Steinitz-Zukertort 1886

By Bill Wall


The first World Chess Championship match was held in the United States in 1886, between Wilhelm Steinitz and Johannes Hermann Zukertort.  The first five games were played in New York from January 11th through 20th, 1886.  Games 6 through 9 were held in Saint Louis from February 3rd through February 10th.  Games 10 through 20 were held in New Orleans from February 26 through March 29, 1886.  The best of 10 wins.  In case of 9 wins for both players, the match is equal (This was later lowered to 8 wins for both players).  In case of a tie, there would be no official world champion.


It was Zukertort who challenged Steinitz for the world championship.  Zukertort must have been fully aware of the risk to his health that such a match must entail.  In the first place, the match would be of long duration, for the victor would be the first person to win 10 games, draws not being counted.  That wouldn’t have been healthy for Zukertort.  Secondly, the match was due to be played in three different places: New York, St. Louis, and New Orleans.  The climate of St. Louis and New Orleans were considered to have climates troublesome to Europeans.  Finally, there was the fact that Zukertort’s health had already once before broken down under the strain of a long tournament.  This match would be no different. 


At first, the match went well for Zukertort.  At the end of the first series of games in New York, Zukertort was leading by four to one.   By the end of the St. Louis series, Steinitz had won as many as Zukertort.  In New Orleans, Steinitz attained his 10 games without Zukertort’s having added more than one to his total.  Steinitz had won 10, drew 5, and lost 5 to become the first world champion.


Zukertort, on his return to Europe, blamed his loss on the climate.  Zukertort hoped for a return match under more favorable conditions.  He hoped a return match would be “not for trial of constitution, but for trial of chess skill.”  He never got his return match.  Within two years, Zukertort at the age of 46, was dead. 


Play began on Tuesday, January 11, 1886 in in one of Cartier’s rooms, a dancing academy, at No. 80 5th Avenue.  A contract was made and play was for the championship of the world and $2,000 a side.   The match was played in New York until one party  won four games.  They would play in St. Louis until one party won three more games.  It would then be finished in New Orleans.  The games were played on alternate days.  If both parties won 9 games, the contest would be declared drawn.  The time limit was 30 moves in 2 hours, then 15 moves per hour afterward.  Play began at 2 pm and would last until 6 pm, if necessary.  It would then resume for 4 more hours at 8 pm.


Among those present in the New York crowd included George T. Green (Manhattan CC President), F.M. Teed, and W.M. De Vissar, of the Manhattan Chess Club; W.S. Paterson, Capt. Mackenzie, Charles F. Buck of New Orleans (referee), Dr. J.N. Navarro, Mexican Consul-General; W.J.A. Fuller, one of the earliest newspaper chess editors; Rev. J.H. Fitzgerald of Newark; Samuel Loyd, President of the New York Chess Club; and George H. Peabody.  The selection of the White pieces was made by a penny toss, and Zukertort won the White pieces in the first game.  Steinitz sealed his 32nd move, and the players recessed for dinner.  During the match, Steinitz puffed away on his cigar and every now and then, took a sip of a small brandy that was on his table.


The admission tickets for the match were 50 cents.  The tickets said the play would be on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays from 2 pm to 6 pm, then 8 pm to midnight. 


At the time, there was no draw by repetition rule for 3 repeated positions.  Two games could have drawn (game 6 and 11) if that rule was in place.  The games of the match were governed by the codes of laws published in the last edition of the German Handbuch, with the exception, that, if both players repeat the same series of moves 6 times in succession, then either party could clam a draw.


In game 8, the game was delayed half way through because Zukertort’s clock broke.  There was no spare.  They had to wait for it to be sent to a jeweler’s for repair.  During the delay, Zukertort play Whist.


The chess clock was introduced in London in 1883.  The device was the invention of Mr Wilson, of Manchester.  It comprised a pair of clocks on a seesaw apparatus, delicately arranged so tipping the seesaw would automatically disable the pendulum of one clock, stopping it and starting the other.


In St. Louis, the match was played at the Harmonie Club at 18th and Olive Streets.  After 4 moves, Zukertort observed that his chess clock was not running.  A recess of 20 minutes was taken whilst the committee looked around for another clock.


In game 20, Steinitz won in 19 moves.  The game took about 20 minutes to play.  Until the last championship match in 2012, it was the fastest lost in a world championship match.


The first official world championship match took two years to arrange.  Mr. Mohle decided the first move in Mr. Zukertort’s favor by the toss of the copper penny.  The coin was enhanced in value a thousand fold as it flew through the air, $5 being bid for it as a souvenir before it reached the floor. 


For the first time in an important chess event, a large demonstration board was designed to be hung on the wall to cater for the needs of the spectators.  Each move was also cabled immediately to Europe.  Most European fans were solidly supporting Zukertort.  When Steinitz won the first game, interest became so great that the playing hall could not accommodate the crowds who turned up to watch.


