Johannes Zukertort and the First World Chess Championship Match

by Eugene Manlapao
2/15/2023 – Johannes Zukertort is one of the great but tragic figures of chess history. A former title contender, he was as brilliant as he was misunderstood. On the 137th anniversary of the first World Chess Championship Match, his life, career, and legacy are worth re-examining.

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Zukertort was born on September 7, 1842 in Lublin, Poland, which was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He was the seventh of ten children of Jakub Ezekiel Cukiertort, an evangelist, and Etla Szmulowicz Marguli. In 1855, when Zukertort was twelve, the family moved to Breslau. There, the family changed its surname to Zukertort.

Zukertort took up medicine in Breslau, but he likely failed to complete his training due to his passion for chess. He had probably learned the game earlier in Lublin, but in Breslau he joined a chess club and came to know Adolf Anderssen. Receiving knight odds from him at first, he gradually progressed to play the strongest opponents in the region. Anderssen undoubtedly inspired Zukertort to become a chess master.

In 1867, Zukertort moved to Berlin and gained experience as a chess journalist, becoming the editor of Gustav Neumann’s and Berthold Suhle’s Neue Berliner Schachzeitung. Anderssen, however, was his nemesis of his early career, and between 1868 and 1872 they played hundreds of games against each other. In 1868, he lost a match against him, 3.5-8.5. In a rematch in 1871, Zukertort turned the tables on Anderssen, 5-2.

Adolf Anderssen (July 6, 1818 – March 13, 1879)

In far away, London, members of the St. George’s Chess Club received the news of Zukertort’s victory enthusiastically. They offered him 20 pounds to come to the city so that they could back him in a match against Wilhelm Steinitz.  

The Austrian Steinitz had come to London in 1862 to seek his fortune as a professional player. In his ten years in the city, he had antagonized many in the English chess circle with his proud character. Steinitz was a dominant match player, and had beaten Anderssen in a match in 1866. The members of the St. George Club who wished Zukertort to come over were his foes who had long wished to see the impetuous Austrian defeated. They had seemingly found their man in Zukertort.

By accepting the invitation, Zukertort unwittingly sparked a rivalry with Steinitz that was to culminate in their 1886 World Championship Match. After his arrival in London in 1872, he would gradually challenge Steinitz’s standing as the world’s strongest player. Their fundamental chess philosophies would clash as they outdid each other as players and leading analysts of the day’s newspaper columns and magazines.

Johannes Zukertort

Their immediate match, however, proved no contest as Steinitz easily wiped out Zukertort, 7-1. Despite the deflating defeat, Zukertort would go from strength to strength in Europe’s chess capital. In 1875, he beat the strong amateur and journalist, William Norwood Potter, 4-2. Two years later, he won the German Championship in Cologne and placed second behind Louis Paulsen in Leipzig. The following year, he scored the first of his two greatest achievements in Paris 1878. Zukertort tied for first with Szymon Winawer after 22 rounds, but beat Winawer in the first to win two games-playoff, 3-1. Steinitz did not participate, but observed the event as a correspondent of The Field, which had engaged him since 1873.

Paris 1878, Final standings

Rg. Name 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 Pts.
1 Johannes Hermann Zukertort   01 10 ½0 11 11 ½½ 11 ½1 11 11 16.5 / 22
2 Szymon Winawer 10   ½½ 11 ½1 11 01 ½1 11 11 11 16.5 / 22
3 Joseph Henry Blackburne 01 ½½   01 10 00 11 11 11 14.5 / 22
4 Ken MacKenzie ½1 10   01 00 ½0 01 01 11 11 13.0 / 22
5 Henry Edward Bird 00 00 01 10   11 10 10 01 11 11 11 13.0 / 22
6 Adolf Anderssen ½0 11 11 00   10 11 10 10 11 12.5 / 22
7 Samuel Rosenthal 00 00 ½1 01   ½½ 01 10 11 11 11.5 / 22
8 Berthold Englisch ½½ 10 10 01 01 ½½   01 ½½ 11 10 11.5 / 22
9 Albert Clerc 00 ½0 00 10 10 00 10 10   01 10 11 8.5 / 22
10 James Mason ½0 00 00 00 01 01 ½½ 10   11 8.5 / 22
11 Henry William B Gifford 00 00 00 00 00 01 00 00 01 00   3.5 / 22
12 Karl Pitschel 00 00 00 00 00 00 01 00   2.5 / 22

Playoff Zukertort vs Winawer, Paris 1878

Johannes Hermann Zukertort ½1½1 3.0 / 4
Szymon Winawer ½0½0 1.0 / 4

The following year, 1879, Zukertort founded the magazine The Chess Monthly with Leopold Hoffer. This gave him a journalistic platform rivaling that of Steinitz in The Field. In 1880, he won a match against the French champion, Samuel Rosenthal, 7-1. In 1881, he beat England’s strongest player, Joseph Henry Blackburne, 7-2.  

