Winner's POV: London 1883 Part 2

Winner's POV: London 1883 Part 2

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In Winner's POV, we take a look at tournaments from the 19th century and see the games that allowed the top player to prevail. Some tournaments will be known and famous, others will be more obscure - in a time period where competition is scarce, I believe there is some value in digging for hidden gems in the form of smaller, less known events.

London 1883: Zukertort's Magnum Opus

If this is your first time checking into my blog, or if you want to refresh your memory, please check out part one here

We're now going to be looking at the second half of the event. The standings at the end of the first half are as follows:

Let's do a little housekeeping before jumping into the action. After a couple games in the second half, Arthur Skipworth would withdraw from the tournament under his doctor's orders. Additionally, the order of opponents changed in the second half, so things will look a little different than the last chapter. Finally, some replayed games did not take place immediately - we were somewhat lucky that all draws fell on opportune days last time (it was scheduled that every third day would be reserved for replayed games, and Zukertort's draws happened to line up with these perfectly). Because of this, I'll be skipping the notion of rounds for this chapter, and presenting the games in the order they were played, convenient or otherwise.

The Winner: Johannes Zukertort

Doing a two-part series where we cover the same person in both parts is foreign territory, but it's well worth it for an event like this. Let's resume our adventure as we continue exploring the London 1883 tournament from the Winner's POV.

vs. Henry Bird

I've been very critical of Bird every time he's taken part in this series, and I think it's for good reason. His "master" status was solely due to a single match played in 1866 (which he didn't win), and his tournament results have always been middling at best. His opening ideas are questionable, his positional understanding is lacking, and his endgame skills are below other subjects we've looked at.

When contemporary commentators discuss Bird, they like to focus on his combinational ability, and this game certainly fits in with that narrative. Facing a bad position for the first 40 moves (due in part to his insistence on using his own Bird's Attack), he found a nice pawn sacrifice that ended up tricking Zukertort into walking into a drawn endgame. Later, he played a pleasing exchange sacrifice that caused some commentators to even believe he was winning. It was a very complex endgame that went back and forth, but after nine hours' play and an adjournment, it was ultimately drawn...

Until it wasn't. It's still a fun game, though.

vs. Berthold Englisch

One thing we've not seen much of in this tournament is Zukertort getting in bad opening positions, which happened here after his strange 9... Ng8 move. Englisch immediately thrust forward, grabbing space and saddling Zukertort with isolated Kingside pawns. Our subject has always been crafty, and he placed his pieces as aggressively as possible, hoping for a mistake. It came on move 20, when Englisch incorrectly snapped up a pawn and quickly found himself on the receiving end of a Knight sacrifice that completely opened up his King.

With a draw in his pocket, Zukertort instead opted to go into a very unbalanced endgame, which I've championed in previous notes across this series. It worked perfectly in Zukertort's head, as he steered the game towards a King and pawn ending that he believed was winning. While Englisch did have a way to save the game a couple of times, he failed to do so, and our subject grinds out another win. A particularly tough blow for Englisch, I imagine, whose passive style rarely earns such winning positions out of the opening.

vs. George Mackenzie

In their first half encounter, Mackenzie refused to play the Mackenzie Spanish with White; Zukertort remedied that, fulfilling our one-Mackenzie-variation-per-Mackenzie-matchup quota. The players followed their Vienna 1882 game for the first 9 moves, and after the deviation, Zukertort went for a couple of trades that left Mackenzie with the worse pawn structure. The Captain did have the development lead, and the pressure it applied resulted in Zukertort panicking and dropping his e-pawn.

Thankfully for Zukertort, Mackenzie didn't seem to be playing with the most ambition, and Zukertort was able to drum up plenty of activity for the pawn. He found fun tactics and applied plenty of pressure to Mackenzie's King, ensuring there was no chance to use this extra pawn while exchanges whittled things down to an opposite-coloured Bishop endgame. It's a good save for Zukertort, and not the worst result for Mackenzie, who received another chance with the White pieces.

The replayed game did not take place for some time, so just keep track of this for later.

vs. James Mason

This guy never seems to play boring games when we feature him, and this game keeps up that reputation. Mason delayed castling, which gave him the freedom to go after the Kingside while Zukertort played for the center. A Greek Gift sacrifice (that wasn't accepted) was part of the sequence that ultimately lead to Mason equalizing, turning the game into an opposite-coloured Bishop middlegame where Zukertort had the initiative but no tangible weaknesses to attack.

