Eliot Hearst and John Knott blog about blindfold chess
Saturday, August 13, 2011

Urcan Questions Validity of Paulsen’s Simul Blindfold 12- and 15-Board World Records in 1858-59

In our book (pages 30 and 396-397) we credited Louis Paulsen with raising the world simultaneous blindfold record from 5 to 7 to 8 to 10 to 12 to 15 opponents during the years 1857 to 1859, although we stated that “regrettably, it has not been possible to discover more details of several of Paulsen’s displays”. There are many question marks instead of definite dates, overall scoring percentages, total time taken, etc., in our table on pp.396-397! Johannes Zukertort took on 16 opponents without sight of any boards or pieces in 1876 and was then hailed as the new world-record holder, presumably because he had exceeded Paulsen’s best total of 15 seventeen years before. We relied on reports in Bell’s Life in London, The Field, and Hooper and Whyld’s authoritative and encyclopedic Oxford Companion to Chess as sources for most of our statements and details.

However, in a recent column on the Chess Cafe website, dated July 30, 2011, the eminent chess historian Olimpiu Urcan of Singapore reports that his extensive research on Paulsen’s displays indicates that, while there is no doubt that he gave many blindfold displays on 10 boards, important questions remain about his 12- and 15-board exhibitions, especially the latter. The actuality of the supposed 12-board display in St. Louis in June 1858, which had been mentioned without details in several places after 1860, is apparently most dependent on material from a column by Max Judd in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat of November 14, 1875, which provides a game played by the father of a man who forwarded to Judd the score of his father’s game against Paulsen over sixteen years before and who reported that Paulsen scored 11 wins and 1 draw in that display. Urcan supplies the game, vs. O. Monnig, Sr., which was the one draw, but he mentions that other sources imply that Paulsen gave only 10-board displays in St. Louis during that period. So it is not completely clear that Paulsen gave a controlled 12-board display at any time.

The question of whether Paulsen ever gave a completely acceptable exhibition of 15 boards is much more uncertain. Urcan reports that any such display was reported in several newspapers to have occurred in November of 1858 in Dubuque and not in 1859, the usual year given for his supposed record-breaking exhibition of 15 boards. But the display was stopped after 9 hours and about 25 moves with no games finished, although reporters said Paulsen “would have won them”. The exhibition was probably terminated because it was 10 PM and the players were tired. If these reports are accurate, Paulsen never gave a complete blindfold display against 15 opponents and therefore the event should not be considered to have set a world record.

Supportive of Urcan’s claims that the 12- and 15-board exhibitions were somehow unacceptable or incomplete is a statement that Paulsen himself made years later, when he was quoted in the Chess Player’s Magazine of October 1863 as saying “I tried [blindfold chess] first with one game…and lastly with ten”. This is Urcan’s strongest point in arguing that Paulsen may never have played more than 10 opponents in a well-controlled, completed simultaneous blindfold display.

Urcan’s column supplies several 1858 games from blindfold displays after the time when Paulsen first played 5 games in 1857, whereas the research for our book unearthed only one! I refer readers to Urcan’s column for these contests, as well as for much more information on the above points. (I also thank Joost van Winsen of The Netherlands, author of the 2011 book James Mason in America, who coincidentally and recently sent me most of these games, about which I was about to write a blog when Urcan’s article appeared – an unnecessary task for me now). Urcan’s complete article can be read on the Chess Cafe website.

If Urcan is correct that Paulsen probably never played more than 10 opponents in a well-controlled simultaneous blindfold display, then who is second to Zukertort in number of blindfold games played at once in the 19th century? It turns out not to be Paulsen, but Joseph Henry Blackburne, who played 12 on several occasions. In his 1899 book Blackburne’s Chess Games (selected, annotated, and arranged by Blackburne, and edited by P. Anderson Graham; republished by Dover Publications in 1979), he includes three games from 12-board displays of his own, one game played against Cotton at Cheadle, England (Game 343) in November 1880, and two from an exhibition in Warrnambool, Australia in 1885 against Newcomb and Heaver (Games 353 and 354). He won all three, as would be expected to be the case in a collection of one’s best games. We discuss Blackburne’s blindfold chess accomplishments on pp.39-42 of our book.

Of course Blackburne’s 12-boarders came after Zukertort’s new world record of 16 in 1876, but perhaps he deserves more recognition for being second in line in the 19th century. Worth noting is that Blackburne became interested in blindfold chess as a 19-year-old when he was one of Paulsen’s opponents in a 10-board simultaneous exhibition in Manchester, England in November 1861.

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