They Called Him Black Death - Joseph Henry Blackburne (Part 2)


Less than two years after learning the moves, Blackburne entered the 1862 London International Tournament (the world's first chess round-robinor all-play-all tournament) and defeated Wilhelm Steinitz in their individual game, although Blackburne finished in 9th place (last). Up to that point time-keeping was measured with hourglasses, and it was Blackburne who suggested chess clocks. This trip cost Blackburne his job back in Manchester (accounts vary about what it was), and he became a professional chess-player.

In the 1868-69 season he won the British championship by beating the current holder, Cecil Valentine De Vere, and he was therefore regarded as England's best player. His first major international success was in a strong tournament at Baden-Baden in 1870, where he shared 3rd place with Gustav Neumann, behind Adolf Anderssen and Wilhelm Steinitz but ahead of Paulsen, De Vere, Simon WinawerSamuel Rosenthaland Johannes von Minckwitz.

Blackburne was regularly one of the world's top five layers from 1871 to 1889, although Steinitz, Emanuel Lasker and, during his brief prime,Johannes Zukertort were clearly better players; and he remained in the top 20 until 1902, when he was 61 years old. His best results were in international tournaments. Although tournaments were much less frequent then than they are now, Blackburne played in nearly one strong tournament per year from 1870 to 1899; in particular he competed regularly in the German Chess Championship, which was an open tournament. In the 1870s and 1880s he was almost always a high prize-winner. His best results were 1st equal with Steinitz at Vienna 1873, where the commentators nicknamed Blackburne "the Black Death" (Steinitz won the play-off); 1st in London 1876 with a score of 10/11, ahead of Zukertort; and 1st in Berlin 1881, 3 points ahead of Zukertort. He also achieved 2nd place in: a strong mini-tournament in London 1872 ( behind Steinitz but ahead of Zukertort, George Alcock MacDonnell and De Vere; shared 2nd place at Hamburg 1885 (with Siegbert Tarrasch,James MasonBerthold Englisch and Max Weiss; behind Isidor Gunsberg; ahead of George Henry Mackenzie and 5 others); shared 2nd place at Frankfurt 1887 (with Weiss; behind Mackenzie; ahead of Curt von Bardeleben, Tarrasch and several others). His worst result from this 20-year period was 6th place in the 1882 Vienna "super-tournament", the one occasion on which all his major rivals placed ahead of him.

In the mid to late 1890s Blackburne's was less successful in tournaments, but by this time he was competing against the next generation of players, Emanuel Lasker and Lasker's major rivals. Blackburne's worst results were 10th place at Hastings 1895 and 11th at Nuremberg 1896; but both of these tournaments included Lasker and most of the other top players of the new generation; and in both of these he finished ahead of several of the new stars and ahead of the few competing players of his own generation.

Chessmetrics concludes that Blackburne's best performances, taking account of the strength of his opponents, were his second places at Frankfurt 1887 (behind Mackenzie) and London 1892 (behind Emanuel Lasker). At London 1892 he finished only ½ point behind Emanuel Lasker and 2 points ahead of the third-placed player, Mason.

Blackburne's match results look much less impressive. In particular he was twice thrashed by Steinitz, in 1862 (+1, -7, =2) and 1876 (+0, -7, =0); but in 1862 Blackburne had been playing chess for barely 2 years, and in 1876 Steinitz was playing at his life-time best and in the middle of a 24-game winning streak. Emanuel Lasker annihilated Blackburne in 1892, but Lasker also beat Steinitz very decisively in their 1894 championship match. Blackburne was also comfortably beaten in 1881 by Zukertort (+2 =5 −7), who was in great form at the time; and Zukertort's health and play were declining rapidly when Blackburne beat him in 1887 (+5-1=7). On the other hand against Gunsberg Blackburne won his 1881 match (+7 -4 =3) and lost his 1887 match (+2, -5, =6); the 1887 match was Gunsberg's strongest performance,]and Gunsberg only narrowly lost a world title match against Steinitz in 1890 (+6=9-4).

The 1876 match against Steinitz was held at the West-end Chess Club in London. The stakes were £60 a side with the winner taking all. This was a considerable sum of money in Victorian times – £60 in 1876 would be roughly equivalent to £29,000 in 2006's money. This was the first time that spectators were charged an entrance fee (half a guinea, = 52.5P in decimal terms) to see a chess match.