Upgrade to Chess.com Premium!

Die Schachspieler and the Morphy Anecdote, Pt. II

Gilbert R. Frith wrote an essay for the Columbia Chess Journal describing an incident in which Morphy offered to, and succeeded at, playing for "Man" in Retzsch's painting (below) and saving his seemingly lost game against Satan for which his soul was at stake.

The correspondents refer to the picture as "Jeu d' Echecs" (The Game of Chess) rather than the correct " Les joueurs d'échecs" (The Chess Players).  Galbreath mentions that the a1 square is white instead of black. The reproduction of the original clearly shows the a1 square as black. 

Columbia Chess Chronicle 1888

ANECDOTE OF MORPHY

   THE following anecdote of that phenomenon of Chess, Paul Morphy, may interest not only the lovers and followers of the game, but the general public as well. It was related to the writer by the gentleman at whose home in Richmond, Va., the incidents occurred. The host of that evening, twenty odd years ago, survives the champion, and still, with undiminished vigor and ever fresh enthusiasm, gladly gives combat as of old to any Knight who essays his prowess on the checkered field ; and it may be premised, whether he prove victor or defeated, that any such essayist will enjoy a combat which may readily be arranged for at the 'Chess Club at Richmond, Va.
   In the early days of " the late unpleasantness"  when it would have been much more difficult to have arranged for a casual Chess encounter between North and South "that has been premised above, the celebrated Paul Morphy happened to be in Richmond, as an officer on Beauregard's staff. The war spirit must have been very absorbing in most men's minds, and of deepest import was it to our friends.  Still it  takes a great deal to thoroughly banish Chess. The arrival of the noted player excited, even at that troublous time, a keen interest among the lovers of the kingly game. An invitation was extended to the champion, and, with himself as the centre, a coterie of notables assembled for an evening's play at the home of the hospitable Mr. H.   How fortune went with Mr. Morphy in the earlier part of the evening mat easily be inferred. While at supper Morphy's attention was attracted by a picture which hung prominently upon the wall.  This picture seems to be pretty well known, , and indeed somewhat celebrated, although the writer regrets that he himself never had the pleasure of meeting with it.  It represents the—to speak politely - and he is thus politely depicted - Mephistphiles [sic]  playing a game of Chess with a young man for his soul.  The Chessmen with which his Satanic Majesty plays are the Vices ; the pieces of the young man are, or have been, the Virtues—for, alas! he has very few left. In bad case, indeed, is the unhappy youth, for his game, as represented, appears not only desperate but hopeless, and his fate sealed. His adversary gloats in anticipation of the final coup. and the gleaming smile on the face of the hitter intensifies the despair which that of the young man shows.' With the close of the supper, deeply interested, Morphy approached the picture, studied it awhile intently, then turning to his host he said, modestly: "I think that I can take the young man's game and win." " Why, impossible !" was the answer; "not even you, Mr. Morphy, can retrieve that game." " Yet, I think I can." said Morphy. " Suppose we place the men and try." A board was arranged, and the rest of the company gathered round it, deeply interested in the result. To the surprise of every one, victory was snatched from the devil and the young man saved. Thinking that a blunder must have led to this unexpected result, one after another did each sober, serious gentleman essay the devil's part, and to each in turn did Mr. Morphy prove that not even on intellectual grounds could the "enemy" be defended, for Morphy beat them one and all.
   The writer, who sends the narrative, thinking it too good to be lost, has long been interested to see this picture ; and it may interest readers to look for it, and with the position which is represented, try whether he or she could make an escape from the claws of the Evil One.
G. R. F.

