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What's So Great About Paul Morphy Anyway?

 

     The easiest way to establish an argument is to formulate your conclusion and then emphasize all the supporting data, de-emphasize or ignore all the contradicting data, and feed the results to an audience predisposed to your way of thinking.
It's done all the time on talk radio.

     The better way, and by far the more unusual way, is to look at whatever data you are able to amass, weight the information and draw whatever conclusion seem more likely and then find the severest critics of that position to see if your conclusions hold up against their scrutiny. The results will be whatever they will be.

     For the longest time, I've been an admirer of Paul Morphy. I don't know why the attraction exists and I don't know if understanding the "why" is even important. It's seems enough just to acknowledge it. I've made an ever-growing website on the diminutive chess player from Louisiana and I'm constantly changing my ideas on the man the more I learn. Philip Sergeant, the British author of "Morphy's Games of Chess" and "Morphy Gleanings" (reprinted as the "Unknown Morphy") wrote:

     There will always be two extreme schools of thought among chess-players concerning Paul Morphy, that which considers Morphy perfectly justified in his confidence and looks on him as the greatest genius at the game there ever was or ever is likely to be, and that which - while, of course, admitting him to be a genius - refuses him a class to himself and attributes his phenomenal success to the weakness of his opponents and the poor form of others. In the former school is naturally found the "laudator temporis acti,"  in the latter, many a would-be Morphy of to-day who is not free from that worst fault of chess-players, jealousy.

     I think there's at least one more school (and maybe more) that believes that 19th century players were inherently inferior due to the lack of development of chess theory and the small pool of potential players - in other words, they were big fish in little ponds.

     I've observed, when discussing Morphy, that the divergent views have less to do the Morphy himself than with some hidden, even insidious, reasons. Sergeant curiously wrote, "while, of course, admitting him to be a genius"  as if to do otherwise would be an unthinkable affront. Even today, most critics will preface their inevitable criticism with something along the line that, "In his day Morphy stood out from his fellow chess players, but...."  and I have to wonder what is says about a person when everyone feels compelled to acknowledge his greatness before giving any adverse comments. If Morphy's greatness is so universally accepted then, where is the origin of the criticism? Even in Morphy's day, the same phenomenon occurred. Max Lange praised Morphy in his book before offering all his reasons why Anderssen should have won their match. His German best-seller flopped in it's American edition, even with the superb translation by Falkbeer.

     It seems to me that the root of this perennial debate it often more about nationalism than about chess. Lange was convinced of Germany's superiority in chess - and, with the exception of Morphy, he had a good case. The French and the English (at least at that time and with the exception of Staunton and a few others) didn't seem to have that nationalistic hang up. It's been noted that the staid English players were enamored with Morphy's combinative genius while the French coffee house players marveled at his "solide" style. During his lifetime, after he retired from the game, Morphy's very existence hung over chess like a spectre. No matter what achievements anyone attained, they were compared unfavorably against what Morphy had achieved, or what people figured he would achieve if he were to take up the game again. Even Steinitz felt this pressure and (in my opinion) spent a great deal of time and energy trying to either lessen Morphy or demonstrate the superiority of his own ideas in light of Morphy.

     Then there was Staunton. Staunton's place in chess was overshadowed by his peculiar treatment of Morphy. Savielly Tartakower said something to the effect one bad move nullifies 40 good ones and this seems to have been the case with Staunton. I won't enumerate all of his accomplishments here (click the Staunton link) but they were far more than Morphy's. Yet Staunton has been vilified far in excess to what his actions, which amounted to a bit of human pride and frailty, warranted. Rightfully, the British wished to reclaim some of his glory. The problem is, rather than simply doing justice to Staunton, many British historians felt that Staunton's rightful place could only be restored through some denigration of Morphy and some creative and revisionist interpretation of events. Bertram Goulding Brown (1881-1965), historian (and chess historian) at  the Trinity College in Cambridge (where Raymond Keene attended and played in 1967) for about 60 years, attacked Morphy - with the subtle idea of elevating Staunton - using unfounded and provocative insinuations in his writings (or at least in those that I've read). Even Sergeant subscribed to some of B. Goulding Brown's theories. Later Ken Whyld and David Hooper, two of the most respected chess authorities, used the same approach unabashedly by creating the fictional insinuation (only to retract it - actually, to even deny their intentions ) that Morphy was having an affair with Edge. In their "Oxford Companion to Chess," comparatively little space is given to Morphy (nor to women, for that matter).The point isn't to bring all this to light; none of it's a secret anyway. The point is that Morphy has been brown-bagged for years, not because of anything he did, but because of what he represented. Morphy rose to fame seemingly out of nowhere. He became the darling of the press, the toast of every town and the most visible Champion of the American people. In the space between October 1857 when he played in and won the 1st American Congress and May of 1859 when he played his final match (against James Thompson at QKt odds, considered by Löwenthal to be Morphy greatest accomplishment) Morphy turned the chess world upside-down, created controversies that a century and a half couldn't resolve, raised the level of play a quantum leap above the status quo, and most importantly gave the game an impetus never experienced before and rarely since. He did all this with the most unassuming "laissez-faire."

