Canada's Nineteenth Century Chess Visitors II: the blindfold experts

By Stephen Wright

(All the games in this article, along with some additions, are available in a PGN file.)

Johannes Zukertort and Joseph Blackburne shared much in common. Born within a year of each other, they both became involved in chess in their late teens; both developed into world-class players, as well as specializing in blindfold exhibitions; both were based in England, but travelled extensively around the globe; and both visited Canada in the 1880s.

Johannes Hermann Zukertort (1842-1888)

A participant in the first official match for the title of World Champion (against Steinitz in 1886), Zukertort is a problematic figure for the chess historian. Not so much for his tournament results, which are well-documented, but because of the many outlandish claims Zukertort made, particularly regarding his non-chess achievements. These have been viewed with scepticism for quite some time, but in the last ten years research has shown many of these claims to be false. A typical list of Zukertort's supposed accomplishments can be found at Bill Wall's Chess Site; by comparison, Zukertort has been called an "inveterate braggart" by Jan Timman and Robert Hübner, while Hans Ree has associated his name with that of Baron Munchausen. The most recent biography of Zukertort, thoroughly researched, is Arcmistrz z Lublina (Grandmaster from Lublin) by Cezary Domański and Tomasz Lissowski, but unfortunately it is only available in Polish and German. These matters need not detain us, except to note that despite the use of the title 'doctor' in the reports given below, Zukertort never completed an academic degree. "In April 1861 Zukertort enrolled in the faculty of medicine at Breslau University but for the next five years he spent much of his time playing chess ... and was struck from the register because of non-attendance. This brief brush with higher education enabled him to pass himself off as a doctor in later life." [Hooper and Whyld, The Oxford Companion to Chess, 2nd ed.]

Born in Lublin, Poland, Zukertort was induced to move to London in 1872 by a group of locals who felt he might be the player they were seeking to oppose Steinitz. At that time Zukertort could not meet their expectations, decisively losing a match to Steinitz +1 =4 -7, but in the next ten years he developed to the point where he and Steinitz were clearly the strongest players in the world, based on the results of two great tournaments. At Vienna in 1882 Steinitz tied for first with Winawer (24.0/34), ahead of Mason (23.0), Zukertort, and Mackenzie (both 22.5), but the next year in London Zukertort crushed a strong field, scoring a remarkable 22.0/26 to finish 3 points(!) in front of Steinitz with Blackburne third. Zukertort racked up the score of 22.0/23 before losing his last three games, attributed by some to the use of opiates to deal with the pressure. [It should be noted that only the scored results are indicated; in London drawn games were replayed twice before the result counted, so all the participants actually played more than 26 games.]

A championship match was inevitable (assuming the protagonists could come to terms); indeed, on the basis of his London result Zukertort was already regarded as champion in some circles. The British Chess Magazine of January 1884 noted with disdain that "We are sorry to see that some of the American and Canadian papers continue to dub him [Zukertort] 'the champion of the world' – a title to which he has no right, and which we think he ought himself to repudiate until he has proved himself superior to Mr. Steinitz in a set match." On his own part Zukertort was unwilling to engage in such a match so soon after his exertions in London. Instead he left England on October 20, 1883 for an extensive tour of the North American continent, partly as relaxation from the rigours of tournament play and partly to bring his name before the public in an attempt to secure backers for the title match. Beginning in the city of New York, Zukertort's itinerary took him to Baltimore, Washington, Louisville, Cincinnati, St. Louis, and Chicago before arriving in Toronto on January 22, 1884 by way of Niagara Falls. Judging by his Canadian stops it appears Zukertort's practice on the tour was to warm up with a peripatetic display, followed by a blindfold exhibition; he would also engage in offhand games or games at odds. As one of the two best players in the world Zukertort could command substantial fees: "[he] usually was not engaged for a specific time, but gave two performances at $100 each and the rest of the time either played gratis or amused himself and took it easy - i.e., for him it was a trip of recuperation." [Kurt Landsberger, William Steinitz, Chess Champion, using Turf, Field and Farm as a source] By comparison, a typical prize structure for the Canadian championship at the time was $20, $15, and $10.

