Paul Morphy

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Paul Charles Morphy (June 22, 1837 - July 10, 1884), "The Pride and Sorrow of Chess," is considered to have been the greatest chess master of his time, and was an unofficial World Champion. Some chess grandmasters consider Morphy to have been the greatest chessplayer who has ever lived.

Morphy was also the first American to be internationally acknowledged as the preeminent world figure in a cultural or intellectual field. He was the first American to supersede the achievements of the Old World, whose culture, up until that point, was considered superior to anything produced by the New World, and became the first American superstar. He is also considered the first modern chess prodigy of the Western world since the creation of the modern rules of chess in Italy in 1475.

Early life

Morphy was born in New Orleans, Louisiana to a wealthy and distinguished family. His father, Alonzo Michael Morphy, was a lawyer, state congressman, state attorney general, and state Supreme Court Justice of Louisiana. Morphy's mother, Louis Therese Felicite Thelcide Le Carpentier, was the musically talented daughter of a prominent French Creole family. Morphy grew up in an atmosphere of genteel civility and culture where chess and music were the typical highlights of a Sunday home gathering.

According to his uncle, Ernest Morphy, no one formally taught Morphy how to play chess. Ernest wrote that as a young child, Morphy learned on his own from simply watching the game played. His uncle recounted how Morphy, after watching one game for several hours between his father and him, told him afterwards that he should have won the game. They both were surprised, as they didn't think that young Morphy knew the moves, let alone any chess strategy. They were even more surprised when Morphy proved his claim by resetting the pieces and demonstrating the win his uncle had missed. Later, a similar story was told about the Cuban chess prodigy José Raúl Capablanca.

Childhood victories

After that Morphy was recognized by his family as a precocious talent. Taken to local chess activities and allowed to play once a week at family gatherings on Sundays, Morphy demonstrated his ability in contests with relatives and local players. By the age of nine, he was already considered one of the best players in New Orleans. In 1846, General Winfield Scott visited the city, and let his hosts know that he desired an evening of chess with a strong local player. Chess was an infrequent pastime of Scott's, but he enjoyed the game and considered himself a formidable chess player. After dinner, the chess pieces were set up and Scott's opponent was brought in: diminutive, nine-year-old Morphy, dressed in a lace shirt and velvet knickerbockers and looking like anything but a ferocious opponent. Seeing the small boy, Scott was at first offended, thinking he was being made fun of; but when assured that his wishes had been scrupulously obeyed, and that the boy was a "chess prodigy" who would tax his skill, Scott consented to play. To General Scott's surprise, Morphy beat him easily not once, but twice. The second time the boy announced a forced checkmate after only six moves. Two losses against a small boy was all General Scott's ego could stand, and he declined further games and retired for the night, never to play Morphy again.

In 1850, the strong professional Hungarian chess master Johann Löwenthal visited New Orleans, and could do no better than the amateur General Scott could. Morphy was 12 when he encountered Löwenthal. Löwenthal had played young talented players before, and expected to easily overcome Morphy, and considered the informal match as a waste of time but accepted the offer as a courtesy to the well-to-do Judge. When Löwenthal met him, he patted him on the head in a patronizing manner. He expected no more from Morphy than the usual talented young players he had played before.

When the first game began, Löwenthal got to about move 12 and realized he was up against something formidable. He slowed way down on his moves, and each time Morphy made a good move Löwenthal's eyebrows shot up in a manner described by Ernest Morphy as "comique". He was shocked at the power he was up against. Löwenthal played three games with Morphy during his New Orleans stay, losing all three. (Note: One of the games was incorrectly given as a draw in Löwenthal's book Morphy's Games of Chess and subsequently copied by sources since then. David Lawson, in his biography of Paul Morphy, listed in "Further Reading" at the bottom of this page, corrected this error, provided the moves that were actually played, and urged that game records be corrected.)

Schooling and the First American Chess Congress

After 1850, Morphy did not play much chess for a long time. Studying diligently, he graduated from Spring Hill College in Mobile, Alabama in the spring of 1855.

