Johannes Zukertort, the shady figure of the 19th century chess...

Johannes Zukertort, the shady figure of the 19th century chess...

Apr 6, 2019, 9:38 PM |

I had a fondness for Zukertort since I've started studying chess & chess history [...thus, not so long]. They weren't only his bright combinations on the chessboard that attracted my attention. His defeat on the first official chess championship was a reason, his shady figure that is presented in the older photos, too... but the material for this blog was gathered mainly for something I've read about him since my first touch on his games.

In Jewish Encyclopedia [1906, p. 699], in his name entry & around the London 1883 tournament, is written: "Of a highly nervous temperament, Zukertort unfortunately had recourse to drugs to brace himself for his contests, and their ill effects became manifest toward the close of the tournament." This, combined with his proposed graduation from the medicine school of Breslau University, gave to me the first impression of some kind of doping! It was in Hooper's & Whyld's Oxford Companion [p. 387] that things started to be clearer, where one can read: "...and towards the end he relieved the strain by taking opiates, the cause of his losing his last three games." But first things first...

Johannes Zukertort, born on 7 Sep 1842 in Lublin [POL], moved with his family in Breslau, Prussia, in 1855. There he played his first moves on the chessboard. He also entered in the medicine school of the local university in 1861, and though there's no sure evidence that he earned a doctorate, he was referred to as Dr. Zukertort since 1871. In 1867 his chess editing career started in Berlin next to famous Anderssen, as co-editors of the Neue Berliner Schachzeitung. And since 1872 Zukertort can be found in London, after the invitation of the St George Chess Club for the 1872 Steinitz - Zukertort match. There continued his chess writing in the Westminster Papers and the City of London Chess Magazine. After his first great success as a player in the 1878 Paris International Tournament, he founded and edited the Chess Monthly with Leopold Hoffer.

fn 1: One notable thing on the chess event coverage of the 1878 Paris Tournament is that while Zukertort is mentioned in the French press either as "Allemand" or "Anglais" or "pour l'Angleterre" or even "né près de Riga, de parents allemands", in CPC 1878 [p. 280] was written that "at Paris he had represented England, and England alone", reproducing his words.

After his great performance in Paris 1878, Zukertort won two individual matches against Rosenthal & Blackburne. Some games of the vs Blackburne match were presented and analyzed in the Chess Monthly, while Steinitz in articles published in the Field expressed some different analysis approach, but all these in an intense way. Or as Landsberger writes in the Steinitz papers [p. 28]: "For months the chess public was witness to pages and pages of comments, ever more shrill, on who was the better annotator".

In CPC Jan 1882 [p. 26 and after] a series of Steinitz writings started to be published under the title Analytical Warfare. In the first [p.30], after analyzing a position of the 3rd vs Blackburne game, one can read: "Go home, Messrs Hoffer and Zukertort, and analyse P takes P, followed by P to QB4, again on White's 29th move; then prepare a sleeping draught for the readers of the C.M., containing a dose of analytical laudanum mixed up with a few laudatory phrases for Mr Blackburne."

I don't know but this analytical laudanum seemed to me more a personal attack than a general reference to some at the time bad habits.

fn 2: Opium, and thus laudanum as its derivative, could be morally blamable but wasn't exactly prohibited in the Victorian England of the 19th century. As a new product and habit in Europe, it took some time for the verification of its bad consequences on health and for its prohibition. Briefly: With the Pharmacy Act of 1868, opium's sale was restricted only in drugstores, while with the Opium Act of 1878 was tried to be controlled its commerce. Total control came later with the Dangerous Drugs Act of 1920. [check among others, A History of Drugs: by Toby Seddon, p. 53 and after].


London 1883

During 26 Apr - 23 Jun of 1883, an international chess tournament took place in London where the greatest players of the time competed. It was a Zukertort's triumph, finishing 1st, 3 points above Steinitz. There has been some special mention for Zukertort's last 3 games, that he'd lost, starting with one against Mackenzie.

In the tournament book was written: "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." [p. xxiv].

