Chess Career Outside Competition.

Blackburne began earning fees from chess in 1862. He was prolific in giving ordinary and blindfold simultaneous displays but his skill at the latter was widely known. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries these displays lasted much longer than today and were often adjourned to another day. (A blindfold display at Liverpool in 1870 lasted 9½ hours with a one-hour interval during which Blackburne performed the ‘Knight’s Tour’ blindfold, starting from any square named.) After adjournments, Blackburne often called out details of positions in order that tellers could check for misplaced pieces – a practice that also impressed audiences.


The amount of travel involved in earning a living in this manner was phenomenal. Blackburne benefited from the expansion of the rail network during the second half of the 19th century. He wrote just one book – Mr. Blackburne’s Games of Chess – which was published in 1899. The author of the work being reviewed makes reference to a variety of errors which it contains. The obvious conclusion is that simultaneous displays offered greater remuneration than writing books!


Tournaments and Matches.

During the final quarter of the 19th century Blackburne was one of the top few players in the world – in a group that included Steinitz, Zukertort, Chigorin and Tarrasch. However, his results in tournaments are in stark contrast with his performances in matches. Regarded by many contemporary authorities as ‘World Champion of Tournament Chess’, he was one of the final members of the ‘Romantic Chess order’. His tactical style was supported by a deep understanding of the endgame.


At Vienna 1873 Blackburne tied for first with Steinitz but lost the playoff. This is where opponents coined the expression ‘der Schwarze Tod’ (the Black Death). At Berlin 1881 he finished first, three points clear of second placed Zukertort, With Winawer, Chigorin, Mason, etc. further behind. Despite regularly securing prize money when the top places eluded him, I believe that he lost more games against players weaker than himself than might be expected.


Blackburne’s record in head to head matches was no better than fair, losing heavily in contests against Steinitz (twice), Zukertort and Lasker. Possibly his best match result was an 1887 defeat of Zukertort (+5 =8 -1), who less than a year earlier had lost the first recognised World Championship Match to Steinitz.


Later Years.

Blackburne played tournament chess into the early part of the 20th century, his final major event being the 1914 British Championship, which took place during the early weeks of World War One. After tying for first place with Fred Dewhirst Yates, he was not fit enough to contest a playoff match and had to concede the title. Both Amos Burn and John Watkinson considered this decision of the British Chess Federation too strict, having regard to Blackburne’s age and health, not to mention the hostilities in Europe. Burn wrote to this effect in ‘The Field’ on 8th May 1915 and Watkinson also suggested in correspondence to the British Chess Federation that they should be joint champions.


Records show Blackburne continued to give exhibitions and play consultation games into his 80th year, scoring heavily – often against strong opposition. A rare picture of him appears on page 502 of Harding’s work, giving his final simultaneous display at the Imperial Chess Club in December 1921. In the remaining years of his life he adjudicated unfinished games sent via the post. Visitors to his address included Capablanca and Alekhine.