What an Incredible Man!

Jan 2, 2010, 2:06 PM |

One of Morphy's most for-reaching accomplishments was that of  inspiring Joseph Blackburne to take up chess.  Blackburne had been impressed enough by the champion, that after Morphy's final visit to England in the Spring of 1859, Blackburne, then an 18 year-old laborer, took up chess.  The following year Blackburne joined his local chess club in Manchester. Then the next year, 1861, he played, and lost 5-0, a match with the provincial champion, Edward Pindar (who had just won the Manchester tournament in 1861). Just three months after this devastating loss, Blackburne beat the champion in a match +5-1=2 (They also played another match which Blackburne won). During that monumental year, Blackburne was further impressed by the blindfold prowess of a nemesis of Morphy, Louis Paulsen.  Blackburne was inspired to try blindfold chess himself.   The next year Blackburne entered the London International tournament, winning 9th place, but beating Steinitz in the process. He lost his day job and took up chess professionally, possibly thinking chess to be an easier way to earn a living.  If so, it would be ironic that Blackbune turned into one of the hardest working professional players of all time.  When people discuss "natural players," those who seem to understand the intricacies of the game almost without effort, the names of Morphy and Capablanca, both privileged child prodigies, come up immediately. But, having the disadvantage of not even learning chess until he was 18, Blackburnes own meteoric rise attests to his uncanny natural talent which seems at the very least equal to that of either Morphy of Capablanca.  When Blackburne died in 1924, he had been playing professional chess around 60 years.
                                                What an incredible man!
                                The following vingette fully supports this feeling -

Mr. Joseph H. Blackburne is the Lord Bacon of the chess world. "I have taken all knowledge to my province, " wrote  the future Chancellor to his uncle, Lord Burleigh. And so as regards chess, Blackburne has taken every department of  it to be his study ; and no part has he failed to master, to illustrate, to adorn. As judge and composer of problems,  " simultaneous" conductor of games, blindfold seancist, duellist and tourneyist—in each and all departments—he  stands in the very foremost rank.

His problems are few in number, but all excellent —brilliant in idea, massive in form, perfect in composition. His  general knowledge of problems is unsurpassed, perhaps not even equalled. Show him an old problem on a diagram,  and after a glance at it he exclaims : " That's very good, one of Kling's. It appeared in the Illustrated London News in  '61. "Show him a modern gem, and the chances are he instantly laughs and says, "Capital! beautiful! It's Frank  Healey's famous three-mover with an additional move tacked on to conceal its identity, or, rather, to spoil its beauty."

As conductor of simultaneous games—whether we consider the number he tackles, or the ease and rapidity with  which he works them off or the beautiful mates with which he so often winds them up—he as facile princeps.

Here is a fair sample of the result of his perambulating powers so exercised :
—During the winter of '89-90, playing  100 games on three consecutive occasions against the picked players of leading provincial clubs, he won ninety, lost  one,* and drew the remainder. [* To Mr. Amos Burn, of Liverpool, who, though a master himself, magnanimously honoured Mr. Blackburne by taking  one of twenty boards against him.]

As a blindfold seancist, Mr. Blackburne occupies, and has occupied for the last thirty years, the very highest place. The number of games he can thus conduct is unlimited ; that is, unlimited as regards himself. But wisely and kindly, he  does limit the number for the sake of his opponents ; being unwilling to waste their time or exhaust their patience. He  has conducted as many as fifteen at one sitting, but for some years past has limited the number to eight. With that number he can fight, and finish the contest in about four hours, and of the eight games so played,  not less than two are generally found to be very pretty, and worthy of publication ; and here I venture to assert, that to  conduct eight games blindfold is just as difficult and grand a feat as to conduct sixteen blindfold, unless the sixteen be played out, each of them, to the end, and at one sitting—a feat, by the way, which has never yet been  accomplished.

My reason for believing in this equality of the two feats is this : What the blindfold has in both cases to do is—to call  up every five or ten seconds a fresh position, and to deal with it. Therefore granting the speed in moving to be equal,  and the time for considering the moves to be limited, the conductor of eight games has to call up as many fresh  positions as the conductor of sixteen. In other words, the feat to be accomplished is the same in the one case as in  the other.

