Fabricator of Genius

The forgotten master who manufactured his own myths

Dominic Lawson

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. 

This collapse at the end — attributed at the time to “nervous exhaustion” — hinted at what would happen when he fought Steinitz for the title of world champion three years later. In the first leg in New York, Zukertort won four games in a row, to take a commanding lead. But after that, he was steadily ground down by the implacable Steinitz. Apparently Zukertort told the American master Max Judd after the New York leg: “You will be surprised to hear what I am about to tell you. I am going to lose this match.” It seemed his mercurial temperament was unable to stand the slow-burning battle of wills that is match play: much more psychologically testing than tournaments with a different opponent each day. 

This was reflected in the speed at which the two played: for example, in the sixth match game, won by Steinitz, Zukertort took less than two hours for the 60 moves, compared with over three and a half hours’ deliberation by his victorious opponent. As one eye-witness put it, “If Zukertort sees a good move, he makes it; if Steinitz sees a good move, he looks out for a better one.”

Steinitz had the unshakeable self-belief of a man who had developed an entire new theory of chess — and defended it in constant polemics against the ridicule of countless rivals. Against this squat monolith of a man (Steinitz was barely 5ft tall), the insecure Zukertort felt psychically helpless.

This match, played in sapping conditions, seemed also to have destroyed Zukertort physically — he died of a cerebral haemorrhage while playing (for a one shilling stake) in London two years later, at the age of 45. His friend Jacques Mieses wrote: “His life’s aim was the World Championship . . . to have failed was a death-blow to his morale. In so depressing a state of mind and in addition physically a very sick man, Zukertort was no longer capable of high achievement in chess. Zukertort died of his match against Steinitz.”

It is happier to end with Zukertort’s best game from the London tournament of 1883, against his greatest British rival, Joseph Blackburne. 1.c4 (Zukertort was ahead of his time in playing so-called Flank openings) e6 2.e3 Nf6 3.Nf3 b6 4.Be2 Bb7 5.0-0 d5 6.d4 Bd6 7.Nc3 0-0 8.b3 Nbd7 9.Bb2 Qe7 10.Nb5 Ne4 11.Nxd6 cxd6 12.Nd2 Ndf6 13.f3 Nxd2 14.Qxd2 dxc4 15.Bxc4 d5 16.Bd3 Rfc8 17.Rae1 Rc7 18.e4 Rac8 19.e5 Ne8 20.f4 g6 21.Re3 f5 22.exf6 Nxf6 23.f5 Ne4 24.Bxe4 dxe4 25.fxg6! (allowing Blackburne to win a piece — and the prelude to a remarkable combination) Rc2 26.gxh7+ Kh8 27.d5+ e5 28.Qb4!! (with the lethal point that if 28…Qxb4 White wins with 29.Bxe5+ Kxh7 30.Rh3+ Kg6 31.Rg3+ Kh6 32.Rf6+ Kh5 33.Rf5+ Kh6 34.Bf4+ and mate next move) R8c5 29.Rf8+! (Blackburne recalled this moment in his memoir: “At this stage, walking round to see how the other games were going, one of the players said to me, ‘You’ve got the little man’. ‘I don’t know,’ I replied, ‘It’s tremendously difficult’ . . . [Then] it dawned on me that the sacrifice of the Rook was fateful and the only question was whether he would find it out. This did not long remain doubtful . . . I presently heard a crash as though a piece were being slapped down with all the emphasis a man’s muscles could give it, and presently there came a tap to my shoulder: ‘Your clock is going, I have made my move,’  he said, and from the expression of his face and the manner in which he drew himself up to his full height I felt that I might remark as the writer did when the audience damned his play: ‘He has found it out, has he?'”) 29….Kxh7 (If 29…Qxf8 30.Bxe5+ Kxh7 31.Qxe4 and mate in four) 30.Qxe4+ Kg7 31.Bxe5+ Kxf8 32.Bg7+! The final elegant brush stroke of Zukertort’s masterpiece: after 32… Kg8 33.Qxe7 Blackburne resigned.

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