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Joseph Henry Blackburne

August 2006 (revised)


Joseph Henry Blackburne

Joseph Henry Blackburne

"He left it en prise and I took it en passant."

– Joseph Henry Blackburne (after drinking his opponent’s glass of whiskey during a simul)

Joseph Henry Blackburne was born in Chorlton-on-Medlock, Manchester, England on 10th December 1841. Although he was quite proficient in draughts as a youngster, he didn't take up chess until 1860, at almost 19 years old, when, like so many others of that time, he was inspired by the exploits of Paul Morphy who had recently visited England and mainland Europe.

His father had been a temperance proponent who spread his beliefs throughout England and Ireland with little Joseph in tow. Ironically, Joseph didn't get the temperance part of the message, but he did develop a rambler's bone and would spend almost his entire life on the road.

Blackburne joined the Manchester Chess Club and in July of 1861, not long after learning to play, he played the club champion, Edward Pindar, in a match of 5 games - and lost every one. Apparently, Blackburne was a quick study because he played an 8 game return match against Pindar just three months later and lost only 1. He drew 2 and won 5 outright. In November 1861 Louis Paulsen came to Manchester [Although my source claimed Manchester, I could only find where Paulsen gave a simul/blindfold exhibition in London at that time: according to Rev. G.A.McDonnell, "In 1861 Louis Paulsen gave a grand blindfold performance at Simpson's Divan, when he conducted 10 games simultaneously, of which he won 6, lost 3, and drew 1."] to give a simultaneous blindfold exhibition. Blackburne was as inspired by Paulsen as he was by Morphy and was soon playing chess simultaneous blindfold chess against as many as 3 opponents. By 1862, Blackburne was recognized as the strongest player in Manchester.

The London World Exhibition of 1862
The London World Exhibition of 1862
The London International Tournament of 1862

1862 was a year of the London World Exhibition. It was also the year of the 2nd Internation Chess Tournament and, just as the Exhibition presented many novelties in the arts and sciences, the tournament presented it's own novelties in the chess arena.

There were 14 players in the tournament, to play each other round-robin (each player must play every other player) with time control of 20 moves in 2 hours with no adjournments. If a draw occurred, then they would continue playing games until one of them won. Time was measured with hourglasses.

This was the first tournament in which a timer had been used - at Blackburne's suggestion. However sand-clocks had been used in match play when Anderssen played Kolisch in 1861 with a time control of 24 moves in 2 hours.
The games were played at the St. George's Club, St. James's Club and Simpson's Divan.
St. George's Club was started in 1843 after the dissolution of the Westminster Chess Club. The new clug was located at Beatties Hotel on George Street in Cavendish Square. When Beattie's Hotel closed the next year, the St. George's moved to new quarters at the Polytechnic where the first International Chess Tournament was played 1851. In 1854, it moved into the Crockford house on James Street and finally, in 1857, it made it's way to 1 Palace Chambers, King Street, St. James where the 2nd Internation Chess Tournament was partially played.

The St.James' Club had been in existance since 1770 and was located at at the Parsloes Hotel. John Jacob Lowenthal, the hungarian master, most noted for losing to 12 yr. old Paul Morphy, was the organizer of the 2nd Internation Chess Tournament and had been president of the St. James's, Chess Club since 1857.

Public Chess Rooms — The Divan, at Simpson's Restaurant, 101 the Strand, was commonly referred to as Simpson's Divan. According to a website on English restaurants the Divan, ".... began life as The Grand Cigar Divan in 1828, introduced coffee and chess a few years later, and finally evolved into a restaurant in 1848 when John Simpson joined the company." It's original owner was Samuel Reiss who let Simpson, his headwaiter, buy into the venture. Today you can have an overpriced meal there surrounded by the ghosts of chess past as the walls are covered with photographs and cabinets hold boards and pieces dating back to 1828 used by such players as La Bourdannais, Staunton, Morphy, Anderssen, Steinitz, Zukertort (who had a stroke there while playing chess for a shilling and died the next day), Tarrasch, Tchigorin, Bird, Mason, Janowsky and Lasker.

