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A Morphy Girl Speaks Out....

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The earliest known picture of Paul Morphy

     Paul Morphy, Spring Hill College, 1854

     Every so often it comes up in forums the question of Paul Morphy: Was he the greatest chess player ever? If he returned today would he beat all others in a "set match" as Fischer claimed? If he had a few months to "brush up on his openings" (remind you of anyone?), could he compete against the best players of today?
     Normally, at this point, people fire up Google and come up with opinions based on other people's opinions minus the insight and offer "facts" about Morphy and his contemporaries based on vaporous conceptions.

     Let's examine Morphy and his times. 

     Morphy was born in a day when chess was still largely a past-time for the wealthy, the intellectuals or professionals. Serious games were generally played for stakes, not so much as a method of gambling (though that existed too) but as a way of establishing the level of seriousness.  Without such things as tournaments, simuls and such, chess, as a profession, was relegated to coffeehouses were the chess professionals negotiated odds and played for usually small stakes. In this sense, chess as a profession was comparable to card playing and looked upon by the average wealthy, intellectual, dignified chess-player not just as a form of gambling, but as a debasement of such an intellectual pursuit by making the stakes more important than the game. Chess was still a pasttime and certainly not to be treated as a gentleman's main occupation.  So, Morphy was born in an era of talented amateurs, players who tried to understand the complexities of the game during their spare time. 

     Paul himself grew up in a household of chess players. His grandfather played, as did his mother's brother, Charles. His father fancied himself a chess player while his father's brother was considered the best player in New Orleans and often contributed to La Régence, the French periodical. Even Edouard, his brother played, though he quit after growing tired of living in Paul's limelight.

     Although Paul's talent was recognized early and the development of that talent was encouraged, his father emphasized its place in life by limiting Paul's play to Sunday afternoons.  School and responsibilities always came first.  While it seems likely that both Judge Morphy (Paul's father) and Ernest Morphy (Paul's uncle) maintained a chess library and that Paul most likely studied games of the day, Paul himself never owned many books and claimed to have never found anything in instructional books that he hadn't already found obvious. Paul did well in school - according to a history of Spring Hill College, "...he returned in 1855 to New Orleans with his A.M. degree and the honors of his class. There he studied law, bringing to it the mental ability to which his professor of Philosophy thus testified: 'Of the thousands of boys and youths in the long years I have devoted to teaching the young, I have never met any that could compare with Paul Morphy in strength and capacity of intellect.'"

Now Paul didn't play much chess in college (according to the Spring Hill history as well as Lawson), but did learn to play blindfold chess while there. Many people assert when Morphy went to play in the American Chess Congress that he was an unknown quantity, but that doesn't even make superficial sense. The best chess players in the country were invited to play, so Paul's talent was known even then. He was even a favorite to win by some. What was a surprise was his boyish appearance and his complete domination of the event, even beating Louis Paulsen, who was regarded the best blindfold player in America,  san voir.

Paul returned home from the event clothed in laurels, but burdened with the expectancy, now that he got this chess business out of his system, to settle into a career, particularly since he would be 21 the coming Summer.  But Paul had a desire to see just how good he was, and later even confided that he expected to do better in Europe than he actually did. So he finagled his way to Europe to challenge the "Old World." 

It's often parroted that Morphy's opponents were weak and somewhat second-rate.  His opponents however were the top of the field, well versed in the theory of the day, successful in their competitions and quite experienced. If one plays through their games, knowing what we know today, we can find positional errors, and even tactical ones using our computers, but to call them weak displays either one's historical ignorance or one's poor sense of evaluation. In relative contrast to his opponents, Morphy was both inexperienced and untested. Even when he first arrived in England, many players thought his reputation was exaggerated and based on  good showing in a weak arena (the United States) and that he would learn what it meant to play real chess from the London masters. According to Edge:
             My acquaintance with the young American was a passport of general

