Morphy's Sacrifices Explained

Morphy's Sacrifices Explained

| 30 | Amazing Games

Whether you like it or not, Paul Morphy is almost invariably remembered for his brilliant victory over the Duke of Brunswick and Count Isouard in 1858 (refresh your memory here). And for good reason!

However, while Morphy indeed conducted a brilliant attack and finished it off with a dazzling queen sacrifice in the above referenced affair, the game is still not a worthy representation of Morphy's true attacking skill and his profound positional knowledge.

Paul Morphy | Image: Wikipedia

In this article -- a keen reader will notice that it bears the same title as my article on Tal -- I would like to illuminate this relatively unknown side of the American genius. Through the lens of Morphy's sacrifices, we will try to understand how he consistently steamrolled droves of prominent European maestros. 

We will begin with a game that beautifully illustrates Morphy's (I am tempted to call him Paul, but we aren't on a first-name basis just yet) command of modern attacking principles. Take into account that his opponent was one of the strongest chess players of the mid-nineteenth century. 

Not bad, eh? One could argue that today's A player would find ...Rae8 and ...Qxf3 without much trouble, but nary a nineteenth-century master was able to consistently attack like a modern grandmaster. In my opinion, it is Morphy's intuition that makes him legendary.

Make no mistake -- his calculational ability was fantastic as well, but Tal-like intuition is a key ingredient in every grandmaster's arsenal, and during Morphy's time (heck, even today!) it was a little-known and somewhat ethereal concept. As the following miniature demonstrates, Morphy not only understood the importance of intuition, but knew exactly when to channel it. 

Anderssen was not a particularly skilled defender, but Morphy's attack -- although not free from errors -- is dazzling in its clarity and straightforwardness. 

Adolf Anderssen | Image: Wikipedia

However, Morphy did not simply throw pieces at his opponents, relying on their poor defensive ability to justify his haphazard advances. His sacrifices, while not always objectively correct, were tremendously difficult to refute.

Does this remind you of somebody? Somebody from Riga named Mikhail? While their playing strength can hardly be compared (after all, chess during Morphy's time and chess during Tal's time were very different games indeed), they both possessed the rare capacity to balance infallible intuition with deep calculation. In the next (relatively well known) game, this capacity is put on full display from the seventh move. 

In writing this article, I certainly do not intend to rediscover America. Volumes on Morphy abound, and most of his victories have been exhaustively analyzed. Nevertheless, the image of Morphy as a reckless attacker who won games due to the ineptitude of his opponents is relatively common. Hopefully, I have been able to prove otherwise!  


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