----------------------------------------------------


Editors C. C. C.—That was a very pretty anecdote told of Paul Morphy by your correspondent, G. R. F., in the Chronicle of August 18th, but there are three good reasons why it will have to go into the category with most fish stories. I would not take one leaf from Morphy's wreath of glory, yet the truth of history must be preserved.
   1. Paul Morphy never was an officer on General Beauregard's staff, nor was he in the Confederate Army in any capacity.
   2. About the time mentioned, Morphy was beginning to suffer from the malady which finally destroyed him, and one of his remarkable peculiarities was his aversion to Chess. He could not bear to play Chess or to talk about it, except with a few persons with whom he was very intimate. Nothing could have induced him to play at a gathering after his return from Europe in 1858 or '59.
   3. The lithograph alluded to a splendid subject, is a highly attractive picture with one extraordinary defect : the position of the Chess board violates one of the fundamental laws of the game, a black square is to the right of each of the players instead of a white one.
   Dayton truly says that the position attempted to be shown in the picture is impossible to be deciphered. I have a copy of the lithograph and have tried in vain to make oui the position.
   I cannot understand how Mr. Chas. Gilberg reaches the conclusion that the position he furnishes in the Chronicle of Sept. 22nd is the one represented in Retzsch's picture. Mr. Gilberg's position is on a rightly placed Chessboard, and with ordinary Chessmen, while in the picture it is the merest guess work as to which of the Chess pieces, the grotesque figures there presented are intended to correspond. The picture I have is a large, colored lithograph. 24X191/2, " Dess. par le Prof. Retch " is printed in the lower left-hand corner, "Jeu d'Echecs " is the title. "Imp. Lemercier, Paris" and " Publie par Daziaro, Paris, St. Petersbourg, Moscou et Varsovie " is printed in the centre, under the title, and " Lith. par Chevalier" is printed in the lower right-haad corner.
   The scene represented is weird and powerful. In the foreground is the table, seated at which, partially turned to the front, one easily recognizes Mephistopheles with bristling moustache, traditional head-dress, and wearing cock's feather. His right elbow rests on the table, the hand supporting his chin, in which position he is gloatingly contemplating the noble-appearing young man on the other side of the board, whose turn it is to move. The youth has his right hand to his fair white forehead, and is anxiously scanning the board hoping to find a loophole out of the dilemma in which his manner plainly shows him to be.
   The side of the table presented to view is covered with coverings of human skulls and other bones, the centre of the adornments being the figure of a woman in sitting attitude her hands to her eyes ana weeping. To the right of the Satanic player is an attendant Dragon, one of its paws holding a human skull. In the background the " Angel of Mercy," with a pitying expression on her face, is contemplating the game. Beyond her is an arch very like the one illustrating the front of Mr. Steinitz's International Magazine. The two columns of the arch are guarded by lizard-like monsters, and beyond the arch is utter darkness. Mephistopheles is playing with the black forces, and their grotesque and hideous figures are like the phantasmagoria of a nightmare.
   The white forces are Angels, Saints and Cherubs, but as remarked before, it is quite impossible to determine which of the Chess pieces any of the figures are intended to correspond. The position of the board makes the game all wrong to a Chess player, but nevertheless the conception and the general features make the picture remarkably attractive to anyone who sees it.
—Jno. A. Galbreath.
Vicksburgh, Miss., Oct. 9th.

----------------------------------------------------


CORRESPONDENCE
"ANECDOTE OF MORPHY "