Steinitz started badly.  His supporters blamed it on his insomnia as the reason for his poor play in New York.  He was down 1-4 before moving on to St. Louis.  When they arrived in St. Louis, Steinitz promptly objected to the chess board provided.  The squares were red and white, explaining that he was color-blind to red.  A chess board with black and white squares was substituted.


During the match, Zukertort would pace nervously between moves, while Steinitz never left his seat.  A few times, Steinitz whispered to his second or ate some chocolate ice cream by his side. 


After the match, Zukertort returned to England.  He died at the age of 46, after being seized by a stroke while playing chess at Simpson’s Divan.


In 1883, Steinitz made a long tour of America, and his enthusiastic reception by the chess public prompted him to desert England and settle permanently in the United States.  In 1885, he founded the International Chess Magazine, and, late in the same year, finally came to an agreement with Zukertort about terms for a world championship match.


In the event of a 9-9 score, the players agreed to continue playing to a further 8 wins.


In April 1885, Steinitz asked Thomas Frere to be his second and work on the preliminary negotiations for a world championship match with Zukertort.  Zukertort’s second was Mr. James Innes Minchin.


In July 1885, Zukertort suggested that the referee for the match should be Charles Francis Buck, president of the New Orleans Chess Club.


Steinitz was almost 50 years old at the time of the match.  Zukertort was 44. 


Between the stakes of Steinitz and Zukertort, $4,000 was collected (over $100,000 in today’s currency).  $3,000 was paid to those who bet on the winner.  Steinitz earned $1,000 (over $25,000 in today’s currency).


One newspaper clipping, dated January 11, 1886, had an article on Steinitz’s daughter who had a stand and was selling her father’s photographs for 50 cents.  She was also selling pocket chess sets and chess magazines.


Admission tickets fir New York and St. Louis were 50 cents.  Season tickets were $5.


Many of the conditions of the match were published in the 1885 issues of Chess Monthly.  The original time control that Steinitz proposed was 24 moves in the first 2 hours, and 12 moves per hour thereafter.  Zukertort wanted 30 moves in 2 hours.  The original cities for the match were New York, Baltimore, and New Orleans that Steinitz proposed.  Zukertort originally wanted a match of up to 25 chess games.  Zukertort wanted to play the entire match in New Orleans.  Zukertort wanted to start the match in October, 1885.


Considerable international interest was paid to the Steinitz-Zukertort match.  Many foreign magazines and newspapers sent correspondents.  Zukertort explained his loss to ill health.  In a speech he made at the London Chess Club on his return, he blamed his loss on the change in climate.


Throughout the match, rumors abounded in various newspapers that the long delay in the match was on purpose and designed to increase the sale of tickets.  There were also rumors that there was collusion between the two players as to the outcome of some games.  The chessboard in New York was the same one used by Paul Morphy.  It was reported that Steinitz suffered from insomnia, but Steinitz was always a slow starter in tournaments and matches.


Steinitz and Zukertort traveled together and arrived in St. Louis on January 30.  They intended to make a short stop of a couple of hours in Baltimore to meet some friends, but by mistake failed to leave the train in that city.  In St. Louis, the games started in the hall of the Harmonic Club.  At New York and St. Louis, the only means of heating the hall was located close to the players.  Both complained of the high temperature.  When not playing chess, both players played whist.  A delay in the first game in St. Louis was due to the red squares instead of white ones.  Steinitz said his eyes were so weak that he did not like the color.  Somebody suggested that Steinitz has a superstition about chessboards with red squares.  He considered these boards with red squares as voodoo.  At 2:30, a new board with black and canary-colored squares was produced and used.  The board was the property of Judge Krum and cost 4 British pounds in London.  In St. Louis, the audience numbered about 200 people.  Zukertort walked and chatted with the audience.  In the first game in St. Louis, Steinitz proposed to adjourn the game on the account of the extreme coldness of the room.  Something had happened to the steam pipes.  Zukertort declined.  After the first game in St. Louis, Zukertort returned to his hotel,  Steinitz stayed at the hall drinking a beer and explaining his chess moves to the audience.


During the 2nd game in St Louis, both players shook the table hard enough to spill some of the chess pieces.


During the 3rd game in St. Louis, the clock failed a few times.  Steinitz consumed a great deal of coffee.  Some audience members were betting whether Steinitz would drink more coffee before he made his next move.


In New Orleans, the match was played at the chess club at the corner of Baronne and Canal streets.  In game 2 at New Orleans, Steinitz spilled his cup of coffee over the chess table during play.  Several minutes were wasted while the porter made the necessary cleaning.  During the match in New Orleans, Zukertort complained of insomnia and restlessness.  One of the games in New Orleans was postponed because of Louisiana Day at the Exposition.  The 20th game was postponed for 3 days “on account of the duly certified illness of Dr. Zukertort.”  The last game was over in 30 minutes.  After the match, Steinitz returned to New York and Zukertort left for San Francisco.