Culture and Civilisations

Magnetic Poles

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Magnetic Poles

Chess players, Wroclaw, Poland (Alamy)

Some weeks ago I wrote about those brilliant Polish chess masters of the game, Akiba Rubinstein and Xavielly Tartakower, in the context of an impressive tournament victory by the new Polish star Jan Krzysztof Duda.

This week I complete the story with the exploits of three slightly earlier Polish notables: Szymon Winawer, Johannes Zukertort and David Janowski.

Szymon Winawer (1838–1919) was a Polish Master born in Warsaw. He “dropped from the clouds” (as English proto-World Chess Champion and polymath, Howard Staunton, put it) when, as a virtually unknown spectator at the Paris 1867 Tournament, the accidental tourist was enlisted to compete, to make up for a missing contestant, and finished a sensational second equal with Wilhelm Steinitz (the future inaugural World Chess Champion). Subsequent successes included: =1st (with Zukertort) Paris 1878, =1st (with Steinitz) Vienna 1882, and undivided 1st prize at Nuremberg 1883. Winawer, indeed, invented the line in the French Defence playing as Black which bears his name 1.e4 e6  2.d4 d5  3.Nc3 Bb4, “The French Defence: Winawer Variation”.

Above: Position of French Defense: Winawer Variation after 3. …Bb4.

Here is a fine example of his vigorous style with Winawer’s win against Mikhail Chigorin in 1875.

It is said that there was no deep strategic conception behind his invention of the Winawer Variation of the French Defence (as there was with later aficionados: Aron Nimzowitsch, Mikhail Botvinnik and Tigran Petrosian) and Winawer simply played his third move as Black, 3. …Bb4 (Bishop to the square b4) so as to trade his bishop for his opponent’s knight as quickly as possible, because he believed that knights were the stronger minor piece! Winawer’s win against Mikhail Tchigorin (see above) bears witness to Winawer’s conviction that Knights are better than bishops (a view not widely held!)

Our next Polish musketeer is David Janowski (1868–1927) one of the grandest of masters and one who, apart from Dr Siegbert Tarrasch was the only player to have defeated that particular quartet of the first ever four World Champions: Wilhelm Steinitz, Emanuel Lasker, José Capablanca and Alexander Alekhine.

Born at Volkovysk in Poland, he soon left for France, eventually becoming a naturalised French citizen with his base in Paris. His first international tournament was Leipzig 1894 where he came equal 6th but within the next five years he had started to notch up sensationally improved performances at monster tournaments in Vienna and London, culminating in his best tournament period, which ran from 1901 to 1905.

Thus in 1901 he was 1st in Monte Carlo and the fine results continued: 1st Hanover 1904, =2nd (with Lasker) at Cambridge Springs 1904, =2nd Ostend 1905, =1st Barmen 1905. During this period he developed a reputation as a chessboard artist of great power and elegance, his victory against Dr. Siegbert Tarrasch (see below) being a supreme example of both qualities.

Then, alas, came a decline in his tournament results, and though he sometimes had good results, they were never in important events. He had up-and-down results in match-play, losing to Frank Marshall in 1905 but defeating him in 1908. This last victory encouraged him to seek a match against Emanuel Lasker and his patron, the wealthy Dutch artist Leo Nardus, duly backed him in such an endeavour in 1909. Lasker won with surprising ease, by seven wins, one loss, and two draws. Lasker won in even more incisive style (with the World Title itself now at stake) by eight wins, zero losses and three draws in a 1910 reprise.

Escaping the First World War, Janowski emigrated to America. Once safe from the dangers of war imperilled France (in spite of a typically geometric and elegant win against Capablanca) his post-war results gradually became worse, as his health deteriorated. Nevertheless, he continued to play till the end, dying on his way to take part in a tournament at Hyères on the French Riviera.

As a player, Janowski was a great master of the attack. He always played to win and never to draw, losing many a half-point through his stubborn refusal to accept that winning was no longer realistic. He garnered many brilliancy prizes and was particularly fond of the two bishops, thus making him the diametrical opposite of his compatriot Winawer, in respect of their individual predilections for either “bishop” or “knight” as being the more effective minor piece.

Here are three of David Janowski’s most inspiring games. The first is from his 1909 match against Emanuel Lasker where Janowski surprises Lasker with a sudden knight sacrifice. Lasker’s resignation might seem a trifle premature, but, in the long run, Black’s pawns are too weak and his king too exposed to offer effective resistance against White’s queen.

The second game, his win versus Dr Siegbert Tarrasch in 1905 where Janowski lures Black’s forces to one side of the board, only to strike with elemental, sacrificial fury on the other.

