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Johannes Zukertort's mystery tour in Dublin, 1879

Zukertort was one of the greatest masters of the 19th century and loser (to Steinitz) of the first world championship match. He played no tournaments or matches in 1879. His lengthy visit to Dublin that year is not mentioned in his biography by Cezary Dománski & Tomasz Lissowski. However, Zukertort was in the Irish capital for several weeks; why did he stay so long? His trip received almost no attention outside Ireland, except for a brief report in The Field and two of his losses in the Illustrated London News.

This is an updated version of the Zukertort section of Dr Tim Harding's article in Quarterly for Chess History 14 about the visits to Dublin of Zukertort (1879) and Steinitz (in 1881). Source notes can be found there.

For games, download the PGN file.


Exhibition tours of chess clubs by great masters were their bread-and-butter work, especially when matches and tournaments were infrequent. This often meant travelling in cold weather, staying in uncomfortable hotels to minimise expenses, and not enjoying chess of much quality. The games played, usually in simultaneous exhibitions and sometimes blindfold, could have provided little professional satisfaction in terms of the quality of games or opposition. They were spectacles and a way of evening out the chances to make participation more interesting for the amateurs.

Local hospitality might provide some compensation. The games played on such occasions rarely if ever found their way into print or into currently available databases. Interesting situations could arise in some games, but the quality of play was rarely high, because of the disparity in strengths and because the master was playing under various disadvantages.

Therefore the motives for the world’s two strongest players travelling to Dublin must have been largely financial. Both Zukertort and Steinitz paid winter visits to Dublin; the latter, although very brief, is the better known of the two. Recently I was able to borrow the early minute book of the Dublin Chess Club, which hosted both visits, and this provides a little more information than was previously known.

Moreover, the Irish Times recently became available in a searchable digitised form, thus making it possible to discover much that was previously hidden away in poor-quality microfilms, where you had no hope of finding chess reports unless you knew exactly where to look. Most recently, a further account of Zukertort's visit turned up in some of Dublin expert W. H. S. Monck's columns for the Foyle College magazine Our School Times.

The train journey across England and Wales, from London’s Euston Station, via Crewe and Chester to the port of Holyhead takes many hours — time best passed with a good book or a pocket chess set. Then the mail-boat crossing to Kingstown (now Dún Laoghaire) in south Dublin would have taken a further three to four hours, followed by a 20-30 minute rail journey on the suburban train to central Dublin.

The few years up to 1878 had been a low point in Irish chess, The strongest Irish-born players, James Mason and Rev George Alcock MacDonnell, were in America and London respectively, and the only young Irish-based player capable of giving them a good game, James Alexander Rynd, was not playing at that time. No leading master had visited Ireland since Steinitz in 1865, so Zukertort's visit gave a great temporary stimulus to local chess.

Alfred S. Peake (later Irish Chess Association secretary) was able to begin a chess column in the Weekly Irish Times, sister paper of the Irish Times, on 25 January, just in time to announce it. These newspapers, read chiefly by the protestant middle-class, provide good information on the early weeks of Zukertort’s visit; the nationalist Freeman’s Journal also carried some reports. The Weekly Irish Times column gradually became more and more erratic (although it did have one mention of Steinitz’s 1881 visit) and expired altogether after 18 March 1882.

Zukertort at Dublin Chess Club

Zukertort only visited Ireland on this one occasion, but he ended up spending much more time in Dublin than he originally planned. It is possible he visited other parts of the country (Belfast or Cork would be possibilities) but I have found no information. This period was of course a few months before Chess Monthly began and he had no chess column in which to report his activities.

At that date, the official name of the main chess club in the city was The City and County of Dublin Chess Club, later changed to simply The Dublin Chess Club. Its minute book records that on 22 January they resolved that the Treasurer be authorized to give a sum not exceeding £10 to the tournament committee ‘to supplement the subscription to defray the expenses for Herr Zukertort’s performance’. The Irish Times announced prematurely on Thursday 30th January that the blindfold exhibition was to be that day; apparently the reporter was misinformed or his item was accidentally inserted a day sooner than intended.