As play dragged on past the time control, Zukertort was able to gain a passed pawn, but it would promote on the wrong colour, so the game was not yet winning. However, its presence clearly caused Mason to get nervous, and he dropped a pawn before allowing his Rook to be traded, throwing his ship off course. His last-ditch counterattack backfired, and once Zukertort had traded to a pure Rook endgame, the conversion was simple. This was a very professional game from Zukertort, who made the most of his initiative and never really relinquished it until the very end of the game.

vs. Mikhail Chigorin

The players opened this one in very slow fashion, the first trade not occurring until move 11, but immediately causing a direct fight for the center. Both players missed a strong resource on move 16, with Zukertort having the opportunity to net a pawn. As it happened, Chigorin was allowed a very interesting setup: he allowed Zukertort to get a passed pawn on d5, but he cemented a Knight in front of it before exchanging off dark-square Bishops. The resulting setup was unable to be broken down by Zukertort, and the players spent a long time shuffling before eventually agreeing to the draw.

vs. Josef Noa

Had you not told me who was playing Black, knowing what I know about the play in this tournament, I may have guessed this game was played by Blackburne. The Black Death's preference throughout this tournament was to equalize with safe exchanges, only pressing in the endgame. One of his model endgames was played against Noa in the first half, coincidentally.

This game played out in a very similar way. Zukertort more than equalized out of the opening, though he used his initiative only to trade down into an endgame where Noa had to coordinate two Knights. This proved easier said than done, and the pair found themselves very awkwardly placed on the Kingside for most of the game. Zukertort took advantage of a couple inaccurate moves around the third time control, obtained a passed pawn on the Kingside, and converted diligently. An expected result, no doubt, but seeing such smooth wins is always interesting.

Replay vs. Chigorin

I'm somewhat glad that this game was delayed, as it also delayed how long until I had to write about an Evans Gambit Declined (barf). It was believed that Zukertort was going for absolute safety given he already had the tournament practically locked up, but if that was the goal, it was definitely not met. Zukertort allowed Chigorin to gain a pawn in exchange for central play, and fortunately for our subject, Chigorin went wrong very quickly. Following a series of exchanges, the pawn was regained and Zukertort's forces were skillfully mobilized, while Chigorin's minor pieces were left on the Kingside out of play.

Facing complete ruin on the Queenside, Chigorin had no choice but to go on a King hunt, which he did following an understandable exchange sacrifice. The hunt was unsuccessful, but one certainly can't say that Chigorin didn't go down swinging. This game would bring their lifetime score to 4-1 in favour of Zukertort, who would never play another game against the Russian prodigy (he was 32 at the time of this tournament, but that's still younger than most of the rest of the field).

vs. Wilhelm Steinitz

The animosity between these two is palpable, and very entertaining to look at in retrospect. Zukertort has definitely been among Steinitz's biggest obstacles in claiming to be the best in the world, as their tournament record is not what Steinitz would like (Zukertort scored 1.5/2 at Vienna and was better for most of their first game in this tournament). There have also been many annotating arguments, with Zukertort making reference to many of Steinitz's notes from The Field in his own notes. There are very good reasons why it would be these two playing for the first World Championship in 3 years' time.

One major disagreement these two had was about opening theory, with Zukertort believing that all 1. e4 e5 openings give the advantage to Black, so such an opening was naturally the battleground for this game. This particular Spanish was not good for Black, especially with Zukertort's 10th move giving Steinitz the opportunity to gain all the central space he could possibly ask for. Despite this objective advantage, Steinitz never found a way to turn it into anything material, while Zukertort stuck to his guns and amassed all of his forces on the Queenside. The a-pawn flew forward, and once it was taken, Zukertort's position was freed immensely and he had equalized.

After the second time control had passed, both players had chances to trade down into probably drawn endgames, but neither blinked immediately, both believing there was more to play for. It was Steinitz who correctly pulled the breaks on move 39, playing the move that initiated mass trades and left both players with only a Rook and pawns by the third time control. Yet somehow, with plenty of time on the clock, Steinitz miscalculated when he captured Zukertort's c-pawn, and the resulting endgame was dead lost for him. Now this is a tough game to lose (much like the first one was for Zukertort).

vs. Szymon Winawer

These two have probably discussed the Spanish with both colours more than any other pairing, with Zukertort choosing to use Morphy's 5th move in this game. He seemed to get the better opening, though the complexity was properly revealed after move 15, with both players misevaluating the position and its resources. However, Zukertort could always claim to have a strong resource in his Kingside pressure, given to him primarily through his Bishop pair vs. Winawer's Knights. Especially after our subject pushed 20... f5, his ambitions were made crystal clear.

Unfortunately for Zukertort, the miscalculations continued only a few moves into his attack. His 23... Qf7 move gave Winawer a very valuable tempo, and that tempo was used to get his Knights into an extremely solid setup. The attack lost all steam pretty much immediately, and the players ended up trading down into a dead drawn endgame that (thankfully) wasn't played out all the way.