The tournament was most notable in that it was Steinitz's coming-out party into the international chess scene. Steinitz, as the the Austrian champion, was invited to play but only ended up in sixth place. The winner, as expected, was Adolf Anderssen. Second, third, fourth and fifth places belonged to Paulsen, Rev. Owen, MacDonnell and Dubois respectively. Hannah, Barnes and Lowenthal took seventh, eigth and ninth place, while Blackburne won tenth, ahead of Mongredien, Deacon, Robey and Green. However, Blackburne defeated Owen, Steinitz, Lowenthal and Green in the individual games.

When the tournament ended, Blackburne returned to Manchester to his job in a warehouse, but in his absence, he had been replaced. So, he did the only reasonable thing and turned chess professional.

Wilhelm Steinitz After Steinitz won the London championship of September,1862 (with a perfect 7-0 score), he, too, turned professional. He then played his first match with Blackburne (1862-1863) which he won +7 -1 =2.

While Steinitz began touring England giving simul demonstrations, Blackburne also toured England giving blindfold simul demonstrations. Blackbune's and Steinitz's paths crossed many times throughout their careers.

Four years pass before we hear much about Blackburne again. But 1867 proved to be a busy year. He played in two tournaments. The first one was the World Exposition tournament in Paris.

Blackburne played in the 1867 tournament in Dundee, Scotland, winning 4th place behind behind Gustav Neumann, Wilhelm Steinitz and Cecil de Vere/George MacDonnell (tied for third). This tournament has an important historical aspect since it marked the first time in which draws were credited with 1/2 points, rather than replayed or ignored.

It was also in 1867 that Blackburne and Steinitz got into an altercation of which there some confusion about what happened.

According to Bill Wall, the scuffle resulted in little Steinitz spitting on Blackburne and Blackburne replying with a punch and throwing Steinitz through a first-story window.

Glenn Giffen, citing from The Even More Complete Chess Addict by Mike Fox and Richard James, states:

"On page 222, it says "the most notable bit of aggro in modern chess happened at a London club (Purssell's) in 1867. World champion Steinitz, a pretty irascible character at the best of times, fell out with the great English master Joseph Henry Blackburne (nicknamed The Black Death). The way Steinitz told it, Blackburne assaulted him, and gave him a black eye - so the world champion spat at him. Other versions have Steinitz spitting first and Blackburne knocking him through a window in retaliation. We shall never know. What we do know is that the same pugnacious pair were at it again in Paris some years later."
Mark Weeks, chess guide at, adds:
"Landsberger [Kurt Landsberger, author of William Steinitz, Chess Champion: A Biography of the Bohemian Caesar and editor of The Steinitz Papers -SBC] quoting Steinitz : 'In Paris [1878], we occupied adjoining rooms at the same hotel, and I was already in bed undressed when [Blackburne] came home drunk and began to quarrel, and after a few words he pounced upon me and hammered at my face and eyes with fullest force about a dozen blows, until the bed cloth and nightshirt were covered with blood.'"


Gustav Neumann was a very strong player, born in 1838, who rarely played in international tournaments. He was a friend of Adolf Anderssen, his primary opponent and sometimes consultant. He eventually suffered a mental breakdown and died in 1881.

John Wisker was the British champion in 1870 and 1872. He eventually moved to Australia and died in Melbourne of consumption/bronchitis in 1884. He also co-edited The City of London Chess Magazine, (published from February 1875 to January 1876) with William Norwood Potter (1840-1895)and London Field. He also wrote a novel, The Machinations of Detherby Yarke, which was published as a serial in the Federal Australasian of Melbourne.