According to the club book, Zukertort did play that day, but only two consultation games, which were unreported in the papers. Perhaps these were hastily organised because of the incorrect report. The club book doesn’t say he played blindfold but presumably it was so, or he would have won both. Zukertort beat J. B. Pim & C. Tuthill but he lost to Captain Wallace & Hon Horace Curzon Plunkett; neither game is preserved. Zukertort probably had arrived that morning (if he took a night ferry) or else the previous evening.

The principal blindfold exhibition (31 January)

The original purpose of Zukertort's visit was to give a blindfold simultaneous exhibition on Friday 31 January, starting at 3pm, in Leinster Hall, 35 Molesworth Street (a building owned by the Society of Friends, where the club then had its premises).

This event was a spectacular novelty for Dublin; in 1865 Steinitz had played blindfold against a few opponents only: three on the first occasion and four the following week, at the end of the Dublin Congress. Although Morphy, Paulsen, Blackburne, and Zukertort himself had given displays on this scale long before this date, ‘no such large number of games had ever before been played in a similar manner in Ireland, and the exhibition caused much astonishment to the distinguished attendance of guests,’ according to The Chess Player’s Chronicle.

Zukertort’s twelve opponents were seated with their sets at a long table down the middle of the hall; the grandmaster handicapped himself further by taking the black pieces in half the games. The Irish Times gave a very detailed description of the proceedings, from which I quote just an extract.

Herr Zukertort’s chair was placed on a raised platform at some distance from the table, and he remained seated during the contest with his back to his antagonists. A teller passed around the table announcing to Herr Zukertort the number of each player and the move made by him. This process was continued in regular succession from 1 to 12 and then began again. When a move was announced the blindfold player described his rejoinder to it, and the teller passed on to the next board. This operation generally took from eight to ten minutes. Herr Zukertort almost invariably gave his reply immediately.

A dinner break was taken at a quarter past six, when all games were still in progress; although Captain Wallace had made a losing blunder, he continued. Play resumed at 8pm, after which the first win was soon scored and Plunkett declined a draw offer. During the course of play, Zukertort occasionally made slips by repeating moves he had already made and was held to the penalties. On the other hand, he ‘had often to correct wrong announcements of play, which he did with extraordinary promptitude’. The reporter observes that Zukertort should have been given reciprocity in the penalties, but perhaps the mistakes (which seemed to confuse him) were by the teller (Peake) rather than the players. The Irish Times also objected to ‘the consultation which went on for a long time among his adversaries and their friends’, until this was stopped late in the evening.

Several of the games in the blindfold simultaneous were not completed that evening, although play went on until near midnight, and it was arranged that unfinished games would be resumed at 2pm on the Saturday, 1 February. Two of the players, whose positions were said to be roughly equal, did not turn up for the resumption; one of whom (Pim) had offered a draw, which was declined. Zukertort won these by default, and he completed the remaining games on the Saturday, ending with a score of +8 =1 –3.

The full list of results was as follows (the players on the odd numbered boards having first move):

1. Lord Randolph Churchill MP (father of Sir Winston Churchill) lost (Three Knights Game); 2. Major Creagh drew (French Defence); 3. Hon H. C. Plunkett lost (Four Knights Game); 4. J. Cairns lost (Sicilian Defence); 5. J. B. Pim forfeited (Ruy Lopez); 6. Charles Lewis lost (Ruy Lopez); 7. R. Goodbody lost (Evans Gambit); 8. Captain Wallace lost (Sicilian Defence); 9. Captain Melhado forfeited (Guioco Piano); 10. M. S. Woollett won (Queen’s Gambit); 11. C. Tuthill drawn (Owen’s Defence); 12. Sir John Blunden drew (‘Queen’s Knight’s Opening’).

Woollett had won his game on the Friday evening with a pretty combination which Zukertort praised. The games with Blunden, Plunkett, and Churchill had also ended at close of the first day's play.

Probably tired from his exertions the previous night, Zukertort was apparently finding it hard to focus on the games in the second session on the Saturday afternoon, although with fewer games and fewer opponents one would expect it to have been easier for him. Goodbody soon resigned but Zukertort blundered against Creagh, who then missed a forced mating combination (remarked on in none of the sources) and the game ended in perpetual check.