             interest to all present on the following Saturday. In addition to Mr.
             Staunton, I met there Herr Falkbeer, Messrs. Barnes, Bird, "Alter,"
             and other luminaries, and many were the questions asked in reference
             to Mr. Morphy. But I am bound to say that the feeling with which he was
             regarded in the United States was not participated in by English players.
             I was told by one gentleman—" Mr. Morphy's games are very pretty, but
             they will not bear the test of analysis." Another said—and his opinion was
             universally endorsed—" It is quite possible that Mr. Morphy may arrive at
             the highest rank; nay, even that he may become a second Labourdonnais,
             but he cannot have the strength his admiring countrymen wish to believe.
             Chess requires many long years of attentive study, and frequent play with
             the best players, and neither of these your friend has had. Depend upon it,
             he will find European amateurs very different opponents from those he has
             hitherto encountered."

For a young man who never really traveled much, Paul handled himself most admirably in a strange land, alone except for the company of Fred Edge who would eventually grate on Morphy's nerves.  He met all comers and defeated every one, never seeming to even work up a sweat. He learned he loved Paris, despised chess politics and that he was as strong as he suspected. He returned to the USA to even greater homage than that after the Congress victory. But even before he left Europe he was experiencing the dark side of celebrity. Paul had a myriad of interests, Philosophy and Theology among his main ones. But he also loved literature, music, mathematics and languages.  He excelled in many of these areas and craved to be sought after for intellectual discourse rather than to perform chess magic on demand. A victim of what might be called the trained-monkey syndrome, Paul returned to the states already disillusioned with a fame associated with something as trivial as a game.

It's also brought out that, while Paul Morphy excelled in open games, playing such arcane openings as the King's or the Evans Gambits, he fell short in closed positions.  First, people tend to misinterpret the evaluation of experts who have noted that Morphy's games in closed position usually didn't exhibit the sparkling combinations that were his hallmark, but that, even in closed positions, he generally managed to gain the advantage, though in a more tedious fashion.  Valeri Beim in Paul Morphy: A Modern Perspective explains it that Morphy was pretty much unbeatable in a dynamic position, but less effective, with black, in static positions and lays the blame at his limited chess education that emphasized more dynamic openings.

Several things come to mind - Morphy never played for a draw, not even in an inferior position unless the position was completely hopeless. Morphy despised the tediousness of closed positions and tried to open them at every chance, he also hated certain openings, such as the Sicilian, that often led to closed positions. Unlike masters of today, who after the centuries of analysis devoted to chess, look for "truth" in each game, Morphy, as well as many of his contemporaries, looked for beauty, sometimes foregoing the simplest approach for a more pleasing one, and considered the combination the pinnacle of such beauty.

Many people will seal their argument with Fischer's early assessment of Morphy in his 1964 Chess World article:
         
       Perhaps the most accurate player who ever lived, he would beat
                 anybody today in a set-match. He had complete sight of the board
                and seldom blundered even though he moved quite rapidly. I've
                played over hundreds of his games and am continually surprised
                and entertained by his ingenuity.

I'm not sure how one determines the "most accurate player who ever lived," but while it's true that Morphy never fell into a any traps in his recorded games or lost pieces en pris, it would be equally true to admit he made errors, in judgment as well as in calculations.  One might argue though that Morphy learned very quickly from his mistakes or that what constituted objective mistakes were often simply choices based on Morphy's unique vision, aesthetic sense and complete confidence. When Morphy did lose, the losses, outside of some odds-games with Maurian, were usually long and bitterly-contested.

Even among authorities there are some differences in basic contentions. Beim holds that Morphy's opening repertoire was rather modest and limited.
             We must suppose that Morphy's wild swings in playing form had much
             to do with his frail physique.  Additionally, it appears that Morphy had
             consideable trouble with his openings.  He often had difficulties playing
             the black pieces and his opening repertoire was relatively narrow and
             old-fashioned.  This was particularly clear in his match with Lowenthal
             who was probably the greatest openings expert of his day.
Staunton, however, claimed, "Herr Lowenthal is, if we except Mr. Morphy, the best living opening player,"  putting Morphy as the greatest living opening player. While Steintiz asserted, "Mr. Morphy was well versed in the openings, so far as their knowledge had advanced up to his time."