Tim Harding informs us that "Almost certainly, this was laudanum, a tincture of opium." [Zukertort in Eminent chess players, p. 252].

fn 3: Besides Hooper & Whyld, opium is mentioned as a Zukertort's habit in Litmanowicz/Giżycki chess dictionary [vol. II, Warsaw 1987, pp. 1363-1365] where is written that Zukertort had been overusing opium and other drugs for a long time which must have affected his mental and physical state [=od dłuższego czasu nadużywał opium i innych narkotyków, co nie mogło nie mieć wpływu na jego kondycję psychiczną i fizyczną]. Reference that is reproduced and in Domanski's & Lissowski's Arcymistrz z Lublina [p. 208]. Fernando Arrabal also mentions it in his Échecs et mythe [1984, p. 23]. IM Silman too, in his Johannes Zukertort article. And generally this Zukertort's habit is treated as something known, but I would really like to find a prime source for it. Obsessions...

The London 1883 tourney book continues with some analysis of this game against Mackenzie. "In his game with Captain Mackenzie, having in a defence to the Ruy Lopez obtained an absolute winning position, Zukertort, under the extraordinary hallucination that he had already doubled his Rooks on the Queen's tile, went in for what be believed to be an immediately winning combination, which actually resulted in the loss of a Rook and Bishop, and necessitated the instant abandonment of the game." But Harding indicates Zukertort's comments...


I couldn't help but notice the score progression. The tournament was a double round, but if a drawn game occurred, it would be repeated max 3 times till one's win. According to the tourney book, Zukertort lost the 3 last games starting with the one vs Mackenzie on Jun 13, having till the end 22 points. Second Steinitz lost on Jun 13 but having already 15 points and another 5 games to be won ahead. Meaning that as games of Jun 13 were starting Zukertort had already secured the tournament's win by 1 point. So the Hooper's & Whyld's phrase "...and towards the end he relieved the strain by taking opiates" should be really close.


In America

The London 1883 great success was translated into a big tour in the USA & Canada for blindfold and simultaneous chess exhibitions, that lasted almost a year. He was considered one of the best in blindfold chess and his memory skill was admired. The Brooklyn Chess Chronicle [1883, p. 18] informs us that he arrived in NY on Oct 28, 1883. Some mentioned cities & places: Manhattan Chess Club, Steinway Hall, Boston, Toronto, Chicago, Baltimore, Louisville Chess Club, Saint Louis, Cincinnati, New Orleans, San Francisco, Denver.... while it seems that some first attempts were tried for the championship match vs Steinitz in Havana, but with no success.

Two notable newspaper excerpts of the time, left National Republican, Dec 21, 1883 & right Daily Los Angeles herald, Nov 21, 1883

fn 4: Taking arbitrarily for granted a possible Zukertort's addiction to opiates, I can't know if it would be possible and easy enough the supplying in the US. Really briefly: US started to encounter an opium problem in the society since the late 1860s, located mainly in the so-called opium dens. The problem seemed to be known and severe, as inter alia I've also tracked an advertisement for opium habit treatment in a 1880 newspaper. City and state ordinances & bills started to come into force since 1875-76, starting from west coast, but concerning only smoking opium, banishing opium dens, more as a way of life. Arrests under these state laws have been also mentioned in San Francisco, Virginia City, New Orleans, Chicago, Salt Lake City, while I've tracked some in New York too, at least since 1883, while in a government level opium's importation was tried to be controlled since 1880 [total control with the Act of 1909].

