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Zukertort meets President Taylor

November 05th, 2010 by GST

Johannes Zukertort (1842-1888)

Zukertort was the main rival to the first official world chess champion Wilhelm Steinitz. Reading a bit of the history of the Mechanics’ Institute chess club in San Francisco, where I sometimes play, I came across a reference to Zukertort’s visit to the western United States in 1884. It is reported in Volume VI of The Chess-Monthly, edited (and presumably written) by Zukertort himself:

Salt Lake City was reached on the 26th of June, and Zukertort found to his pleasure that Caissa’s hosts had invaded even the City of the Saints. True, it were not Mormons but Gentiles who received him shortly after his arrival. The hospitable rooms of the Alta Club furnished a capital chess centre, and the usual programme of single, simultaneous and blindfold play was duly executed. Out of the six blindfold games the single player won five and lost one to Mr. H. Pratt. He and his two brothers, Apostates as they are called by the Saints, are the best players in Salt Lake City, and probably the Territory of Utah. These three gentlemen and Mr. Barrett in consultation won two games of Zukertort, one on even terms, the other at the odds of a Knight. Before leaving Salt Lake Zukertort had an interview with J. Taylor, the Mormon President, and continued on the 30th of June his westward journey.

An interview and report of the games at the Alta Club from the Tribune are at the end of this post.

Mormon chess history enthusiasts would be interested to learn more about that interview. Can anyone find reference to it in the Church’s papers, or President Taylor’s diaries? Or references to any other meetings between other Church presidents and chess champions?

By the way, the fact that the chess-playing Pratts were apostates is consistent with my observation on the paucity of grandmaster-level players in modern Mormondom.

Any chess player that visits San Francisco should definitely see the Mechanics’ Institute chess room, which is now the oldest continuously operating club in the United States, frequented by a convivial group of regulars, and a fair number of very angry old Russians.


Salt Lake Tribune, June 28, 1884


An Interview With the Champion Chess Player of the World–[His?] Games at the Alta Club

Dr J.H. Zukertort, the champion chess player of the world, was seen at the Walker House yesterday and talked quite freely about his trip, his career and other matters of interest. The doctor is a man of small stature, possessing a quick, bright eye and an intelligent [countenance?]. He is a Russian by birth, but received his early training in Germany, where he resided until 1874, when he became a subject of Great Britain. He spoke with a slight German accent and is one of the most agreeable and unaffected of men. By profession he is a physician, but has not practiced for many years. He has been for some years past the publisher of The Chess Monthly, an English publication issued from 15 Tavistock street, Covent Garden, London. At present he is on a tour around the world, giving public exhibitions at those places he has been specially engaged to do so. He has visited almost all the principal cities of the East and has been as far North as Manitoba and as far South and the Gulf of Mexico. He visited New Orleans on his sourthern trip and had several talks with Paul Morphy, at one time the wonder of the world as chess. Morphy has been demented for years, and of course has given up chess altogether, not having played for twenty years past.

The Doctor is on his way around the world, remaining her till Monday next and then going to San Francisco, where he plays several exhibition games. Thnce he goes to Japan and China and finally to India, expecting to reach London about the first of January, 1885. He has already received a number of invitation from the Maharajaha of India, who act as princes of small principalities. India being the birthplace of chess, the Doctor expects to derive much pleasure from his visit there, although the best players there are not natives, but Englishmen.

“Where did you [find?] the best chess players in this country?” asked the reporter.

“In New York and Philadelphia. Dr. Mackenzie of New York is of course the best player in this country, Martinez of Philadelphia is a strong player, and so is Max Judd of St. Louis. There are also a number of good players in Chicago. The best chess players I have found so far in the far West are at Leadville. Mr. Jones, a lawyer of that city, being a very strong player. At Denver there are no good players at all, their playing not even entitling them to be ranked as amateurs. I have met but two gentlemen of this city, and I think their playing compares favorably with the Leadville men, although I do not think either of them a match for Mr. Jones of that city.”

“How long have you been playing chess?”

“I began playing when I was about nineteen years of age. Prior to that time I scarcely knew the moves on the board. I have been almost constantly before the public since 18[?]3, although I have not played continuously since then.”

“Did you have any special mental training that [?] for the role of chess player?”

“When I was quite young an old bachelor, whos was very fond of mathematics, lived at my parents’ home and he early instructed me in that science. He begun with me when I was but five years of age, and when I was seven years old, although I could neither read nor write, I could prove clearly the the square of the hypotenuse of a right angled triangle was equal to the sum of the square on the other two sides. I was also well versed in algebra and trigonometry, and also had a passion for all exact sciences. My memory has also been well cultivated.

A man must, I believe, to become a first class chess player be endowed with special faculties. These alone, however, will not make him a good player. He must study a great deal and must have opportunities of playing with better players than himself.”

“How many games can you play blindfolded?”