Many experts dwell on Morphy's tactical acumen and quick development as his main strengths, but Capablanca said, "[Morphy] did not look for complicated combinations; but he also did not avoid them, which is really the correct way of playing. . . His main strength lay not in his combinative gift, but in his positional play and general style.  Morphy gained most of his wins by playing directly and simply, and it is this simple and logical method that constitutes the true brilliance of his play."  and Alekhine noted that Morphy's true power was "deeply thought-out positional play, chiefly of an aggressive nature."

Once Morphy returned to the States he was set upon retiring from chess. Meanwhile, he played one of his most astonishing matches against James Thompson at Knight odds.  Odds games were a fact of life in pre-20th century chess. Not only did odds games allow players of varying strengths to play each other with some semblence of equality, odds, in fact, defined a players relative strength before ratings came into being. Morphy's odds games, which account for nearly one third of his recorded games, tend to be even more pleasing than his standard games.  It's vogue to say that when Morphy returned to New Orleans he offered anyone in the world pawn and move odds. But it's more accurate to think of it in a different light. Having established himself above all his adversaries, Morphy felt, and rightfully so in the custom of the day, that before anyone had the right to challenge him even, they had to first prove they could beat him at odds.  Morphy, it seems, wanted to avoid at all costs any constant barrage of challenges and return to his private life and hopefully a career (one that never really happened). 

Paul, while hardly insane, did suffer from some "derangements," as people were wont to call it back then.  Mostly he developed certain eccentricities.  But contrary to what many people have said, Morphy never hated chess nor did he ever abandon it completely.  He played privately up until a few years before he died (1877 is the last we know of) and kept up with the doings in the chess world even after that.  When he died, a chess board was found set-up in his room. Léona Queyrouze, a close friend of Paul's who was there shortly after his death, wrote: "On the table, not far from the bed, lies the family chess-board upon which many chess-men stand: a contest never to be decided. The bureau is strewn with the books read last; there are some references and notes on the margins, one incomplete, never to be ended. The whole atmosphere is impregnated with his spirit's ultimate exhalation. And the dolorous symphony of sobs and groans fills the air, rousing the echoes of the vast and empty rooms."

 

So, to dispel certain myths and assumptions -
     Morphy was the strongest player of his day, but he played a type of chess that isn't played today by professionals. It was an art more than a science. Without the benefit of a century and a half of theory, nor a life devoted soley to chess, nor computer analysis and assistance, nor even a vast database of games, Morphy, as well as many of his contemporaries produced games that are marvelled at even today.  Some people claim Morphy wallowed in unsound sacrifices and crazy, wild attacks. Would this be the same Morphy who Fischer called  "perhaps most accurate player who ever lived?"  Fischer's assessment, even if hyperbolic, should have enough merit in itself to negate such spurious pronouncements, but better yet would be to actually examine his games, games that attracted the French players due to his "solide" style.
     Morphy, while a model of direct attack in open games, was less spectacular in closed games, partly due to what Beim called his lack of chess education, but possibly chiefly due to his total distaste for such games which, to Morphy, led to drudgery rather than brilliance - and brilliance through combinations, was the holy grail of Romantic chess. Morphy's failure in some of these games could often be attributable to his attempts to open the games at great risk.
     Morphy never abandoned chess completely.  According to de Maurian, our most reliable source, Morphy played chess at least until 1877 (he died in 1884) and kept abreast of the going-ons in the chess world until his death. Morphy did grow to disdain the trapping that revolved both around chess and his celebrity in that area, but he remained quite proud of his accomplishments. Léona Queyrouze tells us that "At rare intervals, Paul Morphy took a fancy to examine his gorgeous trophies and polish them, which he did con amore.  'Who is willing to help me?'  he sometimes exclaimed, throwing a piece of chamois over at his sister and me."

