High Drama in England: The Burn vs. Gunsberg Controversy of 1886

by Eugene Manlapao
1/13/2023 – While Eugene Manlapao was doing research on Amos Burn (pictured on the right) and Isidor Gunsberg (left), the subjects of his last two articles, he came upon an interesting episode in their careers. Burn and Gunsberg were two of the leading British players in the late 19th century, and they naturally became fierce rivals. This rivalry, however, triggered a controversy that spilled to the press. Burn, Gunsberg, and another master dragged into the issue, all turned contentious. Public opinion was divided.

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This controversy is worth sharing. The personal hostilities aside, much about 19th century chess can be gleaned from Burn and Gunsberg’s exchanges in the press. They reveal how masters then established their reputation, how they made a living, and how they gauged their relative strength in tournaments and matches. They are valuable bits of history.

The controversy arose in 1886 when Gunsberg challenged Burn to a match. Burn's reply upset Gunsberg, who then expressed his displeasure to the press. Soon, the two famous masters were feuding publicly. 

Burn and Gunsberg had risen in British and international chess in quite contrasting fashion. Burn, who was about six years Gunsberg’s senior, first appeared as an outstanding amateur in Liverpool in the late 1860s. In 1870, he visited London for about a year, and there honed his game by encountering the top English masters. More importantly, he befriended Wilhelm Steinitz, who became his mentor.

Burn won the British Chess Association's (BCA) Third Challenge Cup of 1870. Just when he was about ripe for professional chess, he returned to Liverpool and continued competing only as an amateur for the next 15 years. 

Burn re-emerged in 1886 for serious competition. In May of that year, he drew a race to 10 match with Henry Bird, 9-9. Two months later, he participated in his first international tournament, the 2nd BCA Congress, which he won jointly with Joseph Henry Blackburne. Burn, however, lost the ensuing 2-game play-off to Blackburne, 1.5-.5. In August, he won the Nottingham International Master Tournament. Immediately after, he played a race to 5 match against the powerful George Henry Mackenzie, which ended drawn at 4-4. Burn was thus foraying successfully into elite chess in 1886 when Gunsberg came knocking with his challenge.

2. B.C.A. Congress, 12 - 29 July, London 1886

Standings after 13 rounds

Rk. Name 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 Pts.
1 Amos Burn   0 0 1 ½ 0 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 8.5 / 12
2 Joseph Henry Blackburne 1   1 0 ½ ½ ½ 1 1 0 1 1 1 8.5 / 12
3 Isidor Gunsberg 1 0   0 ½ 1 1 1 0 ½ 1 1 1 8.0 / 12
4 Jean Taubenhaus 0 1 1   ½ 1 ½ 0 1 1 0 1 1 8.0 / 12
5 James Mason ½ ½ ½ ½   1 1 ½ 0 1 0 1 ½ 7.0 / 12
6 Salomon Lipschuetz 1 ½ 0 0 0   1 1 1 0 1 0 1 6.5 / 12
7 Ken MacKenzie 0 ½ 0 ½ 0 0   1 1 0 1 1 1 6.0 / 12
8 Johannes Hermann Zukertort 0 0 0 1 ½ 0 0   1 1 1 ½ 1 6.0 / 12
9 Emil Schallopp 0 0 1 0 1 0 0 0   1 0 1 1 5.0 / 12
10 William Henry Kraus Pollock 0 1 ½ 0 0 1 1 0 0   0 1 0 4.5 / 12
11 James Mortimer 0 0 0 1 1 0 0 0 1 1   0 0 4.0 / 12
12 James Moore Hanham 0 0 0 0 0 1 0 ½ 0 0 1   1 3.5 / 12
13 Henry Edward Bird 0 0 0 0 ½ 0 0 0 0 1 1 0   2.5 / 12

International Master Tournament, 3 to 9 August 1886, Nottingham 1886

Standings after 10 rounds

Rk. Name 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 Pts.    
1 Amos Burn   ½  ½     8.0 / 9    
2 Emil Schallopp      7.0 / 9    
3 Johannes Hermann Zukertort ½    ½     6.0 / 9    
4 Isidor Gunsberg ½    ½     6.0 / 9    
5 Henry Edward Bird ½    ½  ½     5.5 / 9    
6 Jean Taubenhaus      4.0 / 9    
7 William Henry Kraus Pollock      3.0 / 9    
8 Edmund Thorold ½    ½     2.0 / 9    
9 James Moore Hanham ½    ½     2.0 / 9    
10 JA Porterfield Rynd ½  ½  ½       1.5 / 9    

Gunsberg, on the other hand, had been a young, Hungarian talent. When he was 13, his father, a traveling salesman, brought him to the Café de la Regence. There, he impressed veteran players who called him "the Second Morphy." At 21, Gunsberg settled in London, where he hoped his Jewish connections would help him obtain employment or promote a chess career.

By the mid-1880s, Gunsberg was reaching his peak. He won the BCA Championship of 1885 in London, and then the 4th German Federation Congress in Hamburg less than a month after.

