CHESS Magazine: Starry, Starry Knights

by ChessBase
10/28/2011 – This is the story of GM Stuart Conquest’s adventurous summer, losing his belongings in Switzerland but finding the grave of a famous chessplayer in London. He did some digging (literally!) and found out a lot more about the player, and a world famous artist who was in London at the same time and may have crossed his path. Read all about it in the latest issue of CHESS Magazine.

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CHESS Magazine was established in 1935 by B.H. Wood who ran it for over fifty years. It is published each month by the London Chess Centre and is edited by John Saunders. The Executive Editor is Malcolm Pein, who organised the London Chess Classic.

CHESS has just published its 75th anniversary edition and made a very interesting article on Chess in the War available to readers. CHESS is one of most popular English language chess publications and one of the very few in A4 colour format.

Starry, Starry Knights

For about two years Vincent van Gogh and Johannes Zukertort paid such regular visits to the same part of London that their paths could easily have crossed. The former, 20 years old, had come to England to take a job with the firm of Goupil and Co., an art dealership whose main gallery was in Paris. He began his new position on or around 19 May 1873, being placed under the direction of Mr Charles Obach, a man with whom Vincent seems to have enjoyed good relations. On 8 June Vincent accompanied Mr Obach and his family on an outing to Box Hill in Surrey. He also spent Christmas with the Obachs. The London offices, which Vincent likened to a stockroom rather than an art gallery, were at 17 Southampton Street, just off the Strand.

Johannes Zukertort (1842-88) in Dublin in 1879. This photo is owned by John Felton of Hastings & St Leonards Chess Club – author Stuart Conquest retains close links to this chess club.

Johannes Zukertort, then 30, had been in England since the previous summer. Invited to the London tournament of 1872, he had repeated Steinitz’s action of ten years earlier and stayed on, a chess refugee, resolved to make his living as best he could. His English backers had hoped he would usurp the Austrian as London’s best player, but their scheme had come to naught: in their match of 1872 Steinitz crushed Zukertort by seven wins to one. Nevertheless, the younger man’s popularity soon earned him a firm footing among the capital’s chess society. He lived wholly for chess, writing, teaching and playing amateurs for small stakes. Always a keen and rigorous analyst (in Germany he had edited the Neue Berliner Schachzeitung), he was soon contributing regular articles for the British chess press – and later he would begin Chess Monthly with his friend Leopold Hoffer. His blindfold simultaneous displays would astonish the public – for example, on 6 June 1873, shortly after Vincent’s arrival, Zukertort gave a ten board blindfold simul at the City of London Chess Club.

And then there were his fantastic stories. Were they true? One didn’t know what to believe – but he was certainly an amiable, polite fellow, and not prone to take sides in the personal disputes that often broke out between rival players. You could usually find him at Simpson’s Divan, that famous meeting-place of chess adepts, at 101 The Strand. Mr Obach, perhaps, was an occasional visitor. He might have been partial to a cigar and a game of chess. And he might have suggested that Vincent join him.

We know that Vincent’s office hours were 9-6 weekdays, 9-4 Saturdays. He walked across Westminster Bridge twice a day, and it is almost impossible, given his place of work (later the firm moved to Bedford Street, which is also close by) that he did not at least hear of Simpson’s and its chess fraternity. Vincent liked London, especially its parks and museums. He rowed on the Thames; he visited Hampton Court and the Royal Academy; he rode omnibuses and the underground. On one occasion he even walked all the way to Brighton! On 4 August 1873 he visited the Dulwich Picture Gallery. He liked it so much that when his sister Anna stayed with him the following July he took her to see the pictures there.

Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), aged 13

It is easy to follow Vincent by reading his letters; for Zukertort, we rely on news and games from his chess life, which for this period is not always well documented. From July 1872 until the summer of 1876 Zukertort seems not to have left Britain. Obviously he needed to earn money (Vincent, who earned a reasonable salary, complains how expensive London is), and one of his most faithful patrons must have been Lord Randolph Churchill, to whom Zukertort is said to have given lessons – intriguingly, this means he may have met Randolph’s young son, Winston! Of Churchill senior providing for needy chess masters, there is on record his helping to raise a subscription for Löwenthal in 1874. This was also the year of Staunton’s death. Staunton died on 22 June but on 27 March of that year he had attended the Varsity Chess Match in Cheapside, London, where Zukertort gave a six-player blindfold simul, so we know that Staunton and Zukertort had crossed paths. (Cecil de Vere, who had been one of England’s best players, died the following year, aged just 29, of tuberculosis.) As far as British chess circles extended, except for Steinitz only Joseph Blackburne now seriously challenged Zukertort’s position – particularly as regards blindfold displays, at which both men excelled. Meanwhile (May 1875), Vincent had been transferred to his firm’s head office, in Paris, a move he seems not to have wanted. Towards the end of that year Zukertort faced the strong amateur Potter in a match at the West End Chess Club. Zukertort won 4-2, with eight games drawn.