Morphy never had a shoe fetish, never served in the employ of the Confederacy (he was, in fact, against secession) and there is no evidence he was ever spurned by a lover for being a mere chessplayer

His so-called "insanity" demarked some real problems such as paranoia, but mostly expressed itself through rather benign eccentricities.  Some of his exhibited behaviours were physical in nature: "During the last four or five years of his life, Mr. Morphy frequently suffered with nervous prostration which more than once threatened to end fatally. As long as they lasted he lay in bed, frightfully pale and spiritless, refusing to take any nourishment, and often nearly senseless The precursory symptoms were unmistakable, and we knew them only too well. Without an apparent cause, he would at once grow fanciful and irascible, discontented with everything, and annoyed even by the efforts made to please him." [Léona Queyrouze]. 

By his seemingly meteoric rise and sudden fade, his quiet, seductive demeanor and his secretive life, Morphy became as much myth as real.  Even through cold, historical study, he remains largely an enigma, but, once the myth is expurged, at least a human enigma worthy of our empathy.    

     

Comments


  • 13 months ago

    robbie_1969

    he was as Capablanca and Alekhine noted, the first positional player.

  • 23 months ago

    elotro

    Thank you for the lyrical description of Paul Morphy. His open games are breath-taking. Pawns march forward, the knights burst through, bishops join the fray, the queen comes out and the rooks move in deadly fashion.

    Watch out. Morphy launches the assault as quickly and suddenly as possible. There's no denying his brilliance. And, yes, as you so ably point out: Morphy faced top-notch competition and his games should be viewed as sparkling games played with panache.

  • 2 years ago

    JohnnyBrutal

    People wonder if Morphy could beat Kasparov if they played today. Forget that, 95 percent of today's game is pre-analyzed computer moves. BORING. They are NOT Kasparov's original moves. Morphy's moves were 95% original moves that he created over the board, not in some computer lab. Let's send Kasparov back in time to 1860 without all the preparation at his disposal and see how he does. And to make things even more even, Kasparov has to graduate college first, learn 5 languages and if Kasparov could make it through law school, then play Morphy. Morphy would crush him. And to put things in even more perspective, Morphy never wanted to be a pro chess player, he aspired to be a lawyer. Chess was only a hobby. If Morphy wanted to be a pro he would of been that much better. Has anyone since in any sport or game became the best in the world at something while doing it just for fun? Could a weekend swimmer have any chance of beating Michael Phelps? All chess champions since Steinitz made the decision at a very young age that they will be chess professionals and they trained for that goal from an early age. Morphy never trained to be a pro. Without a doubt, Morphy best ever. JohnnyBrutal@yahoo.com

  • 4 years ago

    CM Kingscrusher

    Hi Sarah

    I am impressed by your enthusiasm about Morphy and have been for ages. I have been collecting my "Brilliancy" game videos into one page this morning, and have included Morphy. It has just started:

    http://www.chessworld.net/chessclubs/brilliancyvideos.asp

    Please could you let me know the key brilliant Morphy games which deserve video annotation if you had to choose a top 10. 

    I think also Pillsbury was a brilliant player as well, and also Anderssen. I have just started this page though. 

    Best wishes

    K

  • 4 years ago

    agapasme

    "Steinitz was logical, but Morphy was magical."

    You bet.

  • 4 years ago

    chessroboto

    Just in time for the recent release of the latest edition of "Paul Morphy: Pride and Sorrow of Chess" by David Lawson. Wink

    Are you planning to do some research on R.Fine and S.Reshevsky as well?

  • 4 years ago

    batgirl

    Wanting "a few months to brush up on his openings" was Howard Staunton's reply when Morphy first challenged him to a match in London, and used here facetiously.  Morphy probably would never play at the level of today's superGMs because, first, he wouldn't devote his life to chess and second, he was frankly too lazy.

  • 4 years ago

    II-Oliveira

    "If he returned today would he beat all others in a "set match" as Fischer claimed? If he had a few months to "brush up on his openings" (remind you of anyone?), could he compete against the best players of today?"