Toronto

As we have seen previously, the top Canadian players at the time tended to be from the upper echelons of society, and such was also the case in Toronto. Among Zukertort's opposition was William Boultbee (1832-1902), Canadian champion in 1892, a civil engineer who had been involved in the construction of railways in both Canada and India; Charles W. Phillips, secretary of the Toronto club and chess columnist for the Toronto Week, who would later move to Chicago and become one of the top correspondence players on the continent; Dr. Isaac Ryall, Medical Officer of Health for Hamilton for the last quarter of the nineteenth century; and Henry N. Kittson, a member of the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce and also a strong correspondence player.

Zukertort began his Toronto engagement with individual games against various members of the Toronto Chess Club; giving each of his opponents knight odds, he scored +14 =1 -2. There then followed the two simultaneous exhibitions, on consecutive evenings:

Coverage of both events in the Toronto press was substantial, partly because Zukertort was one of the two strongest players in the world, but especially due to the novelty and sensational aspects of the blindfold display, the like of which had not been seen in Toronto before. Zukertort was asked in interviews how he accomplished such a staggering feat:

The actual display was also described in considerable detail: Even Zukertort's lapses became an opportunity to demonstrate his memory: "He made a false move on board No. 8. He recalled it, and to prove that it was a slip, he called out from his seat the position on the board to which his back was turned of every piece; and not one had been taken off in the game up to that time." [Toronto Mail, 26 January 1884]

Despite Zukertort's abilities his blindfold score was among the worst of the tour. The Toronto players were naturally ecstatic with the result, but it appears the home team had a powerful ally - the Canadian winter. Zukertort's visit coincided with an unusually cold spell which created havoc for the visiting master: "He laboured under the disadvantage of a cold room: he said the cold caused a rush of blood to his head making the twelve boards to swim before his eyes." [Toronto World, 28 January 1884] Like his rival Steinitz, Zukertort was a journalist as well as a strong player, and he wrote detailed reports on the tour which were published back in England. His account of the Toronto display was subsequently quoted in the New York Clipper newspaper, which elicited the following response from Charles W. Phillips:

We would only point out that the difference between -4 and -14 degrees fahrenheit is not particularly significant in this context: the two values equate to -22.5 and -28.75 degrees centigrade respectively. Instead Phillips felt Zukertort's result was due to the uniform strength of the Toronto players: "In our opinion the true reason for the Dr.’s comparatively small score lay elsewhere. The team opposed to him was composed of twelve strong players; there were no really weak men in it, and consequently the champion found it impossible to wipe out three fourths of his opponents in short order, and thus leave himself free to deal with his more powerful antagonists." [Ibid.]

One of the stipulations that Zukertort included in his blindfold exhibitions was that "any player finding himself at a serious disadvantage, with the loss of a piece or otherwise, should be called upon to resign." [Ottawa Citizen, 1 February 1884] This condition resulted in a series of exchanges in the Globe following the display. Dr. Ryall had won his game on board 7, but some of the onlookers felt he had needlessly prolonged a lost position until Zukertort blundered and lost. Ryall defended himself against his detractors, mentioning in passing the "freezing atmosphere of the Athenaeum" before stating that he never thought a draw was unattainable and that he "should feel satisfied and honoured to win such games from so distinguished a chess player." [Globe, 30 January 1884] The case was discussed to the point that a position from the game was published in the newspaper so readers could reach their own conclusions. Ryall felt vindicated and there the matter rested.

Ottawa

Zukertort's visit to Ottawa was arranged to coincide with the holding of the Canadian Chess Association Championship. The elder statesman of Canadian chess, John Bradford Cherriman (1823-1908), had been the driving force behind the founding of the CCA in 1872 while a professor at the University of Toronto. Cherriman subsequently moved to Ottawa in 1875 to become the first Superintendent of Insurance. The president of the CCA in 1884 was George E. Casey who was the MP for Elgin West; the Association was thus able to obtain the Railway Committee Room at the Houses of Parliament as a site for the championship and the adjunct displays. Zukertort was in Ottawa for over a week as the guest of the CCA and presumably played a number of individual and offhand games during that period, but we only have mention of three games against Cherriman, the professor winning one of them. Zukertort gave his two standard exhibitions at the beginning of his stay:

Presumably not bothered by cold on this occasion, Zukertort's scores were as one would expect. His opposition consisted of many of the competitors entered in the championship, including subsequent winner François-Xavier Lambert, John Henderson, Punchard, and Casey, along with Dr. Jesse Hurlburt (championship runner-up in 1874 and 1879) and Senator Thomas McInnes of B.C., among others. Cherriman played in the peripatetic simultaneous and won his game, but was teller for the blindfold display. “In consequence of the expense of these performances, the Canadian Chess Association did not offer any prizes at their meeting, except one presented by Prof. Cherriman (a handsome set of chess-men) to be competed for in the Minor Tourney” [British Chess Magazine, April 1884, 144]; no indication is given of how the championship players felt about this arrangement.