And the third: David Janowski vs José Raúl Capablanca (1913) which illustrates the elegant geometrical beauty of which Janowski was capable in his best games.

Having offered three of his highly acclaimed masterpieces, I can now point readers in the direction of the book David Janowski, Artist of the Chessboard , by the meticulous duo of Grandmaster Alexander Cherniaev and erudite chess historian Alexander Meynell. This is the best book I know on Janowski in English.

Our third Magnetic Pole, Johannes Zukertort (1842–1888) was one of the most profoundly talented players of all time.  For several years he had a legitimate claim to be the World Champion, until his dream was shattered by Steinitz in their clash from 1886. The antecedents and early career of Zukertort are shrouded in mystery, a mystery that was the more complete in that the only account of these comes from Zukertort himself. As that king of chess stylists, Grandmaster Emeritus Harry Golombek OBE wrote: “a lack of corroboration, so great, that perhaps he really was telling the truth. Whatever the truth may be, it is certain that he was a great chess player, one of those who carry with them the aura of certain genius.”

Johannes Hermann Zukertort and Wilhelm Steinitz, 1886.

Zukertort was born in Lublin, his mother apparently being the Baroness Krzyzanovska. According to Zukertort, he studied chemistry at Heidelberg and physiology at Berlin, claiming to have obtained his Doctorate of Medicine at Breslau University. His versatility was astonishing, speaking nine languages including Hebrew, and he was acquainted with several more. He had been a soldier, having fought in several campaigns for Prussia against Austria, Denmark and France, and had once been left for dead on the battlefield. The multiplicity of his soi distant “Baron Munchausen” style experiences and exploits, more than invites the epithet apocryphal!

Golombek continues with, at times, scarcely concealed irony: Zukertort was also “a music critic, editor on the staff of Bismarck’s newspaper, Allgemeine Zeitung; gifted with a memory so colossal that he never forgot a game he played; a consummate fencer, a blindfold simultaneous player of undoubted repute (he had played as many as 15 simultaneously blindfold) and a grandmaster with justified pretentions towards the world title; most of these attributes we have to take on his own words. But there is enough left that is substantiated to show his great importance in the history of chess.”

As we shall see from a later contribution to this column from the Polish Heritage Society, more valid and up to date information about Zukertort is now emerging.

His early chess career fell under the tutelage of the great Adolph Anderssen, winner of The Immortal Game from London 1851. Zukertort beat his tutor in a match in 1871 in Germany by five wins and two losses, and on the strength of this win over Anderssen, he was invited to play in a strong tournament in London in 1872. Here he unsuccessfully challenged the great Steinitz for top laurels, but there, nevertheless, ensued a match between the two, in which Zukertort was overwhelmingly defeated.

Despite this disastrous loss, Zukertort decided that London was his true home and decided to stay in England, becoming a naturalised citizen in 1878. His results in tournaments and match-play from then on show a steep upward curve, finishing first in an important tournament at Paris 1878 where he tied with his fellow Magnetic Pole, Winawer, but Zukertort winning the play-off.

Then in 1883 came the absolute peak of his career, when Zukertort won first prize in the great London tournament, three points ahead of Steinitz and 5½ points ahead of the leading English mental matador, Joseph Henry Blackburne, who came third.

The remarkable nature of Zukertort’s overwhelming victory in London is to be seen from the fact that he was sure of first prize, with some two weeks of play still to go, when he had a score of 22 out of 23 possible points. But gradually his health was giving way and he resorted to fortifying himself by the use of drugs, in particular opium, the taking of which did not become illegal until the conclusions of the 1912 International Opium Convention came into force. As a consequence of his addiction, Zukertort lost his last three games, astonishingly and largely against inferior opponents. It is very probable that this high point in his career coincided with the time when his health began to deteriorate under the excessive nervous strains imposed by his constant and conscious efforts to outrival Steinitz.

Though Zukertort had been warned by his doctor of the dangers, he refused to abandon serious play and in 1886 he played his match for the World Championship against Steinitz in the USA. This moment of truth turned out to be a disaster for the highly-strung Polish genius. Zukertort was annihilated (after a deceptively promising start) losing by five wins, ten losses and five draws. The strain was this time too great and he returned to England with his health completely shattered. This was reflected in his subsequent results.

In the last year of his life he sank to equal seventh in London 1888 and, playing to the last possible moment, he died from cerebral haemorrhage after a game at Simpson’s Divan in The Strand, London. Despite a career that was truncated at what should have been the midway stage, Zukertort clearly belongs to the Pantheon of Chess Immortals and there is, about his best games, as Golombek lucidly put it: “a sort of resilient and shining splendour that no other player possesses.”