    I really doubt that "a few months" is enought for a XIX century chess player to get at the same level of Anand, Topalov or Carlsen.

    Ok, Morphy was really good, but we are talking about 150 years of game developement. I guess adapting his game style to the XXI century top level would take some years of hard work. 

  • 4 years ago

    Am1nOS

    yes he was the best in his days ! but to say the best ever.. I think it's impossible with the existance of someone like ROBERT JAMES FISCHER !

  • 4 years ago

    batgirl

    "Too bad a trip to Austria wasn't done as he could have gone head to head with Steinitz!"

    Well, I'm not sure in 1859-60 the Steinitz had enough standing to challenge Morphy or enough skill to make much of a game against him. By the time of Morphy's second trip to Europe, he would only play privately and with friends.

  • 4 years ago

    batgirl

    MightyPaul, It's true that Morphy never used a clock, but then again, neither did his opponents. Generally, it seems he moved rather quickly against his weaker opponents, but, at least after the 1857 congress, seemed to play more carefully against his worthy opponents. Anderseen wrote to v.d. Lasa about Morphy in Dec. 31, 1859: "His figuring is, in general, not of remarkable or even tiring duration: he always takes as much time as such a tireless and experienced thinker requires depending on the position. . ."

    Minital,  we do know something of his position in on closed game through his annotations of the M'Donnell-Bourdonnais match. When M'Donnell played 3. f4 after 1.e4 c5, Morphy had commented:
    "If there is anything to be  regretted in connection with the combats between these illustrious players, it is the pertinacity with which M'Donnell persisted in adopting, in two of the debuts which  most frequently occur, a line of play radically bad. Against such an adversary as Labourdonnais the disastrous affects of M'donnells early moves in nearly all of the Sicilian Games and Queen's Gambits could not be overcome even by the best afterplay. The moves of 2.Nf3, or still better, 2.d4, are those now generally recognized as the best. The latter move is indeed so strong that it has gone far toward disabusing the public mind of that pernicious fondness for the Sicilian Defence which was displayed during what may be called the period of close games, extending from about 1843 to some time after 1851. It was an epoch of uninteresting games and dreary analytical labors, and with the exception of the contests ocurring between the great Prussian masters, afforded but comparitavely few specimens of brilliant play. It should be a subject of rejoicing with every lover of the game that an age, in which so much severe labor led to such unprofitable results, has passed away. There is now a visible tendency to cultivate a higher style of chess art- to sustitute for the false taste which has so long prevailed a more elevated standard of excellence."

  • 4 years ago

    MightyPaul

    When Morphy was playing those games they were NOT played with a clock!  In that sense he was giving his opponents odds taking into account how quickly he moved.  His opponents were the best of England had to offer not to mention  fellows named Anderson and Riviere.  Too bad a trip to Austria wasn't done as he could have gone head to head with Steinitz!

  • 4 years ago

    minital

    This was a great article and after someone putting so much time and effort in to painting a picture of a giant, I can't thank you enough! Morphy is one of my favorie players and I have read as much as I can about him and studied his games to get better. I want to say something about his weakness in closed positions, because this is very very important to the subject matter, which is how he would compare to GM and IMs today. Obviously in this day in age many GMs could make the game closed if they wanted to so he would eventually have to deal with it. But keep in mind many people, including morphy, viewed it as a game above all else. Morphy didn't like closed games because they weren't entertaining, they were B.O.R.I.N.G. That doesn't fit the description of a game. But Morphy was also well aware of the competitiveness of the game so he played these positions with one of the main goals being make it open. So do I think he could compete on the top levels of today? Well no he is dead. But if he could be transported through time to today and he brushed up on his openings and closed positions-Yes.

    But would he enjoy it?

    Anyway, wonderful article batgirl and I hope to see many more from you. Also I'd like to thank kingscrusher for commenting. Kingscrusher is famous on internet chess and if you haven't heard of him you haven't played enough internet chess!