But opiates could be sold in drugstores. "In 1890, opiates were sold in an unregulated medical marketplace. Physicians prescribed them for a wide range of indications, and pharmacists sold them to individuals medicating themselves for physical and mental discomforts.", as Caroline Jean Acker informs us in Creating the American Junkie, p. 1. "From 1895 to 1915 most states and many municipalities passed laws limiting the sale of narcotics (usually defined as cocaine and the opiates) to those possessing a valid prescription.", writes David T. Courtwright in Dark paradise, p. 52-53. Now if the previous prescription was actually necessary or if Zukertort could have access and in what degree, it is unknown to me. But surely some awareness already existed concerning these substances, that could vary from city to city // on these you can see Opium-smoking in America and China by H. Kane, 1882, Opium Problem, Report by Hamilton Wright, 1909, The opium problem by C. Terry & M. Pellens, 1928, pp. 73, 745, 807, The Opium Debate by Diana L. Ahmad, p. 30, Licit & Illicit Drugs by Edward M. Brecher, p. 42, Creating the American Junkie by Caroline Jean Acker, p. 1, Dark paradise by David T. Courtwright, p. 52-53.

Drawing for a Zukertort's blindfold simul in Oct 1885, in the London Athenaeum in Camdentown, just before he sailed for US for the 1886 Championship match. 8 boards, 4 wins, 4 unfinished. Found in Das interessante Blatt 5 Nov 1885


The 1886 world chess championship

Zukertort returned in America for the first official chess championship in 1886. The match was constituted by 20 games played in New York, St Louis and New Orleans. NY was a Zukertort's triumph, while in St Louis the match got even. In New Orleans his performance was poor, and finally lost with +5=5-10. "At various times Dr. Zukertort was compelled to have the game postponed on account of ill-health and insomnia", was written after the last game in New-York Daily Tribune of 30 Mar 1886. Generally his health has been proposed as a reason for his defeat, while Zukertort's insomnia had been mentioned and other times in the american press. Checking the games I've found some with Zukertort's blunders but here, for chess beauty, are following two with missed tactics...

For the 16th game that Zukertort lost by a useless B sacrifice in The Memphis appeal., March 18, 1886

For the 11th game in The sun, Mar 02, 1886


Mainly for comparison, a special mention should be made for some newspaper excerpts after the 4th game of the championship match. It was played in New York and a contrario lost by Steinitz after a blunder for sure.


In Richmond dispatch, Jan 21, 1886, is reproduced a NY Times article, where inter alia is written: "Both had been suffering from insomnia, especially Steinitz, who had been studying very hard of late and has been able to get very little sleep." Both sleepless but Steinitz is justified for hard study! While a post-revealing comment is written in New-York tribune, Jan 19, 1886: "Zukertort says that he suffered form sleeplessness in the London International tournament, took aconite, 'braced up', got so far ahead that he could afford to lose the tree remaining games, stopped the aconite, collapsed, and lost them, but won the tournament." After two and a half years Zukertort says that the virulent poison was aconite, but in a country where opium dens have started to be abolished.

Richmond dispatch, Jan 21, 1886
New-York tribune, Jan 19, 1886


In the end...

No-one can tell for sure if the 1886 championship match was lost by Zukertort cause of his ill-health, or further if this ill-health was due to opium abuse and addiction, as only clues can be found to this interpretation. Zukertort died on Jun 20, 1888, due to cerebral hemorrhage, according to the death certificate that can be seen in Harding, p. 257. In the very interesting article The final years of Zukertort by Stephan Oliver Platz in chessbase is reproduced a Domanski & Lissowski reference to a relevant observation by Leopold Hoffer, co-editor of The Chess Monthly: "Leopold Hoffer noticed in Zukertort increasing problems to articulate and general vapidity." Afterwards a strong assumption is tried to justify the possibility of Zukertort's strokes since 1886. In addition is also reproduced the Hermann Lehner's narrative [in Oesterreichische lesehalle 1888] around the circumstances of Zukertort's death, where can be concluded that such incidents of dizziness weren't strange to Zukertort.

One can't know of course if it was a stroke or what caused this stroke, but among opium effects are mentioned inter alia slurred speech, weakness, loss of consciousness, weight loss, damaged heart, lungs, liver and brain, coma, death, while withdrawal can cause restless sleep & no appetite [check deamuseum & adf].

Left South Australian Weekly Chronicle Jul 28, 1888  ~ right The Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser Sep 1, 1888
Madison times, Jan 23, 1886

And to kick out the bad mood

... of this Zukertort's awful choice of life, three of his games that I loved.