The Black Death of Chess - Blackburne Introduction (Part 1)

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Joseph Henry Blackburne (December 101841 – September 11924), nicknamed "Black Death", dominated British chess during the latter part of the 19th century. He learned the game at the relatively late age of 18 but quickly became a strong player and went on to develop a professional chess career that spanned over 50 years. At one point he was the world's second most successful player, with a string of tournament victories behind him, but he really enjoyed popularising chess by giving simultaneous and blindfold displays around the country. Blackburne also published a collection of his own games, and was a chess correspondent for a leading journal until his death.

Joseph Henry Blackburne was born in Manchester in December 1841. His father was a temperance reformer who travelled all over Britain and Ireland, taking his son with him. Ironically Joseph Blackburne became famous for his heavy drinking of whisky while playing chess, especially during exhibition games, and this became the subject of many anecdotes. However he occasionally became violent when drunk, and his victims included other chess players.


He learned how to play draughts as a child but it was not until he heard about Paul Morphy's exploits around Europe that he switched to playing chess, at the age of 18-19. There are differing accounts of how Blackburne started playing chess, although they agree that he took to the game extremely quickly :

  • Reuben Fine writes that at age 18 Blackburne played in one of Morphy's blindfold exhibitions, and within a month was himself playing blindfold against 10 opponents simultaneously.
  • In Bill Walls' account, Blackburne joined the Manchester Chess Club around 1860 and learned endgame theory from Bernhard Horwitz, who had been appointed the resident chess professional in 1857. Despite his late start Blackburne improved very quickly. For example in July 1861 he lost 5-0 in a match with Manchester's strongest player, Edward Pindar, but 3 months later Blackburne defeated Pindar (5 wins, 2 draws, 1 loss). In Wall's account Blackburne's introduction to blindfold chess was a little later and less spectacular: in November 1861 Louis Paulsen give a simultaneous blindfold exhibition in Manchester, beating Blackburne among others; Blackburne was soon playing chess blindfolded with 3 players simultaneously.

More on Blackburne in part 2 coming soon...