Both Zukertort and Steinitz analyzed the games of the Blackburne match in their respective columns. Their contrasting analysis and one-upmanship unsurprisingly ignited a protracted word war between them that later came to be known as "The Ink War." In the heat of their exchanges, Steinitz challenged Zukertort and Hoffer to a match. The challenge was probably made only to annoy the editors of The Chess Monthly, but it helped realize the first world championship match.

In 1882, Steinitz boosted his reputation as the unofficial world champion when he took the great international tournament in Vienna. Zukertort responded with a spectacular victory of his own, winning London 1883.

Many of the world’s best players participated in London 1883, a double round-robin event, but Zukertort denied everyone a winning chance with his blistering performance. He scored 22 points in 23 rounds, and won the tournament with three rounds to spare. London 1883 would be remembered as his greatest victory.

London 1883 - Final standings after round 26

Rg. Name 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 Pts.
1 Johannes Hermann Zukertort   10  11  11  01  11  11  11  11  11  11  01  11  10  22.0 / 26
2 William Steinitz 01    01  00  11  10  11  00  11  11  11  11  11  11  19.0 / 26
3 Joseph Henry Blackburne 00  10    10  00  01  11  1 *  1½  10  11  11  11  11  16.5 / 26
4 Mikhail Ivanovich Chigorin 00  11  01    11  01  01  10  01  10  01  11  11  10  16.0 / 26
5 George Henry MacKenzie 10  00  11  00    ½½  01  10  10  01  11  ½1  11  11  15.5 / 26
6 Berthold Englisch 00  01  10  10  ½½    00  1½  10  01  11  11  11  11  15.5 / 26
7 James Mason 00  00  00  10  10  11    10  10  11  ½1  11  11  11  15.5 / 26
8 Samuel Rosenthal 00  11  0*   01  01  0½  01    ½1  10  01  10  11  11  14.0 / 26
9 Szymon Winawer 00  00  0½  10  01  01  01  ½0    01  10  11  11  11  13.0 / 26
10 Henry Edward Bird 00  00  01  01  10  10  00  01  10    00  11  11  11  12.0 / 26
11 Josef Noa 00  00  00  10  00  00  ½0  10  01  11    10  10  11  9.5 / 26
12 Alexander Sellman 10  00  00  00  ½0  00  00  01  00  00  01    01  11  6.5 / 26
13 Arthur Bolland Skipworth 00  00  00  00  00  00  00  00  00  00  01  10    01  3.0 / 26
14 James Mortimer 01  00  00  01  00  00  00  00  00  00  00  00  10    3.0 / 26

Only a match between Zukertort and Steinitz could settle the matter of the world’s best player, but the first world championship match took three years to arrange. In 1883, Steinitz, no longer able to bear his alienation in London, moved to New York, U.S.A. Zukertort, meanwhile, cashed in on his popularity after his London victory, and toured the U.S.A. where he gave simultaneous displays and played matches as guests of various chess clubs.

In the U.S.A. Steinitz founded The International Chess Magazine, and he hounded Zukertort in this new publication with his challenge. Now back in London after his U.S. tour, Zukertort finally assented. His acceptance was published in the March 1885 issue of The Chess Monthly, and it reflects the strained relations between him and Steinitz:

"Since the conclusion of the London Tournament, Mr. Steinitz has considered it his duty to pose as a martyr before the chess world, persecuted and injured by myself and my friends. He generously reminds me, on every possible and impossible occasion, that I lost a match to him thirteen years ago, and asserts that I now carefully avoid another encounter. It is beyond the limits of decorum and parliamentary language to enter into a discussion with an opponent who prides himself on the scurrility of his speech and his writings. Past experience has taught me that any direct negotiations with Mr. Steinitz would exhaust human patience, and finally prove barren. I am, however, ready to play Mr. Steinitz on either side of the Atlantic, and call on him to appoint a second with whom my second will settle all the necessary preliminaries."  

Steinitz was willing to play the race to ten-match only in the U.S., as London had become too "hostile." New York, St. Louis, and New Orleans were chosen as venues. The stakes were settled at $2000 a side, a huge sum then considering that matches between top flight masters of the time went for only about one-fourth of the amount.

The first game began on January 11, 1886. In New York, Zukertort raced to a 4-1 lead, but Steinitz evened the score at 4-4 in St. Louis in only four games. In New Orleans, Steinitz won 6 games to Zukertort’s 1 to take the match 10-5. Steinitz became chess first official World Champion on March 29, 1886.