“I have played as high as [?], and once I played sixteen. But twelve is about the highest number I usually play. These stories about men playing eighteen and twenty games are magnified newspaper accounts. I have played as many as sixty simultaneous games, but not blindfolded.”

“I [?] that Steinitz has been attacking you in the public press since your arrival in this country. What does he mean by it?”

“Steinitz is a quarrelsome man and has been expelled from all the clubs he ever belonged to in England. He insulted Max Judd in New York and as been trying to pick a chess quarrel with me through the papers. But I never take any notice of such attacks, for I hold that the only place to settle chess matters is over the board.”

“What [?] takes the lead in chess?”

“England does today. It is becoming more and more of a national game there, and as usual with the Englishmen, whatever they take hold of they strive to make a success of. Germany does not produce as strong players as she used to. France has had no great player since 1840. Russia has a few good players, and America has her share.”


On Thursday eveing Dr. Zukertort played several games of chess at the Alta Club rooms with Mr. J. Barnett and Harmel Pratt, and of course playing them even he won the games.

Last evening, according to pre-arrangement, Dr. Zukertort appeared at the Alta Club rooms and exhibited his marvelous powers as a blindfolded chess player. He sat in the extreme corner of the large rear room on the top floor of the building. The players, six in number, sat at a long table in the center of the room, with separate chess boards before each of them. No whispering was allowed, but talking was permitted. At 8:30 o’clock the playing began, Zera Snot play at Board No. 1, C.P. Brooks at No. 2, J. Barnett at No. 3, Orson Pratt at No. 4, Harmel Pratt at No. 5, and Arthur Pratt at No. 6. William Nelson announced the moves as they were made by the parties seated at the table, and would make the moves for Dr. Zukertort as he announced his desires. It was wonderful to watch the six boards, and see a man who kept a picture of the whole of them in his head, directing one after another the moves to be made. It is only when one understands the countless number of combinations that sixteen chess men can make that one can fully appreciate the wonder that this champion performs. For fully three hours he sat there directing his moves, and during that time one after another of the chess players resigned, the order of their resignation being J. Barnett, Orson Pratt, Arthur Pratt, Zera Snow, and C.P. Brooks. Finally at 11:30 o’clock, the Doctor himself resigned to only remaining game to Harmel Pratt thus winning five out of the six hotly contested games. Harmel Pratt at the close of the game had three pawns and a castle, and the Doctor had three pawns and a knight, and the former had the advantage of position, one of his pawns being in such a position as to give him a queen first.

After the games were finished, some refreshments were passed around, and enjoyable chat indulged in.
Comments (10)
Filed under: Deseret Review | Tags: , ,
November 05th, 2010 10:52:41

Eric Russell
November 5, 2010

Sounds like a topic for the next MHA conference.

November 5, 2010

Thanks J. Stapley for help with the Utah Digital Newspapers archive.

Ardis E. Parshall
November 5, 2010

Love it!

Would “H. Pratt” have been Helaman, I wonder?

Parley P. Pratt is credited as bringing the first chess set to Utah, and the DUP museum has a chess set hand-carved by Orson Pratt, so I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising that other members of the family had an affinity for the game.

Ardis E. Parshall
November 5, 2010

No, not Helaman — Harmel. The three apostate/chess playing Pratts were Arthur, Orson, Jr., and Harmel. See Arthur’s obituary in the Deseret News, 20 March 1919, which mentions his beating Zukertort.

November 5, 2010

Thank you Ardis.

Believe me it’s going to be mentioned in my obituary if I ever beat Magnus Carlsen.

Ardis E. Parshall
November 5, 2010

I hadn’t yet struggled through the fragmented type of the Tribune scan until after I commented, when I discovered you already had those names. Sorry.

November 5, 2010

I’m transcribing the scan now and I’ll post it this morning.

La Llorona
November 5, 2010

“the chess-playing Pratts were apostates ”

Parents! Keep your kids away from the Chess Menace! It turns them in to pawns of Satan.

John Mansfield
November 5, 2010

Do great chess players still do the “me blindfolded against six of you at once” routine?

November 5, 2010

Blindfolded exhibitions are still done, but they’re not as popular these days. Regular simultaneous exhibitions, on the other hand, are still very popular. Grandmasters can make a bit of money by speaking to a club and playing several dozen games at the same time in one evening (with sight of the board). The world record for simultaneous games played was recently broken.

Blindfold chess is not as complicated as many suppose. Any fairly strong player can play a game or two without sight of the board. (I am not a strong player.) It gets hairy when they’ve got to juggle 10 games or so. There are occasionally blindfold tournaments played, but it’s not regarded as serious chess.

There’s an old chess history joke: Archaeologists unearthed an early Christian site in England, and found no chess men or boards. It was regarded as incontrovertible proof that blindfold chess existed in early Britain.

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