Isidor Gunsberg | Photo: Wikipedia

In June 1886, Gunsberg beat Henry Bird in a match, 6.5-2.5. In the BCA Congress that Burn jointly won with Blackburne, Gunsberg placed joint 3rd. In the Nottingham tournament that Burn won solely, Gunsberg also placed joint 3rd. Gunsberg sent Burn his challenge on the heels of these strong performances. 

In a letter to the chess editor of the Manchester Weekly Post that the Bradford Observer Budget reprinted, Gunsberg relates how the controversy arose:

Sir, - Mr. Burn having recently been successful in tournaments wherein I participated, I have addressed to him the following challenge by letter: "Dear Sir, - I am willing to play you a match for L20 a-side, five games up, 20 moves an hour, draws not to count. I shall be obliged to you for an early reply to my challenge, which I hope will meet with your acceptance." Mr. Burn declined to reply in writing to this challenge, advancing the preposterous excuse for his uncourteous behavior that because he came out ahead of me in the late tournaments I had not the right to challenge him. I may mention that the only test of chess skill is, admittedly, match play; and this I have proved my undoubted superiority by winning a match of Mr. Bird by five to one, with whom Mr. Burn could do no more than a draw. My general record of successes in tournament play is also superior to that of Mr. Burn. But the ground is knocked from under his feet by the very fact of his playing a match with Captain Mackenzie (and only drawing it to boot), who scored six against my eight in the London tournament. I can, therefore, leave the public to appreciate the real meaning of Mr. Burn’s tactics. – Yours obediently, I. Gunsberg.

British Chess Club, 49 Leicester Square, London (Bradford Observer Budget, 4 September 1886).

Burn, for the moment, held himself back. Surprisingly, it was Burn and Gunsberg's common match opponent, Henry Bird, who first snapped. Quite obviously, Bird felt slighted that Gunsberg had made him out to be an easy opponent. He complimented Burn for refusing the match and negotiating one with Blackburne instead. Bird's following reply appeared in the same Bradford Observer Budget a week after the publication of Gunsberg's letter:

"Mr. Burn – than whom a more chivalrous or desirable opponent could scarcely be found – may have some inkling of my recent experience with Mr. Gunsberg; at all events I warmly congratulate him upon electing to meet the far more formidable but far more pleasant opponent, Mr. Blackburne. Fortunately, experience has hitherto shown (with one exception) that matches between masters have been invariably very harmonious affairs; umpire or referee has been quite unnecessary. Burn vs. myself and Burn vs. Mackenzie are the most recent but not the least charming examples of this. To Mr. Gunsberg must belong the credit of making an umpire necessary in a chess match; for I appeal to all those who were present at the British Chess Club when the interruptions in play occurred during the third and fourth games in our match, and ask would it be wise for any master or amateur to engage in a match with Mr. Gunsberg without an umpire? Can it be tolerated that a man shall slam the pieces, jump from the chair and parade the room after a move, and finally wind up by quitting the room altogether for the period of three-quarters of an hour without a word of explanation or apology? The very essence and enjoyment of chess consists in the nice feeling and spirit with which the game is all but universally played. When it is otherwise, then away with chess. (Bradford Observer Budget, 11 September 1886.)    

The public did not generally approve Burn’s reasons for declining the match, although some sympathized with him. A certain J.G. Cunningham commented in the British Chess Magazine:

It is evident that these short matches for comparatively small stakes are becoming popular, for no sooner was the Burn-Mackenzie match over than Gunsberg challenged the former to a short match of five games up. This, however, Burn declined and the match therefore fell through. Some little stir has been caused by the terms in which Gunsberg makes public the refusal of Burn. Broadly, I think Burn was not justified in refusing to meet Gunsberg on the ground that the latter had no right to challenge him having come out below him in two tournaments. Nothing can absolutely settle the relative position of two-master-players but a set match, and the very fact that he played Mackenzie who was lower than Gunsberg in the London tourney clearly shows that no such bar exists or can exist to match-play between two masters who have just emerged from a tourney, the one a step or two higher than the other. On the other hand, I think Mr. Gunsberg’s letter might have been couched in more courteous language and conceived in a more conciliatory spirit. (British Chess Magazine, October 1866, pp 391-92).

When the International Chess Magazine covered the matter in its November 1886 issue, Burn finally broke his silence. He wrote the magazine:

Birkenhead, 14 December 1886.

To the Editor of THE INTERNATIONAL CHESS MAGAZINE.

Now, as to your correspondent’s remarks on my refusal to accept Gunsberg’s challenge, he is not accurate either. A good deal of correspondence has appeared on the subject in English chess columns, but I have absolutely ignored it, as I make it a rule not to allow myself to be drawn into any public chess controversy.

I did not consider Mr. Gunsberg entitled to challenge me, because he did not come out next below me in the two tournaments. I may be wrong in my view, and I am open to conviction, but my view is this – the winner No. 1 of a tournament is not bound to accept a challenge from No. 3, until No.3 has challenged and beaten No.2, or at least No. 3 has challenged No. 2, and No.2 has declined. I think this ought to be made a sort of rule.