The 1868-1869 British Chess Association Handicap was a multifaceted event that included a knockout handicap tournament, a blindfold event (which included both Steinitz and Blackburne as well as others), the Montgredien Tournament - seeming a type of chess variant and the and the Glowworm Cup (of which I can find no explanation). The main event was won by Steinitz, followed by John Wisker, then Blackburne.
Blackburne, by virtue of winning against Cecil de Vere, the current champion, in the last round, became the new British Champion.
Cecil Valentine De Vere Cecil Valentine De Vere was born Cecil Valentine Brown on St. Valentine's Day 1845. When he was about 14, he joined the City of London Club whose membership included Steinitz, Zuckertort, Bird, Blackburne, Boden, MacDonnell and Lowenthal. Even among these immortals, his natural talent was evident. He started frequenting Simpson’s Divan and drew a crowd everytime he played. The BCA (British Chess Association, 1861-1892) wanted to establish a British Championship and in 1866 set up a tournament, the Challenge Cup, to determine the first British Champion. This tournament became a biennial event. Cecil de Vere won the tournament, becoming the British Champion at age 21. He was already being referred to as the English Morphy.
a closer look at Cecil Valentine De Vere He was invited to participate in the World Exposition Tournament of 1867 in Paris - the only British-born player so honored, playing against Sam Loyd, Steintitz, Kolisch, Neumann, Winawer, Rouseau, Riviere and other great players. He scored 5th place. Later in 1867, de Vere played in the Dundee, Scotland tournament tying for 3rd with the Rev. MacDonnell, just behind Neumann (1st) and Steinitz (2nd)
Shortly after the Paris tournament, de Vere was diagnosed with tuberculosis. He participated in Baden-Baden in 1870 and in the 4th British Championship (won by John Wisker) in 1872, but the effects of his then-incurable disease were already apparent by then. He seemingly decided to live the remainder of his short life carefree and took to drinking heavily and spending his money freely. He took a job as a correspondant for The Field but after 15 months, he was replaced with Steintiz for his indolent lifestyle. Impoverished and deathly sick, de Vere was sent on a trip by his friends to Torquay, a coastal town on the English Riviera, in hope that the sea air would give him some respite. He died there on February 9, 1875, at 30 years old.

"He [Cecil de Vere] handled the pieces gracefully, never hovered over them, nor fiercely stamped them down upon the board, nor exulted when he gained a victory; in short, he was a highly chivalrous player." - Wilhelm Steinitz

For more details on his life and some of the strange mysteries surrounding him Click Here

In 1869-70 Blackburne lost a match to Steinitz in London -5=1.

The Baden-Baden tournament took place in 1870. This tournament had the distinct features of employing clocks, counting draws, of being Germany's first international tournament and of being limited to the strongest players in the world: Adolf Anderssen, Wilhelm Steinitz, Joseph Blackburne, Gustav Neumann, Cecil De Vere, Samuel Rosenthal (1837–1902 -the French Champion), Louis Paulsen, Szymon Abramovich Winawer (1838–1920), Johannes von Minckwitz (later, editor of Deutsche Schachzeitung, a German chess periodical) and Adolf Stern (because the Franco-Prussian war broke out, Stern, a Bavarian reservist, had to leave mid-tournament).

Blackburne tied with Neumann for 3rd place, winning 200 francs. Anderssen took 1st place, followed by Steinitz with 2nd.

According to Jan Van Reek, "Those, who had ended their game, made afternoon excursions. During the evening they listened to the spa band and drank wine in a local cellar. One evening Blackburne, De Vere and Steinitz sang English tunes, strolled outside the city and encountered an alert German patrol. An international incident nearly occurred."

According to Bill Wall, "During the tournament, Blackburne was arrested for being a French spy. It was all a mistake. It turned out that Blackburne's carriage driver was the French spy."

In the London tournament of 1872, Blackburne came in 2nd behind Steinitz (followed by Zukertort, Rev G.A.MacDonnell/Cecil de Vere, Wisker, Gossip, Martin. Draws were replayed.

click here for full sized picture

The Black Death    

Vienna, 1873, was the site of another World Exposition tournament. "Kaiser Franz Josef, Baron Albert Rotschild and Ignác Kolisch contributed large sums to the prize fund," according to Jan Van Reek.

Blackburne and Steinitz tied for first place, but Steinitz won the play-off. (followed by Adolf Anderssen, Samuel Rosenthal, Louis Paulsen/Henry Bird, Dr. Maximilian Fleissig1/Philipp Meitner2, Josef Heral, Adolf Schwarz/Oscar Gelbfuhs3 and Karl Pitschel).

It was in the tournament book to this event that Blackburne was referred to as The Black Death. In an odd coincidence, Vienna was plagued by cholera 4 from July to September of 1873.