Editors C. C. C.—On leaving Richmond last July, and a leturn to the State being indefnite, I sent to you, as a conclusion of some pleasant services as contributor of Chess happenings at Richmond and in Virginia, an anecdote of Morphy, which I had heard from a member of the Richmond Chess Club, whose home was the scene of the incident. It had often occurred to me before to send the story to one of the Chess periodicals, for it struck me as a singularly interesting one, which ought not to be lost to the Chess world. Knowing that he would be averse to needless publicity, the name of the gentleman from whom it came was not given, and to the recital I appended my own initials. After its appearance in the 'Midsummer Number of your magazine several notices of one kind and another appeared in your columns as evidencing the interest the story has excited. One correspondent, however, signing " Dayton," in the number of September 8th, threw discredit on the narrative, because, as he claimed, no position could be made out from the picture. He concluded thus: "It is a pily to spoil such a good story, but Morphy's fame does not need any fictitious aid, and the truth of history should be vindicated." Before my rejoinder to this could be made, Mr. Charles Gilberg appeared with effectual aid, and in C. C. C. of 22d idem furnished a diagram showing an actual position, and offered to show to any one who might be interested two pictutes of this same subject, but differently treated—one being an etching, the other and larger one a colored engraving. This seemed in itself a sufficient answer to " Dayton," and however interesting the anecdote might be, it seemed needless to raise a controversy about it. So I was content to state that I knew the story to be substantially correct, on account of the source whence it emanated, and I tendered thanks to Mr. Gilberg. I have myself never seen the picture alluded to; am willing to suppose that the Chess position may not be apparent to a casual observer, as I had conceived to be the case; and to this extent "Dayton" was warranted in taking exception, perhaps; but he was not justified in characterizing the story as fictitious.
    This, my second communication, again with initials appended, was penned 13th October, but before it was published in C. C. C. another communication, written about the same time, appeared in number of October aoth, and this was so positive and contradicted the statements in the Morphy anecdote so flatly as to call for some vindicatory notice. The letter in question is subscribed "Jno. A. Galbraith," and bears date Vicksburg, Miss., Oct. 8th. Mr. Galbraith states that "there are three good reasons why it (the 'very pretty story,' as he calls it) will have to go into the category with most fish stories." First he says, very positively, that Paul Morphy never had any connection with Beauregard or the Confederate army. Secondly, with equal positiveness he avows, that Morphy's remarkable revulsion and aversion to Chess had already come upon him at the time attributed to the incident, and that " nothing could have induced him to play at a gathering after his return from Europe in 1858 or "59." Thirdly, that from the picture it is " impossible" that any position can be deciphered.
     Mr. Galbraith adds, like " Dayton," "the truth of history must be preserved." So be it. In one thing I agree with Mess. Dayton and Galbraith : the fame of Mr. Morphy as a Chess player needs nothing to enhance it. His position is a unique one,, and can now be neither increased nor belittled. The story was not given for any such reason, but because it did seem worthy of him, and worth preserving. Readers of the C. C. C. can judge from the following how far it is substantially authenticated.
     Mr. Harrison, for many years a prominent lawyer of Richmond, is now the beloved pastor of one of her churches. Though adverse to being brought conspicuously into print, he gives his statement as a tribute to " the truth of history." The public, I think, will agree that such a recital as this Morphy incident might come appropriately from the pulpit itself. It is a personal satisfaction to be thus, through the frank courtesy of Mr. Harrison, enabled to sustain a story coining from him, and through one of the most genial, courtly and charming of all possible coteries, " The Richmond Chess Club." Long life to it ! Through the courtesy and hospitality to strangers, so proverbial of Virginians, the writer may boast what he esteems a high honor—certainly not won by any masterly qualities of his own in the noble game, —that of having been a president of the R. C. C., and also of the State Chess Association of Virginia. Respectfully,
Gilbert R. Frith.
Rosedale, Toronto, 13th Dec., 1888.

----------------------------------------------------


Statement of Rev. R. R. Harrison