The tournament thus performs the office of selecting the leading players from the crowd, and assigning them their positions as regards right of challenge; but the match remains the final test. Now, it is clear that to render this desirable final test practicable there must be a limit, for if No.1 must vacate his position or hold himself ready to play No. 3 down to No. 10, he would never have finished. He might first be challenged by No.10, and then by No. 9, and so on!

So I said to Gunsberg that he should first settle with Zukertort and Schallop before he challenged me, and I think you will admit that theoretically I was right. (International Chess Magazine, January 1887, pp. 7-10)

Two things strike me about these published letters. The first of these is Bird's contrasting regard for Burn and Gunsberg. Here again, chess history gratifies us with snapshots of great players, even if only by Bird’s somewhat biased point-of-view. Bird certainly saw Burn to be far more likeable, calling him "chivalrous." If he meant that Burn, aside from being a very fair player, was also reserved, then this matches other accounts of the Liverpool master. Gunsberg, on the other hand, is portrayed as belligerent, which was perhaps only a manifestation of his over-the-board competitiveness. He was never really a despised fellow at the end of his long career.

The second of these is Burn's justification of his refusal to accept Gunsberg's challenge. Out of necessity, he distinguishes tournaments and matches. His points should at least roughly explain how the hodgepodge of tournaments and matches in the 19th century must have all worked together. Tournaments weeded out the strongest players from the pack. Matches, then, settled the order among them.

Amos Burn | Photo: liverpoolmuseums.org

Winning or placing high consistently in tournaments was apparently the way to high-stakes, lucrative chess. Masters who did would have gained financial backers who, essentially, kept 19th century chess turning. The readiness of these backers to arrange the most compelling matches and wager on them gave masters the livelihood, and the public, the sporting spectacle. The master who made it to the top tier, of course, had to perform well consistently. The consequences were dire if he were to lose his backers' faith and support. Then, as now, the life of a chess master was never easy!

The match fell through, but no one really ended up missing a good Burn vs. Gunsberg battle. They had split two games before their controversy. After it, popular databases reveal that they played thirteen more games, which they also split at four victories each and five draws. All these were encounters in British Championships and international competitions such as Frankfurt 1887, New York 1889, Breslau 1889, Amsterdam 1889, and Hastings 1895. How close the match between them would have been!

Burn and Gunsberg wound up with fine careers. Burn's greatest success came in Cologne 1898, and he spent the latter part of his career as an outstanding chess journalist. Gunsberg proceeded to play his world championship match with Steinitz in 1890-91. Towards the end of his career, he became a respected tournament organizer, lecturer, and writer.

Burn and Gunsberg allowed the controversy to pass, unaware of the significance it would come to bear far into the future.

Games

Burn and Gunsberg found themselves in a tough battle for first place in the 3rd British Chess Association Congress of 1887. They ended tied at 8 points after 9 rounds, and a tie-break for two games up ensued. With the tie unbroken after five play-off games, they were declared co-winners of the tournament. Gunsberg had challenged Burn to a five-game match the previous year, but they ended up playing six in this event. Gunsberg essentially got his match, and Burn came out on top by a whisker, 2-1, with 3 draws. We feature their decisive games.

3rd B.C.A. Congress, 29 November - 8 December, London 1887

Standings after 9 rounds

Rk. Name 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Pts.
1 Amos Burn   1 1 0 1 1 1 1 1 1 8.0 / 9
2 Isidor Gunsberg 0   1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 8.0 / 9
3 Joseph Henry Blackburne 0 0   1 1 1 1 ½ 1 1 6.5 / 9
4 Johannes Hermann Zukertort 1 0 0   ½ ½ 1 1 1 1 6.0 / 9
5 William Henry Kraus Pollock 0 0 0 ½   1 0 ½ 1 1 4.0 / 9
6 Francis Joseph Lee 0 0 0 ½ 0   1 ½ ½ 1 3.5 / 9
7 Antony Alfred G Guest 0 0 0 0 1 0   1 0 1 3.0 / 9
8 Henry Edward Bird 0 0 ½ 0 ½ ½ 0   ½ 1 3.0 / 9
9 James Mason 0 0 0 0 0 ½ 1 ½   1 3.0 / 9
10 James Mortimer 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0   0.0 / 9

Match Burn – Gunsberg

Isidor Gunsberg   1½0½½ 2.5 / 5
Amos Burn   0½1½½ 2.5 / 5

Game 1 – Burn meets Gunsberg in Round 2 of the tournament. Gunsberg achieves a winning game, but errs horribly on his 36th move. The bitter loss virtually costs Gunsberg first place, as he and Burn end up tied after 9 rounds.

 

Game 2 – The first play-off game. Burn thwarts Gunsberg’s aggressiveness then breaks through with a beautiful attack.

 

Game 3 – Burn plays the opening too creatively and finds himself lagging in development. Gunsberg exploits his advantage to the hilt.

 

Reference List:

Forster, Richard. Amos Burn: A Chess Biography, Volumes I and II. North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2004.

Harding, Tim. Eminent Victorian Chess Players: Ten Biographies. North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2012.

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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