1 Max Fleissig was born 11/10/1845 in Csenger, Hungary. The Fleissig Gambit bears his name.
2 Philipp Meitner practiced law and was considered a "freethinking humanist" whose home was a gathering place for legislators, writers, chess players and other lawyers. Most notably, he was the father of Lise Meitner, the famous woman physicist who coined the word fission.
3 Oscar Gelbfuhs was born 11/09/1852 in Sternberg, Czechoslovakia and died 09/27/1877 in Tesin, Czechoslovakia.
4 Besides the cholera outbreak during the 1873 Exposition in Vienna: there was a flood towards the end of the fair; the stock market crashed; neither, France, recently defeated in the Franco-Prussian war nor the United States, underestimating the importance of the Expo, had exhibits; the vendors charged exorbitant prices for goods and service. The result was that Vienna never hosted another world's fair.

In March 1876 Blackburne played what was widely considered an unofficial world championship match against Steinitz. Steintz won every one of the 7 games, played at the West-End Chess Club in London. It was the also first time that spectators were charged an entrance fee - half a guinea - to watch a chess match.
An aquaintance of mine gave me this explanation of English currency:

The symbol 5/- is five shillings, there used to be 20 shillings to the British pound,
so this is 1/4 of a pound. As a pound is around $1.70 this equates to about 40¢.
The symbol d as in 3d refers to old pence, and there were 240 of these to the pound,
so 1d = approximately .7¢ so this amount would be about 2¢.
A guinea is even older, and was 1 pound and 1 shilling. So that would be about $1.80.

Paris, 1878     standing- Mackenzie, Englisch, Gifford, Winawer, Mason
    sitting- Anderssen, Zukertort, Bird, Steinitz, Clerc
In 1878 Blackburne played Henry Bird in a match winning 5 - 2. He also took 3rd place In Paris 1878, there was another world's fair. According to Jan Van Reek, "The participation of Mackenzie and Mason made it the first intercontinental tournament in Europe." Blackburne took 3rd place in this tournament behind Zuckertort and Winawer.

For more information concerning Szymon Abramowicz Winawer, see Tim Harding's excellent article.

In 1881 Blackburne won 1st place in the 2nd German Chess Federation Championship in Berlin. He ended up a full 3 points ahead of Zukertort Tchigorin, and Winawer!
This victory is considered by many Blackburnes greatest accomplishment.
1881 was also the year that the British Chess Magazine, the world's oldest chess magazine was established.
He then defeated Gunsberg in a match with 7 wins, 4 loses and 3 draws.
The London Tournament of 1883 saw the introduction of automatic clocks. Unlike previous models, these clocks, invented by Thomas Bright Wilson (1843-1915), secretary of the Manchester Chess Club, were precursors of modern chess clocks.
"The key to a successful timing mechanism was the ability to STOP the clock when it was the other player's turn. Hourglasses were used in some early matches, since they could be turned on their sides to stop them when the player was not on the move. Eventually pendulum clocks were used, with the pendulum started and stopped as a player's turn completed. Thomas Bright Wilson which balanced two pendulum clocks on a seesaw beam so that when one was tilted, it stopped and other started. These had a counter for the number of the times the seesaw was tipped, which could track the moves."
        - This quote is from the Chess Life
Another feature of this tournament was that it had a consolation prize of 50 which was distributed among the losers using the Gelbfuhs Score.
It's basically the same thing as the Sonneborn-Berger score. An individual's Gelbfuhs Score equals the sum of scores of the players beaten, divided by the number of games played plus one-half the sum of scores of players with whom draws were scored, divided by the number of games played.
Using the Sonneborn-Berger Score, each player is awarded the total tournament points from each player he beats, and half the total tournament points from each player with whom he draws.
         - My source for this was mainly cevdetchess
Blackburne came in 3rd behind the winner, Zukertort and 2nd placed Steinitz. Chigorin came in 4th. Englisch, Mackenzie and Mason tied for 5th. Rosenthal - 6th, Winawer -7th, Bird -8th, Noa -9th, Sellmann -10th. Mortimer and Skipworth tied for last place.
During 1885, Blackburne travel to the British colonies of Australia and New Zealand to give exhibitions.
Here's 3 games he played while in Australia:

[Event "Melbourne"]
[Site "Melbourne"]
[Date "1885-??-??"]
[Result "1-0"]
[White "Blackburne Joseph"]
[Black "Witton"]