     I've been fortunate enough to have been able to discuss some chess history with GM Raymond Keene at chessgames.com. Although we haven't always seen eye-to-eye, Mr. Keene is always a delight to speak with. Raymond Keene was the second English player to earn the grandmaster title. He's retired from competitive chess but continues to support the game in other ways. He's a prolific writer on both chess theory and chess history and his biography of Howard Staunton is second to none. He has been no stranger to controversy during his career and, maybe because of this, he is a man of myriad tastes and interests.

     In 1997, GM Keene wrote an article for "The Spectator" entitled, "The Greatest?,"  in which he gives some thoughts on Morphy. (It seems to be almost, but not quite, a review of Chris Ward's book, "The Genius of Paul Morphy").

     In his introductory paragraph he observes, "Debate still rages as to whether Paul Morphy, the mid-19th century chess genius who took the world by storm, only to retire after the briefest of careers, was the greatest chess player ever. There seems to be a doleful pattern amongst American chess greats. First Morphy, then Fischer and now Deep Blue have all stunned the world with their achievements, only to give the game up."

     Then he attributes the following facts to Nathan Divinsky:

     If you compare the percentages of the world's greatest players against only their top contemporaries, Morphy registers an astonishing 76 per cent ahead of Lasker on 66.9 per cent, Kasparov on 63.5, Capablanca on 62.3, Fischer on 59.7 and Alekhine on 59.3. However, Morphy clocked up a mere 25 games against his leading opponents, in comparison with Kasparov's 486, Alekhine's 460 and Karpov's 930. The bulk of evidence for Morphy is simply too small, though the extent of his dominance against the very best players of his own time tantalizingly suggests that he might have been the all-time number one, had he persisted. In fact, having defeated everyone of any note in sight, Morphy withdrew, challenged the world to play him at odds of a pawn and move and, when his offer was not taken up, stopped playing completely.

     While I'm not sure where the "mere 25 games" comes from, overall this is a fair analysis from a leading proponent of Howard Staunton. The days of gross innuendo may be over and the days of subtle understanding ushered in on this "raging debate."

     An argument I hear over and over again is one based entirely on a sandy foundation. When Anderssen played Morphy, Anderssen was out of practice, not having played a serious game since 1851. When Staunton was trying to side-step Morphy, he used the excuse that he was out of practice and had insufficient time to brush up on his openings. When  Löwenthal played Morphy, he wasn't playing his best and even had to put off a game due to ill health.The same with Harrwitz who was perfectly well until he started his losing streak againt Morphy.

     The sandy part is that all these arguments or excuses for why these players either lost or couldn't play tell one side of the story. One must remember that Morphy was in England only a couple of days before he formally challenged Staunton and a month before he played Löwenthal and six months before he played Anderssen. Before Morphy went to England he had only played one world-class player, Löwenthal himself, and that was when he was but 12 years old. It was the common thinking in England at that time that this unknown player from America who had been getting all this press didn't know what it meant to play real chess with real chess players; that the players he would meet in England weren't the second rate ones he had beaten in America. Now, if the only players Morphy had ever contended with were low level players, this would mean, by their own definition, that Morphy was completely and totally unprepared and that it was Morphy who was truly out of practice - or rather, never in practice. Even by the time that Morphy played Anderssen, he had only played ever matches with Harrwitz and Löwenthal.  Morphy undoubtedly played hundreds of off-hand games between October 1857 and December 1859 but before the American Chess Congress it's known that Morphy didn't engage in excessive chess. In fact during his school years he played very little chess and the Congress took play shortly after he earned his law degree. Yet Morphy never asked for a single consideration and never made any excuses.