In July 1876 Zukertort travelled to the Continent – to Holland! He gave simultaneous displays, both blind and sighted, in Rotterdam and The Hague. That this country welcomed visiting masters is shown by the fact that two years earlier Blackburne had made a similar trip. (Adolf Anderssen, Zukertort’s great teacher, had also visited Holland, playing in Amsterdam and Rotterdam in 1861.) Vincent, who had contrived to lose his job in Paris, had been in Holland a few months earlier (1-13 April) visiting his family. During these dates Zukertort, still in London, finished second to Blackburne in a tournament at Simpson’s Divan. In a development that must have delighted him, Vincent is now offered a new position in England, this time as a teaching assistant in Ramsgate. He sails from Rotterdam on 15 April, reaching Harwich the next morning, and continues by train, via London, to the Kent coast.

In the second half of 1876 Zukertort’s most triumphant engagement is a 16-board blindfold simul at the West End Chess Club. Begun on 16 December, this exhibition actually took two days to complete, Zukertort winning most of the games and producing some fine chess. No-one had taken on such a challenge before, much less meet it in such grand style. Steinitz, who enjoyed cordial relations with Zukertort throughout this period, was full of praise. The publicity generated by this unprecedented achievement was considerable, but Zukertort’s other movements are less easy to trace.

Vincent, a young man unknown outside his own small circle of acquaintance, walks to London, is offered a new teaching post in Isleworth, and on Sunday 29 October he preaches his first sermon, at Richmond. For Christmas he is back in Holland with his family. They are almost at a loss what to do with him, since he can’t seem to apply himself to anything practical. In January 1877 Vincent starts a new job, in a bookshop in Dordrecht. He will never set foot in Britain again.

The first book on Zukertort, presumably a rarity even when it came out, was published in 1912 in Stockholm. It contains 201 of his games, and includes a basic outline of his life, in Swedish, which in fact is an abridged translation of an earlier German article written after Zukertort’s death. The Max Euwe Centrum in Amsterdam – which contains an important collection of old chess literature – has a single copy of this book. My travels having recently brought me to Holland, I have for three weeks been a regular guest at this centre for chess studies, ransacking the shelves, hunting through boxes, searching like a maniac for anything to do with JHZ. The Max Euwe staff have been very helpful. Since I also like van Gogh, I have been visiting the van Gogh museum too. And that’s why he got mixed up in all this.

There is another Dutch connection, one which carries on to this day. On 18 December 1884, in Amstelveen, a small town adjacent to Amsterdam, the Zukertort Chess and Draughts Club was founded. It may be the only club in the world with his name. It is now called the Zukertort-Amstelveen chess club, and the club’s former president, whom I met in Amsterdam, presented me with the book of their centenary celebrations.

There is no space here to discuss Zukertort’s full career. His greatest success was at London 1883. His most famous game: his win against Blackburne from that same event. His greatest failure: to go from 4-1 up against Steinitz to losing 10-5. This was for the title of World Champion. It should not however be inferred that Zukertort was a poor match player. In 1880 he soundly beat the Paris champion Rosenthal 7-1 (with eleven draws), and a year later, in a contest chess fans had expected to be closely fought, Zukertort swept aside the mighty Blackburne, winning 7-2 (with five draws).

In 1883, following his great victory in London, Zukertort set out on a tour of the USA and Canada. In New Orleans he probably tried to arrange a meeting with Paul Morphy (as Steinitz had done a year earlier). Doubtless Zukertort would have relished the chance to talk to the great champion. However, since he nowhere says he met Morphy, he cannot have done so. It was his last opportunity for, seven weeks after Zukertort's departure, Morphy died.

The modern facade of Simpsons-in-the-Strand, with its elegant chess motif over the doorway. We know that Zukertort played there at the Grand Divan, while modern-day Simpson’s claims Vincent van Gogh as one of the famous people who frequented the London restaurant. (Photo: John Saunders)

Johannes Zukertort was never a man of robust health. Whether brought low by malaria (caught, so the theory goes, in New Orleans), or suffering from a congenitally weak heart (as his brother later suggested), the man who lost to Steinitz could not, in the short time remaining him, reassert his former chess strength. Two years later, playing a casual game at Simpson’s, he suddenly collapsed at the board. No-one present could revive him and, despite being taken to nearby Charing Cross Hospital, his state did not improve. On the following morning, 20 June 1888, at about ten o’clock, he died. He was only 46 years old.

It is a Saturday in 1873 or 1874, it is four o’clock in the afternoon, and Mr Obach is closing the office. It is raining. Vincent, who has a forty-five minute walk back to his lodgings, decides to stay in the city for a few hours. And so, his boss having more than once elaborated on the odd cast of characters to be found there, Vincent heads down to the Strand, crosses the road, and, overcoming his initial nervousness, enters the building opposite. And a minute later a small, neatly attired Polish gentleman, looking up from his game, notices a young lad with red hair standing in the doorway...

In mid-March of this year a friend and I were walking in Brompton Cemetery, in south-west London. Curious to learn if any famous people were buried there, that day or the next I searched online, and quickly discovered that, according to Wikipedia, JH Zukertort was! This was a surprise. I naturally went back. I met Jay, the cemetery supervisor, who confirmed that Zukertort was indeed buried there, but at the spot indicated as being his grave there was nothing to be seen but grass. This was beginning to get interesting, but I had to travel to Aix-les-Bains in France for the European Championship. I told Jay I would return in a few weeks’ time.

