Romantic Chess of the Victorian Era

photo of Adolf Anderssen  (July 6, 1818 – March 13, 1879)

During the 19th century (especially from 1851-1870), the style of chess was marked by tactical play and daring sacrifices.  Indeed, it was considered ungentlemanly to refuse a gambit.  One of the most popular opening moves was the King’s Gambit accepted.  In this, white offers a pawn in exchange for establishing  firmer control of the center of the board. 

Chessmasters often met in coffeehouses, where  their matches were not methodical and defensive, but fast-paced, filled with fearless, bold attacks.  Winning did not matter as much as winning with style.

Some of the leading Romantic chess players included such notables as Paul Murphy and Henry Blackburne.  But it was  Adolf Anderssen whose  “Evergreen Game” and “Immortal Game” have gone down in history as two of the most beautiful chess games ever seen.

The latter was played on June 21st, 1851 against Lionel Kieseritzky at the Simpson’s-in-the-Strand divan in London, England.   During the match, Anderssen sacrificed his queen, both rooks, and a bishop.  At the end, Kieseritzky was greatly ahead in both material and points-still possessing his queen, two rooks, and a bishop.  However, Anderssen’s seemingly insane gambits had forced his opponent into a corner unable to defend.   Thus, Anderssen declared, “checkmate” using  his three remaining, weaker pieces. 

The Romantic style of chess fell out of favor when Wilhelm Steinitz (the first Chess World Champion) embraced positional play over  tactical.

Yet, the exhilarating  rapid attacks and brash heroics of the Romantics remain forever in lore.

  Chess scene (inspired by the Immortal Game) in the film, Blade Runner

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19 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Leave it to the Victorians to turn even a strategy game into something romantic! Not being a chess player myself, it always amazes me how they can plan and predict moves.

  2. I play chess, but I can’t really plan moves too far in advance.

    Thus, my main strategy is simply to stay calm and focused. Sometimes that works. Other times…not. 😉

  3. Interesting Blade Runner connection. 😉

  4. Chess and Romance….both seem like strategic games!

  5. Heya Ralfast,

    If you’re interested, there are several articles online that discuss the chess scene in Blade Runner.

  6. Hi Chazz,

    Heh heh! True. True.

    And I’ll add, that playing a strategic game of chess with your partner can fun and romantic.

  7. I’m sure it is 🙂

  8. So the fast play of Romantic Chess is this how they came up with the timer or was timing the moves already in effect?

  9. Fascinating post! I love playing chess but haven’t played lately. No one I knows likes to play it!

  10. I know the basic moves of chess, or at least I used to. It’s been so long since I played I’m not sure I remember 😕

    As for romance, I’m utterly clueless 😉

  11. Hey Lyra,

    Good question! I just looked it up.

    According to that site, in the 1850s, people started discussing the idea of having time limits. Different clocks and timing methods were used until 1883 when a mechanical tumbling chess clock was invented.

  12. Jenna,

    If you’re ever in Berlin, we’ll have to get together for a friendly game! 🙂

  13. DD,

    Even though I play on a fairly regular basis, the one darn rule I always forget is that annoying en passant.

    from “En passant (from French: in passing) is a move in the board game of chess. En passant is a special capture made immediately after a player moves a pawn two squares forward from its starting position, and an opposing pawn could have captured it as if it had moved only one square forward. In this situation, the opposing pawn may capture the pawn as if taking it “as it passes” through the first square. The resulting position is the same as if the pawn had only moved one square forward and the opposing pawn had captured normally. The en passant capture must be done on the very next turn, or the right to do so is lost.”

  14. p.s. Yes, a few evil men have used that against me!

  15. So *that’s* what my strategy is. I’m glad it has a name.:-)

    -Actually, this is interesting to me, because the more carefully I plan my moves, the less likely I am to win. The more aggressive I am, the better my chances are.

    There’s a writing lesson in here somewhere, I can feel it…

  16. Heya Amy,

    I remember that fun post you wrote a while ago about how you’d connected learning to be more offensive in your chess play with daring to move your characters and storyline forward.

  17. I’d love to visit Berlin and throw in a chess game too? I’m there. 😀

  18. I’d have loved to see such a chess game – the apparent underdog winning through sheer style.

    My favorite chess games in fiction are in either Through the Looking Glass or The Westing Game – can’t choose between them.

  19. Hey Marian,

    Actually, Anderssen was considered one of the best chess players in the world at the time, so hardly an underdog. 😉

    But yes, I’d loved to have seen that game too.

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