Montreal

Zukertort arrived in Montreal on the evening of February 9, and gave his two standard displays soon thereafter at the hall of the Natural History Society on University Street:

Apart from the Montreal players mentioned in the first article in this series Robert Short had emerged as a player of note, and indeed would win the Canadian championship in 1890. Short and John Henderson beat Zukertort in the blindfold exhibition, while Bemrose and Aldane secured draws.

While in Montreal Zukertort engaged in a number of contests at odds. He split a pair of games with a player named Benjamin at capped pawn or pion coiffé. Considered the most severe handicap in the nineteenth century game, the odds giver had to undertake to deliver mate with a designated pawn (usually the g-pawn); if the pawn was taken, the odds giver lost. Zukertort also played a series of games with Jacob Ascher, Canadian champion in 1878 and 1883. On even terms the players scored one win apiece, at pawn and move odds Zukertort won all three games, while at pawn and two moves Ascher achieved a win and a draw out of four games.

The Montreal chess fraternity had a tradition of fêting visiting masters at a banquet, and Zukertort was accorded the same treatment. In responding to a toast in his honour Zukertort noted that "after the London Tourney, he had made up his mind to travel round the world, and play chess in every country under British rule; he intended to play in India, and already had two invitations from native rulers to engage them at the game." [British Chess Magazine, April 1884, 144] Whether this disclosure was a true statement of Zukertort's plans or another example of his bravado is hard to say; in the event, he reached San Francisco on the U.S. West Coast but returned to Europe via the Atlantic Ocean, rather than the Pacific.

Quebec City

I do not have access to appropriate primary sources to give details of Zukertort's exploits in Quebec City, but will follow the lead of the British Chess Magazine of April, 1884: "we need only say that he repeated his previous exhibitions and triumphs." The BCM also provides no details, but in their report on the Montreal visit they list two blindfold displays. Given Zukertort's practice of conducting two displays in each location (one peripatetic, the other blindfold), the names of the two players mentioned (Burke and Fletcher), and the lack of evidence for a second Montreal blindfold display in the local press, I am reasonably certain that the second blindfold display listed in the BCM is in fact the Quebec City exhibition:

Postscript: Steinitz and Zukertort eventually agreed on terms and played the first official match for the world chess championship at the beginning of 1886; three cities, New York, St. Louis, and New Orleans, hosted the games. After the New York leg Zukertort was ahead 4-1, but was only able to gain one more win in the remaining fifteen games, whereas Steinitz won nine times to take the match (the victor was the first to amass ten wins). Zukertort was never the same after the match; broken in body and spirit, he suffered a stroke at Simpson's Divan in London two years later and died the next day.

Joseph Henry Blackburne (1841-1924)

In 1889 the sixth American Chess Congress was held in New York. The earlier congresses had largely been restricted to residents of America and thus served as the U.S. Championship, but the sixth congress was a thoroughly international affair, with half the participants coming from Europe. The tournament was intended as a candidates' competition, to determine a challenger for Steinitz's world crown. It was also gruelling: a twenty player double-round robin, with the proviso that draws in the second half were replayed once. The tournament was won by Weiss and Chigorin, Gunsberg was third, and Blackburne fourth. Also part of the field were Bird (tied for twelfth), Gossip (tied for seventeenth - as we shall see in a future article, he resided in Montreal for a short time in the 1890s), and two-time Canadian champion Nicholas MacLeod, still only a teenager, who unfortunately placed dead last.

