Johannes Zukertort is not a household name when it comes to chess history. However, had the results of just a handful of games gone differently, he might be one of the most famous chess players of all-time, and the first official World Chess Championship. In fact, for some time, it appeared almost inevitable that he would have the title - but it was not to be.
Johannes Hermann Zukertort was born on September 7, 1842 in Lublin, Poland. He was a late adapter to chess, learning how to play only when he was around nineteen years old. In fact, it has been said that in 1861 he lost every game of his first tournament - even while receiving queen odds!
But that quickly changed, and Zukertort was clearly a different player in 1862. In that year, he played Adolf Anderssen with knight odds, and managed to win a few games against the German champion. He became a student of the great Anderssen, and was soon one of the strongest players in all of Germany.
In Zukertort's day, large international tournaments were extremely rare, and his most notable exploits came in the form of match play. He scored wins and losses in various matches against Anderssen throughout the 1960s, then played his first match against Wilhelm Steinitz in 1872. That match resulted in defeat for Zukertort, who scored just one win against seven losses in a 12-game series.
But Zukertort would continue to show that he was one of the top players of the era, defeating players like Joseph Blackburne and Anderssen in the next decade. As tournaments began to take hold in the 1870s, Zukertort started to succeed there, winning in Cologne 1877, Leipzig 1877, and the Paris International Chess Congress of 1878.
The First World Championship
All of this was simply a prelude to the two biggest moments in Zukertort's career. The first came in the London 1883 tournament, one of the strongest tournaments of the 19th century. At the time, Steinitz was beginning to develop a reputation as being the strongest player in the world, but the results of London 1883 helped to challenge this assessment. Zukertort not only won the tournament, he dominated it, scoring an incredible 22 points out of 26 rounds. Zukertort might have scored even better, as he started with an incredible 22/23 score before losing his last three games - after he had already clinched the title. Even after losing his final three games, Zukertort still finished a full three points ahead of Steinitz.
That set the stage for the first ever official World Chess Championship match. With most of the chess world agreeing that Zukertort and Steinitz were clearly the world's best players, their 1886 match in the United States was generally regarded as being for the World Championship. The match would be played in New York, St. Louis and New Orleans, with the first player to win ten games claiming the title.
Early in the match, it appeared that Zukertort might just repeat his success from London 1883. Steinitz won the first game, but Zukertort responded with four straight wins to take a 4-1 lead. But Steinitz struck back in the next four games after the match moved to St. Louis, and at the end of nine games, the match stood level at 4-4 (with a single draw).
The match was settled in New Orleans. Steinitz started with two more wins there. Zukertort came back in the 13th game with a win to close the gap to 6-5, and looked as though he might still have a chance to win the match. But Steinitz would never surrender another game, and after two draws, he would win four of the last five games to win 10-5 after 20 games, including the five drawn contests.
Zukertort's health - both physical, and his mental endurance - have been cited as reasons for the loss, as he was clearly fading as the match wore on. His deteriorating health would continue to plague him in the years to come, as his results in tournaments were generally poor after the World Championship match.
Zukertort died in June 1888 in London at just 45 years old. He suffered a cerebral hemorrhage after a tournament chess game. Perhaps fittingly for such a great player, he was in the lead in the event at the time of his unfortunately passing.