Chess Archaeology HomeChess is a scientific game and its literature ought to be placed on the basis of the strictest truthfulness, which is the foundation of all scientific research.W. Steinitz

A Trap for the Historian
by Tomasz Lissowski

    Works about the history of chess are not perfect.
    Of course, every careful reader can name exceptions, ones that thanks to the erudition and literary talent of the author and the care of his investigation have led to excellent results.  Books entitled “The complete games of...” (use the name of any famous chess master) contain more and more games, with a great majority of them authenticated by careful research.  On the contrary, large commercial databases often contain spurious games such as those of Winawer playing a Benko Gambit.
    The collecting of gamescores has been accelerated thanks to the rising popularity of e-mail and the Internet; people from different continents, who have never seen each other, can fruitfully collaborate by using this new tool of chess scholarship.  Nevertheless biographies of great past masters contain many “white lies” or even more serious errors.  An error, as experience teaches, once published, may wander from one book to another.
    As an example, I will use Johannes Hermann Zukertort (1842-1888), first official rival to Wilhelm Steinitz for the World Chess Championship, to show the mechanism that has perpetuated  a fictitious biography.  The published life of Zukertort has reached the pinnacle of a mythic biography.  What is the beginning of “Zukertort’s legend”? (to use Jimmy Adams’ term from his excellent book Johannes Zukertort, Artist of the Chessboard).  I would like to discuss one of the oldest sources which was not cited by Adams, and may be unknown to Western readers, Jan Kleczynski’s (1837-1895) article “Zukertort’s match with Steinitz”, published February 27th, 1886, in the Warsaw Tygodnik Ilustrowany (Illustrated Weekly).  Kleczynski conducted the first Polish chess column for nearly 30 years and was also a renowned music critic, pianist and composer.  I have added (T) and (F) to mark the true and false statements regarding the genealogy and life of this great master.
    When the score of the match was 4-3, in Zukertort’s favor, Kleczynski wrote:
[...] Zukertort’s play is extremely rapid and abounds with witty conceptions; he knows the openings perfectly.  Accordingly, our compatriot has great chances.  We emphasize the following words with no lack of foundation.  Germans make him a Prussian, born on the coast of the Baltic sea, though his biography, which we obtained from the best possible source, his family, tells us something else.  Our chessplayer’s grandfather was in fact an Englishman (F) and rather foggy Albion may reckon his grandson as their “own.”  His father, born in Poland, was an Anglican clergyman (F) in Lublin, where Jan Herman was born (T) in 1844 (F).  Zukertort’s mother, de domo Krzyzanowska (F), was Polish, while the younger generation also count themselves as our countrymen, as Zukertort’s own sister, living amongst us in Warsaw, Mrs. W., warmly assures us.  Zukertort’s father stayed in Warsaw a short period, where he was lodged on Leszno street in a “missionary house” (T).  Afterwards he moved to Piotrkow (T), where the future chessplayer took his first two classes (F).  The family then moved to Wroclaw (T), and there young Zukertort finished gymnasium (T) and university as a doctor of medicine (F).  Subsequently he spent some time in Berlin (T), and London (T), finally attending Cambridge University (F), where he obtained a doctorate degree in philosophy and philology (F).  A little known detail from the life of our chessplayer is that for two years he was a teacher of a young French nobleman (F) and afterwards worked as a Standard newspaper correspondent.  He was also a friend of young Prince Lulu (F), going with him to Africa (F), where the two spent time among the Zulus (F).  Zukertort was also for a time an editor of the Neue Berliner Schachzeitung (T) while currently he issues the chess organ, the Chess Monthly (T).  He also works as a secretary of a chess club (F).  The chessplayer’s parents are living, residing in Poznan (T).
    More than 10 misconceptions and Kleczynski insisted he had “the best possible source, his family.”  This is the trap which threatens a chess historian.  Countless chess biographies contain errors because writers believed articles which were based on “direct relations” - our chess heroes themselves or their family members, friends, advocates, etc. 
    In passing, a related error many writers of chess history commit should be mentioned.  That error is to ignore facts other than those reported in the daily press or chess periodicals when seeking information on a chess player’s life.
    Here is how “Zukertort’s legend” affected the writing of Edward Arlamowski (1909-1979), Doctor of Law, who took part in several Polish Chess Championships and International matches.  Arlamowski found Kleczynski’s article in a library.  Believing it was the “best possible source” and, not without pride, he contributed a long article to the Polish chess periodical Szachy.  Arlamowski wrote in Szachy, 1972, p172-175:
[...] Therefore, I believe, it was my duty to draw from history’s woodshed this sensational though forgotten article by Kleczynski, which throws a strong light on the evidently Polish origin of the family of our master.  We can state Polish chess master J. H. Zukertort fought in the first chess championship match [...] We can be proud [...]
    A scrupulous critic can detect a note of national pride, if not slight nationalism, in both writings; please be forgiving and take it as a sign of bygone times.
    Three problems should be discussed respectively: 
    (1) Why do contemporary chess reports regarding Zukertort contain “tales and legends” instead of facts?  Was the master, backed by his family and friends, the source of this misinformation?  If yes, what was the reason?  If not, what about responsibility of the press?
    (2) What does the true biography of Zukertort look like?
    (3) Can chess historians draw any moral from this example?
    At this time I will not answer questions (1) and (2).  Regarding (3) I would like to point out one important factor.  Among those who are called chess historians (in particular those who contribute historical chess works) only a few are professional scholars.  Among the “chess historians” I know there are: an architect, a lawyer, an electrician, an engineer, and an archivist.  We (the author is no exception) are deficient in a historian’s training.  We investigate the history of chess and publish our results because we love chess.  Do we love history as well?
    The conclusion I would like to present to chess biographers is this: Do not limit the range of research to old chess columns and chess periodicals.  We have to look for confirmation of the  “facts” in non-chess related literature and in the record offices, or archives, of schools, universities, churches, cemeteries and hospitals.  Even fifty or one hundred years after the death of a chess hero, there remain chances through such non-chess sources to learn the truth about his family and background.  Occasionally, if one is very lucky, hitherto unpublished photographs can be recovered from such sources as well.  Only then will the number of biographical errors and  “white lies” in chess literature be reduced.

[Archive] [Excavations] [Gallery] [Journal] [Library] [Links] [Legend] [Market]
© 1999-2023 Jacques N. Pope. All Rights Reserved.