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As Magnus Carlsen begins the first defence of his title against the man he beat last year to be crowned world champion — India's Viswanathan Anand — we should recall the event which started all this off, back in 1886. For the match that year between the Austrian Wilhelm Steinitz and the London-based Johannes Zukertort is regarded as the first for the undisputed title of world champion.

Steinitz won the event (played over three months in the American cities of New York, St Louis and New Orleans) by the score of ten wins to five — and therefore is the titular forebear of all subsequent champions, down to Magnus Carlsen. Zukertort, by contrast, has disappeared into obscurity. In a welcome corrective, the publishers New In Chess have just released Jimmy Adams's Johannes Zukertort: Artist of the Chessboard (£29.95), a biography of more than 500 pages previously available only in a limited edition.

In one respect, it demolishes Zukertort's self-created legend. The Polish-born son of a Jewish father who converted to Christianity and then devoted himself to the mission of persuading others to do the same, Johannes seemed also to have had a capacity for reinvention.

After settling in London in the 1870s he dazzled the British not just by his record-breaking blindfold chess displays (playing up to 16 opponents simultaneously without sight of the board) but also with tales of his previous achievements: awarded seven medals for gallantry in the service of the Prussian army; a medical degree from Breslau; a philologist specialising in Sanskrit; a gifted musician who had studied at the Leipzig Conservatoire; the chief editor of a Berlin-based political journal.

But as Adams's book reveals, all this was fabrication — Zukertort was not a decorated soldier and possessed not a single degree. Indeed, there is no record that Zukertort was naturalised as a British subject, contrary to all the obituary notices.

Yet what Adams does reveal is the genuine genius of Zukertort the chess player, which requires no embellishment: many of the games he has disinterred from long-defunct chess magazines are of startling beauty. 

Nor can there be any dispute about Zukertort's claim to contest Steinitz's reputation as the greatest player of his day, back in the 1880s. In particular he won the stupendous London tournament of 1883 with the score of 22 points from 26 games, fully three points ahead of Steinitz in second place. Remarkably, Zukertort had racked up the phenomenal total of 22 wins by the end of the 23rd round, only to lose his final three games. 

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