  • 4 years ago

    batgirl

    "You didn't speak out, you roared"

    i'm sorry, LV. I'll try to hold it down some.

    Mercho, thanks for your comments.  I'm not sure I understand the part about patriotic duty though.  But regarding the other, this posting wasn't meant to place Morphy on a pedestal among the chess giants. Rather it was meant to give some perspective in how to view Morphy in relation to modern players.  I didn't present any games because I wasn't trying to prove anything about Morphy's skill - or lack thereof. How one views Morphy is their business, but in discussing him, if one wants to do so rationally, it's necessary to appreciate his peculiar situation as well as the differences between chess then and chess now.

  • 4 years ago

    merchco

    Your articles are usually good but this one was a bit long drawn out and maybe a little less literature and maybe some examples of his best games might have made a better article.

    I am sure the viewers can only grasp how good or not Morphy was by viewing some of his games,the absence of such games  leaves question marks as to the validity of the article claiming Morphy as one of the true greats.

    Ps Batgirl I think on this article a bit of patriotic duty might be clouding your judgement just a little

  • 4 years ago

    oginschile

    In recent years I've learned to appreciate play from a much wider range of players, but in my humble beginnings as a chess enthusaist, it was Morphy, Fischer and Tal who ignited my passions for the game of chess.

    While we are certainly treated to a number of wonderful titanic clashes in the world of chess today, it will forever be fun to 'conject' and debate the outcomes of matches that never were.

    If there is truly a heaven, and it is truly a place where all wonderful things exist, we will surely see Morphy and Steinitz in a match with accessible post-mortems.

    And it will be catered with hotwings and the beverage of your choice.

  • 4 years ago

    batgirl

    "arthur_pendragon and dean_sam are probably the same person."

    That's their misfortune.

  • 4 years ago

    A-232

    arthur_pendragon and dean_sam are probably the same person.

  • 4 years ago

    batgirl

    "Are you sure that's a photograph of Morphy?  It looks more like a portrait drawing, or a black and white photo of a painting.  Just curious."

    Actually, I'm not sure.  So, I've taken the liberty to change the world "photograph" to "picture." 

    Thanks.

  • 4 years ago

    batgirl

    While not the first by any means, Steinitz was probably the true beginning of the scientific approach to chess, where players sought for underlying principles to guide their moves.  If you play through Steinitz' games, you'll often see some odd retreating move or some weird repositioning of pieces.  In Lasker's Manual of Chess,  Lasker wrote, "I heard in London, that a London master, Mr. Potter, who loved unusual and strange moves, had influenced Steinitz greatly.  The two were friends, and Steinitz somehow began to copy Potter's style. " [that would be, of course, William Norwood Potter].  I suspect to many of his opponents, such moves were as unexpected as some of the types of defensive moves we have seen from computers. But it's all logical.  Valeri Beim had the provocative idea that people found it easier to understand, and to copy, the complex style of Steinitz than the simple, direct style of Morphy.

    "If Morphy's play was revolutionary for its time, why were his contemporaries and those that  immediately followed unable to recognize this and incorporate his methods?  After all, they assimilated Steinitz's theory, which was also of a rather revolutionary character.  The reason, I insist, is that it was harder for Morphy's contemporaries to grasp the innovations that his play brought to chess than to understand the principle expoinded by Steinitz.
     Steinitz collected and systemized principles that were already familiar to the best chessplayers; the main points of his theory relied on obtaining long-lasting advantages and only then looking for an attack or combination.  These positional precepts were somewhat obvious and could readily be grapsed, while Morphy relied on temporary advantages that were harder to comprehend. Furthermore, one very often had to calculate variations to fully understand such advantages which is usually a far more unpleasant task than simply making comparisons based on well-known principles."

    My own way of looking at it is similar.  Steinitz was a scientist; Morphy was an artist.  Science can be graped with a modicum of intelligence and enough study.  Art depends to some degree on things that can't be learned. And that's why Morphy appeals to people even today.  Steinitz was logical, but Morphy was magical.

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