It was the games with Tuthill and Cairns that took the most effort. Cairns was ground down in a long endgame, Peake’s notes to which we give (at the end of the article) without comment, just as they appeared in the press. A pawn down in an endgame against Tuthill, Zukertort missed a chance to win and was lucky to escape with a draw.

Saturday evening simultaneous (1 February)

After the completion of the blindfold display on the Saturday afternoon, Zukertort apparently went a short distance from the Leinster Hall to an official supper reception, which was probably at the Mansion House in Dawson Street.

The Irish Times of Monday 3 February reports what happened that Saturday evening. The adjournment was supposed to be until 8pm, after which Zukertort was to play a 16-board simultaneous, but ‘the champion did not, however, make his appearance until after 9pm, having apparently found the Lord Mayor’s hospitality too attractive to be lightly resigned’.

The usual arrangement of tables not having been made, and not wishing to delay the start any longer, Zukertort had to play his moves from over his opponents’ shoulders. ‘He did not seem to be the least put out by this circumstance, moving round behind the backs of his antagonists and making his rejoinders to their moves with marvellous promptness.’

The opposition was weaker than in the blindfold display. It did include Plunkett, Cairns, Wallace, Lewis and Peake, but ‘to many of the others, who were clearly only tyros, Herr Zukertort gave the odds of a piece.’ As an explanation of that, the club minute book has an entry date 7 February listing 30 ‘subscribers’ who paid money for the blindfold fund’. As clearly most of them did not actually play in the blindfold event, they presumably got a ticket to watch and some of them probably took a board at the ordinary simultaneous and some of these could have been the ‘tyros’. This simultaneous does not appear to have been taken too seriously and the results were not recorded in either the club minutes or the newspapers.

By half past ten o’clock several had capitulated and set up their pieces for new games: and when we left, half an hour later, half the players had succumbed. Some afforded the company a good deal of amusement by attempting to cope with Herr Zukertort in rapidity of play, but their ambition invariably resulted in abbreviating the duration of the game in a manner the reverse of pleasing to themselves. Occasionally Herr Zukertort paused for some minutes — never more than eight — over a difficult position, and the ingenuity he evinced in extricating himself from seemingly hopeless complications was positively phenomenal.

The Irish Times reporter on 3 February also wrote: ‘we understand that Zukertort intends leaving Dublin tonight, but we hope that the members of the University and Dawson Street clubs will not allow him to depart without measuring their skill against his.’ There is no information about whether such events occurred; it is possible.

Zukertort a guest at Dublin Castle

What surely detained Zukertort was an invitation too good to refuse, which probably came his way as a result of playing against Churchill. He was then in Ireland because he was acting as unofficial private secretary to his father, the seventh Duke of Marlborough, who was Lord Lieutenant of Ireland at the time. (Randolph Churchill bore the honorary title 'Lord' by virtue of being the son of a duke, but he was not the heir and he did not have a seat in the House of Lords. He had been a backbench Conservative MP since 1874.)

On Wednesday 5 February 1879 the Duke and Duchess hosted a grand dinner at Dublin Castle. The report in the Irish Times of 6 February largely consists of long lists of the guests, one of whom was Zukertort.

Lord Randolph’s parents had briefly been among the spectators at the first session of the Friday blindfold exhibition. The Irish Times states that the Lord Lieutenant watched about half an hour of the play, while the Duchess of Marlborough, accompanied by General Sir John Michel, Commander of the forces in Ireland, stayed until a quarter past five. ‘The distinguished visitors occupied seats at the head of the table where the players were placed, in close proximity to Lord Randolph Churchill’s board’.

Yet the grandmaster did not leave Dublin after the Castle dinner. On the 15 th February, the Weekly Irish Times wrote: ‘We hear Dr Zukertort still tarries. What will his cross-Channel friends say to this. After all, dear dirty Dublin has some attractions. If he remains much longer we predict a happy future for him, in this his adopted country. Faith he has a little of the brogue already.’

One unresolved mystery, hinted at in Tim Harding's book Eminent Victorian Chess Players, is whether Zukertort met the mother of his children on this visit.