     So, what are the facts and do these fact show Morphy to be something unique?
Here are some thought to consider:

     Morphy never really studied chess, relying on his remarkable memory and natural intuition, nor did he train obsessively.

     I send you herewith a game of chess played on the 28th instant between Mr. R[ousseau] and the young Paul Morphy, my nephew who is only twelve. This child never opened a work of chess; he learned the game himself by following the parties played between members of his family. In the openings he makes the right moves as if by inspiration; and it is astonishing to note the precision of his calculations in the middle and end game. When seated before the chessboard, his face betrays no agitation even in the most critical positions; in such cases he generally whistles an air through his teeth and patiently seeks for the combination to get him out of trouble. Further, he plays three of four severe enough games every Sunday (the only day on which his father allows him to play) without showing the least  fatigue.    -Ernest Morphy to Lionel Kieseritzky, editor of "La Régence," Oct 31, 1849

     Morphy, as already mentioned, didn't produce a large catalogue of recorded games, but by the same token, except for a brief period, he never played a great deal of chess either.

      Paul Morphy was never so passionately fond, so inordinately devoted to chess as is generally believed. An intimate acquaintance and long observation enables us to state this positively. His only devotion to the game, if it may be so termed, lay in his ambition to meet and to defeat the best players and great masters of this country and of Europe. He felt his enormous strength, and never for a moment doubted the outcome.  Indeed, before his first departure for Europe he privately and modestly, yet with perfect confidence, predicted his certain success, and when he returned he expressed the conviction that he had played poorly, rashly - that none of his opponents should have done so well as they did against him. But, this one ambition satisfied, he appeared to have lost all interest in the game.       -  Charles Maurian in his obituary column for Paul Morphy in the New Orleans "Times-Democrat" -

     Morphy's opponents were not the weak players many people want us to believe they were. They were the best in the world at that time and playing through his games one can see the masterfulness many of his opponents exhibited. The weaker opponents were played at odds and Morphy's artistry never shone as much as when defeating  weaker opponents from such initial disadvantages.

     Morphy played with utmost honor. He never dodged a game, not even when sick, and never made any excuses. He always treated his opponents with proper respect regardless of their disposition towards him.

     Morphy played anyone under any conditions. In matches he accepted every term or demand from his opponents and made no demands in return (except one universal request, that the match be played for honor rather than stakes - a request to which only Anderssen agreed ).

     Even playing blindfold against multiple opponents, Morphy always tried to obtain the strongest opponents.  He seemed to have more to prove to himself than to the rest of the world.

     Even after reaching the highest heights, Morphy seemingly played chess for it's artistic merits and without desire for any pecuniary reward that his fame could have reaped.

     Morphy, before retiring, offered his challenge to play anyone in the world at odds of Pawn & move. He had no takers. But, in all fairness, this was a double-edged challenge. Anyone who played Morphy at odds and won wouldn't have beaten Morphy except at disadvantage and if that person lost, his skill would forever be in question. So for any serious opponent it was a no-win situation. However, Morphy, by the custom of the day felt, and probably was, entitled to such a challenge. It's possible it was also his way of retiring gracefully.


     It's fruitless to argue who might have been the greatest chess player of all time. In Morphy's case, it's sufficient to say that during his brief chess frenzy, he attempted to meet the greatest players available and those he did meet, he beat on their own terms without so much as a close match.

     It's hard to compare someone who was in a class all his own.



 
I first published this article June 6, 2006.

Comments


  • 8 months ago

    HonzaZvolsky

    The website dedicated to Morphy by batgirl was a very beautiful source of information on Paul Morphy for me couple of years ago when I had a desire to learn something about him. It is nice to know who the author of this marvellous site is. Thank you batgirl!

  • 15 months ago

    sapientdust

    Another aspect of Morphy's genius that may not have been mentioned is his ability to adapt, which I read about recently in Lars Bo Hansen's excellent Improve Your Chess.