For the return game, Zukertort opted to go back to his 1. d4 setup, which involved gaining lots of space on the Queenside. Winawer responded by setting up a Fishing Pole trap, which Zukertort eventually took; had he played 17... Nf6 instead of 17... f5, this game may have become a textbook example of the trap working in the middlegame. Instead, Winawer saw one of his pawns drop, and while he was technically holding on after the Rooks came off, it was going to be a dreadful task to hold.

If you look at Zukertort's notes for the game, you'll see that he believes his position to be winning for a very long time. Given how many difficult decisions Winawer has to make (when can he move his King, which diagonal should his Bishop be on, etc), it's hard to fault this assessment. The decisions were so difficult that Winawer reportedly thought for a full hour on his 51st move, and this probably lead to him getting in time trouble around his 60th move. This infamous move was where his objective blunder took place, and finally Zukertort broke through. I'll admit, we're getting a lot more endgame grinds than I expected when I first started looking at this tournament. I'm not complaining.

vs. Joseph Blackburne

Speaking of endgame grinds, one would expect a Blackburne game to include one of those, given that seemed to be his MO throughout this tournament. However, we've yet to see one from him, and we're not going to see one now. This game is what happens when you don't get a chance to study games in the middle of the tournament; had Blackburne looked at the Zukertort-Englisch game from the first half, there's no chance he would have gotten into this mess. Instead, we have a Blackburne game giving us the position from the thumbnail once again, and I will once again leave you to enjoy this complete massacre with little commentary.

vs. Samuel Rosenthal

This game is one where the cracks finally started to show in Zukertort's armor, notably with his 14th move. He was given the opportunity to bail out with a relatively quick draw, but his insistence to play on left him with a worse position, as he had the worse pawn structure and had to contend against Knights in a rather closed position. In his quest to open up the position, he opened up his King as well, and Rosenthal attacked it vigorously. The evaluation shifted up and down as neither player found the best moves for attack and defence, and Zukertort should have considered himself very lucky to have built a survivable position following the move 30 time control.

Perhaps due to inertia, exhaustion, or some other factor, Rosenthal continued to attack Zukertort's King, despite the attack not being there. White pawns began dropping off the board, and with each one, Rosenthal came no closer to playing the killer blow. His own King was actually quite vulnerable to certain counterattacks, and while this didn't end up manifesting in the game, it was perhaps what caused him to play the move that hung his Rook in the end. 

The Aconite Incident

Rather than go through the final few games in the usual manner, I'd like to switch things up a little. As a preface, I'd like to share the following excerpt from the tournament book:

"It was well known to his friends for the last ten days, while he had been completing the roll of the successive victories with which his second round had opened, that he had been compelled to drench himself nightly with a most virulent poison to keep up his failing energies to the mark. But Nature would not submit to any such dictation, and at last the long-threatened breakdown occurred, fortunately when it was too late to deprive the champion of the Tournament of his well-merited honours."

Now, this is the 19th century we're talking about, so a "virulent poison" could be pretty much anything. A more specific name is provided in an 1888 edition of the British Chess Magazine:

"So severe a contest as the Tournament of 1883 was not as may be supposed, without its effect upon the winner. Zukertort, who from an early stage had been compelled to sustain himself by terrible doses of aconite, almost broke down at last, and his health, never robust, began to give his friends grave anxiety."

As with many chemicals, aconite has a long history as both a medicine and a poison. In particular, a homeopathic use for aconite is to decrease mental tension, anxiety and nervousness, which I'll wager is what it was being chiefly used for here. It has a wide range of side effects, and thankfully the specific details of Zukertort's condition are rather vague, because this isn't a topic I've had too much fun looking into.

Anyway, at this point in the tournament, Zukertort had three matches left to complete: his replay against Mackenzie (remember that?), as well as against Sellman and Mortimer. Out of respect for Zukertort's health being very poor (as the games will show), I've decided not to comment on any of these games, and instead leave you with his own notes as given in the book. 


Obviously the final result is incredible; Zukertort's performance was so unbelievably dominant that he was able to lose the last three games and still finish many points ahead of second (who himself finished about as far ahead of third). What's also interesting is that this tournament looks to be the final one for a handful of the participants for many years. Neither Steinitz nor Zukertort would participate in another tournament before their 1886 match, with Steinitz not playing in another tournament until 1894. Chigorin would also not be seen playing in another tournament until his own World Championship match in 1889. It would seem some players needed a break, and honestly, same.

The London 1883 tournament brought together the leading players of the world, put them through an absolute gauntlet of a format, and produced the most dominant result of all time (up to this point in time). The action wasn't yet over, as the 3rd German Chess Federation congress was set to start in less than a month after the conclusion of this tournament. I doubt I'll have the accompanying post written within the month, though. 

The Vizayanagaram Tournament