The final years of Zukertort

by Stephan Oliver Platz
1/31/2018 – In 1886 Johann Hermann Zukertort played the first official match for the World Championship and lost to Steinitz. But at that time Zukertort already suffered from severe health issues which two years later led to his early death. Stephan-Oliver Platz takes a look at the health of Zukertort in the final years of the chess legend.

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Tragic end of a great player

Johannes Hermann Zukertort (*7.9.1842 +20.6.1888) was one of the strongest chess players of his time and — after losing the World Championship match 1886 against Wilhelm Steinitz — the first official Vice World Champion in the history of chess. According to Jeff Sonas at his peak Zukertort had a historical rating of 2798 and was close to the 2800 mark. A couple of times he is first on the historical rating lists. (a) He also won two great international tournament: Paris 1878 and London 1883, the latter with a three point margin on Steinitz. In this article I want to have a look at Zukertort's final years (1886 – 1888).

When J. H. Zukertort died on 20 June, 1888, in London, he was not yet 46 years old. In the last two years of his life he had to cope with serious health issues which of course also affected his results in tournaments and matches. What health issues did he have and what was the reason for them?

The World Championship match Zukertort — Steinitz

Probably Zukertort's poor health in the first three months of 1886 also affected the outcome of the World Championship match against Wilhelm Steinitz. The course of the match supports this assumption: after five games Zukertort was leading 4-1,  after 10 games the score was 4-4, with two draws. After 15 games Steinitz narrowly led with 6-5 (4 draws) but then Zukertort lost 4 of 5 remaining games (one game ended in a draw) resulting in a final score of 10-5, with 5 draws which might easily give the impression that Steinitz' victory was clear and never in doubt.

To make matters worse the match was played in three American cities: in New York, in St. Louis, and in New Orleans. Today this would not be much of a problem because nowadays we have airplanes and air conditioned rooms. But in 1886 it meant exhausting travels by ship, stage coach, horse and cart or seemingly prehistoric trains drawn by steaming locomotives, in short, travels which could last days or weeks. In some of these vehicles it was definitely very drafty, and it does not astonish that many a passenger fell ill soon after his journey or arrived ill at his destination.

The last phase of the match was played in New Orleans and in their biography about Zukertort C. W. Domanski and T. Lissowski write:

Reports by the press drew attention to the visibly weakened physical and mental disposition of Zukertort. He had rings under the eyes, an emaciated face, and showed all signs of a fever. (b)

We can assume that the World Championship match would not have ended that much in favour of Steinitz if the match that began on January 11, 1886, in New York would have been played to its end in this city. However, I believe that Steinitz in this case would also have had good chances to finish on top though maybe very narrowly because he was simply the better strategist. This is particularly apparent in the third game of the match. If we look at the position after White's 37th move we can conclude easily that Zukertort had been completely outplayed strategically. With 37...f5 Steinitz could have prevented any counterplay White might get with g2-g4. The later course of the game shows the different playing approaches of Steinitz and Zukertort: Steinitz thinks first of all strategically, without giving too much heed to tactical possibilities. Zukertort, however, sees the combinations and wins tactically:


If Steinitz had won this game — and this was quite possible — Zukertort would have led only 3-2 after 5 games, and not 4-1. But let's leave speculation aside to return to the facts: how did Zukertort live after his return from the U.S.?

On June 28, 1886, the City of London Chess Club hosted a reception for Zukertort. In a speech he praised the "friendly and attentive reception" with which the Americans had treated him, and his opponent in the match, Wilhelm Steinitz, who "from the first to the last moment had behaved most honourable and fair towards me". This sounded much more conciliatory than an interview which had been published two years before in the "Salt Lake City Tribune" of June 28, 1884. Asked about Steinitz' attacks against him in the press, in this interview Zukertort had said about his future opponent: "Steinitz is a troublemaker and has been thrown out of all clubs in England which he had ever joined."

Zukertort blamed the changes of climate as main reason for his defeat: "In New York, where the atlantic breeze blew I felt rather well, but less so in St. Louis, in the depth of the continent. In New Orleans, at the Mexican Gulf, I finally collapsed." In all fairness he added: "Of course, the change of climate influenced me as well as my opponent. We were both exposed to the same stress and I fully acknowledge that my opponent coped better with the severe test." At the same time Zukertort expressed the wish for a rematch in England, but this did not happen because his health soon deteriorated rapidly.

The probable cause for Zukertort's health problems

In their biography of Zukertort Domanski and Lissowski refer to a relevant observation by Leopold Hoffer, co-editor of  The Chess Monthly:  "Leopold Hoffer noticed in Zukertort increasing problems to articulate and general vapidity." (c)

This observation is an important hint what happened to Zukertort. The mentioned problems to articulate are typical for a stroke or an attack similar to a stroke. Thus, the book Selbstdiagnose – Handbuch der Gesundheit (Self-diagnosis — a health compendium) by Volkwart E. Strauss has the following to say under "Problems to speak":

 "First question: Do you have one or more of the following symptoms:
 - Dizziness
 - Vapidity (slight palsy) in the arms or legs, usually on one side
 - Sensibility disorder (formication or no feeling for touch and pain)
 - Vision disorders
If YES → Call your doctor immediately! You probably suffered a stroke or an attack similar to a stroke." (d)