    In his match against Harrwitz, Morphy lost the first two games. He didn't get the sort of wide-open, heavily tactical games in which he was so deadly, and he was outplayed positionally. Morphy adapted though, and won the next four games of the match, not by forcing play along tactical lines but by positional means. He learned and adapted immediately on the basis of the first two games and was already a stronger player as a result. He went on to win the match 5.5-2.5.

    That Morphy was able to adapt so quickly and then outplay Harrwitz positionally suggests to me that if he were transported to the modern era, he could do well today if he had the motivation and time to learn and prepare.

  • 15 months ago

    nimzotech

    It is nice to hear from other Morphy fans. Couple of years ago whilst visiting Louisiana, I thought it was clever to place a black queen on the Paul Morphy grave . I thought that was an honorable and original thing to do, but there were several other chessmen already there! Morphy will continue to have many admirers. Being an educated gentleman I had a hard time believing he never studied chess. Kasparov confirms my stance in his My Great Predecessors, vol 1. Kasparov writes, "Fluent in French, English, Spanish and German, he read Philidor's L'analyse, the Parisian magazine La Regence, Staunton's Chess Player's Chronicle, and possibly also Anderssen's Schachzeitung (at least, he knew all of Anderssen's published games). He studied Bilguer's 400-page Handbuch - which consisted partly of opening analyses in tabular form and also Staunton's Chess Player's Handbook."

  • 21 months ago

    sapientdust

    Thanks for a wonderful article! I'm a new fan of Morphy's after reading Lawson's Paul Morphy: Pride and Sorrow of Chess recently.

    You mentioned that Morphy had only played one world-class player before he took Europe by storm, and that was Löwenthal when Morphy was 12 years old. What you didn't mention is that Morphy crushed Löwenthal either 2.5/3 or 3/3 (there is some uncertainty about whether Löwenthal  might have been able to achieve 1 draw out of the three games he played against the 12-year old Morphy).

    To my mind, the fact that he became the strongest player in the world without playing any world-class players puts him in a class of his own. Fischer, Kasparov, and everybody else since Steinitz would not have risen to number one without the experience of playing the best players in the world in many international competitions. It's true that Morphy's era had much weaker players, so it was probably easier to do what he did in his day, but I still think it's the most remarkable achievement in chess.

  • 21 months ago

    Vivinski

    Great article. Not that my opinion means anything, but to me Morphy is the greatest and at the very least most fascinating chess player ever.

  • 21 months ago

    melvinbluestone

    @ MisterBoneman:  "But, I'm one of those people who realize that even cavemen in their time, were as intelligent as we are now."   I tend to agree with the key idea of your argument, that human intellect has probably not changed signifigantly in the last few millenia. In fact, if Jersey Shore were an indicator, one could argue our species has gotten a good deal stupider. But unless you're challenging the 'theory' of evolution, you'd have to agree that at some point in our distant past our simian ancestors must not have been too bright by today's standards. They knew enough to survive, because here we are, but I don't think they would have been very good chess players. They were a bit preoccupied with swinging from limb to limb, etc. And of course, before that, our primeval aquatic relatives, the fish, lacked the manual dexterity to execute 1.e4.

  • 21 months ago

    MisterBoneman

    The guy is right. I love the in depth writing here. And oh boy, that Morphy.

    The argument I have heard is as you stated...would he be as good in this century?

    If all he did was memorize his winning lines, then, no.

    But, I'm one of those people who realize that even cavemen in their time, were as intelligent as we are now. It's almost hard to imagine...some fellow who might be frightened of an airplane overhead as having any intelligence. But the fact is, fear has little to do with intelligence. Morphy would have kicked some serious butt in our oh-so-modern generation of chess. AND, the style would be different, too, but, still Morphy.

    As an artist, I can tell you that there are paintings that prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that DaVinci was an idiot (by our present day standards) because he painting thi over fat, would paint with oils on surfaces inconsistant with holding the paint for more than a century (No man has EVER seen the Last Supper, save the few who saw it within a few years after painted. It was a crumbling mess fore the two world wars) and yet, was he not the same genious who painted that sly Mona Lisa (a commission that the original purchaser refused to pay for...Mona's husband. Bet HIS family remembers him as Mona's idiot husband. The Mona Lisa, for crying out loud. For a few dollars) as well as a plethora of paintings that survived? Actually, only a third of them did survive beyond the centuries following his work.

