Hans Renette, in his biography of Henry Bird which I reviewed last week, reports that, on about 1 June 1874, three weeks before Staunton’s death, Staunton, Bird and Ignaz Kolisch discussed the Sicilian Defence over dinner.
“Ignaz who?”, you might ask if you’re not familiar with 19th century chess history. There’s another relatively new (2015) McFarland chess history book that will tell you all you need to know: Ignaz Kolisch The Life and Chess Games, by Fabrizio Zavatarelli.
Kolisch was a stronger player than Bird, and, from the limited information we have available, seems to have been one of the best players in the world in the mid to late 1860s. He was born on 6 April 1837 in what was then Pressburg, a city belonging to the Kingdom of Hungary. Now we call it Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. In 1845 his family moved to Vienna, and young Ignaz soon learnt the moves of chess
He first came to the attention of the chess public in 1857, winning a match against Eduard Jenay, one of the leading Viennese players of the day. He travelled to Italy, then to France, where he drew a match against Adolf Anderssen, and then to England, where he played in two small knock-out tournaments run by the British Chess Association. In Cambridge in 1860 he beat the American Charles Stanley in the final. The following year in Bristol he was knocked out by the only other strong player in the competition, Louis Paulsen, in the first round. He spent much of the autumn playing a match against the same opponent. Paulsen won 7 games, Kolisch won 6, with no less than 18 draws, a remarkable number for the time.
At some point in the early 1860s Kolisch decided to cut back on his chess and enter the world of finance. By 1867 he was living in Paris, where an international tournament was taking place. He went along to watch, but after the event had already started decided to enter. He eventually won first prize (5000 francs and a Sèvres vase, which he immediately sold), ahead of the newcomer Winawer and probably the two strongest active players at the time, Steinitz and Neumann. Gustav Neumann, by the way, is another forgotten name who deserves a modern reassessment.
Rod Edwards gives Kolisch a rating of 2700 at the end of 1867, behind only the inactive Morphy, so, although there’s not much evidence to go on, you could argue that Kolisch was, if only briefly, the strongest active player in the world at the time.
But that was the end of his competitive chess career. He devoted the rest of his life (he died on 30 April 1889) to his business interests, investing wisely and becoming extremely wealthy. He continued his interest in the Royal Game, becoming a generous chess sponsor.
Zavatarelli considers Kolisch the first truly ‘universal’ player, equally at home playing dashing gambits and brilliant sacrifices in odds and coffee-house games, as he was playing the more modern positional chess which he preferred in most of his more serious encounters. His brilliancies deserve to be as well-known as those of Morphy.
Just as with the Bird book, if you have any interest at all in 19th century chess history you’ll find this an essential purchase. The chess and historical research appears to be meticulous, and if Edward Winter is impressed with its accuracy I’m not going to argue. It might be churlish to point out a couple of things. One of Kolisch’s earliest opponents, Karl Mayerhofer, an opera singer who might be considered for the Musicians team in any future edition of The Complete Chess Addict, is described on p12 as both a bass and a tenor. In fact he was a bass-baritone. We’re also told that the Duke of Brunswick’s father (yes, the Duke played Kolisch as well as Morphy) was killed at the Battle of Waterloo. He actually died in the Battle of Quatre Bras, two days earlier, so my Almey cousins from Earl Shilton, about whom more at another time in another place, just missed seeing him die. Curmudgeon that I am, I’d be tempted to deduct half a star because Zavatarelli’s English, unlike Renette’s, is not entirely idiomatic.
Here’s a game from Paris 1867. White’s 36th move is a blunder. Contemporary sources give Bc3, Qc3 and Qe3 as improvements. The engines concur, giving all three moves as likely draws with best play.