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A Couple Morphy Myths

Valeri Beim, in Paul Morphy, A Modern Perspective, wrote:
"The young Morphy not only had his phenomenal memory, but also he loved to learn and was an expert student.  He was fluent in English, French, German, and somewhat in Spanish, which he mastered at school."

Of course, we know Morphy's father was Spanish and Paul spoke it fluently. We also know that Morphy did not, in fact, know German.

Ernst Falkbeer, a relatively close acquaintance of Paul Morphy, wrote in the June, 1881 issue of Bretano's Monthly:
 "...that memory is the main factor of success in playing blind games. And, of Morphy's gigantic memory, I had the indubitable proof from my own observation at the time he was playing his celebrated match with Löwenthal. Both opponents had agreed to regard the games as their intellectual private property, not to be published.
         I was at the time editing the Chess Column of the London Sunday Times, and anxious to reproduce them there. In order to obtain the requisite information, I had to apply to one of the contesting parties. I first went to Morphy, who received me most cordially, and declared his entire willingness to dictate to me the last partie, played the day before. I begged him to repeat the game on the board, as I would, in this manner, be better able to follow the progress of the contest. Morphy consented, and, at the 10th move of black (Löwenthal), I asked him to stop a moment, since it seemed to me that at this particular point, a better move might have been made.  "Oh, you probably mean the move which you yourself made in one of your contests with Drufresne?" answered Morphy in his simple, artless way of speaking. I was startled. The partie mentioned had been played in Berlin in 1851, seven years before, and I had totally forgotten all its details. On observing this, Morphy called for a second board, and began, without the least hesitation, to repeat that game from the first to the last move without making a single mistake. I was speechless from surprise. Here was a man, whose attention was consistantly distracted by countless demands on his memory, and yet he had perfectly retained for seven years all the details of a game insignificant in itself, and, moreover, printed in a language and and description unknown to him. (The game was published in the Berliner Schachzeitung of 1851!)"

Further in Beim cites Kasparov's On My Great Predecessors: Part I -
"Morphy utilized the chess literature of the day and 'read Philidor's L'analyse, the Parisian magazine La Regence, Staunton's Chess Player's Chronicle and possibly Anderssen's Schachzeitung (at least he knew all of Anderssen's published games). He studied Bilguer's 44-page Handbuch - which consisted partly of opening analyses in tabular form, and also Staunton's Chess Player's Handbook.'"

What we do know about Morphy and books is less specific, making the above partly speculative at best.

What do we know for sure?

In his book, The Exploits and Triumphs in Europe of Paul Morphy, Frederick Milne Edge wrote, concerning Morphy and chess literature:
        "In answer to a gentleman in Paris as to whether he [Morphy] had not studied many works on chess, I heard him state that no author had been of much value to him, and that he was astonished at finding various positions and solutions given as novel - certain moves producing certain results. etc. for he had made the same deductions himself, as necessary consequences."

Charles Maurian -andwho would know better?- stated that (at least until the American Chess Congress of 1857) Paul only ever possessed five chess books:
    Chess Studies by Horwitz and Kling
    La Regénce collection of Lionel Kieseritzky
    The Chess Tournament by Howard Staunton
    Chess Player's Handbook and Companion by Howard Staunton (owned by Maurian)
    Treatise on the Game of Chess by William Lewis (owned by Maurian)

 

 

Comments


  • 4 years ago

    batgirl

    I would say we have no hard evidence (beyond the minute references I mentioned here). Common sense and logical inference, as you imply, would lead us to certain conclusions. One can assume that Morphy gained a certain amount of knowledge through books, but I don't believe one can't claim that he did.

    I think there's a danger in making, or in simply accepting these claims... but there's an equal danger in not making reasonable assumptions.  It's sort of a double-edged sword, I imagine.

  • 4 years ago

    jontsef

    I definitely agree about being cautious with myths and unsupported claims.

    I'm curious, do we have evidence that Morphy was familiar with the contents of those books and periodicals that the myth purports him to have read? If so, then that should be enough to overturn myth status because nothing besides reading them could explain how he acquired that knowledge. Where he read them isn't really important.

    P.S. Bilguer's Handbuch (first edition) was 500 pages not 44

  • 4 years ago

    batgirl

    Once again, the purpose of this posting wasn't to assess Morphy's involvement, or lack of involvement, in chess studies, but to caution folks about unsupportable claims - or myths.  It would seen very reasonable to assume that Alonzo, and especially Ernest Morphy had decent chess libraries containing both books and periodicals and that Paul had access to all of these - but there's nothing known, that I'm aware of, to support this reasonable assumption with hard evidence.

  • 4 years ago

    jontsef

     "In answer to a gentleman in Paris as to whether he [Morphy] had not studied many works on chess, I heard him state that no author had been of much value to him, and that he was astonished at finding various positions and solutions given as novel - certain moves producing certain results. etc. for he had made the same deductions himself, as necessary consequences."

    This sounds as though he has read a good number of chess books, because saying 'no author was of value' when one hasn't read the works of said authors to find out their value wouldn't make sense.

    Also, Maurian's list says little about which books Morphy has read in his studies, only which  books he has been known to posses.


  • 4 years ago

    DENVERHIGH

    DENVER
  • 4 years ago

    batgirl

    The Chess Players by Keyes, while very well researched, incorportates enough fiction to almost totally negate any value it might have for historical purposes. The entire Confederate spy story was made up, as was Morphy's love affair with the character Charmian Sheppard. Keyes herself was a key source of many Morphy Myths.

  • 4 years ago

    dashkee94

    Great to see you contributing again, Sara.  Glad to see you bought Beim's book.  And I can still send you copies of those Morphy and Lowenthal pages you sent me if you'd like.

  • 4 years ago

    no---worries

    Maybe check out the book, The Chess Players, by Frances Parkinson Keyes - has some interesting tidbits about Morphy and his participation in the Confederate cause while in France.   Its written as a fiction, but the author explains that this is the only format in which she could protect the reputations of the families involved while getting the true story out. Also goes into a love affair gone extremely bad, which combined with the loss of the war...led to Morphy's deep funk.  Highly recommended reading for those who love Morphy.  

  • 4 years ago

    markronilodevera

    paul m0rphy... the greatest genius 0f all time...

  • 4 years ago

    Lawdoginator

    And he remembered everything he read!

  • 4 years ago

    batgirl

    A careful reading would have revealed that this wasn't an attempt to make any claims upon Morphy's knowledge or lack of knowledge of past games or of books. It was to shed light on what we do know vs what people conjecture.

  • 4 years ago

    BCG1

    C.J.S. Purdy believed that Morphy must have, critically,  studied many master games and the anecdote about the game published in a relatively obscure, to Morphy, paper gives weight to that idea. Whatever books on chess he owned, he may well have read everything he could get his hands on. 

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