George Henry Mackenzie: The Forgotten American Chess Ace (March 24, 1837-April 14, 1891)

by Eugene Manlapao
3/24/2022 – George Henry McKenzie led an interesting life and was one the strongest players of the 19th century but today he is almost forgotten. Born in Scotland and a soldier by profession, McKenzie lived in Germany, France, South Africa and India until he finally settled in the US. On the occasion of McKenzie's 185th birthday Eugene Manlapao takes a look at the life and at the chess career of this American Master.

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The American masters Paul Morphy and Harry Nelson Pillsbury are two great heroes of 19th century chess. Morphy, of course, demolished the brightest of Europe in his tour of 1858. Pillsbury, on the other hand, was a formidable force and a leading contender for the crown held by Emanuel Lasker after his great but unexpected victory in Hastings 1895.

Only a few remember, however, that another American shone brightly on the world stage after Morphy left and before Pillsbury’s star rose. Perhaps the void left by Morphy was too large for him to fill, or he was lost in all the dazzle that Pillsbury brought, but whatever the case, he has been left somewhat in the shadows of his illustrious predecessor and successor. That is regrettable, indeed, for the man was a great master himself and carved a career any chess player can be proud of. He was George Henry Mackenzie.    

George Henry Mackenzie was born in North Kessock, Scotland, on March 24, 1837. He was educated in Aberdeen, Scotland, but left school in 1853 for business ventures in France and Germany.

In Germany, Mackenzie was enticed to join the British army, and was commissioned as an ensign in 1856. Soon after, his regiment was sent to the Cape of Good Hope, and from there to India. He was promoted to Lieutenant and traveled to England in 1858, but in 1861 he sold his commission and retired from service.

Mackenzie was already known for his chess skills as a soldier, and in 1862 he defeated Adolf Anderssen in a handicap tournament in London. In the same year, he drew a match with George Alcock Macdonnell.

The match with Macdonnell actually consisted of two separate matches, in which the combined scores stood at ten wins apiece with four draws. Macdonnell won the first match, 7-4, but Mackenzie took the second, 6-3.        

The match must have been a top one, as Macdonnell is given a historical rating of 2522 in 1862, a grandmaster’s rating by today’s standards, and only a few rungs below the world’s best then in Louis Paulsen, Ignatz Kolisch, and Andersssen himself. It was fought on even terms, and that in a time when stronger players usually gave odds of moves, pawns and even pieces. At 25 then, Mackenzie was already rounding to be a top-flight master himself.

The ratings of 1862 according to Chessmetrics

In 1863, Mackenzie migrated to the United States. The country, then, was engulfed in the American Civil War, and Mackenzie was again lured by military life. He fought for the Union and headed the 10th United States Colored Troops Regiment as Captain. The rank stuck, and he would be known as The Captain in chess circles long after.  

There are mixed accounts of Mackenzie’s involvement in the war, some telling of heroism and others of desertion. In any case, the war was over by 1865, and Mackenzie found himself free to lead a full-time chess career. He settled in New York, where he ran a chess column for Turf, Field, and Farm.

Mackenzie would dominate American chess in the next fifteen years. In the period between 1865-1880, he amassed a record of thirteen straight first-place finishes in tournaments, while winning six of seven matches, with only one drawn. These successes include first prizes at the New York Chess Club’s annual contests in 1865, 1866, 1867, 1868, and first place at Cleveland 1871, Chicago 1874, and New York 1880 (the second, third, and fifth American Chess Congresses, respectively). He won every tournament he entered.

Mackenzie reached his peak with these competitive experiences in his adopted country, and his impressive results, moreover, drew international attention. He began receiving invitations to international tournaments, and he was to soon test himself against world-class opponents who were far stronger than his American adversaries.

In Paris 1878, Mackenzie placed 4th behind Johannes Zukertort, Syzmon Winawer, and Joseph Blackburne, certainly an outstanding result in his first foray into international play. He became a fixture in what were then the “super tournaments” of the day, and the following results show that he was always a worthy competitor:  

4th in Vienna 1882, behind Wilhelm Steinitz, Winawer, and James Mason, but ahead of Blackburne;

5th in London 1883, behind Zukertort, Steinitz, Blackburne, and Mikhail Chigorin;

4th in Hereford 1885, behind Blackburne, Henry Bird, and Ernst Schallop, but ahead of future world title contender Isidor Gunsberg and Mason;

7th in Hamburg 1885, behind Gunsberg, Blackburne, Berthold Englisch, Mason, Siegbert Tarrsach, and Max Weiss; 

7th in London 1886, behind Blackburne, Amos Burn, Gunsberg, Jean Taubenhaus, Mason, and Samuel Lipschutz;

2nd in Bradford 1888, behind Gunsberg, but ahead of von Bardeleben, Mason, Burn, and Blackburne;

3rd in Manchester 1890 behind Tarrasch and Blackburne, but ahead of Gunsberg and Mason.  

Mackenzie’s other notable results in this period include his victory in the Scottish Championship of 1888, his match victory over Lipschutz in 1886, 5-3, and a drawn match with Burn in the same year, 4-4.

In 1887, Mackenzie scored his greatest triumph when he won the German Championship in Frankfurt, ahead of Blackburne, Zukertort,  EnglischWeissvon BardelebenTarrasch, and Paulsen. Estimates place Mackenzie as the world’s second best player, with a personal best rating of 2645, by the end of 1888.

These are certainly impressive accomplishments, especially for one who spent his early life as a soldier, and who apparently poured his energy into chess only when he had fully matured. Yet, Mackenzie was never seriously considered as a world title contender. In the early 1880s, Zukertort gave the most impressive performances among potential challengers, and it was he who eventually played Steinitz in the first world championship in 1886. Steinitz, moreover, had a superior personal record against Mackenzie, with six victories to one in his favor and three draws. In an era where financial backers made the world championship match possible, many probably downplayed Mackenzie’s chances.

Mackenzie was still in full stride in 1890 with his Manchester result, but tuberculosis, a disease that he acquired as a soldier, took his life away on April 14, 1891.     

Mackenzie may have failed to live the dream of winning or vying for the world championship, but he should serve as an inspiration to many for his remarkable strength and achievements in spite of his other callings.   

Games

Mackenzie vs. Mason, Paris 1878 – Mackenzie’s Evergreen Game, played in his international debut in Paris, 1878.

 

Blackburne vs. Mackenzie, London 1882 – The best game of the match in 1882 that Mackenzie won, 2-1. Mackenzie uncorks a stunning combination against “The Black Death,” a great tactician himself, leading to an inevitable mate.

 

Mackenzie vs. Tarrasch – Mackenzie skillfully conducts an attack, which he finishes with a deadly knight hop.

 

Links


Eugene holds a degree in Bachelor of Arts, Creative Writing, which he obtained from the University of the Philippines, Diliman. Chess and writing are his passions, and one often completely absorbs him that he totally neglects the other. His other interests include classic literature, biographies, powerful memoirs, sports, and the visual arts. He spends his spare time doting on his two lovely daughters.
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Ikes Ikes 3/25/2022 06:34
His life in the barracks could not have been more enjoyable by being the resident chess master. Sumarizing his achievements, his service in the army being given priority over the cultivation of his world-class talent in chess, lays testament to the man's honorable life and likewise shows his confidence in his own chess-playing capabilities.
arzi arzi 3/24/2022 03:54
Born the same year as Paul Morphy, two months before, and died 7 years later.
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