Johannes Hermann Zukertort (SOOK-er-tort) was born in Lublin, Poland (then part of Russian Poland) on September 7, 1842. His original name was Jan Herman Cukiertort. His mother was the Baroness Krzyzanovska. His father was a Christian Protestant missionary of Jewish origin. The family later moved to Breslau (present day Wroclaw).
Zukertort studied chemistry at the University of Heidelberg (under Dr. Robert Bunsen) and physiology at Berlin. In 1861, he enrolled at the University of Breslau to study medicine. Zukertort claimed he obtained his doctorate of medicine at the University of Breslau in 1865. Steinitz claimed that Zukertort never finished the requirements to be a medical doctor.
He studied chemistry, physiology, philology, and theology with distinction.
Zukertort learned to play chess in Breslau (home of Adolf Anderssen) around 1861, when he was 18 or 19. He was giving blindfold exhibitions in 1864.
In 1866, he served as a doctor in the Prussian army.
Zukertort claimed he was fluent in at 14 languages (English, German, French, Spanish, Italian, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Russian, Sanskrit, Arabic, Turkish, Danish, and Polish).
He claimed he fought in several military campaigns for Prussia against Austria, Denmark, and France. He once had been left for dead on the battlefield. He allegedly was decorated for gallantry 9 times.
He was a fencer, a world class whist and dominoes player, a pianist, a music critic, swordsman, marksman, editor of a political paper, and on the staff of Bismark’s newspaper, the Allgemeine Zeitung. He was a leading spokesman for prison reform.
In 1867, he moved to Berlin and became editor of the New Berlin Schachzeitung.
In 1868, he lost to Adolf Anderssen (1818-1879) in a match in Berlin, with 3 wins, 8 losses, and 1 draw.
In 1870-71, he served as a medical doctor during the Franco-Prussian war.
In 1871, he beat Adolf Anderssen in a match with 5 wins and 2 losses.
In 1872, he moved to London and played in a London tournament. He came in 3rd, behind Wilhelm Steinitz and Joseph Blackburne.
In 1872, he lost to Steinitz in a match with 1 win, 7 losses, and 4 draws. The stakes was 20 pounds for the winner and 10 pounds for the loser.
In 1876, he took 2nd in a London tournament.
On December 16, 1876, he played 16 simultaneous blindfold games in London (St. George’s Chess Club), winning 12, drawing 3, and losing only 1 game. It was a new world record for simultaneous blindfold games. The records stood for 24 years, until Pillsbury played simultaneous blindfold games in 1900.
In 1877, he took 1st at Cologne and 2nd at Leipzig.
In 1878, he became a naturalized citizen of England.
In June-July 1878, he tied for 1st at the Paris International Chess Congress with Winawer and beat Winawer in the play-off. Zukertort won 1,000 francs and was given two Sevres vases, worth 5,800 francs each, by the President of France. He sold those three days later at a pawn shop for half the value.
In 1879, he was co-editor, with Leopold Hoffer, of The Chess Monthly.
In 1880, he won a match in London against Rosenthal with 7 wins, 1 loss, and 11 draws.
In 1881, he was 2nd at Berlin, behind Blackburne. He then beat Blackburne in a match in London with 7 wins, 2 losses, and 5 draws.
In 1882, he tied for 4th at Vienna.
In 1883, he took 1st place at London, 3 points ahead of Steinitz. After this tournament, Zukertort was widely regarded as the unofficial World Chess Champion.
In April-May 1884, Zukertort visited New Orleans, but there is no record that he met with Paul Morphy, who died in New Orleans on July 10, 1884.
In 1885, Steinitz and Zukertort agreed to play an official world championship chess match. The first to achieve 10 wins, draws not counting, would be recognized as the world chess champion. Steinitz was living in Brooklyn at the time and Zukertort was living in London.
The match was held in New York for the first 5 games. The match then moved to St. Louis for the next 4 games. The final 11 games were held at the New Orleans Chess, Checker, and Whist Club in New Orleans.
The match started on January 11, 1886, with Steinitz winning the first game. Steinitz wanted the U.S. flag to be placed next to him during the match, even though he still was an Austrian citizen (he became an American citizen almost three years later). Less than 40 people were present at the start of this historical match, despite Steinitz’s daughter, Flora, selling programs and photographs to earn a few extra dollars for the family. Steinitz couldn’t even afford a winter coat for her daughter. The New York site was at the Cartier’s Rooms on Fifth Avenue and sponsored by the Manhattan Chess Club. The time control was 30 moves in 2 hours, with a 2 hour dinner break, then 15 moves an hour.
Zukertort won the next 4 games in a row before moving on to the St. Louis Chess, checker, and Whist Club in St. Louis, Missouri. In St. Louis, Steinitz won 3 games, with one game drawing. In New Orleans, Zukertort could only win one game. Steinitz won 6, the rest drawn. Steinitz won the match on March 29, 1886, with 10 wins, 5 losses, and 5 draws and was proclaimed official world chess champion.
The match was the first time that a chess demonstration board was used for the audience. The demo board was run by one of America’s strongest players, George Mackenzie. The stakes were $4,000 (over $95,000 in today’s currency) or $2,000 a side.
On March 29, 1886, Steinitz was declared the winner. Zukertort lost with 5 wins, 10 losses, and 5 draws. Steinitz received $1,000 in prize money and $3,000 was paid to those who bet on the winner. Steinitz returned home to New York and Zukertort left for San Francisco.
After the match, Zukertort suffered from rheumatism, coronary heart disease, kidney problems, and arteriosclerosis.
In 1886, he took 7th in London and 3rd in Nottingham.
In 1887, he took 15th at Frankfurt and 4th at London.
In 1887, he lost a match against Blackburne with 1 win, 5 losses, and 8 draws.
In 1888, he took 7th at London.
Zukertort’s last tournament was the summer British Chess Club Handicap Tournament, held at King Street, Covent-garden, London in June-July, 1888. He had chances of winning the tournament and was in 1st place at the time of his death. At the time of his death he had won 7 games, no draws, and 1 loss. The playing committee decided that all his unfinished games would be declared drawn. 6 of his games were drawn and he ended up tied for 3rd place, despite 6 games not played. Blackburne and Gunsberg tied for 1st.
On June 19, 1888, Zukertort had a cerebral stroke while playing an off-hand chess game against Sylvain Meyer at the Simpson’s Divan coffee house. He was then taken to the British Chess Club, then to a hospital.
He died on June 20, 1888 at the Charing Cross Hospital in London. He was 45 years old. His brother, Adolf, a stenographer, also died at age 45.
Zukertort was buried in Brompton Cemetery in southwest London on June 26, 1888. Over the years, grass covered his grave, and his grave went undiscovered until 2011, when it was restored. His grave was rededicated with a new headstone, donated by the Polish Heritage Society, in 2012.
A Zukertort Chess Club in London was organized a few weeks after his death.
Zukertort gave chess lessons to Lord Randolph Churchill, Winston Churchill’s father. Lord Churchill was vice-president of the British Chess Association.
It is said that at a dinner party, with both Steinitz and Zukertort attending, a toast was made to the greatest chess player in the world. Both Steinitz and Zukertort both rose at the same time.
Zukertort introduced the move 1.Nf3, which was once known as Zukertort’s Opening.
By Bill Wall