Kolisch: Unknown Tactical Monster

Kolisch: Unknown Tactical Monster

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(I want to thank’s finest chess historian, batgirl, for articles shared, the photos you see in this article, and her very useful feedback when I asked her about Kolisch. If you don’t follow her blogs and articles you are foolishly depriving yourself of some of the best material on this website.)

Baron Ignatz von Kolisch (1837 – 1889) was born in Pressburg (Austrian Empire), which today is Bratislava, Slovakia. While a young man, he was the private secretary of the Russian Prince Sergey Urusov (who was a close friend of Leo Tolstoy!). Kolisch eventually got involved in banking when he met Albert Salomon von Rothschild, and after that, the sky was the limit.

Regarding his chess, I was wondering how Kolisch got interested in the game when it struck me that Prince Urusov, who was ten years older than Kolisch and a very strong player (International Master level!), most likely took him under his wing and became - aside from his employer - his chess teacher. This makes a lot of sense, though I have no proof that this is true. Even so, Kolisch had a deep love for opening gambits, and Urusov was the creator of the Urusov gambit (1.e4 e5 2.Bc4 Nf6 3.d4). In other words, it is quite possible that Urusov’s infatuation with gambits is what may have influenced Kolisch to embrace the same love affair.

Here is batgirl’s take on my teacher/student theory:

“I’m not sure I could make the stretch of Urusov being Kolisch’s teacher, but most certainly, being associated with the brothers Urusov and traveling in their circles, which included the best chess players in Russia, he must have had a huge impact and influence on Kolisch’s embracing of chess.

Kolisch also strongly influenced Prince Dadian when they met in Homberg, Germany in 1867. There Dadian met Thomas Wilson Barnes, the man with the best record against Morphy, who instructed him, but Kolisch was the man at that time and he and Dadian, basically a novice with a lot of money, played many games. That Dadian won a Muzio against Kolisch at that time probably says more about Kolisch’s tact than Dadian’s nascent talent.”

One of's most active members and contributors ever: batgirl! Click her avatar picture above for her latest article.

Though Kolisch could play strong positional chess and excellent endgames when he had to, his style was mainly dedicated to violent attacks and slashing tactical takedowns. He was a genius in this form of chess, but often went too far in his search for thrills and beauty. In fact, at times his games incorporated a bit of gambling in that he “threw the dice” in the hopes that his opponents would drown in the not-quite-sound complications he created. I have to admit that most of his gambles paid off, and that he was able to defeat other opponents from beginning to end.

Except for a few offhand games, Kolisch only played serious chess from 1860 to 1868. A multimillionaire, businessman, writer, and chess patron, he gave up serious play after 1868 (at 31 years old) and devoted himself to business.

One might think that someone who only played for a few years couldn’t have made much of an impression in the chess world, but nothing could be further from the truth. Chessmetrics had Kolisch as the number one player in the world in 1867, number two in 1862, number three in 1860 and 1863, and number four in 1861! His highest Chessmetrics rating was a flabbergasting 2785!

I decided to share his games and his life since he’s someone very few people have heard of, yet he was one of the strongest players of the 19th Century. And there is another reason why I delved into this gentleman’s past: unlike most players (both long ago and also today) who live lives of quiet desperation, complete poverty, or with barely sufficient means, Kolisch seems to have been successful in every endeavor he embraced.

His first exposure to serious chess was in 1860 (23 years old), and what a year it was! He literally went from an unknown to one of the top five players in the world - all in the span of a few months!


Paris 1860: 11 Game Match vs. Adolf Anderssen

The match ended in a tie, both sides winning five games, with only one draw.

One of the funniest things about this match is that both players were known berserkers, and Kolisch, instead of trying to pull Anderssen’s teeth by using positional methods, went head-to-head/mano-a-mano with him. For example, as White he dared toss the King’s Gambit at Anderssen three times (winning all three games)! Evidently, this crazy “go for his throat” strategy worked!

Here are two examples (in both White goes for a little king walk right in the opening!):

Cambridge 1860: 3rd British Chess Association Congress

Kolisch dominated the event by beating Edwin Geake two to zero and Charles Stanley (who had a high Chessmetrics rating of 2530) three to zero.

Puzzle 1:

London 1860: Three Game Match vs. George Maude

Kolisch won easily, enjoying a three game shutout.

In the following game, we see Kolisch get a nice edge in the opening.

Kolisch – George Maude, [C51]
London 1860

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Bc5 4.b4 Bxb4 5.c3 Bc5 6.0-0 d6 7.d4 exd4 8.cxd4 Bb6 9.Nc3 Bg4 10.Qa4 Bxf3 11.d5 Bg4 12.dxc6 bxc6 13.Qxc6+ Bd7 14.Qd5 Be6 15.Bb5+ Kf8 16.Qd3 Ne7 17.Nd5 Bxd5 18.exd5 Ng6 19.Bb2 Qg5 20.Rae1 Nf4 21.Qe4 f5 22.Qf3 Ng6 (22...Qg4 23.Qxg4 fxg4 24.Re4 Ng6 25.Rxg4 with a clear advantage.) 23.Re6 Kf7 24.Rfe1 Rhf8

and now we will create a puzzle:

Puzzle 2:

Manchester, 1860: Four Game Match vs. Bernhard Horwitz (three to one)

Horwitz (who died in 1885) was a top five player in his prime with a high Chessmetrics rating of 2615, but it has to be said that he more or less retired after 1857. He played a bit in 1860 and 1861 before giving up the game for good.