Johannes Zukertort, Wilhelm Steinitz

Johannes Zukertort and Wilheim Steinitz during the first official World Championship match

1   William Steinitz 1000011½1½110½½1½111 12.5 / 20  
2   Johannes Hermann Zukertort 0111100½0½001½½0½000 7.5 / 20  

The traditional view of the match has been that Zukertort, a great Romantic, lost to the more modern and classically oriented Steinitz. Zukertort, in particular, was mainly a tactical player who never quite matched Steinitz’s positional understanding. In the new book ChessBase recently featured, The Ink War, however, the author Willy Hendriks presents Zukertort in a new light. His presentation is very interesting to say the least. It is also worth considering if we are to broaden our understanding of Zukertort and the first world championship match.

For Hendriks, the match was not as plain as it has been made out to be. Zukertort may have begun as a Romantic player, but he well understood and assimilated the principles of Steinitz. From being a tactician, in fact, he was evolving into a positional player. Potter’s assessment of Zukertort’s in his City of London Chess Magazine after losing their 1875 match best sums Zukertort’s modern play:

"He (Zukertort) is not one to go in for premature attacks, nor does he go on developing after the time for action has arrived. The unsound brilliancy with which he has been credited was generally conspicuous by its absence, and even the brightness of conception which might naturally be expected from him manifested itself mostly, and in fact almost entirely, not in creating an advantage, but in crowning it when already earned by hard play and sound development."

Hendriks adds further that none of the games of the first world championship match were played in the style and spirit of Romanticism vs. Classicism. If Zukertort lost, it was simply because Steinitz was much the stronger player. Steinitz had the stronger psyche to boot, which allowed him to overcome a 4-1 deficit. Zukertort, on the other hand, collapsed when his lead evaporated.

A reader’s comment in the British Chess Magazine shortly after the match is very relevant:

"It cannot be doubted for a single moment that Steinitz, both physically and mentally, has more staying powers about him than are possessed by his opponent. In this connection I may just state that a well-known player said to me before the match had commenced "You’ll see if Zukertort loses the first two or three games right off he will collapse altogether, but if Steinitz loses nine games off the reel he will play the tenth with just the same pertinacity with which he played the first. Steinitz never plays better than when fighting the uphill battle. Zukertort only shows his best when fortune smiles."

Zukertort was of fragile health. He had been suffering from a heart disease, and in New Orleans he was said to be stricken with malaria. Nobody can be sure how much his health affected the match, but in any case the loss left him broken physically and mentally. Thomas Seccombe wrote: "His nerves seemed over strained, an impediment in his speech was noticeable, and he had not the energy to rouse himself from a kind of mental torpor."

There was nothing for Zukertort, however, but to keep playing. It would be all downhill for him. A few months after the world championship, he could only score 6 out of 12 in the B.C.A. Congress in London. In 1887, he lost a match to his old rival, Blackburne, 5-1. In Frankfurt 1887, he finished in the lower half of the table with only 8.5 points out of 20.

A doctor friend had once advised Zukertort to quit competitive play, for he would otherwise endanger his life. He replied: "I know that, but play or no play, I must be, and am, prepared to be taken away at any time without a moment’s warning."

Zukertort was playing an informal game at the Simpson’s Divan one evening when he suffered a stroke and passed away the following day, June 20, 1888. He was only 45.

Zukertort's grave, Brompton Cemetery | Photo: Wikipedia

At his peak, Zukertort was a very flashy tactical player, but he was not solely a Romantic. He proved well-rounded enough to assimilate modern theory as chess moved to the classical era. He had his weaknesses. Unable, perhaps, to shake off the quick-play mentality of coffee-house chess, he was impatient and prone to blunders in critical moments of important games. Poor health and a lack of mental strength played heavily against him against gritty opponents like Steinitz. Eventually, he passed away as a relatively young, but very exhausted chess player. Nonetheless, he was one of the most brilliant players of the 19th century. His intense rivalry with Steinitz brought out the best chess in each other and made them worthy contenders in the first ever world championship match.  


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

Hendriks, Willy. The Ink War. The Netherlands: New In Chess, 2022.

Schulz, Andre. The Big Book of World Chess Championships. The Netherlands: New In Chess, 2016. 


Zukertort vs. Blackburne, London 1883 – Zukertort’s magnum opus, rightly considered as one of the greatest games in history.



Zukertort vs. Rosenthal, 15th Match Game, 1880 – One of Zukertort’s finest endgames. In a locked position, he finds a way to break through.



Zukertort vs. Potter, 12th Match Game, 1875 – An attacking masterpiece founded on fine, positional play.



Zukertort vs. Steinitz, 5th Game 1886 World Championship Match – Zukertort’s best win of the match. In a game that appears to be too modern and positional for a supposedly Romantic player, Zukertort exploits his space advantage systematically.    



Zukertort vs. Taubenhaus – One of Zukertort’s best games in his final years. His aggressive play nets him a decisive endgame advantage.




See more articles by Eugene Manlapao...

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.