He then was accepted to the University of Louisiana to study law. He received a L.L.B. degree on April 7, 1857. Although Morphy was able to recite the entire Civil Code of Louisiana from memory, he was too young to be officially admitted to the bar.

Consequently, this left Morphy with a lot of free time. He received an invitation to participate in the First American Chess Congress, to be held in New York in the fall of 1857. At first he declined, but at the urging of his uncle, who was quite proud of Morphy's chess skill, he eventually decided to play. After securing parental permission, Morphy made the long trip to New York via steamboat up the Mississippi River and overland by railroad to New York. He won the competition by winning fourteen while losing one with three draws. In the final round, he defeating the strong German-American master Louis Paulsen winning five games, drawing two, and losing one. (It was said that Louis Paulsen was an extremely slow player and that made Morphy nearly cry while playing with him). Morphy was now the chess champion of the United States, and such was his strength of play that many urged him to test his skill abroad.

Morphy conquers Europe

Still too young to start his law career, he was invited to attend an international chess tournament soon after returning to New Orleans, to be held in Birmingham, England in the summer of 1858. He accepted the challenge and traveled to England but ended up not playing in the tournament, playing a series of chess matches against the leading English masters instead and defeating them all except English chess master Howard Staunton who promised to play but eventually declined. At times, Staunton was physically present in the same room where Morphy easily beat the English masters. He had every opportunity to measure Morphy's talent, and he decided not to play a single game against Morphy. While the few months he stayed in England, most of his times were playing blind-fold games with eight people simultaneously, he won everytime he played.

Staunton later was criticised for failing to meet Morphy. Staunton was flattered and at first intended to prepare for a contest in which he had little chance of success. There is no doubt that he was a very busy man in 1858, as he was under pressure to produce his edition of the complete works of Shakespeare.

Staunton later, out of Morphy's sight, conducted a newspaper campaign to make it seem that it was Morphy's fault they did not play, suggesting among other things that Morphy did not have the funds to serve as match stakes when in fact he was so popular that numerous wealthy people and groups were willing to stake him for any amount of money.

Seeking new opponents and now aware that Staunton had no real desire to play, Morphy then crossed the English Channel and visited France. There he went to the Café de la Regence in Paris, which was the center of chess in France. He played a match against Daniel Harrwitz, the resident chess professional, and soundly defeated him.

In Paris he suffered from a bout of intestinal influenza and came down with a high fever. In accordance with the medical wisdom of the time, he was treated with leeches, resulting in his losing a significant amount of blood. Despite the fact that he was now too weak to stand up unaided, Morphy insisted on going ahead with a match against the visiting German champion Adolf Anderssen, who was considered by many to be Europe's leading player, and who had come to Paris all the way from his native Breslau, Germany, solely to play against the now famous American chess wonder. Despite his illness Morphy triumphed easily, winning seven while losing two, with two draws in 1858. When asked about his defeat, Anderssen claimed to be out of practice, but also admitted that Morphy was in any event the stronger player and that he was fairly beaten. Anderssen also attested that in his opinion, Morphy was the strongest player ever to play the game, even stronger than the famous French champion Bourdonnais.

In France, as he had before in England and America, Morphy played many exhibition matches against the public. He would take on eight players at once while playing without sight of the board, a feat known as blindfold chess, the moves of his opponents and his replies being communicated verbally. It was while he was in Paris in 1858 that Morphy played a well-known game at the Italian Opera House in Paris, against the Duke of Brunswick and Count Isouard.

The world hails its champion

During his chess travels, Morphy was very popular. He was extremely polite, cultured, quiet, and reserved. In appearance he was small in stature, slim, and always impeccably dressed. His sense of sportsmanship was of the highest caliber, and his combination of brilliant play and personal modesty made him a welcome guest everywhere.