From Aix-les-Bains I travelled to Switzerland, to visit Georges and Marianne Bertola. Georges I knew had a large and important chess library, and I had conceived the idea of researching Zukertort’s life. What could he tell me? But on the train from Geneva to Lausanne someone grabbed my bag. I lost my laptop, passport, driving licence, and cash. This was a disastrous start to my campaign. I had to make a special trip to Bern, to the British Consulate there, to obtain an Emergency Travel Document, without which I couldn’t leave the country. I flew back to the UK on 17 April. On 19 April my new passport was issued. On 21 April I was back at Brompton Cemetery.

I could tell Jay meant business when he brought out a tape measure. I held one end; Jay took the other and measured off the exact distance as recorded in his register. “At least Zukertort had the good sense to be buried close to your office,” I say. It is like searching for buried treasure. Jay confirms the location as the one I had seen on my last visit – and there is nothing there but scrubby grass. A cherry tree grows nearby. Other graves are around, some of the stones upright, others flat. Close to this part of the cemetery, across the railway line, looms the huge edifice of Stamford Bridge football stadium, and on match days thousands of supporters walk through the cemetery to reach the game. Jay begins scooping up bits of soil with his boot. Only the squirrels are watching.

“Tell you what,” he says. “If you feel like it, you can always come back and take a look on your own.”

I don’t really follow him.

“Use a trowel,” he says. “Be careful. See what you find.”

And slowly it dawns on me. He is suggesting I dig up one of the greatest chess players of the nineteenth century.

“Is it... ?”

“... I give you permission.”

“Okay, “ I said. This was all very surreal. But straightaway I decided to do it.

I came back the next day. It was hot, and people were actually sun-bathing in the cemetery. It was also Good Friday. In my shoulder bag: a trowel, a bottle of water, and a camera. Jay was away for Easter. I went to the spot by the cherry tree and sat down. No-one seemed to be paying me any attention. After a while I began to dig. There were stones mixed up in the soil, and tree roots, and tiny red spiders – it felt like I was doing something in the garden. A few brave souls threw me uncertain looks as they passed, but no-one interfered or asked me what I was doing. It was slow, hard work. Eventually the edge of the trowel scraped on a stone surface, and I began to clear away the earth.

The sunken gravestone in the foreground marks Zukertort’s grave. He rests in peace – apart from the sounds from the Chelsea FC football supporters – their ground is visible in the background! (Photo: John Saunders)

Although Zukertort’s grave was never “lost”, it has certainly been terribly overlooked. In a similar story to mine, the site was rediscovered by the study composer Harold Lommer, I think some time in the late 1950s. The story goes that Lommer, who had idolised Zukertort as a boy, used to sit by the neglected grave (which he had cleaned up) with his pocket chess set, inspired by his hero to compose fresh problems.

Years earlier, in 1927, the chess historian John Keeble had written about the grave: “The slab is in good condition and the lettering still clear, but it has sunk into the ground considerably and wants restoration in that respect.”

The inscription on the gravestone reads “In memory of J.H. Zukertort – The Chess Master –
born Sept 7th 1842, died June 20th 1888.” (Photo: John Saunders)

I am now working with Dr Marek Stella-Sawicki, Chairman of the Polish Heritage Society in the UK, to return Zukertort’s grave to its proper state, fully restored, and in the secure knowledge that it will remain in that same condition for future generations. We will also add a new headstone, with Polish and English inscriptions, and incorporating a chess motif. A ceremony to re-dedicate the grave will take place next year.

With great generosity the Polish Embassy has already provided £2,000 to support this project. I have pledged to at least match this sum, out of my own pocket if necessary. However, it is my belief that many chess players in this country will want to contribute. All donations are most welcome. If you would like to make a donation, please contact me at this email address – – or contact the Polish Heritage Society via their website:

Jacques Mieses, who knew Zukertort, wrote that “the number of his personal friends, especially in England, was very great.” And another nineteenth century master, George MacDonnell, describes Zukertort as being, “a very pleasant fellow, merry as a cricket, and chirpy as a bird.”

According to Henry Bird, Zukertort had a real fondness for Simpson’s, particularly in his final years. The two men lived close to one another, in the Elephant and Castle area; Bird says that Zukertort lived in Walworth Road. Shortly after his friend's death we read of Bird forming a “Zukertort Chess Club”. Its first events seem to have been simuls by Gunsberg (21 boards) and von Bardeleben (six boards, blindfold). I don't know what happened to this club.

About the author

Stuart Conquest, 44, is an English grandmaster who, since the mid-1990s has been a frequent member of the England team at the Olympiads and European Team Championships. In 1981, at the age of 14, he won the World Youth Chess Championship in the under-16 category. Conquest was British Rapidplay Chess Champion in 1997. In 1995 and 2000 he shared first place at the Hastings Premier and in 2001 won the category 14 tournament in Clichy. In 2008 Stuart won the British Championship, in since this year he has the Directorship at the Gibraltar tournament.

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