Paul Morphy's Chess Strength

  • batgirl
  • | Mar 30, 2014


Paul Morphy, Spring Hill College, 1854

     This is a highly unusual article for me.  I have no love for chess engines.  Additionally, I have severe reservations about trying to compare modern players with 19th cenutry players.  It has always been my opinion that Romantic players played as much for beauty as for results, seeing the Combination as the pinnacle of chess. This focus would seem to put them on unfair footing when comparing them to Scientific or Modern players.

     Many pundits and patzers alike will often take to the message board and denigrate the 19th century warriors are far inferior to today's players.  Across the board (so to speak) this seems like common sense.  So it came as a surprise to me, a shock really, when member SteveCollyer contacted me with some computer analysis he ran on some of Morphy's games.

     Steve Collyer has used his engine skills to expose computer cheaters on this site and on other chess sites.  The process he uses, following certain criteria, is to compare each move in a game against the top four moves of those selected by computers and comparing the results against a model.   He has used this same process to examine the play top GMs.

     In explaining the methodology, Mr. Collyer told me, "The system used is for this analysis is a pretty fast quad-core pc with Houdini 1.5a 4x CPU, rated about 3200 Elo . . . The games were then auto-analysed for top 1, 2, 3 & 4 engine choice moves once out of the onboard 4m game database. . . ."

     He added, "Cumulative results for the very best modern OTB Super GM's when using this technique are consistently Top 1 match =60%, Top 2 match =75%, Top 3 match =85% & Top 4 match just under 90% for sample sizes of typically 700-1000 non-database moves."

     One would expect Morphy and his opponents to match significantly lower against the computer in their games than later players and certainly than modern players.  But this isn't the case at all.

     Mr. Collyer chose three of Morphy's strongest match opponents from his 1858-9 European tour, Adolf Anderssen, Daniel Harrwitz and John Löwenthal.  From the matches with these opponents, he chose 23 games:
     "Each game has a minimum 35 moves.  This is so that a reasonable sample of non-theory moves can be generated in the more closely contested games. 
There are 23 Morphy games in the batch.  I didn't cherry-pick Morphy's best games - those that meet this basic selection criteria are all here, including several draws & a few losses.
     I selected these because they were played against Morphy's strongest opponents during his crushing European tour when Morphy was at the peak of his powers. "


So, the only games  culled were those that didn't comply with pre-established criteria.

Once again:
The very best modern OTB Super GM's with all their opening prep & engine use to aid them achieve match rates of around
Top 1 Match = 60%
Top 2 Match = 75%
Top 3 Match = 85%
Top 4 Match = 90%
and most are a good few % points lower when using this methodology.

Here are Morphy's and his opponents' results:

Löwenthal, Johann Jacob (Games: 8)
Top 1 Match: 188/373 ( 50.4% )  Morphy: 196/370 ( 53.0% )
Top 2 Match: 250/373 ( 67.0% )  Morphy: 263/370 ( 71.1% )
Top 3 Match: 286/373 ( 76.7% )  Morphy: 293/370 ( 79.2% )
Top 4 Match: 311/373 ( 83.4% )  Morphy: 315/370 ( 85.1% )

Anderssen, Adolf (Games: 8)
Top 1 Match: 168/349 ( 48.1% )  Morphy: 202/349 ( 57.9% )
Top 2 Match: 238/349 ( 68.2% )  Morphy: 266/349 ( 76.2% )
Top 3 Match: 271/349 ( 77.7% )  Morphy: 290/349 ( 83.1% )
Top 4 Match: 290/349 ( 83.1% )  Morphy: 304/349 ( 87.1% )

 Harrwitz, Daniel (Games: 7)
Top 1 Match: 137/295 ( 46.4% )  Morphy: 155/295 ( 52.5% )
Top 2 Match: 193/295 ( 65.4% )  Morphy: 202/295 ( 68.5% )
Top 3 Match: 224/295 ( 75.9% )  Morphy: 225/295 ( 76.3% )
Top 4 Match: 242/295 ( 82.0% )  Morphy: 242/295 ( 82.0% )

 Morphy, Paul (Games: 23)
Top 1 Match: 553/1014 ( 54.5% )  Opponents: 493/1017 ( 48.5% )
Top 2 Match: 731/1014 ( 72.1% )  Opponents: 681/1017 ( 67.0% )
Top 3 Match: 808/1014 ( 79.7% )  Opponents: 781/1017 ( 76.8% )
Top 4 Match: 861/1014 ( 84.9% )  Opponents: 843/1017 ( 82.9% )

Composite scores:
Top 1 Match: 1046/2031 ( 51.5% )
Top 2 Match: 1412/2031 ( 69.5% )
Top 3 Match: 1589/2031 ( 78.2% )
Top 4 Match: 1704/2031 ( 83.9% )

For comparative purposes, here are results posted by modern players, using the same game selection and analysis criteria:

      Petrosian-Spassky 1960 WC:
Petrosian (Games: 16)
Top 1 Match: 309/625 ( 49.4% )  
Top 2 Match: 430/625 ( 68.8% )
Top 3 Match: 491/625 ( 78.6% )  
Top 4 Match: 530/625 ( 84.8% )  
Boris Spassky (Games: 16)
Top 1 Match: 325/622 ( 52.3% )  
Top 2 Match: 420/622 ( 67.5% )  
Top 3 Match: 470/622 ( 75.6% )  
Top 4 Match: 513/622 ( 82.5% )  

     Karpov-Kasparov 1984/85 WC:
Garry Kasparov (Games: 21)
Top 1 Match: 342/659 ( 51.9% )  
Top 2 Match: 478/659 ( 72.5% )  
Top 3 Match: 545/659 ( 82.7% )  
Top 4 Match: 580/659 ( 88.0% )  
Anatoly Karpov (Games: 21)
Top 1 Match: 363/657 ( 55.3% )  
Top 2 Match: 474/657 ( 72.1% )  
Top 3 Match: 529/657 ( 80.5% )  
Top 4 Match: 567/657 ( 86.3% )  


     Karpov-Kasparov 1996 WC:
Anatoly Karpov (Games: 14)
Top 1 Match: 228/426 ( 53.5% )  
Top 2 Match: 302/426 ( 70.9% )  
Top 3 Match: 344/426 ( 80.8% )  
Top 4 Match: 371/426 ( 87.1% )  
Garry Kasparov (Games: 14) }
Top 1 Match: 228/429 ( 53.1% )  
Top 2 Match: 297/429 ( 69.2% )  
Top 3 Match: 343/429 ( 80.0% )  
Top 4 Match: 375/429 ( 87.4% )

     Karpov-Kamsky 1996 WC:
Gata Kamsky (Games: 16)
Top 1 Match: 359/699 ( 51.4% )  
Top 2 Match: 487/699 ( 69.7% )  
Top 3 Match: 567/699 ( 81.1% )  
Top 4 Match: 602/699 ( 86.1% )  
Anatoly Karpov (Games: 16)
Top 1 Match: 373/700 ( 53.3% )  
Top 2 Match: 501/700 ( 71.6% )  
Top 3 Match: 573/700 ( 81.9% )  
Top 4 Match: 616/700 ( 88.0% )  

     Hikaru Nakamura 2014/2013 games vs Super GM's:
Hikaru Nakamura (Games: 20)
Top 1 Match: 504/871 ( 57.9% )  Opponents: 441/869 ( 50.7% )
Top 2 Match: 641/871 ( 73.6% )  Opponents: 624/869 ( 71.8% )
Top 3 Match: 708/871 ( 81.3% )  Opponents: 700/869 ( 80.6% )
Top 4 Match: 764/871 ( 87.7% )  Opponents: 752/869 ( 86.5% )

     Fabiano Caruana 2014/2013 games vs Super GM's:
Fabiano Caruana (Games: 20)
Top 1 Match: 560/1018 ( 55.0% )  Opponents: 508/1019 ( 49.9% )
Top 2 Match: 749/1018 ( 73.6% )  Opponents: 694/1019 ( 68.1% )
Top 3 Match: 834/1018 ( 81.9% )  Opponents: 802/1019 ( 78.7% )
Top 4 Match: 887/1018 ( 87.1% )  Opponents: 854/1019 ( 83.8% )

     Vladimir Kramnik 2014/2013 games vs Super GM's:
Vladimir Kramnik (Games: 20)
Top 1 Match: 535/938 ( 57.0% )  Opponents: 523/936 ( 55.9% )
Top 2 Match: 701/938 ( 74.7% )  Opponents: 720/936 ( 76.9% )
Top 3 Match: 776/938 ( 82.7% )  Opponents: 785/936 ( 83.9% )
Top 4 Match: 819/938 ( 87.3% )  Opponents: 826/936 ( 88.2% )