Zukertort prolongs his stay

The leading Dublin players had several opportunities to try their skill against Zukertort. It is actually quite hard to work out from the sources how many different occasions Zukertort played simuls in Dublin, because some of the published games cannot be identified with the particular occasions mentioned in this article. Some of the games may have been friendlies, or players may have paid Zukertort to play with them as lessons in the form of private matches.

Zukertort’s next professional engagements, if that is what they were, were reported in the Irish Times of 21 February 1879, so it is possible he visited other Irish towns in the intervening two weeks. He had played three blindfold games on Tuesday afternoon (i.e. 18 February) at the Grosvenor Hotel, which apparently is where he was staying throughout his visit. On this occasion he beat Tuthill and E. F. Gerahty but ‘Plunkett won after a good fight’. Next day, Wednesday 19 February, at 2pm, he ‘played simultaneously seven members two games each without any adjournment’. Tuthill won one and drew one; Captain Melhado drew both; Monck drew one and lost one. Zukertort won all the others, the players being Woollett, St. John Blacker, Major Shaw and Plunkett. This apparently took three hours and was not blindfold. So overall Zukertort played 14 and scored +9 =4 –1.

On 21 February, Zukertort was unanimously elected an Honorary Member of the City and County of Dublin Chess Club. He was the club’s guest at its annual dinner in the Shelbourne Hotel on Thursday 27 February, for which members paid 10 shillings each (half a pound). The Dublin club minutes also record that the club gave their permission for Zukertort to advertise a further blindfold display as being under their auspices.

An advertisement appeared in the Irish Times on 7 March and there were also preview reports in that paper on 5 and 6 March. The former report made it clear that the object was to enable spectators to watch the games, the previous ones being private for the club, which issued tickets. Hours of play were to be 2-6pm and 7-11pm. It also said ‘the champion leaves Dublin on Saturday evening next’, meaning 8 March.

The 6 March report expected that opponents would include Woollett, Creagh, Capt Wallace, then Capt Hibbert of the Horse Artillery and Mr Bennett Liddle.

"We may mention that since Mr Morphy gave up playing public chess, and since Herr Steinitz refused to engage in tournaments, Herr Zukertort is entitled to the rank of chess champion of the world, having taken first prize at the Paris tourney last year."

Blindfold display at the ice rink (7 March)

The event on 7 March turned out to be a fiasco. The choice of venue (Earlsfort Terrace ice skating rink) was unsuitable and those in charge of making the arrangements clearly did a poor job. Both the low temperatures and the audibility of announcements proved a problem. Again Zukertort expected twelve opponents but two failed to turn up. Eventually he played against three members of the Dublin Chess Club, five members of the Dawson Street Club and two unattached players, and his result was not as good as on the previous occasion, although arguably the opposition was weaker. The playing conditions and allegedly cheating by some of the players were the reason for this.

Here is Peake’s description in the Weekly Irish Times of what happened on each board; the players he criticised were not members of the Dawson Street Club.

Board 1. ‘Mr Little won his game, being in consultation with a couple of other good players. For this reason we don’t include this game in the score.’ (Monck, in the May 1879 Our School Times, says Little drew.)

Board 2. ‘Mr Cairns lost his game to the champion after a splendid fight.’

Board 3. ‘Captain Hibbert sat opposite this board, a reminder from Howard Staunton being at his side. We must protest in the strongest manner against this foolish child’s play. Who ever heard of anything like it before? It is impossible for a blindfold player to acquaint himself of the movements and unrightness of the competitors. It rests, therefore, all the more on their honour to uphold the laws of fairness and manliness. This game, although won by the mover of the pieces, does not count in the score.’

Board 4. ‘Captain Wallace lost his game through the variety of his counsellors. They so bothered him that he made a deadly oversight.’

Board 5. ‘Mr Wright’s game ended in a draw after a good combat’.

Board 6. ‘Mr A. S. Peake. The champion won.’

Board 7. ‘Mr Middleton. The champion won.’

Board 8. ‘Mr Soffe defended the Evans’ Gambit in a masterly manner. His victory was well earned.’

