Year Book 2018-19 Contents
Joseph Henry Blackburne. A Chess Biography
Author: Tim Harding. 588 Pages. 1186 Games. Hardback. Published by McFarland and Company
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Joseph Henry Blackburne [see photo below] was born into a lower middleclass family on 10th December 1841. His father, Joseph Blackburn, is believed to have come from Leeds, working initially as a bookkeeper before making a living as a phrenologist. His mother, originally Ann Pritchard, was from Manchester. Blackburne was the second child of his parents. His elder brother, Frederic, died of scarlet fever on 11th October 1847, aged eight. Younger sister, Clara, was born on 4th November 1847. She died in Belfast on 2nd June 1909.
Blackburne grew up in a fast expanding Lancashire city where the vast majority of people were very poor. In later life he maintained that an interest in draughts predated his knowledge of chess. Publicity concerning Paul Morphy’s exploits in Europe in 1858 and 1859 prompted the change. His earliest recorded games were against the Manchester club champion, Russian born Eduard D. Pinder, a player of considerable ability, who had won some games against Falkbeer several weeks earlier when visiting London. Having joined Manchester Chess Club in the autumn of 1861, Blackburne gave up his job – stated in the 1861 census as ‘warehouseman (hosiery)’ – in 1863 to concentrate on chess. He moved to London in late 1863 or early 1864 and by late 1864 or early 1865 had joined the City of London Chess Club.
First wife – Eleanor Driscoll.
Blackburne married Eleanor Driscoll on 10th December 1865 – his 24th birthday – in the parish church of St. John the Evangelist, Westminster. A son, Joseph, was born to the couple in 1867 or 1868 but died of paraplegia on 24th December 1875. There is no record of them having another child but the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography maintains they had a daughter. Eleanor died on 4th April 1874 of ‘phthio pulmonalis 2 years’ which suggests she had probably been suffering from tuberculosis for a considerable time.
Second wife – Beatrice Lapham.
Beatrice Lapham became the second Mrs. Blackburne on 3rd October 1876 at the Register Office in the Strand. She gave birth to a son, Julius, on 8th February 1877. Beatrice died on 7th January 1880, aged 26, following an ‘apoplectic fit’, full details emerging at the inquest and being reported in the local press. Evidence suggests that in the weeks prior to her death she had given birth to a child but the baby was never registered and the child’s fate is not known.
Third wife – Mary Jane Goodway.
Blackburne married his former landlady, Mary Jane Goodway, on 16th December 1880 at the local registry office in Bermondsey. The widow of Henry Goodway and mother of six children, she was almost certainly the landlady who gave evidence at the inquest into the death of the second Mrs. Blackburne, being named incorrectly in the local press as Mary Ann Goodway. Mary gave birth to Frederick William Blackburne on 21st May 1881 at 16, Lucey Road, Bermondsey. He was to be their only child. The couple remained together until 16th January 1922 when Mary died at home. The death certificate states 1. Cholecystitis 2. Peritonitis.
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.
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.
The Final Curtain.
Blackburne died at home on Monday 1st September 1924, the death certificate citing ‘senility and heart failure’. The funeral took place at Ladywell Cemetery three days later. He was buried in the same grave as his third wife. Amos Burn’s comments in his obituary of Blackburne on 4th September 1924 for ‘The Field’ are worthy of repetition: -
“There have been many very strong British chess players, but as a real chess genius Blackburne stood alone.” This was qualified by adding that Blackburne “was essentially a disciple of the old school of purely combinative players” who preferred tactical solutions to the “more scientific methods of Steinitz, Lasker or Tarrasch.” “Blackburne was peculiarly fitted to take part in the exciting contest of a chess tournament.” “… a chivalrous player who scorned to take the slightest undue advantage of his opponent.”
Blackburne was a man who overcame considerable difficulties in his private life to succeed in his chosen profession. Rapid improvements in transport enabled him to travel widely to participate in international tournaments and give simultaneous displays. His talent for blindfold chess was second to none and in tournament games against principal rivals, only Janowski, Mackenzie and Lasker enjoyed a significant plus score against him. Generally, a pleasant and humorous individual, he appears to have been at ease entertaining and working an audience. Nevertheless, there is evidence of occasional violent episodes – some of them alcohol related.
I found the three months reading this book for review purposes enjoyable and rewarding, albeit, hard work. It comprises an exceptionally detailed record of Blackburne’s life. If you want to know when/if he gave a display in a certain area or place, some reference is almost certainly to be found here, along with a note as to the source. A biography comprising over 500 pages and nearly 1,200 games is followed by appendices detailing Blackburne’s Match and Tournament Records, Record against Principal Rivals, Chess Compositions, Interviews, Blindfold Exhibitions, Two Articles for The Strand Magazine and Corrections to Game Scores. There are Chapter Notes, a Bibliography, Index of Players, Indices of Openings and a General Index. As with other McFarland publications, many interesting facts – chess and non-chess – come to light about events during the subject’s lifetime:-
Disputes between players.
Disputes players and officials/organisers.
Changing attitudes to drawn games.
The introduction of different devices for time control purposes.
Anti-Foreign sentiments and attitudes, reflecting the developing rivalry between Britain and the newly united Germany.
The use of high quality paper combined with library quality binding completes a publication worthy of any chess library.
David G. Mills. 27th July 2018. Hull, England.
This book was sent to me free of charge by McFarland and Company for review purposes.
Joseph Henry Blackburne.
Arguably the strongest tournament player of the day, 1891.