What made Chigorin so popular in Russia was his approach that became typical of the “Soviet School.” Chigorin taught that one should not rely on “natural” moves which seem obvious and safe. He wrote that the desire to take advantage of an opponent's move which seems at first sight erroneous may entice one to launch an attack along false lines. He added that it was only by gradual development of one's own forces and extremely discrete play, do you slowly acquire certain advantages and then you can deliver a decisive blow to you opponent.
Chigorin believed in being diverse and creative and didn't accept any dogmas. His adoration by Soviet players didn't come until later though. In his day his innovative approach was considered eccentric and it was only after his death that his work began to be appreciated.
Chigorin has several opening variations named after him, the two most important being the Chigorin Variation of the Ruy Lopez (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 Nf6 5.O-O Be7 6.Re1 b5 7.Bb3 d6 8.c3 O-O 9.h3 Na5 10.Bc2 c5 11.d4 Qc7) and the Chigorin Defence to the Queen's Gambit (1.d4 d5 2.c4 Nc6). I did a post on the latter a couple of years ago. I have used the Chigorin Defence to the Queen's Gambit for many years and found it to be a lively defense that often involves a lot of piece play and tactics without weakening black's position...it's worth a try. Another opening invented by Chigorin is 1.e4 e6 2.Qe2 in the French Defense which goften transposes into a King's Indian Attack type of setup, but Chigorin also played it with other ideas such as b2-b3.
Chigorin’s contributions to opening theory remain significant. He was the finest gambit player of his generation, but it was his pioneering work in the Ruy Lopez, the Queen’s Gambit as well as various King’s Indian formations have been the most significant.
Chigorin, the last great player of the Romantic style, was born on November 12, 1850 in St. Petersburg where he lived most of his life; he died on January 25, 1908.
His childhood was a hard one. His parents died young and he he was placed in the Gatchinsk Orphans' Institute at the age of 9 or 10. A schoolteacher taught him the moves at the age of 16, but he only became serious about chess around 1874 after he has finished his studies and before beginning a career as a government official.
One can only guess the conditions in orphanages in those days. In the U.S. conditions tended not to be good. Many orphanages were highly regimented; children marched to meals, which they ate in silence. They wore uniforms and sometimes had their heads shaved. Corporal punishment was common with inmates, as they were called, routinely beaten across the hands with leather straps. The diet tended to be poor and most children recalled that they were hungry all the time. And, often orphanages were dangerous. The mortality rate was not much better than that of children on the streets. Older, bigger, tougher kids preyed on younger, smaller ones. Living in an orphanage meant either being a predator or a victim. There were many accounts of older boys sodomizing younger ones. Things were probably not much better in the orphanage at Gatchina.
At some point he quit his job and became a professional chess player. In 1876, he started a chess magazine, Chess Sheet, which lasted until 1881. It's demise was probably due to the fact that it had only 250 subscribers in all of Russia. He played a series of matches with Emanuel Schiffers and Semyon Alapin in which he piled up large plus scores which gave him the reputation as the strongest player in Russia.
His first international tournament was Berlin 1881 where he finished third and in the great London tournament of 1883 which had most of the best players in the world, he finished fourth. At the very strong tournament of New York 1889 he tied for first and following this success he challenged Steinitz for a match with the World Championship. They ended up playing two world championship matches both of which Steinitz won. The matches were interesting because there were two main groups: the new classicists lead by Steinitz, but largely based on Siegbert Tarrasch's theories, and the dying breed of romantics.
By the end of the century Chigorin had joined the ranks of the world's top four or five players and in 1893 he drew a match with Tarrasch in St. Petersburg (+9-9=4). His best performance though was at Hastings 1895 where he placed second behind Pillsbury, but ahead of world champion Emanuel Lasker, Tarrasch and former world champion Steinitz.
Chigorin liked gambits and he won the King's Gambit-themed Vienna Tournament of 1903 and defeated Lasker (+2-1=3) in a Rice Gambit tournament in Brighton. As it turned out, the Rice Gambit was not sound, so for a world class player like Chigorin to be successful playing against, it gave him a distinct advantage.
Chigorin distinguished himself by rejecting many of the inflexible doctrines taught by Tarrasch and Steinitz though he did agree with the latter's teachings about the soundness of the defensive center as evidenced by his contributions to the Ruy Lopez and the Slav Defense.
Besides his play, he gave lectures, wrote magazine articles and columns and supported a number of periodicals to keep them afloat despite low readership levels. He also founded a club in St. Petersburg and tried unsuccessfully for many years to establish a chess association.
By 1907 it was clear that his health was failing and he was diagnosed by doctors in Carlsbad with an advanced and in those days an untreatable case of diabetes. This prompted a prediction that he had only months to live. See an interesting article on the history of diabetes HERE. After receiving this bad news he returned to his estranged wife and daughter in Lublin and died the following January. I posted a link to Chess in Translation, a Russian site with news in English, which published an article by Chigorin’s daughter that is interesting reading. Read article...
Chigorin and Steinitz played a two-game telegraph match from October 23, 1890 to April 28, 1891. Steinitz made his moves in New York City and Chigorin from St. Petersburg. The games were played to settle assertions made by Steinitz in his recent book, Modern Chess Instructor, with which Chigorin disagreed. The match was widely billed as matching the Romantic style represented by Chigorin against the Modern positional school of Steinitz. Steinitz told a reporter: “I am guided by the position judgment in the main, and generally do not proceed with the examination of details until after my opponent has actually made his move. You see, I am an old master of the young school and Chigorin is a young master of the old school. If I don’t commit an error, I fancy I shall win both games because I have a pawn to the good in either and according to the principles I laid down, I must win.” He didn't; he resigned both games (the other game was an Evans Gambit) on April 28, 1891.
What makes the following game interesting is Steinitz' controversial move 9.Nh3 in the Two Knights Defense (Steinitz liked the move, Chigorin didn't). The move was revived by none other than Bobby Fischer who used it in several games. One thing I did notice after comparing the notes to it that were given in the book The Soviet School of Chess by Kotov and Yudovich is that the game was NOT the one sided shellacking that the authors lead their readers to believe. Steinitz' play was not as feeble as they indicated, but that's often the case. Does anybody really think Chigorin was a better player than Steinitz? Their match results indicate that he was not. Also, if a player of the status of Bobby Fischer thought Steinitz' 9th move was worthy of a second look, then I reckon it was.
BTW, I recommend the book The Soviet School of Chess, even if it is full of shameless Soviet propaganda, but NOT the crappy abridged versions. You should get the original edition published by Dover in 1963 if you can find it.