his travel expenses should Anderssen fail to win a prize in the event, which was enough to secure his participation.
At the time he accepted the invitation, it was unlikely that Anderssen was the strongest player in the world. However, Anderssen prepared for the tournament in a way that seems more like a modern master than someone of the Romantic era, playing over a hundred games against some of the strongest players in Europe. Thus, while Anderssen may only have been the sixth-highest rated player in the world had ratings existed at the time (based on Chessmetrics’ historical ratings), he was certainly one of the favorites.
Sure enough, Anderssen would go on to win London 1851 in convincing fashion. The knockout format first saw him go up against tournament favorite Lionel Kieseritsky, only to win easily by a 2.5-0.5 score. He then faced the very strong Jozsef Szen 4-2, which earned him a match against Staunton in the semifinal. Staunton had been considered the strongest player in the world for much of the 1940s, but proved no match for Anderssen, losing by a 4-1 score. Finally, Anderssen dispatched the lesser-known Marmaduke Wyvill in the final (4.5-2.5) to earn victory in the first ever international chess tournament.
This victory earned Anderssen the lofty sum of about £333 – more like £250,000 in today’s terms. It also established him as the world’s best player, though few ventured to call him a World Champion.
Match with Morphy
Anderssen won another smaller tournament at the London Chess Club the next month, and would then play just one more tournament in the next decade (a simple knockout event that he was eliminated from by losing a single game to Loewenthal in the second round). During this time, he also played – and won – two of the most famous games in chess history: his Immortal Game vs. Kieseritzky and his Evergreen Game against Jean Dufresne.
The next major event in Anderssen’s career would come in 1858, when the American prodigy Paul Morphy came to Europe in an attempt to establish himself as the world’s best. Having won matches against all other serious contenders, Morphy finally played Anderssen in Paris later in the year. Unfortunately for Anderssen, Morphy was as dominant over him as he had been against other European masters, winning their match 8-3 (+7 -2 =2).
Later Tournament Success
However, Morphy would soon go into retirement from chess, which once against left Anderssen as the world’s top player in most eyes. That status was tested in London 1862, the world’s first international round-robin chess tournament. Anderssen only lost one game (in the tournament, draws did not count and were replayed), finishing two points ahead of Louis Paulsen to win the tournament.
In 1866, Anderssen lost a match to Wilhelm Steinitz 8-6, which may have marked the beginning of Steinitz’s reign as the world’s best player. However, in the decade after that match, Anderssen remained active and very strong. At this point, international chess tournaments were becoming much more common, and Anderssen proved to be a dominant force. He won at least five tournaments in this period, including one of the great tournaments of all time, Baden-Baden 1870. At that event, he finished ahead of Steinitz, Louis Paulsen and Joseph Henry Blackburne, among others.
Anderssen’s last great chess event was one that was organized to honor him. The tournament in Leipzig in 1877 was created to honor the 50-year anniversary of Anderssen having learned how to play chess. Anderssen finished second in that tournament, behind only Paulsen.
Anderssen was active in chess almost until the time of his death. Anderssen died on March 13, 1879 in his hometown of Breslau.