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Old February 15th 08, 08:55 PM posted to
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Default Steinitz and God

In another thread, this quote from one Christopher Law was given:

"Chess has traditionally been associated with insanity. Grandmaster
Wilhelm Steinitz was incarcerated in a Moscow asylum where he played a
game over an invisible telephone line with God. God Lost."

This hoary old legend, like Morphy's shoes and others similar, seems
to get embellished with each retelling. The above rendition at least
omits the often-seen claim that Steinitz gave God pawn and move. It's
worth noting the known facts:

There seems to be no real evidence that Steinitz ever claimed to
have actually played chess with God, much less given Him odds or
beaten Him. An article by Edward Winter examines the issue he

The earliest reference Winter can find is from "The Bright Side of
Chess," a 1948 book by Irving Chernev, page 9: "Confidence? Steinitz
had enough of it to say that he did not believe even God could give
him pawn and move odds!"
Note that this is by no means a claim to have actually played God --
merely a boast, that Steinitz felt his play was so sound that, given
the advantage of pawn and move, he could win even against perfect
It does seem well established that Steinitz did believe, for a while
around 1897, that he could communicate by some wireless means, but as
Jeremy Spinrad points out in the Winter article, it may have been that
he was simply duped by someone who gave him a device which it was
claimed had that ability. There seems to be no evidence connecting
this wireless communication to any Steinitz-God game.
Lastly, while Steinitz was confined to a Moscow asylum for a while
in early 1897, suffering from nervous exhaustion after losing his
rematch with Lasker, no evidence has surfaced to place the alleged
Steinitz-God game in that venue.

So it would seem that Steinitz's simple boast has been distorted
into a delusional fantasy, and conflated with two other unrelated
facts about him. Unless and until some real evidence supporting it is
found, this chess "urban legend" should be stashed in the same file as
stories of exploding microwaved poodles and giant alligators in the
NY sewers.
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