The tournament, which lasted two months, ended on May 27, 1889. Henry Bird, a previous guest of the Montreal Chess Club in 1877, travelled to Montreal to visit his old friends; perhaps at Bird's suggestion, Blackburne followed soon thereafter. Unlike Steinitz and Zukertort, both of whom were journalists, most of Blackburne's income came from giving simultaneous displays (there were far fewer international tournaments in those days than there are now). "For more than 50 years he toured Britain twice yearly, with few breaks, for this purpose." [Hooper and Whyld, The Oxford Companion to Chess, 2nd ed.] But for Blackburne this was no austere intellectual exercise; he sought to truly entertain his patrons - it was, after all, good for business. "Before his time such displays were solemn affairs; Löwenthal, who would turn up in formal dress and play for several hours in silence, was shocked when Blackburne turned up in ordinary clothes, chatting and making jokes as he played, and refreshing himself with whiskey" [ibid.].

This philosophy extended to his blindfold exhibitions. Zukertort and Blackburne were the two greatest exponents of blindfold play in the second half of the nineteenth century, but while Zukertort set the world simultaneous blindfold record at sixteen opponents in 1876 and frequently took on twelve at a time, Blackburne was usually content to give displays of just six or eight games at once. Leaving aside the strain on the exhibitor, one of the main problems with large blindfold displays is the amount of time required, which can easily become tiresome for the sighted players. Blackburne deliberately limited the number of boards he took on, thus ensuring completion of the exhibition within a reasonable period of time and, presumably, happier customers. By contrast, as we have seen above, Zukertort's displays often extended into the early morning hours.

Blackburne was in Montreal for about a week, during which time he gave three regular (peripatetic) simultaneous displays and one blindfold exhibition:

There is no mention of additional individual or odds games in the news reports of the time, perhaps an indication of Blackburne's well-known dislike of odds giving. The displays were given in the rooms of the Natural History Society on University Street. We can infer a reasonable estimate of the cost involved; in 1889 the Tees Side Chess Association in England contracted Blackburne to give two simultaneous displays and a blindfold exhibition, for which he was paid 9 guineas (£9.45 - a guinea is 21 shillings or £1.05). Patrons were charged a shilling to play Blackburne, or two and a half times that amount for a blindfold game. Assuming the same rates and proportions, Blackburne's Montreal appearances would have cost 11 guineas, roughly equivalent to $1,700 in today's currency.

Newspaper coverage (John Henderson had been writing a weekly chess column for the Montreal Gazette since 1886) concentrated on Blackburne's blindfold display; unlike reports on previous visitors, only the bare results for the regular simultaneous events were given, with no indication of which players had drawn or beaten the master. The players who were assembled to face Blackburne in his blindfold exhibition were Messrs. Short, Ascher, Bemrose, Fleming, Cooke, Henderson, J. Barry, and White. These eight were not only the strongest Montreal had available but were among the best in the country: Ascher was Canadian champion in 1878 and tied for first in 1883, Fleming was the current title holder, and Short won the championship the following year. And with the exception of Bemrose, all the others placed second or third in the national tournament on multiple occasions. Ascher and Henderson were discussed in the first article in this series; Richard P. Fleming, Scottish by birth, was a civil engineer employed by the Montreal Sanitary Association, while Joseph P. Cooke was a lawyer who was subsequently elected to the Quebec Legislative Assembly.

"Mr. Blackburne was seated on the platform beside a bare table, with his back to the other players, who were arranged in a hollow square, within which walked the teller, Mr. T. Binmore." [Gazette, 12 June 1889] The exhibition commenced on Saturday, June 8 at 3 o'clock in the afternoon, but was adjourned three hours later. "When play was resumed at 8 o'clock, Mr. Blackburne called off the position of every piece on all the boards without an error" [ibid.]; apart from being a practical reassurance for the exhibitor, such 'calling offs' were regarded as great feats of memory by the onlookers and general public. The display lasted a total of seven hours, with Blackburne achieving three wins (against Ascher, Bemrose, and Fleming), one loss (Cooke), and four draws.

Mr. Blackburne "... sailed hence for England on Tuesday morning [June 11]. His visit will long be remembered in the chess circles of the city. He has paid our players the compliment of saying that his blindfold performance here was the best contested encounter of the kind he was ever engaged in." [Gazette, 12 June 1889] Considering the many hundreds of displays he gave during his professional career this statement was likely not literally true, but another example of Blackburne keeping his customers contented.

[As mentioned above, Blackburne's visit overlapped that of the "esteemed veteran" Mr. Henry Bird, who had so pleased the club members when he visited Montreal in 1877. Bird's 1889 sojourn received scant attention in the local press, but at least three of his games were published; they may be found in the linked PGN file at the top of this page.]