1.e4 e5 2.d4 exd4 3.c3 dxc3 4.Bc4 Nf6 5.Nxc3 Nc6 6.Nf3 Bb4 7.O-O d6 8.Bg5 Be6 9.Bxe6 fxe6 10.Qb3 Qe7 11.Nd5 exd5 12.exd5 Ne5 13.Qxb4 O-O 14.Nd4 c5 15.dxc6 bxc6 16.Nxc6 Nxc6 17.Qc4+ Kh8 18.Qxc6 Qe5 19.Bxf6 Qxf6 20.Rad1 Qxb2 21.Qxd6 Qxa2 22.Rd2 Qa5 23.Rfd1 Qf5 24.Qg3 a5 25.Rd7 Qf6 26.h4 h6 27.R1d6 Qa1+ 28.Kh2 a4 29.Rg6 Rg8 30.Qf4 Rgf8 31.Rxh6+ gxh6 32.Qxh6+ Kg8 33.Qh7+

[Event "Melbourne"]
[Site "Melbourne"]
[Date "1885-??-??"]
[Result "1-0"]
[White "Blackburne Joseph"]
[Black "Lush"]

1.e4 d5 2.exd5 Qxd5 3.Nc3 Qa5 4.d4 c6 5.Nf3 Bg4 6.Bd3 e6 7.O-O Bd6 8.h3 h5 9.Ne4 Qc7 10.Nxd6+ Qxd6 11.Be3 Bxf3 12.Qxf3 Nf6 13.Rfe1 Nbd7 14.c4 Rc8 15.Rad1 h4 16.Bf4 Qe7 17.d5 cxd5 18.cxd5 Nxd5 19.Bb5 N5f6 20.Bd6 Qd8 21.Qf5 Qe7 22.Qd3 Qd8 23.Rxe6+

[Event "Sydney"]
[Site "Sydney"]
[Date "1885-??-??"]
[Result "0-1"]
[White "Russell"]
[Black "Blackburne Joseph"]

1.e4 {Notes by Blackburne.} e5 2.f4 exf4 3.Nf3 g5 4.h4 g4 5.Ne5 Nf6 6.Bc4 d5 7.exd5 Bg7 8.d4 O-O 9.Bxf4 Nxd5 10.Bxd5 Qxd5 11.O-O c5 12.c3 Nc6 13.Nxg4 cxd4 14.c4 Qe6 15.Nf2 Qxc4 16.Nd2 Qd5 17.Rc1 Re8 18.Nc4 Re6 19.Ne3 Qb5 20.Nc4 h5 21.a4 Qd5 22.Nd3 Rg6 23.Qf3 Qxf3 24.Rxf3 Bg4 25.Rg3 Re8 26.Nf2 Re2 27.Nxg4 Rxg4 28.Rxg4 hxg4 29.h5 d3 30.h6 Bxb2 31.Rf1 Nd4 32.Nxb2 Rxb2 33.Be5 Ne2+ 34.Kh2 Rb6 35.h7+ Kxh7 36.Rxf7+ Kg6 37.Rd7 Kf5 38.Bg7 g3 39.Kh3 Rg6

In 1886, the year Steintiz claimed the World Championship, Blackburne lost the Irish Championship (The 2nd Irish Chess Association Congress that took place September, 1886 at Queen's College, Belfast and was won by William Henry Krause Pollock. However, Blackburne gave a blindfold simul exhibition against 8 strong amateur players during that tournament.

The Belfast News-Letter for Monday, September 27 reported on the exhibition:

The principal feature on Saturday, and one which had the effect of causing a good attendance, including a number of ladies, was Mr. J. H. Blackburne's exhibition of blindfold chess, which was a splendid performance, and one which exemplified in a very marked degreee the great blindfold strategist's proficiency in the game, that gentleman playing eight simultaneous games. Out of the eight three were won by Mr. Blackburne - viz. those against Messrs. Godwin, Nicholls and Peake; two were drawn, those in which he had Messrs. Mill and Hill as opponents; and one lost, that against Mr. Harvey. Time did not permit the other two games being finished - those in which Messrs. Palmer and Tennant were concerned, but they were adjudicated in Mr. Blackburne's favour. The game with Mr. Harvey was a very stubbornly contested one, and was not concluded until an advanced hour, Mr. Harvey playing a good sound game throughout. The game with Mr. Peake did not continue long, as Mr. Peake, losing his queen at an early stage, was obliged to resign. Mr. Blackburne's performance is all the more remarkable when the length of time he had to play without intermission is considered, play commencing punctually at five o'clock, and continuing until almost half-past eleven. A visit to the examination hall on Saturday was well repaid, as witnessing such a feat is not within the reach of the Belfast public every day.
     - according to The Time Traveller
But Blackburne did win the British Chess Club Championship held in London that year.
In 1887 Blackburne lost a match to Isidor Gunsberg at Bradford with 2 wins, 5 loses, 6 draws, but he won a match against Zukertort with 5 wins, 7 draws, and 1 loss.
It's 1888, the year that Johann Zukertort, born in 1842, died and future chess immortal, Jose Raul Capablanca y Graupera, was born.
In 1889 the 6th American Chess Congress was held in New York. Steintitz chose not to play in this tournament but agreed to play the ultimate winner in a world championship match, making this the original Candidates' Tournament. Max Weiss and Mikhail Chigorin tied for first, but both declined the opportunity to play a match with Steinitz. Gunsberg, who came in 3rd, and who won the first-ever Best Game prize, did take up the offer to play Steinitz. Blackburn placed 4th.

Blackburne tied for 1st place in the 6th German Championship at Breslau.

Lasker won the 1899 London tournament by a full 4 points with 18 wins, 7 draws, and 1 loss - the loss was inflicted by Henry Blackburne.

In 1890 Blackburne came in 2nd behind Tarrasch at Manchester.

In 1891, Blackburne accepted an invitation to give an exhibition in Havana, Cuba. Wile there, he defeated both Celso Golmayo, the champion of Spain, and the champion of Mexico.
In 1892 Blackburne tied with Mason in Belfast at the North of Ireland Congress.
In the 1890's Blackburne was playing over 2,000 games a year in simultaneous exhibitions. He was still giving simultaneous exhibitions in his 70s. Since Blackburne was known for his love of the bottle, during a simultaneous exhibition at Cambridge University some students thought they would gain the advantage by placing a 2 bottles of whiskey near the boards.
Blackburne won all his games in record time and finished off both bottles of whiskey before the exhibition was over.


Blackburne defeated Nimzovich at St. Petersburg in 1914 when he was 72 winning the Brilliancy Prize.
The same year he tied for 1st place in the British championship with Fredrick Yates but it was to be Blackburne's last international tournament.
He died in London on September 1, 1924 at the age of 82.

It is estimated he played over 100,000 chess games in his career - more than any other chess player.
His Elo historical rating is at 2570.
He participated in 53 national or international tournaments in 53 years of international play.
[Bill Wall]


According to Edward Winters, who quotes from The Chess Monthly, March 1888, page 195:

"Mr Blackburne contemplates issuing a collection of about 200 of his blindfold games in a volume. The price will probably be 2s.6d. Mr Wade, Chess Monthly Office, is to be the printer and publisher."

The collection never appeared, and the only Blackburne volume published during his lifetime was the P. Anderson Graham collection of 1899.


From Wim van Vugt of the Gambiteer's Guild, "A well know gambit line in the Vienna was invented by him (1876): 1.e4 e5 2.Nc3 Nf6 3.f4 d5 4.fxe5 Nxe4 5.d3 Bb4! (better than de deceptive 5Qh4+ 6.g3 Nxg3 7.Nf3 Qh5 8.Nxd5) 6.dxe4 Qh4+ 7.Ke2 Bxc3 8.bxc3 Bg4+ 9.Nf3 dxe4 10.Qd4 Bh5."

There is also the famous Blackburne Shilling Gambit which starts out with:
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Nd4!?

According to Bill Wall  it was so named because "Joseph Henry Blackburne (1841-1924), Mr. Black Death, would play any amateur for one shilling (G. Chandler likes to call it the 5 pence metric trap) and he would usually play this opening and win. The trap wouldn't work for masters, but it was a source of income for Blackburne against amateurs unfamiliar with the trap."

play through some of Blackburne's games

References and Acknowledgements

Jan van Reek
Bill Wall
Glenn Giffen
Mark Weeks
John Henderson
John Marountas
Tim Harding

 Sarah's Chess Journal




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