Puzzle 3:

Manchester 1860: Eight Game Match vs. John Owen

Owen’s highest Chessmetrics rating was 2533, and he was number five in the world in 1862. Their match ended in a tie, four to four (no draws!).

London 1860: Eleven Game Match vs. Thomas Barnes

Keep in mind that Steinitz pointed out that Barnes had the best score of anyone in off-hand games vs. Morphy, so Kolisch’s demolition of Barnes by a score of ten to one (with no draws!) had to be a shock. Barnes’ highest Chessmetrics rating was an impressive 2570, which gives you some insight into just how strong Kolisch was.

Bristol 1861, 4th British Chess Association Congress

Kolisch was knocked out in the first round after losing one to two (one loss and two draws) to Louis Paulsen (who went on the win the event). Chessmetrics has Paulsen in the world number one and two spots for several years, with a high rating of 2785, so the young Kolisch’s defeat was nothing to be ashamed of.

London 1861: Nine Game Match vs. Adolf Anderssen

A very close back and forth affair, they were tied after eight games, with Anderssen winning the final game (four wins, three losses, two draws). Anderssen was one of the best players in the world from 1850 to 1879 (Chessmetrics has Anderssen as the world number one in 1857, with an all time high rating of 2690).

London 1861: 31 Game Match vs. Louis Paulsen

An epic tussle, with Paulsen taking it by a nose with a 16-15 score (seven wins, six losses, 18 draws)!

In game two of the Paulsen match, Kolisch (as usual) threw everything but the kitchen sink at his opponent. And he didn’t hold back in this game either!

Puzzle 4:

Puzzle 5:

White’s a pawn up in an endgame, but the bishops of opposite colors make things difficult since Black’s bishop makes it hard for White to advance his queenside pawns. How did Kolisch solve this dilemma?

Saint Petersburg 1862: Eight Game Match vs. Ilya Shumov

Kolisch won six to two (no draws). The odd thing about this match was that Kolisch lost the first two games, apparently took his face out of the vodka bottle, and then reeled off six straight wins! Shumov’s highest Chessmetrics rating was 2492.

Puzzle 6

Puzzle 7:

Saint Petersburg 1862: Four Game Match vs. Sergey Urusov

The match was tied, two to two (no draws). Urusov (whom I postulated might have been Kolisch's teacher) had a Chessmetrics rating of 2485.

Paris 1864: Eight Game Match vs. Philip Hirschfeld

After six games, Kolisch was down two games with two to play, but he got his act together and won the last two to tie the match four to four (with no draws). Chessmetrics had Hirschfeld as number six in the world in 1864, with a high rating of 2547.

Puzzle 8:

Puzzle 9:

Puzzle 10:

Here’s a fun one!

Paris 1864: Eight Game Match vs. Samuel Rosenthal 

Rosenthal had a high Chessmetrics rating of 2615 though he was just starting out in 1864. Though never as strong as Kolisch, the final result of seven to one (with no draws) must have been an ego-slap of epic proportions.

Paris 1867

A powerhouse tournament filled with a myriad of top players. Fortunately for Kolisch it was held during his prime, and he came in clear first place ahead of Winawer (Chessmetrics rating: 2658), Steinitz (Chessmetrics rating: 2834), Neuman (Chessmetrics rating: 2713), De Riviere (Chessmetrics rating: 2581) and many others. He had a win and a draw vs. Steinitz.


Puzzle 11:

Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to mop up White’s position.

Puzzle 12:

White’s an exchange up and should win, but how many times do these “easy wins” turn sour? In this puzzle you need to finish the opponent off in the same way Kolisch did.

Puzzle 13:

Cambridge 1868

Kolisch won the event, though I can’t find any record of the other competitors.

Here’s a bunch of other puzzles (mostly from offhand games):

Puzzle 14:

Puzzle 15:

Puzzle 16:

Black’s down an exchange but his pieces are far better than White’s rooks, while the a3-bishop is buried. In other words, White is completely busted.

Puzzle 17:

Though Kolisch was a tactical and attacking genius, he could also handle himself in positional or endgame situations. Here’s an example (no puzzle this time):

Another example (against the same opponent) demonstrates how he creates total positional domination only to finish off with some sharp, tactical blows: 

Puzzle 18:

Black’s in a bad way. White’s rooks are sending pain down the e-file, the e6-pawn is an obvious target, Black’s king is a bit airy, and counterplay is nowhere to be seen.

Puzzle 19:

Puzzle 20:

Puzzle 21

Puzzle 22:

17.Nc7 Bc5 18.Nxa8 Bxa8 

Not done solving puzzles? Tactics Trainer is waiting!

