Intimidation At The Board

Yesterday my son and I had a long discussion about the incident(s) between Wilhelm Steinitz and Joseph Henry Blackburne in which Steinitz is supposed to have spat at his opponent and Blackburne punched Steinitz through a window, giving him a black eye in the process. Sources differ as to whether Steinitz spat before or after the punch but we rather think that Steinitz must have spat first. A punch would surely require an upping of the ante or ‘masterful inactivity’ rather than a futile gesture which might further provoke the attacker.

Joseph Henry Blackburne













This brings me to the question of the role that physical intimidation might play in a chess game. I think a certain physical presence can be a factor and others seem to agree with me. Vasily Smyslov learned to box before his match against the boxer, Efim Geller, presumably to avoid any feeling of being physically vulnerable.

On the other hand any sense of vulnerability didn’t stop Steinitz from winning his two matches against Blackburne and by very decisive margins. Yet Blackburne did manage to pull off an occasional win against his great adversary, for example the following game.