In 1883 Steinitz moved to the United States. In 1886 a match for the first ever official World Chess Championship was arranged. Steinitz was to face his bitter rival Johannes Zukertort in a match in New York City. The two were widely regarded as the two best players in the world. Zukertort jumped out to an early lead of 4 to 1, but Steinitz fought back with a vengeance to win the match by a score of 12 ½ to 7 ½ . In 1888 Steinitz became a U.S. citizen and changed his name from Wilhelm to William. Later in early 1889, Steinitz travelled to Havana to defend his title against Russian master Mikhail Chigorin. Steinitz won the match 10 ½ to 6 ½ . The two would rematch for the title in 1891, with Steinitz winning a much closer match by a score of 10 ½ to 8 ½.
Steinitz had been on top of the chess world for nearly 30 years and was set to retire. Rather than retiring, Steinitz would accept a challenge from Emanuel Lasker for the world title. The match was played in 1894 and took place in three venues: New York, Montreal and Philadelphia. While Steinitz got off to a good start, the younger Lasker decisively won the match 12 to 7 becoming the second formal World Chess Champion. Some three years later in their rematch for the title, Lasker once again defeated Steinitz and retained his crown, this time 12 ½ to 4 ½. Steinitz, many years past his prime, would never regain the world chess championship.
Soon after the match, Steinitz' health began to decline. He would eventually die on August 12, 1900 in New York of a heart attack. Steinitz' legacy will not only be that of the very first official world chess champion, but as the father of modern chess. He was a prolific chess writer and theorist. In a time where wild sacrifices and all-out attacks were the norm, he pioneered an understanding of key positional ideas like pawn structure and outposts. He, with his scientific approach was the first to quantify strategic ideas of chess into laws. He laid the foundation and set the standard that all future world champions would try to follow.
Some famous Steinitz quotes:
"A sacrifice is best refuted by accepting it."
"Only the player with initiative has the right to attack."
"The king is a fighting piece, use it!"
"I who vanquished him must see to it that his great achievement, his theories should find justice, and I must avenge the wrongs he suffered." – Emanuel Lasker
"He was a pioneer and one of the most profound researchers into the truth of the game, which was hidden from his contemporaries." – Jose Capablanca
"He understood more about the use of squares than Morphy did, and contributed a great deal to chess theory." – Bobby Fischer
"I can't say he was the founder of a chess theory. He was an experimenter and pointed out that chess obeys laws that should be considered." – Vladimir Kramnik