Johannes Zukertort

I cannot definitely say that Zukertort in 1886 in addition to his articulation problems indeed showed one of the symptoms described here, but a number of things support this assumption: two years later a stroke caused by a brain haemorrhage cost him his life and the autopsy report established that "the great veins at the base of the brain had been significantly degenerated". (e)

V. E. Strauß writes: "In most cases a stroke is caused by cerebral sclerosis. Cerebral sclerosis leads to blood flow disorders and subsquently to an undersupply of brain cells." (f)

Transient ischaemic attacks  ("TIA") are "often only marked by a slight disturbance of consciousness, a short palsy of an arm, or slight articulation problems" but "TIA return in different intervalls. They can be the first sign of a stroke." (e)

Let us compare this with Zukertort's reaction when he suffered from a sudden feeling of faintness during the last game he ever played, on June 19, 1888, in London. In the evening Zukertort went to visit "Simpson's Chess Divan" and just played a game against Sylvain Meyer. What followed was described by Hermann Lehner, editor of the Austrian magazine "Österreichische Lesehalle":

"He [Zukertort] had perhaps played about 25 minutes when he suddenly startled, throwing some pieces from the board. The waiter James Stammers rushed over and gathered the pieces that had been thrown an the floor and handed them to Zukertort who, however, was obviously not able to put the gathered pieces back to their squares. The waiter, taken aback by the odd behaviour of the guest asked him whether anything had happened to him and whether he could help him in any way. 'No', replied Zukertort and added in some words that in a few minutes the sudden fit would be completely over again."

This indicates that such attacks had happened before. But this time Zukertort was wrong because he only improved temporarily. Hermann Lehner continues his report:

"Stammers brought him a glass of fresh water and a bit later some brandy to help him regain strength. Zukertort took what was offered and apparently improved a bit. Now he was brought back to the British Chess Club where he was much better known. But his condition got alarmingly worse and in the same night the seriously ill Zukertort had to be transported to the Charing Cross hospital. The right side of his face was hidden by a stroke and he apparently was without consciousness. At five a palsy of the arm made matters worse..." (g) Zukertort died in the hospital on the very same day, on 10 o'clock in the morning of June 20, 1888.

These and other descriptions suggest that Zukertort had been suffering from occasional transient ischaemic attacks during the last two years of his life.

Last tournaments and the match against Blackburne

When we consider these health problems and a possible temporary undersupply of the brain one understands why Zukertort in the last two years of his life could no longer sufficiently cope with the pressure of a longer tournament or a match. This sheds a different light on his tournament and match results:

In the Masters Tournament of the British Chess Club in London 1886 Zukertort shares seventh place with 6.0 / 12 (13 participants). He wins five games and loses five games, two end in a draw. Joseph Henry Blackburne and Amos Burn win the tournament with a score of 8½ / 12 each.

In Nottingham 1886 Zukertort scores 6.0 / 9 and shares third place (with Isidor Gunsberg) behind Amos Burn (8) and Emil Schallopp (7). He wins five games and loses only two. Two games (against Gunsberg and tournament winner Burn) end in a draw.

From May 7, to June 9, 1887 Zukertort plays a match against Blackburne and loses clearly with 1-5 and 8 draws. In 1881 he had defeated Blackburne with 7-2 and 5 draws.

Zukertort plays his last great international tournament in Frankfurt/M, in 1887. He finishes on a disappointing 16th place (21 participants). He loses nine games, wins six, five end in a draw. Tarrasch dupes him with a simple opening trap and later writes that he had only played against Zukertort's "shadow".


At the Masters Tournament of the British Chess Federation in London 1887 things go better. Zukertort scores 6.0 / 9 and finishes fourth among 10 participants, behind Burn and Gunsberg (both with 8.0 / 9) and Blackburne who has 6½ / 9.

A closer look at Zukertort's games of this time reveals that he made a number of (otherwise) inexplicably mistakes and sudden bouts of "chess blindness" but in other games showed the strong and impressive chess he used to play. The following game shows that Zukertort did not at all forget how to play:


Translation from German: Johannes Fischer

Sources and notes:

(a) Jeff Sonas calculated the historical Elo-ratings and published them here:
(b) Cezary W. Domanski and Tomasz Lissowski, Der Großmeister aus Lublin, Berlin 2005, p. 153
(c) Cezary W. Domanski and Tomasz Lissowski, Der Großmeister aus Lublin, Berlin 2005, p. 161
(d) Volkwart E. Strauß, Selbstdiagnose – Handbuch der Gesundheit, Munich 1986, p. 110
(e) Cezary W. Domanski and Tomasz Lissowski, Der Großmeister aus Lublin, Berlin 2005, p. 169
(f) Volkwart E. Strauß, Selbstdiagnose – Handbuch der Gesundheit, Munich 1986, p. 320
(g) Österreichische Lesehalle 1888, No. 92, p. 242f.

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Stephan Oliver Platz (born 1963) is a passionate collector of chess books and for yours has been successfully playing as an amateur for his German club. The former musician and comedian works as a freelance journalist and author in Berlin and in the Franconian village Hiltpoltstein.
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