    If he were here today? Would he aspire to that genious? Yes. I think so. Just as Morphy would.

  • 21 months ago

    LaskerFan

    Wow! I did not think it that way. Thanks for the clarification!

    Batgirl you are really wonderful!

  • 21 months ago

    batgirl

    "The only thing I do not understand is his sticking to the demand of playing any opponent at pawn and move odds  - especially after none accepted."

    I'm not sure it's accurate to think of Morphy's position as either "demanding" or "offering,"  but the correct word is hard to find.  In the mid-19th century, odds had several purposes.  One, was to even the playing field for betting purposes, giving mainly professionals enough oppnents to ply their trade. Often, the odds were haggled over before accepting a bet - with the pro wanting to give lesser odds and the challenger wanting bigger odds, since it was all about winning the bet.   Second, odds simply allowed players of disparate abilities to enjoy a game together.  Third, it served as a means of ranking players since nothing else existed. With the advent of tournament play, other means started to develop and odds as a ranking system gradually disappeared.  But it's the ranking element that concerned Morphy and his peers. This system was rather loose, but, at the same time, somewhat intricate.  If Morphy, say, was to win a match from Mr. Y  at no odds and Mr. X then won a match from Mr. Y giving odds of a pawn, then Morphy could be required to accept the odds of a pawn from Mr. X and only by winning such a match could he then rightfully play Mr. X even - and Mr. X could rightfully refuse an even match with Morphy until Morphy proved himself first.  One had to be careful what odds they gave each player, while keeping close tabs on what odds that person had previously accepted, from whom they were accepted and the outcomes.
    So, really what Morphy was saying was that, before he would deign to play anyone even, that person had to first prove himself worthy of that challenge by beating Morphy at P&move odds - which, in effect, was Morphy's way of ranking himself that far above anyone else.  Since pride often kept first-ranked players from accepting any odds from other first-ranked players, I feel it was also Morphy's way of announcing his retirement from public chess.  Most of the gloss had worn off for him, leaving him a bit disillusioned and at the same time, he wanted his chess involvement to take its proper role as an entertainment rather than a focal point. 

  • 21 months ago

    LaskerFan

    @batgirl,

    it is clear from your (always excellent) article that

    (1) Morphy had a perfect (photographic?) memory - he never forgot anything he saw (or heard?). This alone explains why he did not need to study much.

    (2) Morphy had apparently the perfect visualizing faculty(which explains his ability to play blindfold and simuls, and how he defeated all contemporaries who were out-visualised).

    (3) Morphy was the perfect gentlemen with a spotless character, which elevates him above Fischer level.

    Yes, my hats off to him as the greatest chess genius of all time.

    The only thing I do not understand is his sticking to the demand of playing any opponent at pawn and move odds  - especially after none accepted.

  • 21 months ago

    g-levenfish

    [COMMENT DELETED]
  • 21 months ago

    g-levenfish

    Great article!

  • 21 months ago

    batgirl

    I think it's fair to question any unsubstantiated truisms.  That Morphy spent little time at chess is one that has been, and should be, questioned.  Our basis for this is only the statements by Ernest Morphy, Charles de Maurian and Paul himself.  First, what we know is that from his childhood to his leaving for college, he was allowed to play chess only on Sunday afternoons/evenings.  His family was well-to-do and probably had a substantial library (for that time) but the actual number of available chess books was rather slim, and the number of good chess books almost negligible.  Paul himself said that he looked at some instrucional books (presumably Lewis' books) and never found anything he hadn't already discovered on his own.  Now, Ernest was occassionally published in La Strategie, so I would assume he subscribed to the periodical and that Paul consumed it. Paul also had a collection of La Regence periodcals and was well versed, we know, in the the La Bourdonnais-M'Donnell match and other famous games.

