Person of day - 7 SEPTEMBER 2023
Johannes Hermann Zukertort was born in the Polish city of Lublin. Later in life, the candidate for the world chess crown claimed that his mother was Baroness Krzyżanowska and that his father was a missionary of the Protestant Church. Back then, Poland was part of the Russian Empire. Johannes’ father had a difficult time due to his religion and moved to Prussia with his son at first opportunity.
Zukertort graduated from an academy in Breslau before studying medicine at university. During the Franco-Prussian War, he served as a military doctor on the front. Johannes did not just write about his aristocratic origins- he also covered his knowledge of fourteen languages, his fencing abilities, his genius mastery of domino and whist, his physical fights, his seven wounds and seven medals- including the Order of the Red Eagle and the Iron Cross and his composition of two chess books and editorship of a chess magazine. Zukertort’s biographers agreed that the maestro liked to exaggerate and that the only truly verifiable claim was the last one- about the books and magazine.
Zukertort learned to play chess in Breslau when he was 19. Johannes played in the city’s championship and lost every game, which wounded the young chess player’s pride. He took up Bilguer’s textbook and began to train himself. Three years later, the newcomer was one of the strongest players in Germany. But the real credit should go to Adolf Anderssen- the uncrowned chess king and a brilliant master of attack. He became Zukertort’s teacher, sped up Johannes’ progress and tweaked his playing style. Later on, teacher and student played hundreds of unofficial games and three official ones; Anderssen won two and Zukertort one.
The new leader of German chess moved to Berlin, then to London. In 1878, Zukertort became a citizen of the British Empire. His rise to the world chess elite was no slower than his rise to the top of German chess: he triumphed in Paris in 1878 and won an additional match against Simon Winawer and thrashed Samuel Rosenthal (11,5:5,5) and Joseph Blackburne (9,5:4,5). In 1883, Zukertort came first at a super-tournament in London with 22 points out of 26, leaving behind Wilhelm Steinitz, Mikhail Chigorin, Henry Bird, George Mackenzie, James Mason, Winawer, Blackburne and other strong masters. He overtook second-placed Steinitz by a grand total of three points.
This fiasco hurt the future world champion- 11 years earlier, Steinitz had confidently defeated Zukertort 9:3. Wilhelm invited Johannes to play in a large match that would become the first world championship. At the start of the match, which took place in 1886 in New York, St Louis and New Orleans, Johann took a 4:1 lead, but afterwards he could not cope with the positioning wizardry of his remarkable vis-à-vis and lost 5:10 with five draws. Their contemporaries wrote that Zukertort and Steinitz’s contest went far beyond the chess board: at the opening ceremony, both raised a toast to “the greatest chess player”, each meaning himself.
Historians note that Zukertort was soon beset by health problems. However, the near-world champion did not go to hospital, instead preferring to cure himself since he was a doctor. Only two years later, when he was leading at another tournament, Zukertort died from a sudden cerebral haemorrhage.
Johannes Zukertort beat Paul Morphy’s record for blindfoldchess, playing 16 games simultaneously. This record remained until Harry Pillsbury’s time. He published a celebrated chess textbook with Jean Dufresne. Zukertort’s name underlines a popular system in the Queen’s Pawn Game.