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
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.