Johannes Zukertort, Master of Dynamics

Johannes Zukertort, Master of Dynamics

| 30 | Chess Players

Johannes Zukertort was born September 7th, 1842 in Lublin, Poland. It’s always interesting to wonder what a person will eventually become — a life in the military perhaps, a businessman, will he struggle to survive, a doctor or lawyer, or will he be an artist of some sort? Anything and everything is possible after that first breath is taken. I suspect, though, that few parents would guess, “chess player!”

Johannes Zukertort | Image Wikipedia

To be fair, Zukertort was, at least at first, far more than a chess player. Zukertort himself was quite clear in his early accomplishments: he got a medical degree in 1866 (other sources say it was 1865) at the University of Breslau, served in the German medical corps in 1866 for the German army, he fought in many battles (including the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71) and was awarded several medals (the Order of the Red Eagle and the Iron Cross being two), he was an accomplished swordsman, and he was highly skilled in games like dominoes, whist, and of course chess. An extremely impressive list, but this wasn’t enough! He also claimed that he was from aristocratic descent (his mother was a baroness) and that he was fluent in 14 languages. One is left wondering if he had a cape and could fly.

Though I admit to being skeptical, I’m sure some of this was reality, some was padded (I think it’s been verified that he spoke fluent German, Polish and Yiddish by the age of 11, and he clearly spoke fluent English later in life, so his talent for languages is obvious), and some was probably total nonsense. We’ll never know. But the mere fact that he made these claims (and in the case of chess, backed it up!) tells us he was a man of great imagination, more than a little ego, a high degree of intelligence, and (as proved by his chess style) an abundance of creativity.



Zukertort learned how to play chess at the advanced age of 19 (in Breslau, Germany, which is now Wroclaw, Poland). Like all total beginners, he was terrible (his first tournament was a handicap event where he lost every game, though he got queen odds in all of them), but like all champions, he refused to stay that way. The great Adolf Anderssen lived in Breslau, and somehow they became friends. (If you’re serious about chess, hanging out with the world’s best player is as good as it gets!) Zukertort claimed to have played 6,000 games against Anderssen (initially he gave Zukertort knight odds), but whether it was 200 or 6,000, it all amounted to the same thing: vast and quick improvement! When he moved to Berlin in 1867 he was an extremely strong player, though still inferior to Anderssen and Steinitz.

In 1871 he beat the aging Anderssen 5-2 in a match (having won the Baden-Baden tournament in 1870 ahead of Steinitz, it’s clear Anderssen was still a chess powerhouse), but it’s still unclear whether it was a serious contest or just games between friends. Nevertheless, the victory gave him worldwide notoriety and that led to an offer (in 1872) from St. George’s Chess Club to move to England. It went well, and Zukertort and England proved to be a good match.

Of course, Zukertort was still inferior to Steinitz, but he did what he did best: patiently learning and improving.



  • Paris 1878: Equal first with Winawer (ahead of Blackburne, Mackenzie, Bird, Anderssen, and many others), whom he defeated in a playoff match 3-1.
  • London 1883: Clear first ahead of Steinitz, Blackburne, Chigorin, etc.
  • Match victory over Rosenthal in 1880 (12.5 – 6.5)
  • Match victory over Blackburne in 1881 (9.5 – 4.5)

These fine results, and the death of Anderssen in 1879, led to the popular view (after the 1883 London event) that Zukertort was the best player on earth or, at worst, second to Steinitz. And so, in 1886, these two giants of chess played a match (held in New York, St Louis, and New Orleans) to determine who would be the Chess Champion of the World.

Some might think that a match is a match, and the superior player will win. But there are always other factors involved, and in this case the “other factors” were enormous:

  • Steinitz had better nerves than Zukertort (a big plus for Steinitz).
  • They played this match at 400 pounds a side (that’s around $50,000 today!), and it goes without saying that whoever lost would be bankrupt. I would think both players would be completely freaked out. Here superior nerves are a huge advantage.
  • Zukertort’s health (due to poverty and a sense of isolation) had been sliding for quite a while, and his “interest” in laudanum (a potent tincture containing 10% powdered opium, including the alkaloids morphine and codeine) didn’t bode well.

Let’s quote Henry Bird:

“Steinitz and Zukertort actually played for 400 pounds a side, a sum neither party could afford to lose, even thought they could tax their chess supporters for it. Any chance of a return match which Zukertort so much desired, became impossible… There is too much reason to fear that the result of this match, and Zukertort’s sensitiveness to supposed coolness towards him afterwards mainly contributed to cause his premature break up and untimely end. I always advised him before the match, in justice to himself, to stipulate for a time limit of 20 or 25 moves an hour, and not to play for more than 100 pounds a side, the previous extreme maximum for the greatest matches, happy for him if he had observed this rule; as he himself admitted.”

As if the script had been written ahead of time, Zukertort took a commanding 4-1 lead, and then Steinitz cast off the heebie-jeebies and started to play better while poor Zukertort completely collapsed. The final score was 10-5 with five draws in favor of Steinitz.


After the match it goes without saying that Zukertort was a total wreck. Thomas Seccombe, in an article about the gutted challenger, had this to say:

“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.”

