Blackburne the Rover

The words “chess” and “festival” are not normally associated with each other; but that it is what is taking place this month (from December 8-15) at Kensington’s Olympia — the venue of the 2010 London Chess Classic. The organiser, Malcolm Pein, has not merely gathered the strongest team of grandmasters to compete in a British tournament — including the world champion Viswanathan Anand, his predecessor Vladimir Kramnik and the Norwegian prodigy Magnus Carlsen — but there will be other events designed for players of all abilities and a children’s tournament.

Most enticing of all — for those who want to play a true chess legend — Viktor Korchnoi will be giving two simultaneous displays, against 30 opponents, on December 9 and 14. It is probably too late to apply to play against one of the toughest competitors in chess history, but I would still urge you to go along to watch. You will not see his like again: Korchnoi is now 79 and although his chess brain is still in formidable focus, I doubt that his legs will for much longer be able to endure such exhausting exhibitions.

I can think of only one other player who was able to perform simultaneous displays at such an age: that was Joseph Blackburne, who was still performing the chess equivalent of treading the boards in his 80th year. It is especially appropriate to recall this almost forgotten genius in the context of a UK-based chess festival. Blackburne was the most consistently successful chess player this country has ever produced, playing at the highest level from the early 1860s until the First World War — at 72 he won a coveted brilliancy prize for his game against Aron Nimzovitch in the great St Petersburg tournament of 1914. According to the Chess Metrics website, which applies modern chess ratings retrospectively, Blackburne was the second strongest player in the world for much of the 1880s, behind only the first acknowledged world chess champion, the Austrian Wilhelm Steinitz. 

The impact Blackburne made on Europe’s chess scene can be glimpsed in this extract from the book of the Vienna Tournament of 1873, where he shared first prize with Steinitz — and was immediately given the nickname of Der Schwarze Tod. “The pale, lean, muscular young man opposite is the iron Blackburne, the Black Death of chess players. But very seldom there falls from the moustache-covered lips a laconic English word. He surveys the game with the eye of a hawk; even now he is tearing to bits a snare laid for him by his unsuccessful opponent, and a demure smile steals over his face.”

The 19th-century prose is purple; but “tearing to bits” is rather a good evocation of the Blackburne style. He had taken up chess at the remarkably late age of 18, having become captivated by the European exploits of the visiting American genius Paul Morphy, and Blackburne’s style was a tribute to Morphy’s methods: brutally clean and direct tactics following rapid development of all forces. He was also entranced by Morphy’s blindfold chess displays, which to the general public of the day seemed something akin to witchcraft. Yet Blackburne raised this form of chess necromancy to an altogether higher level, astounding not just his fellow Mancunians but the entire nation, when — just two years after taking up the game — he played ten games, simultaneously, without sight of the board, against the best players of the Manchester Chess Club. 

This, more than participating in great tournaments against his peers, was Blackburne’s bread and butter. He was the chess professional par excellence in an era when most of the other players were amateurs with wealthy sponsors or a private income. Yet Blackburne saw chess as nothing less than a business, travelling not just the length and breadth of Britain taking fees for astounding simultaneous displays, but even touring Australia and New Zealand. It is estimated that in the course of a career spanning over half a century, Blackburne played more than 100,000 games of competitive chess, far more than any other player.

This must have put an enormous strain on even a man as physically robust as Blackburne: today’s grandmasters would blanch at the journeys that Blackburne endured in the days before the convenience and speed of air travel — and none of them, not even the redoubtable Korchnoi, would put themselves through the hundreds of simultaneous blindfold displays that he performed across the globe. Blackburne’s way of coping with this immense stress was drink. 

There was some irony in this, as his father had been best known as one of Manchester’s leading temperance campaigners. Joseph certainly manifested one of the effects of the demon liquor that his father warned of. 

At times, after post-game “relaxation”, he became physically violent, as even the world champion, Steinitz, had cause to recount in 1889: “During [the] Paris [tournament], we occupied adjoining rooms at the same hotel when he came home drunk and began to quarrel, and after a few words he pounced upon me and hammered at my face and eyes with full force about a dozen blows, until the bedcloth and my nightshirt were covered with blood. But at least I had the good fortune to release myself from his drunken grip, and I broke the window pane with his head, which sobered him down a little.” Ah, the good old days.

Here is Blackburne’s most memorable game, from the London tournament of 1883, one of several beatings that he gave the great Steinitz using only the power of his brain, rather than of his fists. 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Nc3 g6 (A Steinitz patent. Blackburne’s subsequent attack ingeniously exploits the “hole” it makes on the Kingside) 4.d4 exd4 5.Nxd4 Bg7 6.Be3 Nf6 7.Be2 0-0 8. 0-0 Ne7 9.Bf3 d6 10.Qd2 Nd7 11.Bh6 Ne5 12.Bxg7 Kxg7 13.Be2 f6 14.f4 Nf7 15.Rad1 c6 16.Bc4 Bd7 17.Bxf7 Rxf7 18.f5 Nc8 19.e5!? (19.Nce2 with the idea of Nf4 would now be the normal continuation and doubtless what Steinitz had expected. Blackburne’s remarkable sacrificial idea, as he wrote at the time, “took both him and the spectators by surprise”) fxe5 20.Ne6+ Bxe6 21.fxe6 Re7 22.Qg5 Qe8? ( “A fearful blunder,” Steinitz admitted. 22…Nb6! was the best defence, after which he should be able to defend) 23. Rd3! Qe7 24.Rh3 Qe7 25.Qh6+ Kg8 and now comes the brilliant point of Blackburne’s attack: 26.Rf8+! Qxf8 27.Qxh7 checkmate. Perhaps the most crushing defeat ever to be inflicted by an Englishman against a reigning world champion, and something to inspire the four leading English grandmasters as they take on world champion Vishy Anand in the 2010 London Chess Classic.

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