Indeed, the conducting of eight games is often a harder task than that of conducting sixteen, because strong players  are more likely to take part in the shorter contest, as involving less expenditure of time and of patience. Further, you  are more likely to find eight strong players in a club than to find sixteen. Fighting against eight you have practically as  many moves to consider and to make as you have when fighting against sixteen, whilst the play opposed to you in the  former is stronger than in the latter.

Mr. Blackburne, as a rule, conducts his eyeless chess with effortless ease, dividing his time between smoking,  talking, joking, and cerebrating; but no matter what he is doing, he always keeps the positions on the respective  boards as clearly visible to his mind's eye as they are to the board-gazers.

Here is an instance of his wonderful power in this respect. On a certain occasion I was acting as his teller, as he was  conducting eight games, when Blackburne called out.

" No. 7, Pawn to Q 6."

" Impossible move," exclaimed No. 7, and then turning to me he added, " I claim the game."

"Wait a moment," was my reply. "Mr. Blackburne, on No. 7, what is your move? "

" Pawn to Q 6."

"Impossible!" shouted No. 7.


" Because you have a piece already on that square."

" Then it ought not to be there. You have been moving the pieces about, and left a pawn there accidentally."

" No, I have not"

" Well, then, I'll call out the moves from the commencement."

"Do so."

Accordingly, Blackburne called them all out in proper order, and proved himself to be right.

Loud cheers followed the exploit.

" Is the gentleman satisfied?" asked the champion, laughingly.

" No? Then I'll fully satisfy him. I'll now call out the moves backwards." And he did so, almost faster than the board-man  could follow him.*

The same evening he had, among his eight opponents, a provincial champion who was most anxious to preserve his  reputation by winning of Blackburne, but he lost.

The next day I met this victim, and he was bewailing his defeat. "  So provoking,"  he exclaimed, ''when I could have  won easily, as I'll prove to you by analysis. I have examined the position thoroughly." He was trying to verify his  opinion, when in came Blackburne.

" What's this ? " said he, glancing at the board. '' Oh, I see! my game of last night."

"Yes," said the provincial lordling, "and I ought to have won it just before I made that blunder."


" By Knight to King's sixth."

" That would have done you no good. I saw the move at the time, and my reply would have been, &c."  Then he made  his reply, and demonstrated the won-ness of the game. This he did without exertion or hesitation, and yet from the  time of his finishing the game he had never given a moment's thought to it.

It seemed as though when playing the game he had jotted down various positions with copious analyses on mental  tablets and deposited them it his brain-cells, to be produced when he liked, for the edification of inquirers.

As a duellist, Blackburne shines brightly, but not conspicuously. In this form of contest, however, he has proved  himself at least the equal of his strongest opponents, with the exception ofSteinitz . But his genius rarely finds in duels  full scope for action. Stereotyped openings, handled by dreary do-nothings, are apt to produce in him a nausea that  obfuscates the brain and dulls the spirit.

But as a tourneyist he is supreme.* [
* Written about three years ago.] Multitudinous have been his victories in international contests, and at Berlin, in  1881, he won the championship of the world. And surely no more splendid triumph was ever achieved than on that  occasion. After losing the first game, he encountered successively fifteen first-class players, of whom he defeated thirteen and drew with two !

There is something in such contests that provokes his best powers into action, and keeps him in a constant state of  pleasurable excitement. There are men who can never do their intellectual best but when thoroughly roused ; and Blackburne is one of them. An attempt has been made to prove that Steinitz is a better tourneyist , because he has  won, it is said, a larger percentage of games in tournaments. But the statistician who thus argues ignores, or forgets,  facts. He does not take into consideration the conditions under which some of these battles have been fought.

Blackburne has often played—been obliged to play—when suffering from ill-health and forbidden to exercise his  brains at all. Often, indeed, has he risen from a bed of sickness and gone direct to the battle-field.*  [
* Thus it was in the grand tournament at Bradford.]  Of course, at such  times he did not expect to do justice to his powers, or win the first prize ; but he could not afford to do without a prize  at all. Whereas, on the other hand, Steinitz has never yet taken part in a tournament without making elaborate  preparations for the fight and believing himself to be in the best possible condition.