Still only twenty-one, he was now a celebrity. While in Paris, he was sitting in his hotel room one evening, chatting with his companion Frederick Edge, when they had an unexpected visitor. "I am Prince Galitzine; I wish to see Mr. Morphy," the visitor said, according to Edge. Morphy then stated that he was Mr. Morphy. "No, it is not possible!" the prince exclaimed, "You are too young!" Prince Galitzine then explained that he was in the frontiers of Siberia when he had first heard of his "wonderful deeds." He explained, "One of my suite had a copy of the chess paper published in Berlin, the Schachzeitung, and ever since that time I have been wanting to see you." He then told Morphy that he must go to St. Petersburg, Russia, because the chess club in the Imperial Palace would receive him with enthusiasm.

However, Morphy was more interested in going home, possibly because he had already been gone longer than he had gotten permission for from his family. Morphy was very secretive about his personal life, so the facts are not known, except that his brother-in-law actually came to Paris about this time, most likely for the purpose of escorting Morphy home. Since Morphy was twenty-one, his dependence was possibly not only one of habit, but also financial, as he had no money of his own and was most likely traveling on money given to him by his family.

Returning to England in the spring of 1859, Morphy was lionized by the English. As had happened in France, he was now sought after by the best people. His fame was such he was even asked to a private audience with Queen Victoria. His chess supremacy was universally acknowledged and no longer did it seem fit to have him play even masters without giving him some sort of handicap. A match therefore was set up where he was pitted against five masters (Jules Arnous de Rivière, Samuel Boden, Thomas Barnes, Johann Löwenthal, and Henry Bird) simultaneously. Morphy won two games, drew two games, and lost one. No other world champion has since duplicated his feat of playing five of his closest rivals at the same time.

Shortly after, Morphy started the long trip home, taking a ship back to New York. Word of his exploits in Europe had reached America, and he found himself the man of the hour. Popular acclaim was such that he had to travel home slowly, stopping in all the major cities, where the leading citizens in each competed to heap honors on him. Famous people such as Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes honored him at testimonial banquets, manufacturers sought his endorsements, newspapers asked him to write chess columns, and a baseball club was named after him. He was feted again and again, and in exchange, he thrilled the public with demonstrations of his skill, including more blindfold chess exhibitions.

Morphy abandons chess

Prior to his getting home, Morphy had issued an open challenge to anyone in the world to play a match where he would give odds of pawn and move (in a match between two evenly matched Masters, a pawn advantage is considered a winning advantage); and to play for any amount whatsoever. Finding no takers, he declared himself retired from the game, and with a few exceptions, he gave up the public playing of the game for good. He then began to think of beginning his law career. Unfortunately, he was unable to, as in 1861 the American Civil War broke out, disrupting life in New Orleans. Opposed to secession, Morphy did not serve in the Confederate Army but remained for a while in New Orleans, then left the city for Paris. He lived for a time in Paris to avoid the war, returning to New Orleans afterwards.

His principled stance against the war was unpopular in his native South, and he was unable to begin practice of the law after the war. Attempts to open a law office failed due to a lack of clients; if anyone came to his office, it was invariably in regards to chess. Financially secure thanks to his family fortune, Morphy had effectively no profession and he spent the rest of his life in idleness. Asked by admirers to play chess again, he refused, considering chess not worthy of being treated as a serious occupation. Chess in Morphy's day was not a respectable occupation for a gentleman, but was admired only as an amateur activity. Chess professionals in the 1860s were looked upon as akin to professional gamblers and other disreputable types. It was not until decades later that the age of the professional chess player arrived with the coming of Wilhelm Steinitz, who barely made a living and died broke, and Emanuel Lasker who, thanks to his demands for high fees, managed a good living and greatly advanced the reputation of chess as a professional endeavor.

Tragedy and twilight

Morphy's final years were tragic. Depressed, he spent his last years wandering around the French Quarter of New Orleans, talking to people no one else could see, and having feelings of persecution.

Morphy was found dead in his bathtub on the afternoon of July 10, 1884 by his mother. The doctor said he had suffered congestion of the brain (stroke), brought on by entering cold water after being very warm from his long mid-day walk. He died at the age of only forty-seven.

Despite the fact that Morphy had not played chess publicly for over twenty-five years, it was not until after his death that Steinitz proclaimed that his match with Zukertort would be for the "official" world chess championship. Steinitz's forbearance to claim the title while Morphy was still alive was a recognition of Morphy's superior chess strength.