   "Some timme in the autumn season of 1861, Paul Morphy, Esq., of New Orleans, who had gained the reputation of being the most skillful Chess player in the world, came to Richmond, Va.  I had been for seventeen years a resident in the city,  engaged in the practice of law.  I was fond of Chess, and was a member of ther Chess association of the city, which was composed of a number of gentlemen who had attained some skill in the game, among whom may be mentioned Hon. John Robertson, Judge in the former General Court of Virginia; William F. Wickham, Col. John E. Johnson. Charles Pinckney Burruss, Richard G. Morris, John F. Shackelford, Col. J. Thompson Brown, Dr George W. Jones, and others.
    Soon after Mr. Morphy arrived in our city I paid him a visit at his hotel, and invited him to take tea and spend an evening with my family and a few invited friends at my residence on Governor Street. He very promptly and courteously accepted the invitation.
     On this occasion, besides my own family and Mr. Morphy, there were present Capt. Franklin Buchanan (afterwards admiral in the Confederate navy, and who commanded the war steamer Virginia, formerly Merrimac, in her successful encounters with the U. S. frigates Cumberlandand Congress, and her terrible combat with the U. S. Monitor); John R. Thompson, Esq., the poet and author: and Capt. J. Nicholson Barney, also of the Confederate navy, and a descendant of the naval hero, Commodore Barney, of Baltimore. Mrs. Barney, who is my niece, and a daughter of the late Commodore T. A. Dorsini, U S. N., was also present.
    After supper, while we were assembled in the parlors, our attention was called to a colored engraving entitled "Jeu d' Echecs," which was hanging in the room. It represented Satan, in style and dress after the German ideal of Mephistopheles, and engaged in a game of Chess with a young man. The board is on the flat slab of a tomb and the guardian angel of the youth is represented looking down with deep sadness and interest upon the position of the pieces on the board. The young man's pieces represent the Manly Virtues, and many of them have already been captured and removed. Satan's pieces represent the Tempting Vices.
    I had previously examined the engraving with some care, and had sought to reproduce the position on a Chess board. I had regarded the young man's game as hopeless. I now set the pieces and Pawns on a board on one of the parlor-tables, as I had gathered it from the engraving. The position in the picture was, it is true, somewhat obscure; but I thought that I had correctly reproduced it, and still think so. Mr. Morphy examined it-, and I remember well that he asked : " Do you think you have the position correctly?" I answered that I thought so, and we did the best we could, by re-examining the engraving, to verify the position of every piece and Pawn. Mr. Morphy said, in his quiet but, always dignified manner, that he beleived he could take the young man's position and win the game. All persons who knew anything of Chess expressed surprise. But Morphy vindicated his belief in a short time. He took the young man's game, and played against each gentleman in succession and won !
    Of those who were present, Buchanan, Thompson and Morphy have all passed away from this world. But Cap. Barney and his wife are alive, and in answer to a letter lately written to him by me he writes under date of Nov. 17, 1888 " I remember distinctly the admiration evinced by those present at the wonderful skill displayed by Mr. Morphy at Chess. My wife recalls the fact of your inviting Mr. Morphy's attention to the colored engraving of which you speak, with the remark that the young man seemed to be in a desperate position, or something of that kind. Mr. Morphy replied that he thought the youth's game could be won—that the pieces were placed on the board, she supposes, in the positions of those in the picture, (but being enterily ignorant of the game of Chess, she cannot positively assert this) and that Mr. Morphy did win the game against Satan."
   Thus the facts I have stated are substantially corroberated. I am not able however to reproduce the position now, but I am certain we thought we had reproduced it correctly from the picture.
    Mr. Morphy made many friends in Richmond by his genial and gentlemanly manners and virtues. He went up to the Confederate Army then hear Manasses under command of generals Johnston and Beauregard. It was understood that Mr. Morphy was a Volunteer Aid of general Beauregard though I beleive he was never actually commissioned as such.
    While in Richmond, he played a large number of parties with our most skillful amatures in Chess, always giving the odds of his Queen's Knight, and to the best of my recollection he only lost two games.
                                    Richmond Va., Nov. 20th 1888.