Sadly, being a true gentleman, being a business mogul, being a chess genius, and/or having all the money in the world can’t save you when your time has come, and Kolisch died of kidney failure in 1889 at only 52 years of age.

This photo is from H.F.Gastineau’s annual chess garden party of 1873


Standing, from left to right, Baron Kolisch, Bernhard Horwitz, William Norwood Potter, Johann Lowenthal, H.E. Bird, Joseph Henry Blackburne and an unidentified amateur. Seated, Wilhelm Steinitz, H.F. Gastineau (the patron) and Cecil De Vere.

Here is an article written by none other than Wilhelm Steinitz in 1889 about Kolisch’s death:

The Death of Baron Ignatz Kolisch

By Wilhelm Steinitz

We deeply regret to learn the death of this celebrated master which occurred on the 1st of May, at the age of 52 years. Ignatz Kolisch was born at Pressburg in the year 1837, and made his first appearance in Vienna Chess circles at the age of 19. He showed his remarkable genius in contests with masters like Hammppe and Jenai with whom he held his own albeit his youth. In 1859, he made his debut as a European celebrity by defeating Harrwitz in two off-hand games at the Cafe de la Regence, and in the same year he proceeded to England where he encountered successfully some of the strongest English players, notably the late Mr. Barnes who had made the best score against Morphy in off-hand games but whom Kolisch defeated by the extraordinary score of 12 to one.

In 1860, Kolisch won the first prize in the tournament of the British Chess Association held at Cambridge, Stanley taking second place. In the same year his celebrated match with Louis Paulsen for ten games up, which is one of the most remarkable on record, was arranged. Kolisch lost at first five games to one, but with firm tenacity he drew game after game, occasionally adding a win to his score, until at last the match was given up as drawn, Paulsen standing only seven to six with no less than 19 draws.

In the Bristol Tournament of 1861, the two players met again in the final round for first and second prizes and this time Paulsen won both games. In the same year Kolisch played a match with Anderssen for the first four games, which was won by the Prussian master by the odd game. Sometime after he defeated Schumoff at St. Petersburg and Rosenthal decisively in matches. In the year 1867 Kolisch achieved his greatest triumph in the Paris Tournament where he won the chief prize offered by the late Emperor Napoleon III, Winawer coming out second, Steinitz third, and Neumann fourth.

In consequence of this success he challenged Morphy, who was at the time on a visit to Paris, for a match, but the great American master declined the contest, on the ground it is said, that Kolisch had been defeated by Anderssen and Paulsen, who had not taken part in the Paris Tournament, but over whom, he, Morphy, had achieved a decided success. It is much to be deplored that this contest which surely would have been a most interesting one did not come off, and we can only add, according to the views prevalent in our time, that Kolisch was fully entitled to offer his challenge, and provided that he otherwise proposed fair terms, Morphy was bound to accept the challange or to abdicate any claims to the championship.


Wilhelm Steinitz | Image Wikipedia

After his great victory in Paris, Kolisch retired altogether from direct match and tournament play and only took part as a leader for the Austrian side in the consultation match of two games by telegraph and correspondence between London and Vienna which commenced in I872, and after a duration of 20 months, ended by one game and a draw in favor of England whose games were conducted by Messrs. Steinitz and Potter.

For several years before the Paris Tournament and up to the time of his death, Kolisch devoted himself to financial speculations which turned out most successful, and he realized a large fortune especially during his residence in Paris from 1873 to 1880. In the latter year he returned to Vienna and shortly afterward received the Baron title of one of the German principalities. He, however, never relinquished his love for the game which had given him the first start in life, and the chess world is indebted solely to his influence for the organization of the Baden Tournament in 1870.

He was also, along with Baron Rothschild of Vienna, the main promoter of the two Vienna Tournaments of 1873 and 1882, and he liberally contributed to the funds of those tournaments, as well as to the London Chess Congress of 1883, and to other chess institutions of a similar description. As a player Kolisch chiefly belonged during his short and brilliant career to the old school and he was gifted with most remarkable powers of originality, brilliancy and depth of combination that made him one of the most skillful and ingenious generals in the conduct of the kingside attack that ever appeared in the chess arena.

In giving large odds to inferior players he hardly ever had an equal, and some of his games at the odds of a knight or rook belong to the finest on record. In his match and tournament play he showed some indications of the circumspective style which tends to hold the balance all over the board and seizes the slightest advantage at any point, but in that respect he was a little inferior to his great opponent Louis Paulsen who may be regarded as one of the first pioneers of the modern school. Kolisch was however, undoubtedly superior to Paulsen in the final tactics on the kingside and for brilliancy and originality of conception combined, his style would only yield the palm to Anderssen of all the opponents whom he encountered in matches. To sum up his record, he must be regarded as inferior to Paulsen as a match player whilst his chief victory in Paris cannot place him on an equal rank as a tournament player with Anderssen who three times in succession, namely: in London 1851, London 1862, and Baden 1870 bore off first honors against much stronger teams than Kolisch encountered in Paris. But it should be stated on the other hand that Kolisch had very little theoretical knowledge and that his original powers chiefly sustained his remarkable success which records his name undoubtedly among the greatest masters of the age.


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