A famous and irresistible example is the game played at London in 1883 against Joseph Henry Blackburne, aptly named Zukertort’s Immortal.

While completing this week’s column I reconnected with two Polish friends, Barbara Kaczmarowska Hamilton and Dr Mark A Stella-Sawicki MBE, Chairman of The Polish Heritage Society, UK Branch. They reminded me of a ceremony honouring Zukertort, held several years ago at Simpsons-in-the-Strand, the very place where Zukertort in mid-play, suffered his fatal seizure. Zukertort’s very poor grave in Brompton Cemetery (Earl’s Court, London SW5), was discovered by Dr Stella-Sawicki who worked together with the former British Chess Champion Stuart Conquest in bringing the project of refurbishing his grave to fruition. Dr Stella-Sawicki writes:

“We have located some primary source documents in order to dispel the legends and inaccuracies about JZ [Johannes Zukertort] and his family. There are many….

“On Tuesday, June 26th 2012 the grave of J. H. Zukertort (1842–1888) was rededicated in London’s Brompton Cemetery. The Polish-born Chess Grandmaster, who was one of the world’s leading players in his time, died at the age of 45 in London, only two years after losing to Wilhelm Steinitz in the first official World Championship match in 1886. Grandmaster Stuart Conquest and PHS UK had discovered that Zukertort’s grave had fallen into a state of neglect. After a successful fund raising campaign, the grave was restored and rededicated.

“Zukertort was born in Lublin of Polish Lutheran parentage, who emigrated to Berlin and later to the UK, whereby he became a fully fledged British citizen towards the end of his 45 year long life. Upon his death, a snuffbox was found with the image of Tadeusz Kosciuszko and “Sonnets” by Adam Mickiewicz – evidence of his deep attachment to Poland.

“The ceremony at Brompton Ceremony included a short ecumenical service celebrated by the head of the Polish Lutheran Church in London, Bishop Walter Jagucki and the Prelate of the Polish Parish Church of Christ the King in Balham, Fr. Władysław Wyszowadzki.” After this I had had the privilege of meeting Dr Stella-Sawicki at the dedication of a plaque at Simpsons-in-the-Strand, where Zukertort had played his last game of chess.

Before leaving the giants of Polish chess, mention must be made of Miguel Najdorf (1910–1997), twice reaching the final qualifying stage of the World Championship and in 1966, when well over fifty, vanquishing Bobby Fischer in the Piatigorsky Cup. Najdorf also included the World Champions Max Euwe, Mikhail Botvinnik, Tigran Petrosian, Boris Spassky and Mikhail Tal amongst his victims. Before World War Two, Najdorf represented Poland in the three FIDE Olympiads of 1935, 1937 and 1939. It was while competing in the last of these, at Buenos Aires, that Najdorf resolved to stay behind in Argentina, to avoid Nazi persecution. Indeed, in 1939 Najdorf left Poland forever and was henceforth associated solely with his adoptive country of Argentina.

At the end of the Second World War, Najdorf exploited his extraordinary prowess at giving blindfold chess simultaneous displays to attract global press attention, in the hope that any surviving members of his extensive Polish/Jewish family might be alerted to his presence and make contact. In 1947 he conducted 45 such simultaneous blindfold games, losing only two. Sadly, no such survivors from the Nazi instituted slaughter of European Jews responded to Najdorf’s tacit appeal.

In 1948 he was unjustly excluded from The Hague/Moscow World Championship Match Tournament to decide the successor to Alexander Alekhine (1892–1946) who had passed in possession of the World Title. When the American Grandmaster Reuben Fine dropped out from the 1948 clincher, the spare slot to join Mikhail Botvinnik (the eventual winner), Vassily Smyslov, Paul Keres, Samuel Reshevsky and Max Euwe, should have gone to Miguel Najdorf, but the influential Soviet Chess Federation said “Nyet!

Miguel Najdorf vs Mikhail Botvinnik, was Najdorf’s “undiplomatic” win against Botvinnik. Perhaps Najdorf would have been wiser to have avoided crushing Botvinnik in their previous game from Groningen 1946. Nevertheless, Najdorf, though sailing under the Argentine flag, clearly remained the dominant chess hero of Polish origin, since the days of Tartakower and Rubinstein, till the advent of Jan Kryzstof Duda, and his recent defeat of Magnus Carlsen.

Raymond Keene’s latest book “Fifty Shades of Ray: Chess in the year of the Coronavirus”, containing some of his best pieces from TheArticle, is now available from  Amazon , and  Blackwell’s .

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Member ratings
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  • Interesting points: 99%
  • Agree with arguments: 98%
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