Zukertort, John Hermann (DNB00)

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ZUKERTORT, JOHN HERMANN (1842–1888), chess master, was born in the province of Riga on 7 Sept. 1842, his father, a converted Jew, having been a protestant pastor of very humble means in the town and district of Lublin, Russian Poland. In 1855 he entered the gymnasium at Breslau in Silesia, and in 1861 was transferred to the university, whence he graduated after a full course in medicine in 1866. He served with the medical corps of the German army in the campaign of that year and in 1870–1. He learned chess at Breslau in 1861, entering for a handicap tourney in that year, and losing every game that he played, although he received the odds of the queen. He now purchased Bilguer's ‘Handbook’ and studied the game. Before the close of 1862 he encountered Anderssen, receiving the odds of the knight, and won a number of games. Henceforth, as Anderssen's most talented pupil, he began to meet first-class players on equal terms. By 1867 he was known as one of the strongest players in North Germany, and assumed the editorship (at first in conjunction with Anderssen and afterwards alone) of the ‘Neue Berliner Schachzeitung,’ which had been founded by Neumann and Suhle after the retirement of Ph. Hirschfeld from the editorship of the Leipzig ‘Schachzeitung.’ In this he published a number of brilliant games and new variations of the openings, representing the strategic school of that period. During the previous two years he had been honoured by association with Jean Dufresne in editing the invaluable ‘Grosses Schach-Handbuch’ (see Van der Linde, Geschichte und Litt. des Schachspiels, Berlin, 1874, ii. 23–4). This was followed by his ‘Leitfaden des Schachspiels’ (Berlin, 8vo; ib. ii. 25), a collection of problems, studies, and endings, with a short synopsis of the openings. In 1871 he defeated Anderssen in a set match, and at the close of the same year the ‘Neue Berliner Schachzeitung’ collapsed. Early in 1872 he came over to England by invitation of the St. George's Chess Club, and in the tourney of that year he won the third prize (Steinitz taking the first). He intimated that he intended thenceforth to make England his home, took out letters of naturalisation, and was hereafter regarded as an English representative in all contests abroad. The rapid strides which he made as an exponent of the game between 1872 and 1878 were attributed by him to the advantage derived from his ‘assimilation of English characteristics.’

From 1873 to 1876 Zukertort contributed largely to the ‘Westminster Papers’ (the official organ of the St. George's Club). In 1878 he won the first prize at the Paris Exhibition tournament, after a tie-match with Winawer. In September 1879, in conjunction with Mr. L. Hoffer, he founded and co-edited the ‘Chess Monthly,’ which continued for seventeen years to be the leading chess magazine. In March 1881 he captained the ‘City of London’ in its match with the rival ‘St. George's’ Club, and later in the year was second to Mr. J. H. Blackburne in the Berlin tournament. He defeated Blackburne (1881) and the brilliant Paris master Rosenthal (1880) in two matches, annotating the games with an elaboration hitherto unknown in chess periodicals. In 1882 he was fifth in the Vienna tournament, Steinitz and Winawer taking the first and second prizes after a tie (Chess Monthly, July 1882).