No, no; my very noble and approved good masters! Not Steinitz, or any other man but Blackburne is the prince of  modern tourneyists. Facts attest his right to the title. No man has enriched the show-rooms of international chess with  more beautiful gems. No man has travelled farther or worked longer to gather them in. No man has won more world- gathered trophies in all parts of the globe. Throughout these isles of ours —on the Continent of Europe, in America, in  Australia—wherever glory was to be won and the honour of Old England upheld—there has Mr.Blackburne never  failed—in sickness or in health —to make his appearance. Never failed to fight like a hero, and enlarge the laurel  crown with which his brow was first garlanded in 1862.

And now, what manner of man is this great chess player? Well, modest as a young girl and unassuming as a little  child; brimful of fun and humour as a school-boy; always ready to enjoy anything good, be it joke or jest, chop or steak.  He delights in lovely scenery, and is a most companionable and unselfish fellow-tourist.

Here are tiny samples of his humour. On the conclusion of the Birmingham meeting in 1883, I accompanied him on a  walking expedition from the town of Godiva, throughKenihvorth to Warwick. Arriving at the latter place, I proposed  that we should visit the famous old castle. To this proposal Blackburne demurred, on the ground that our doing so  would probably make us late for the last train to London that night. However, having inquired at the Warwick Hotel, we  learnt that a visit to the castle was not incompatible with our railway intentions. Accordingly Blackburne, still slightly  protesting, yielded to my wishes. Well, we journeyed on, saw the castle, caught train No. 1, and reappeared at  Coventry at 8.50. But alas ! there was no train thence to London that night. "I told you we should lose the train?"  exclaimed Blackburne. "That move of yours was a bad one."— "What move?" — "Why, castling at that time."

One day, about nine years ago, when he was very ill, I visited him at his house, and of course asked him how he felt.  "Oh," said he, ''much better. Pawn and move better than yesterday."— " Then you must be nearly well."—" Oh, no; for  yesterday I thought I had a lost game."

No man is more independent in spirit or magnanimous in action. Let me give illustrations of these characteristics. As  to the former: In 1881, Blackburne won the first prize at Berlin, together with the Championship of the World;  whereupon, Mr. Howard Taylor wrote to me proposing a testimonial for Mr. Blackburne, and offering to head the list  with a subscription of £10. I showed the letter to Blackburne, and he observed:

" Please thank Taylor for his very handsome offer, but tell him I must decline it. At present I can work and support my  family. If a time should come when I can do neither, I shall be very glad to receive a testimonial."

I urged him to accede to Mr. Taylor's wishes without any delay, but he peremptorily-—albeit, gratefully—refused to do  so.

Again, in 1883, what magnanimity did he display when, upon Zukertort beating him in the Grand Tournament, thereby  securing the first prize, the brave-souled Englishman rose in the crowded arena at the Criterion, and, grasping the Prussian's hand, heartily congratulated him upon his victory. Surely no grander move, no more brilliant sacrifice, was  ever made by chess-player in any contest.

Here is one (out of many instances I could mention) of his disinterested friendship. Some years ago he received  much kindness and hospitality from a well-known member of the City of London Club. Unfortunately, that friend failed  in business and became very poor. Well! as he had done good service in his day to chess, we organised a  testimonial for him, and Blackburne not merely subscribed a handsome sum towards it, but also gave his whilom  benefactor a perpetual invitation to dine at his house on Sundays and other holidays, and often since then have they  both feasted together at the champion's table.

An intense lover of justice is our champion, unflinching, unbribable in his loyalty thereto. Thus in the 1883 tournament,  when, after the first round, the committee proposed to alter a very important rule, Blackburne objected to their doing  so. Whereupon, Mr. F. H. Lewis—the perennial peace-preserver—strongly advised him to withdraw his opposition.

" Why," argued Mr Lewis, " it will be for your benefit."—" I daresay; but I object to it as being unfair in itself—and all the  more do I object because, as you say, it would be for my advantage. I don't wish to gain any advantage in such a  way."

Then Mr. F. H. Lewis, who was chairman of the committee, withdrew from the discussion, and advised his brother- members to drop the proposed new rule

So strenuous an upholder of justice is Blackburne, that he is wont to wax very warm over its violation ; and fossil  fogies are apt to mistake the warmth of his utterances for ebullitions of illtemper. But it is nothing of the kind. It is  simply the natural outcome of a justice-loving, clear-thinking, self-forgetting man. It is not his temper that is bad, but his  capacity for indignation that is infinite. Plato would have loved him.

The Knights and Kings of Chess  1894

by George Alcock MacDonnell
pp. 1-14