Board 9. ‘Mr Gerahty played a good game early, but fell off after the interval.’

Board 10. ‘Mr Woollett played a fine game from start to finish, and won in a canter.’

Therefore, while the Irish Times said Zukertort won only half the games, Peake discounted two so that the champion, on his reckoning made a positive score of +5 –2 =1. Monck scored it +5 –3 =2. Peake added further remarks about interruptions during the event, and that onlookers should remember they are not competitors, pointing out that advice actually caused Wallace to spoil his game.

Such detailed descriptions of simultaneous events from the nineteenth century are probably somewhat rare, so these accounts of Zukertort’s adventures may perhaps to some extent be generalised when considering what it is was like to be an itinerant chess professional visiting a strange city. Ultimately, though, the simultaneous player in his heart probably does not care too much about the result, unless it is so bad to be truly damaging to his reputation which was not the case here.

What was more serious was the physical effect of the occasion on Zukertort. It is probably significant that Peake’s report does not say anything about the difficult physical conditions at the venue, which leads one to think that he must have been one of the persons whose negligence was attacked in the Irish Times report. Let us now turn to what the daily paper said.

The acoustics in the ice rink, which probably had a high ceiling, were the first problem. Zukertort’s table was at first set too far from the players for him to hear the announcement of the moves distinctly, and he had to move closer. Even then, ‘it was not easy for him to catch the words of the teller, or for the latter to understand Herr Zukertort owing to the echoes of the hall;, which multiplied the footfalls of the numerous boys who were continually coming and going, whence, whither, or with what purpose was not clear.’

More seriously still, everyone felt cold, especially Zukertort who was away from the main group of people. After three hours there was an interval. ‘When rising from play Herr Zukertort bitterly complained of the cold, to the discomfort caused by which he ascribed a couple of injudicious moves he had made.’ He returned for the 8pm resumption with an overcoat and a rug for his legs. At least the public attendance was somewhat better for the evening session than it had been earlier.

The Irish Times reporter chiefly blamed the ‘gentlemen having charge of the arrangements’ who were clearly unfamiliar with preparing a hall for a public audience. Not only was it bitterly cold and the hall itself clearly unsuitable, but the tables had been placed at such a distance from the lights that the ‘pieces were hardly visible’. Worst of all perhaps was the noise and disturbance of the audience. ‘The spectators persisted in crowding round the table so closely that the teller could hardly be heard outside the ring’. Zukertort frequently had to ask for moves to be repeated, but he was very accurate and when there were disputes he was able always to call out the moves. The reporter believes Zukertort was incorrect in believing pieces were moved during the adjournment. His accent was perhaps a problem:

The mistakes arose, we believe, from the difficulty which the players had in hearing the champion, and also from the confusion of his pronunciation of the words “king” and “queen”. Some pieces were, however, moved, and a great deal of consultation went on. This was all very unfair [but] … Zukertort was not the only person inconvenienced by the arrangements… Taking everything into account the quality of the play was higher than could have been expected; Herr Zukertort, however, playing below his usual blindfold force.

The mystery: Zukertort catches pneumonia?

The end of Zukertort’s visit is something of a puzzle. We have already noted that there were two weeks unaccounted for after the vice-regal ball. Now a month goes missing. The only further mention of his visit in Irish papers is that the Irish Times on 8 April reported briefly that: ‘Herr Zukertort has left the Grosvenor Hotel, Westland Row, to play a chess tournament at Burslem’.

So if this is right, and they were not just belatedly reporting his departure of 8 March, he must have been in Ireland a little over nine weeks. The only plausible explanations are that he fell ill, or had a love affair, the former being the more likely? In fact, the chess column of the Glasgow Weekly Herald stated on 22 March that Zukertort fell ill in Dublin during his visit and had to stay on for a while. It certainly sounds from the account of his display on the 7th March that he could have caught pneumonia.

It is also possible that Zukertort paid further private visits to Ireland. For example, as Kevin O'Connell has pointed out, there is a game Zukertort-Higgins in Michael Cusack's chess column for the Celtic Times (1887 page 24) which was said to have been played "recently" in Dublin.

Clearly there is scope for further research here, if sources can be found!