In 1883 Zukertort achieved one of the great objects of his ambition by triumphing over Steinitz, and winning the first prize of 300l. in the London international chess tournament, Steinitz being second and Blackburne third. This tournament, which was the first important gathering of the kind held in London since 1862, took place at the Victoria Hall in the Criterion between 26 April and 21 June 1883, and the liberal scale of prizes attracted practically all the acknowledged masters in Europe and America (the only important exception being Louis Paulsen). During the first six weeks of the tournament Zukertort achieved a record in first-class chess by winning twenty-two games to one defeat, showing in the performance a combination of brilliance, energy, and accuracy, unequalled by any great master hitherto. His games against Winawer (of Warsaw) and Rosenthal (of Paris) were of the very highest order, while that against Blackburne, played on 5 May, was, in Steinitz's opinion, ‘one of the most brilliant games on record’ (for Blackburne's analysis of this game see Blackburne, Games, 1899). But the master's nervous energy had been maintained only by recourse to the most powerful drugs, and on 7 June took place the threatened breakdown which his friends had long feared. On that day he made an elementary blunder in his game with Mackenzie, and on the two following days he was successively defeated by the weakest players in the tournament. Fortunately this collapse was deferred until his position as first prizeman had already been assured. Zukertort never fully recovered the extraordinary mental vigour which he had exhibited during the early part of the London tournament. Contrary to the advice of his friends and the verdict of medical men to the effect that repose was essential after his supreme effort, he persisted in accepting the challenge of Steinitz to an ‘international match,’ the conditions of which were highly unfavourable to a man of his nervous temperament. Seven games were to be played at New York, seven at St. Louis, and seven at New Orleans. The British Chess Club entertained Zukertort in London in November 1885, previously to his departure. He won four out of the first five games, but was utterly crushed in the concluding portion of the match, which terminated at New Orleans on 29 March 1886 (see Chess Monthly, February and March). He returned from the States a broken-down man. His nerves seemed overstrained, an impediment in his speech was noticeable, and he had not the energy to rouse himself from a kind of mental torpor. He lost a short match with Blackburne (1887), and it was doubted whether he would venture to play in an international contest projected at Bradford for the autumn of 1888. In the summer handicap of the British Chess Club (1888) he headed the list, and the auguries became more hopeful; but on 19 June 1888, while playing at Simpson's chess divan, he was suddenly attacked by apoplexy; he was removed at the instance of Dr. Cassidy to Charing Cross Hospital, and he died there, aged 46, on 20 June. He was buried at Brompton cemetery on 26 June, when most of the prominent British chess players were represented at his graveside. From 1878 to 1883, said the ‘Times’ justly, in an obituary notice, ‘Dr. Zukertort was considered by many to have attained a degree of excellence in chess that has never been exceeded.’

Zukertort was a clever conversationist and linguist (speaking English like a native), with a marvellous memory, and a large store of general information. His memory, it was said, only failed him when he had to answer a letter or keep an appointment. At the chess-board one could not gather from his countenance whether he was winning or losing, for he presented in either case the picture of abject misery. At New York in 1886 he was described as illustrating nerves, while Steinitz illustrated solidity. As a blindfold player he was not surpassed even by Blackburne, and as an analyst he probably had no equal. His annotations upon the Morphy-Anderssen match in the pages of the ‘Chess Monthly’ were a revelation, entirely superseding the previous analysis by Lowenthal. His knowledge of the openings was exhaustive, and his analyses of the Evans, Muzio, and Allgaier gambits completely altered long-established opinions as to their value. Very few English players have equalled Zukertort in devotion and service to the game of which he was such a brilliant exponent. ‘Altogether he was a chess genius of the highest order’ (Illustr. London News, 30 June 1888). The majority of his more important games are to be found either in the ‘Chess Monthly’ or in the books of the various tournaments in which he was engaged; seventeen are printed in ‘Mr. Blackburne's Games at Chess,’ 1899.

Photographic portraits appeared in the ‘Illustrated London News’ (30 June 1888), ‘Chess Monthly’ (July 1888), and elsewhere. The only one which conveys any true idea of his gaunt, haggard, and ‘corrugated’ appearance is the pen-and-ink caricature in the ‘Westminster Papers,’ 1 June 1876, with the legend ‘The Chess Apostle.’

[Chess Monthly, 1879–88; preface to International Chess Tournament of 1883 (Thirty-two games by Zukertort); Steinitz's International Chess Mag. March and April 1886; Mr. Blackburne's Games at Chess, 1899; Fortnightly Rev. (art. by Hoffer), December 1886; Field, 23 June 1888 (the best memoir), by Mr. Hoffer, who has kindly revised this notice; Times, 21 June 1888; Macdonnell's Chess Life Pictures, and Knights and Kings of Chess, pp. 15–26 (portrait); Bird's Hist. of Chess; Bilguer's Handbuch, 1891, p. 67; Schallop's Der Schachwettkampf zwischen Wilh. Steinitz und J. H. Zukertort, 1886; Schweigger's Zukertort's Blindlings Schachspiel, Berlin, 1873.]

T. S.