    Maurian claimed that Morphy only ever possessed (not necessarily owned) 5 chess books until at least the 1st Amer Chess Congress in 1857:
    "Chess Studies" by Horwitz and Kling
    "La Regénce" collection of Lionel Kieseritzky
    "The Chess Tournament" by Howard Staunton (the 1851 1st London)
    "Chess Player's Handbook and Companion" by Howard Staunton (owned by Maurian)
    "Treatise on the Game of Chess" by William Lewis (owned by Maurian)

    We know that  Ernst Faulkbeer about his introduction to Morphy in 1858, wrote:
    I was at the time editing the Chess Column of the London Sunday Times and anxious to reproduce them there [the Morphy-Lowenthal match games]. In order to obtain the requisite information, I had to apply to one of the contesting parties [the games were kept as the participants' intellectual property]. I first went to Morphy who received me most cordially, and declared his entire willingness to dictate 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 (Lowenthal), I asked him to stop for a moment, since it seemed to me at this particular point, a better move might have been made. "Oh, you probably mean the move 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 has 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 the game from the first to the last move without making a single mistake. I was speechless from surprise. Here was a man who attention was constantly distracted by countless demands on his memory and yet had perfectly retained for seven years all the details of a game insignificant in itself and moreover, printed in a language and description unknown to him. [having been published in the Berliner Schachzeitung, 1851]

    So, it's clear Morphy followed chess games, probably as they were published, in a variety of periodicals. 

    But, on the other hand, Morphy had very broad interests.  Literature (particularly French Literature) and music (especially opera), fascinated him more than chess. He was considered well versed in philosophy and mathematics and, of course, the law.  Chess, by his own admonition, had to be just a pasttime and should never inordinately absorb one's time and focus.  So, I think it's safe to say that Morphy did follow chess, mostly through playing through current and historic game, picking up the lessons  they offered with uncanny facility (this ability was noted in him as a child). But, at the same time, he didn't spend undue time playing the game and balanced his interest in chess with other pursuits. 

  • 21 months ago

    HatePositionalChess

    Morphy was without doubt the first chess legend. In fact the only player I can remember before him is Philidor. He is said to have memorise the entire law book of New Orleans. This shows some insight not only to his success in chess but also proves that he couldn't have had the time to study chess extensively.

  • 21 months ago

    Cavatine

    A very nice article on Morphy, but why do you spell "its" as "it's"? I always read it as "it has" or "it is", as it's meant to be read when it's spelled that way.  Every resource on grammar states the possessive pronoun should be spelled without the apostrophe, yet this error is rampant in so many writings, whether it be an article about programming, politics, or even chess.  Thank you for the great article!

  • 21 months ago

    Elubas

    Oh no, I'm not saying my position is proven either -- what I posed is certainly an opinion, and I have my own empirical reasons for doing so, which I could go into, but that would cause a long debate, which is not something I intend to do at this moment. My aim with that comment was not so much to prove the opposite, but rather to show reasons why I'm not willing to simply accept the idea that Morphy didn't spend so much time on chess without some more convincing evidence. Indeed, anyone who believes the opposite, as I do, would be foolish to do so if they didn't have evidence they found convincing, either. Again, my intention is not to go lengths to discuss such details.

  • 21 months ago

    nelk

    @Elubas

    Your comment confuses me. How can someone on one hand be skeptical of the claims that Mr. Morphy studied little because no one can know 'what Paul is doing 24-7', yet on the other hold the conviction that all masters, 'with not a single exception, spend a huge amount of time on chess, even if secretly'? You refuse to believe one claim without absolute proof, yet state another belief based on no proof whatsoever (indeed, even pointing out it could be done 'in secret', which, by definition, means there would be no proof).

    Odd.

    (I apologize if this post sounds confrontational. It is not meant to be. Simply put, duality of the statements, as stated in my first sentence, is confusing to me.)

  • 21 months ago

    MrMars

    who cares who the greatest of all time is? they all helped develop the game to what it is

  • 21 months ago

    Grobzilla

    I just realized I wasn't clear: I'm a fan of both Morphy *and* BG. Didn't want to leave either out.

  • 21 months ago

    NM Petrosianic

    This was very interesting to read.  I did not realize the high standards Morphy held himself to.  Did Maurian say more on Morphy than what was mentioned in the obituary?

    Very nice website by the way, aesthetic and you are quite thorough and organized in your research.

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