----------------------------------------------------


— The Baltimore Association possesses a small steel engraving representing nearly the same ideas as that spoken of in the " Anecdote of Morphy." Christ and Satan are opposed to each other with the Angels of Light and Darkness for Chess men, and the legend is that Satan is playing for the recovery of his 4ost powers and glories. As in the other picture, he has great superiority in pieces, and lie is represented with the same "gleaming," triumphant smile. But the similarity ends here, for his opponent requires no Morphy's aid, and instead of "intense despair" displays a serene and confident countenance. After a profound study of the position He (the legend says) announces mate in seven moves ! From the picture nothing can be made of the position, and we are compelled to take the story on faith.
—E. B. L.

----------------------------------------------------


THAT MORPHY ANECDOTE

Editors C. C. C.—If you are not already satiated ad nauseam with correspondence 'in re' the much discussed etching by Prof. Retch, "The Game of Life," I should like to "put in my oar." I can settle some of Brother Galbreath's doubts, who does not know of, or has forgottrn, Mr. Wm. Peel's explanantion of this Chess allegory in Vol. V., pp. 126 and 127 of the American Chess Monthly, April, 1861.
     Copies of this picture were given as premiums to subscribers to the C. M.  A few copies, carefully colored by hand, were issued with the title, in large capitals, " Le Bon et le Mauvais Génie." My copy is from this small package, thanks to the partiality of my friend. Wm. C. Miller, publisher C. M. I do not, of course, know where Mr. Peel got his information; but he writes as one having knowledge if not authority. All the explanatory 'addenda' are as Mr. Galbreath gives them.
     Mr. Peet says:—" The scene is chosen with a sort of mysterious reference to the whole idea that is to be expressed. It is a wide vault, whose arch is formed by two lizard-shaped monsters, whose heads are half locust half bird. The upper surface of a sarcophagus is transformed into a Chess-board, and man as a fair youth sits at the table, his head, covered with curls as in early manhood, resting on his hand, his countenance full of careful thoughts. Opposite to him is Satan, the Prince of Darkness, seated in a large chair, one of whose arms shows an openmouthed lion 'seeking whom he may devour.'  Satan's King is himself, with a cock's feather in his hat; his Queen, a voluptuous female figure with unveiled bosom, is Pleasure. The officers are vices :
    1st. Indolence (Castle), sitting on an unhewn block of wood, with the head of a swine; 2d Anger (Castle), like a turkey cock; 3d Pride (Bishop), grave, moving stiffly forward, wearing on his head— which is tossed backwards — a feather crown, one arm insolently Ihrust into his side, but forgetful while displaying his splendid peacock's tail how much of what disgraces him he leaves behind him—one hand holds a full purse, the other is stretched out as if giving command; 4th Falsehood (Bishop), a form spotted like a tiger's, with the head of a cat, the ears laid fawningly back, one hand is placed upon the breast, and the other hides a dagger behind her; 5th Avarice and Envy in one form, a bent lean figure gnawing its own hand and pressing a casket under its arm; 6th Unbelief, an impudent horned figure, both hands thrust into its sides and overthrowing the cross with its foot. The eight Pawns are Doubts—small, harpy-shaped creatures, with wings like bats and sharp teeth.
     Man's King is his soul, with wings of a butterfly on his shoulders. His Queen is Religion, a lofty, majestic figure, with ample pinions, stretching out one hand as giving protection, and holding in the other the sign of expiation.
     The officers are—1st Hope (Castle), with her anchor; 2d Truth (Castle), with a lighted torch and a reflecting shield, stands with Hope as a castle at her side; 3d Peace (Bishop), with the palm; 4th Humility (Bishop), her head bent in prayer and her person sparingly clad; 5th Innocence (Knight), a naked child stretching forth its arms confidently to all; 6th Love (Kt), two children embracing each other, while above both rests a single star. The Pawns are here represented as angels' heads, winged and worshipping.
     The game stands ill for the human being. His adversary has taken from him several angels' heads. Love and Innocence are lost, Humility is gone, and Peace, just seized, is still held in his clawlike fingers. Unhappy man himself has only vanquished Anger and overcome a single Doubt. Peace is already in Satan's hands; Innocence gone, Doubts urgent, and the assured prospect is that the whole game itself must be lost if Religion be sacrificed.
     Here follows the position in letter-press which Bro. Gilberg gave you on diagram. Of course the error of the artist in placing the board is of no practical consequence.
     After what you have given, the above explanation seems interesting and valuable. If it prove so, I gladly remain
                                    Yours, in Caissa's genial bonds.
                                                                     -Miron
                                                                    "The Larches, " Nov., '88.


Die Schachspieler and the Morphy Anecdote, Pt. I


Comments


  • 5 years ago

    muralidharancg

    am a paul morphy fan this annecdote was just great.thanks for ur gr8 work. really mind blowing.

  • 5 years ago

    GeoDude

    Jon, thank you so much for sharing that, greatly appreciated!

  • 5 years ago

    NM ComputoJon

    Hello, I recently acquired Moritz Retsch's pamphlet from 1837, as described in a prior post.  Here is a photo of the title page:

    http://www.chessreference.com/Misc/MoritzRetzschTheGameOfLife1837.jpg

    and here is a photo of the engraving:

    http://www.chessreference.com/Misc/DevilChessPrint.jpg

    This engraving (1837) is his original effort on this theme, and it predates the painting.

  • 5 years ago

    GeoDude

    Does anyone know a place to order a print / reproduction of this photo?

  • 5 years ago

    urusov

    Great article.  I have a few comments to add at my blog .

  • 5 years ago

    batgirl

    Thanks, Andrew.  The position that Rev. Harrison supposedly garnered from the Retzsch painting is the one element that has eluded me completely. Maybe I'll stumble across it one of these days.

    In the Book of the First American Chess Congress , Willard Fiske wrote:

    The Chess-Players ; a Drawing by Moritz Retzsch, explained according to hints from himself, by C. Borr. von MUtitz, with additional Remarks on the Allegory. Re-published for the Warren Street Chapel. Boston: Weeks, Jordan & Co., No. 121 Washington Street . 1837.

    Having never seen this reprint of the celebrated outlines by Retzsch, I cannot answer for the correctness of the title. The additions to the remarks by von Miltitz are, I understand, very slight and unimportant.

    The answer might be there.

     

     

  • 5 years ago

    CookDrew

    I've been thoroughly intrigued by your posting of collected sources on this subject- both the painting itself and the anecdote concerning Morphy.

    Naturally the assertions captivate the imagination. I wonder as to the supposed position myself and will remain curious for now.

Back to Top

Post your reply: