Paul Morphy was born on June 22, 1837 in New Orleans, Louisiana. He had two sisters, Mahrina and Helena, and a brother Edward. His father's nationality was Spanish, but he was of Irish origin. His mother was French. From the age of 8 Paul played hundreds of games against the best players in New Orleans. By the time he was 13 he was the best chess player in New Orleans and one of the best players in America. At age 17 he won 6 games against judge Meek, President of the American Chess Congress. Apart from this, he only faced relatively weak players.
In October, 1857 Paul Morphy went to New York to play in the first American Chess Congress. The top 16 players in America were invited. Morphy easily defeated them all and won the event. He refused the $300 first place money. Instead, he accepted a silver pitcher, four goblets, and a silver tray. He defeated Charles Stanley, the next best player in America, giving him odds of pawn and move. Morphy gave the $100 prize money to Stanley's wife and children. As a mark of gratitude, she named her next daughter Pauline.
After Morphy's victory at New York, some suggested that a European master should come to America to play him. When the British master Howard Staunton heard this (Staunton was considered the best player in the world), he wrote in his weekly paper column, "The best players of Europe are not chess professionals, but have other and more serious things to occupy their minds with." Morphy's friends in New Orleans did send a challenge to Staunton to come to America. But Staunton rejected it. He did say that if Morphy came to Europe, he would find him (Staunton) ready.
In June, 1858 Paul Morphy went to Europe to challenge their best chess players. The New Orleans chess club suggested to pay Morphy the amount needed for him to participate in the Birmingham tournament, to be held in England, but Morphy declined the offer, as he did not want to be considered a professional chess player. He stayed in England for 3 months trying to arrange a match with Staunton. But Staunton claimed he had more serious things to do. Staunton also continued to smear Morphy in his newspaper chess column, claiming Morphy was chasing money, among other things. In the last letter that Morphy send to Staunton, he writes "Allow me to repeat, what I have constantly declared in all the chess circles I have had the honour to participate. That I have never wanted to make any skill I may possess, a tool for making a profit." Morphy had to give up the idea of a match against Staunton and went to Paris, where he defeated Lowenthal, Harrwitz, and Anderssen within a space of six months. Having defeated Harrwitz, he even rejected receiving the prize of 290 francs. But he was forced to, and later used the money to pay Anderssen's journey to France. When he arrived in Paris to play Anderssen, Morphy was suffering from the flu. His medical treatment consisted of being leeched. He lost four pints of blood and was too weak to leave his hotel bed. Anderssen's friends had told him not to damage the German prestige by traveling abroad and play a match against this young man (Morphy) without official recognition. But Anderssen felt otherwise, and when his friends asked him why he did not play as brilliant as he did in his famous match against Dufresne, Anderssen replied "No, Morphy would not let me." And Morphy himself, was playing the second strongest chess player (Anderssen) in the world from his hotel bed suffering from the flu, and still won the match with a 7-2 score.
In April, 1859 Morphy played up to 8 blindfold simultaneous games against the top players of each chess club he visited. By December, 1859 he had given up serious chess. When Morphy returned to New York, he was greeted by Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Samuel Morse, and John van Buren, the former President's son. Van Buren toasted Morphy as 'The Chess Champion of the World.' It was the first time that expression had been used. An episode during the reception in New York shows what a devastating blow it had been for Morphy that Staunton rejected to play him. Colonel Mead, the chairman of the reception committee, talked in his speech about chess, as a profession, and pointed Morphy out, as this profession's foremost representative. Morphy strongly opposed being described this way, and he was so angry, that Colonel Mead became overwelmed by confusion, and felt so dishonored by his misfortune, that he decided no longer to participate in the Morphy celebration. Morphy's overreaction may be explained by the fact, that Staunton had labeled Morphy as a professional chess player, and thus refused to play him. Morphy was paid $3,000 to write America's first chess column for the NEW YORK LEDGER newspaper. Morphy barely did this for a year and quit.
Paul Morphy was the first sports figure to issue a commercial endorsement when he declared of a watch, "I have examined the contents of this watch and find it to be made of 100 percent genuine machinery."
Morphy did not fight for the South during the Civil War and stayed out of the War. He traveled to Cuba, then to Paris in 1863. He returned to New Orleans a year later. In 1867 his mental state was alarming, and his mother persuaded him to go to Paris, hoping that the change of environment would help him. Morphy had now come to hate chess, and he never approached the chess clubs where had earlier celebrated his greatest triumphs. He stayed in Paris for 18 months before returning to his home.
Morphy withdrew from society and suffered delusions of persecution in his later years. According to his niece, he had in a period the strange habit of walking up and down the porch saying "Il plantera la banniere de Castille sur le murs de Madrid, au cri de Ville gangnee, et le petit roi s'en ira tout penaud." In English "He will plant the banner of the Castille on the walls of Madrid, screaming : The city is conquered and the litte king will have to go." Two years before Morphy died, he was asked if it was okay to include him in a book about famous Louisiana citizens because of his achievements in chess. Morphy was outraged by being connected with chess, and answered, that his father, judge at the surpreme court of Louisiana, Mr. Alonzo Morphy, at his death, had left a sum of 146.162 dollars and 54 cents. But that he (Morphy) did not have a profession at all, and thus had nothing to do in such a book. On July 10, 1884 Paul died of a stroke while taking a cold bath. He was just 47 years old.
Paul Morphy played 227 competitive games during his lifetime, winning 83 percent of his games.
In an interview in former Yugoslavia, International Grandmaster Bobby Fischer commented on Paul Morphy saying "Morphy ... i think everyone agrees.... was propably the greatest of them all."