Tim Harding, in his excellent book, Eminent Victorian Chess Players (McFarland), wrote, “It seems likely that he had already suffered a minor stroke.” I have to agree with Mr. Harding. In fact, I asked Doctor Saidy if Zukertort’s symptoms pointed to a stroke, and he felt it was a very real possibility.

Clearly, Zukertort needed rest and lots of time to recuperate (if recuperation was at all possible). Unfortunately, he was now penniless and if he didn’t play he wouldn’t make any money. Thus he played and, in general, did horribly. It was very clear that Zukertort was no longer the same man that he was before the match. Oddly, he was doing very well in his final event (in 1888) but became ill (he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage), fell into unconsciousness in the hospital, and died the next day — he was only 45 years old.

Though Zukertort had supporters and friends, his final years were lived in poverty and ill health. I feel he was a lonely man, fueled by his desire to reach the highest chess heights. Once he was unable to do so, his flame burned out.



Zukertort was a great player when serious dynamic possibilities were present. But he was relatively weak when subtle and/or slow strategy was called for:

Johannes Zukertort – William Steinitz
World Championship match, 1886

1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.e3 Bf5 4.Nc3 e6 5.Nf3 Nd7 6.a3 Bd6

Here White makes a move that’s popular among amateurs (and among many computers) but which is actually just a poor move.


I can hear the masses scream, “That’s not bad, it’s good! White gains space and hits Black’s bishop at the same time. Silman is an idiot!”

Okay, while I can’t challenge the “Silman is an idiot” comment (I’ve done and said many, many, many (!) idiotic things in my lifetime), I can assure you that 7.c5 isn’t any good (7.Bd3 makes the most sense). The reason is that when the pawn was on c4 it put pressure against d5 (making Black’s central counter via …e6-e5 harder to achieve) and also allowed White to create an open (or half-open) file at some point by cxd5 (which would allow his rooks to enter the game). By pushing the pawn to c5, Black’s …e6-e5 is easy since d5 is now rock solid.

7...Bc7 8.b4 e5 9.Be2 Ngf6 10.Bb2 e4 11.Nd2 h5 12.h3 Nf8!

White’s pawns point towards the queenside, so White intends to open lines there by b4-b5xc6. Black’s pawns point towards the kingside, so Black will try and create chaos in that sector. His 12...Nf8 intends to bring the knight into the attack via ...Ng6-h4.

13.a4 Ng6 14.b5

Just to demonstrate how imbecilic computers are in certain positions (something pointed out by Gelfand during a recent after-game interview), the machines tend to think 14.a5 is a reasonable move. Actually it’s a “??” blunder since after 14...a6 the queenside is permanently blocked. This means that, for the rest of the game, Black will be able to lob boulders at White’s kingside while White can do nothing but watch, defend, and pray.

14...Nh4 15.g3

What about 15.0-0? Let’s make a puzzle out of it!

Puzzle 1:


15...Ng6 is safe and pleasant for Black but Steinitz, who was also a very good attacker, knew that Zukertort wasn’t a happy camper when he was forced to play the role of defender. 

16.Kf1 Nxe3+ 17.fxe3 Bxg3

Black has two pawns for the sacrificed piece, plus long-term pressure against White’s denuded king.

18.Kg2 Bc7 19.Qg1?

As I said, Zukertort wasn’t a great defender. White needed to find a way to run to the other side of the board with his king. Thus moves like 19.Nf1 or 19.Qf1 followed by a mad dash to f2, e1, and d2/d1 would have been better.

19...Rh6! and Black had a strong attack and eventually scored the full point.

Here’s the full game (the rest of the game is well worth seeing!):

On the other hand, give Zukertort dynamics and he was an untamable storm! Here’s an example:

Amos Burn - Johannes Zukertort
London, 1887

Black’s center pawns (known as “hanging pawns”) offer a dynamic structure since they control the b4-, c4, d4, and e4-squares and, at any moment, can burst the center open with a well-timed ...d5-d4 push. In fact, here the timing is NOW and the push gives Black a clear advantage:

23...d4! 24.Nh4

Threatening 25.Nf5+.

What happens if White tries to win the pawn by 24.Bxc6? It’s perfect puzzle material!

Puzzle 2:


Any good player, even a magnificent attacker like Zukertort, knows that sometimes queens need to be traded, and wins can sometimes only come via a positional fist. The exchange of queens ends White’s threat and retains all the advantages of Black’s position. 

25.Qxe5 Nxe5 26.exd4 cxd4 27.Ne2 d3 28.Nc3 Rd4


Burn panics due to the unrelenting pressure.

A simple threat, but a very strong move. 29.g3 creates a huge hole on f3: 29...Nf3+ 30.Nxf3 Bxf3 threatening both 31...Bxd1 and 31...Rh8 followed by ...Rh1 mate.

White’s best move is 29.Re1! but Black maintains the pressure by 29…Rxh4 30.Rxe5 Ng4 (threatening ...Rdh8 with mate on h1) 31.Re8! Rxe8 32.Bxe8 Ne5! (threatening 33...Nf3+!) 33.f3 Bxf3 and Black’s advantage is clear.

29...Rxf4 and White was busted and resigned on move 51.

 Puzzle 3:


Puzzle 4:


Puzzle 5:


Puzzle 6:


Puzzle 7


Puzzle 8:

Zukertort botched this endgame and allowed a draw. Can you do better?


Puzzle 9:


Puzzle 10:


Puzzle 11:


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