Johannes Zukertort - Romantic Champion


Johannes Zukertort
Johannes Zukertort
Johannes Zukertort (September 7, 1842 - June 19, 1888) was a chess master born in Lublin, Prussia (now Poland). At the time the territory was controlled by the Russian Czar. The family moved to Warsaw, Prussia (now Poland).

Zukertort was also a soldier, musician, linguist, journalist and political activist. He may have embellished his achievements in some of these fields but there is no denying his strength as a chess player.

He overtook Joseph Blackburne to become the second best chess player in the world and there is an argument that only his poor health stopped him from becoming the best. He contested the First Official World Championship in 1886 and his condition became a significant factor in the match.


Young Johannes




Johannes Zukertort was born into a Prussian family in Lublin, then part of Russian Poland
Johannes Zukertort was born into a Prussian family in Lublin, then part of Russian Poland
Johannes Hermann Zukertort was born Jan Herman Cukiertort, in Lublin, then Russian Poland (now Poland) on the 7th of September, 1842. His father was Yenkel Cukiertort, a Lutheran missionary and his mother was Baroness Krzyzanovska. Jan had a brother, Adolf.

Yenkel was converting Jews in Lublin to Christianity. This was illegal activity and put him in danger. The family decided to move to Warsaw, Prussia (now Poland) where it was safer for them.

They later moved to Lodz, Poland before eventually being expelled from Russian territory in 1855. They then settled in Breslau, Prussia. Here they could speak Polish and conduct their lives and affairs using Polish rather than Russian as was required in Russian Poland.

It was here that the family changed their name from Cukiertort to Zukertort. Yenkel taught Johannes to play chess in 1858.


The Prussian Academy




Johannes Zukertort attended Breslau Academy from 1861-65,66
Johannes Zukertort attended Breslau Academy from 1861-65,66
Zukertort entered his first tournament in Breslau in 1861 at the age of 19. It didn't go too well. He lost every game. It wouldn't be the end of his career. He wasn't one to lay down and die in the face of adversity.

He studied Bilguier's Handbuch and became acquainted with the great chess master of Breslau, Adolf Anderssen. Anderssen became his mentor and the two would play, according to Zukertort at least, 6,000 games of chess.

Anderssen schooled Zukertort on the finer points of Romantic Era chess. As a result Zukertort became the greatest tactician of his era and one of the greatest overall players. He enrolled at the University of Breslau in the same year, 1861.

He left in 1865 or 1866 claiming to be a doctor. He had not actually sat any of the intermediate or final exams and was not a doctor. He was removed from the students list by the university in 1867 for poor attendance.


Zukertort Goes to War




Zukertort was a member of the Prussian Medical Corps
Zukertort was a member of the Prussian Medical Corps
War broke out in 1866 between Prussia and Austria. The war lasted for seven weeks and gave Prussia more control over some German states that the two powers had been contesting.


Zukertort saw action as a member of the Prussian Medical Corps. He possibly passed himself off as a doctor even without any qualifications.


Zukertort definitely considered himself a doctor. Later in life he would not go to a doctor for examinations, treatments or prescriptions. He did self diagnosis and made his own decisions on his treatments.


Early Chess Days




Johannes Zukertort studied chess theory and soon improved
Johannes Zukertort studied chess theory and soon improved
As mentioned earlier, Zukertort's first tournament was a disaster. He didn't get a single point on the board. That might have been enough to convince a lesser soul to decide that chess was not his thing but not Zukertort.


He rolled up his sleeves and settled down to study. He got a copy of Bilguier's Handbuch. Paul Rudolf von Bilguier and Tassilo von Heydebrand und der Lasa dealt with all of the known openings at this time within the covers of this book.


Now armed with detailed knowledge of opening theory such as it was in those days, Zukertort's fortunes would soon see a dramatic upturn. His chess development and career would soon get another major boost. He came to know Adolf Anderssen and received intensive training from him.


Working with Anderssen




Johannes Zukertort improved dramatically by working with Adolf Anderssen
Johannes Zukertort improved dramatically by working with Adolf Anderssen
Anderssen showed Zukertort the ropes on how to spot and execute combinations. Zukertort would later become the primary chess tactician of the late 19th Century.


Zukertort credited his work with Anderssen as instrumental in his rise to prominence. Tactical play became the hallmark of his game.


Just 12 months after his disastrous opening tournament, Zukertort was recognized as the second best player in Breslau, behind only Anderssen. He also began giving blindfold exhibitions during the 1860s, starting with three boards. He would later be a renowned blindfold exhibitionist.


Zukertort's Meteoric Rise




Johannes Zukertort became a major player in the 1870s and 1880s
Johannes Zukertort became a major player in the 1870s and 1880s
Zukertort became a German citizen in 1866 and by 1867 was living in Berlin. Here he co-edited the Neue Berliner Schachzeitung (New Berlin Chess Newspaper) with Anderssen. He placed 4th in the 1868 German Chess Congress. Max Lange won the competition.

He played Anderssen in an official match for the first time in 1868. Anderssen won 8-3 with one game drawn. They played again in 1871. This time Zukertort won 5-2.

The owner of the magazine they edited closed the paper which was Zukertort's main source of income. He moved to London in 1872 and would later become a British citizen. After finishing third in a London tournament behind Steinitz and Blackburne, Zukertort got his first shot at Steinitz in a match. Steinitz won decisively, 7-1 with 4 drawn games.