Morphy's chess play

Today many amateurs think of Morphy as a dazzling combinative player, who excelled in sacrificing his Queen and checkmating his opponent a few brilliant moves later. One reason for this impression is that chess books like to reprint his flashy games. There are games where he did do this, but it wasn't the basis of his chess style. In fact, the masters of his day considered his style to be on the conservative side compared to some of the flashy older masters like La Bourdonnais and even Anderssen.

Morphy can be and generally is considered the first modern player. If his games do not look modern, it is because he didn't need the sort of slow positional systems that modern grandmasters use, or that Staunton, Paulsen, and later Steinitz developed. His opponents hadn't yet mastered the open game, so he played it against them and he preferred open positions because they brought quick success. He played open games almost to perfection, but he also could handle any sort of position, having a complete grasp of chess that was years ahead of his time. Morphy was such a player who intuitively knew what was best, and in this regard he was much like Capablanca. He was, like Capablanca, a child prodigy; he played fast and he was hard to beat. Löwenthal and Anderssen both later remarked that he was indeed hard to beat since he knew how to defend and would draw or even win games despite getting into bad positions. At the same time, he was deadly when given a promising position. Anderssen especially complained of this, saying that one false move against Morphy and one may as well resign. Morphy would win his won games, but if he made an error, it was still a long, hard process trying to beat him, and more likely than not the game would still go to him in the end. "I win my games in seventy moves but Mr. Morphy wins his in twenty, but that is only natural..." Anderssen moaned, explaining his poor results against Morphy. Anderssen was perhaps grateful that he did get a 70 move win, as he didn't get many wins of any kind against Morphy.

Of Morphy's 59 "serious" games — those played in matches and the 1857 New York tournament — he won 42, drew 9, and lost 8.

References

  • Paul Morphy, The Pride and Sorrow of Chess by David Lawson, 424 pages; Mckay,1976 - This is the only book-length biography of Paul Morphy in English. It is out of print but is an invaluable resource, and corrects numerous historical mistakes that have cropped up about Paul Morphy, including the one about Morphy's score as a child versus Löwenthal.
  • The Exploits & Triumphs in Europe of Paul Morphy the Chess Champion by Frederick Milne Edge, with a new introduction by David Lawson. Dover 1973; 203 pages. ISBN 0-48622882-7 (out of print) - This is a great book for anyone interested in not only Paul Morphy, but information about the First American Chess Congress, and the history of chess clubs in England in and before Morphy's time. Edge was a newspaperman who attached himself to Morphy during his stay in England and France, accompanying Morphy everywhere, and even acting at times as his unofficial butler and servant. Thanks to Edge, much is known about Morphy that would be unknown otherwise, and many games Morphy played were recorded only thanks to Edge. Finally, it is quite likely that had it not been for the efforts of Edge, Morphy would never have played the match against Anderssen.
  • Paul Morphy and the Evolution of Chess Theory by Macon Shibut, Caissa Editions 1993 ISBN 0-939433-16-8 Over 415 games comprising almost all known Morphy games. Chapters on Morphy's place in the development of chess theory, and reprinted articles about Morphy by Steinitz, Alekhine, and others.

Further reading

  • Grandmasters of Chess by Harold Schonberg, Lippincott, 1973. ISBN 0397010044
  • World chess champions by Edward G. Winter, editor. 19981 ISBN 0080249041 - leading chess historians include Morphy as one of the world champions.
  • Morphy's Games of Chess by Philip W. Sergeant & Fred Reinfeld, Dover; June 1989. ISBN 0486203867 - Features annotations collected from previous commentators, as well as additions by Sergeant. Has all of Morphy's match, tournament, and exhibition games, and most of his casual and odds games. Short biography included.
  • The World's Great Chess Games by Reuben Fine; Dover; 1983. ISBN 0486245128
  • A First Book of Morphy by Frisco Del Rosario; Trafford; October 2004. ISBN 1412039061 - Illustrates the teachings of Cecil Purdy and Reuben Fine with 65 annotated games played by the American champion. Algebraic notation.

External links

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