Tournament and Match Results




Johannes Zukertort posted great results between 1877 and 1886 to stake his claim as the best player in the world
Johannes Zukertort posted great results between 1877 and 1886 to stake his claim as the best player in the world
Zukertort was now a member of the chasing pack behind William Steinitz. Anderssen, Blackburne and Zukertort were all trying to overtake the Bohemian maestro. Anderssen was considered second best in the early 1870s, but Blackburne and Zukertort would both overtake him soon.

He finished 2nd in Leipzig in 1877, edged out in the playoff by Anderssen. He then went one better, winning the German Chess Congress in Cologne the same year. Zukertort continued to grow stronger. He beat Winawer in the playoff to claim victory in Paris. With Anderssen now passed, Blackburne and Zukertort were competing for 2nd position in world chess. Zukertort beat Blackburne 7-2 (5 draws) in 1881. He finished 2nd behind Blackburne in Berlin a couple of months later however.

His finest hour would arrive two years later as he inexorably eased ahead of Blackburne to challenge Steinitz. He won London 1883, 3 points clear of Steinitz, prompting many to declare him the Unofficial World Champion. When he returned from a year long tour of North America, preparations to decide this issue began. Both sides negotiated terms for the first official World Championship. Eventually those terms were settled and the match was scheduled to take place in the United States in 1886.


1886 World Championship




Johannes Zukertort faced William Steinitz in the first official World Championship match in 1886
Johannes Zukertort faced William Steinitz in the first official World Championship match in 1886
The story goes that there was a banquet at St George's Chess Club to close the London 1883 tournament. Legend has it that when the Club President proposed a toast to the best chess player in the world, Zukertort and Steinitz both stood up to accept the acclaim.

They weren't exactly the best of friends. Zukertort had originally moved to London on invites by British chess authorities to more or less replace Steinitz who had apparently worn out his welcome with his at times less than gracious conduct.

With Paul Morphy now dead it seemed that a World Championship match was for the first time in more than 25 years worthy of the name. Negotiations dragged on for three years. Zukertort wanted to play it in London. Steinitz wanted to play in the US where he had now lived for 5 years. Zukertort relented when he was offered £750 to play in America. The winner would be the first to win 10 games and would also receive a quarter of the funds raised by the betting syndicate.

The match was staged in three US cities, the first 5 games in New York, the next 4 in St Louis with the remainder in New Orleans. Zukertort started fast in New York, got caught in St Louis and finally wilted in New Orleans as his health continually worsened throughout the match. Steinitz eventually emerged victorious by 10-5 (5 drawn games).


Zukertort's Decline




Johannes Zukertort saw his health and his chess take a downward turn after the World Championship
Johannes Zukertort saw his health and his chess take a downward turn after the World Championship
Zukertort had earlier been advised not to put himself under such intense pressure due to his poor health. He had been worn out after London 1883 and several other events. He had been taking pills to get through tournaments and they may have been doing long term damage.

He was especially broken after the World Championship defeat, psychologically as well as physically and a number of problems converged on him. He suffered from rheumatism and arteriosclerosis. He also had heart and kidney problems.

His results began to suffer. He finished 7th in London and worse still 15th in Frankfurt. Blackburne beat him 5-1 (8 games drawn) in 1887. Blackburne had not gotten better since the earlier match, Zukertort was losing ground.

Isidor Gunsberg, Mikhail Chigorin and Siegbert Tarrasch had passed both of them now. Ironically it was when Zukertort had regained some form and was leading a tournament in London in the summer of 1888 that he met his end. He was playing a casual game with another player when he suddenly had a seizure. He recovered somewhat but had to be taken to Charing Cross Hospital. He died there the following morning.


Legacy of Zukertort




Johannes Zukertort left a legacy of wonderful combinations and brilliancies
Johannes Zukertort left a legacy of wonderful combinations and brilliancies
Zukertort was the last of the great Romantic Era masters. His ability to put combinations together was superior to Steinitz. His wins in the World Championship were gained by tactical wizardry.


Steinitz had made his positional philosophies the cornerstone of his game. Eventually, over 20 games, his greater understanding of these principles gave him superior structures and positional advantages. This ultimately proved to much for Zukertort's tactical prowess.


Steinitz had won the argument that had been raging in the chess world for 13 years. All future champions would follow his footsteps refining and evolving his ideas. This would have a massive impact on opening theory too as positional openings took over from tactical ones in all player's repertoires. Nevertheless, the brilliancies of Zukertort and other great Romantic Era masters are still marvelled over to this day.


Moving On




Mikhail Chigorin
Mikhail Chigorin
As the 1880s gave way to the 1890s, Johannes Zukertort and Joseph Blackburne like Anderssen were no longer factors in the fight for the World Championship. Steinitz was the last man standing from this generation. He had outlasted them all through his positional know how.


When he looked around however, a new generation were on the horizon. Chigorin, Gunsberg, Tarrasch, Lasker and Pillsbury were joined by many others. These new up and coming masters would not be so easy to see off. Not only were they younger but they had adopted his doctrine. They could harness his ideas as well as he.


He would have to face these new pretenders in this new era. One of these players would represent a coming power in the game. That power was the Russian Empire and the man was Mikhail Chigorin.