And from the later 19th century Scientific players

     Lasker-Steinitz 1894 WC
Emanuel Lasker (Games: 18)
{ Top 1 Match: 395/747 ( 52.9% )  
{ Top 2 Match: 523/747 ( 70.0% )  
{ Top 3 Match: 617/747 ( 82.6% )  
{ Top 4 Match: 657/747 ( 88.0% )   

     Wilhelm Steinitz (Games: 18)
Top 1 Match: 389/744 ( 52.3% )  
Top 2 Match: 525/744 ( 70.6% )  
Top 3 Match: 586/744 ( 78.8% )  
Top 4 Match: 629/744 ( 84.5% )

     How one interprets this data will probably differ from person to person, but there is no doubt that Houdini has an appreciation for Morphy's play.


  • 3 years ago


    I am an artist an very new at playing on line , always ear about cheating ? and advise not to play such a player for those reasons , chess is art and foundamental mathemetics , reaching the ? so what is cheating in chess , sorry for my stupid question.

  • 3 years ago


    Welcome back , giving me a lots of stats to review , a great story as usual .

  • 3 years ago


    I feel we take for granted some of his opening innovations. a6 in the ruy lopez and the open sicilian have been two of the most popular opening responses of all time. If I'm not mistaken Morphy was the first master to really popularize these lines.

  • 3 years ago

    NM SamCopeland

    @notsofastNgood, if you would consider Regan's research, his results actually provide very clear evidence that aligns with your quote of Anand stating that Morphy achieved a higher level than anyone else achieved for 30-40 years. That is truly a STUPENDOUS achievement. However, Regan's results also show that Morphy didn't achieve a 2700 level understanding in the mid 1800's.

  • 3 years ago


    Quotes on Morphy
    Richard Réti- 
Morphy was the first positional player who, unlike his Romantic rivals, understood the strategic basis for attack. He wrote nothing more than a few game notes and played fewer than seventy-five serious games. But his exploitation of open lines prepared the way for Steinitz's scientific treatment of closed positions and the era of modern chess. 

Andrew Soltis (in Golombek's Encyclopedia of Chess, New York, 1977) 
Genius is a starry word; but if there ever was a chess player to whom that attribute applied, it was Paul Morphy.

J. A. Galbreath (American Chess Bulletin, October, 1909)
"It has been truly said that Morphy was at once the Caesar and the Napoleon of chess. He revolutionized chess. He brought life and dash and beauty into the game at a time when an age of dullness was about to set in and he did this at a stroke. Then he quit forever. Only two years from the beginning to the end. The negotiations for some modern matches have taken that long!"
Edward Lasker (in The Adventure of Chess, 2nd Edition, New York, 1959)
-After the passage of a century, Morphy still remains the most glamorous figure that has ever appeared in the chess world.


Fred Reinfeld (in Great Moments in Chess History, Brancliff Manor, New York 1963)- 
Paul Morphy was a great chessplayer, a genius... Morphy, I think everyone agrees, was probably the greatest genius of them all...


Emanuel Lasker- 
In Paul Morphy the spirit of La Bourdonnais had arisen anew, only more vigorous, firmer, prouder... Morphy discovered that the brilliant move of the master is essentially conditional not on a sudden and inexplicable realisation, but on the placing of the pieces on the board. He introduced the rule: brilliant moves and deep winning manoeuvres are possible only in those positions where the opponent can be opposed with an abundance of active energy... From the very first moves Morphy aimed to disclose the internal energy located in his pieces. It was suddenly revealed that they possess far greater dynamism than the opponent's forces.


Jose Raul Capablanca- 
Reviewing the history of chess from La Bourdonnais to the masters of our day right up to Lasker, we discover that the greatest stylist was Morphy. He did not look for complicated combinations, but he also did not avoid them, which really is 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, if it is considered from the viewpoint of the great masters.


[I play in] the style of Morphy, they say, and if it is true that the goddess of fortune has endowed me with his talent, the result [of the match with Emanuel Lasker] will not be in doubt. The magnificent American master had the most extraordinary brain that anybody has ever had for chess. Technique, strategy, tactics, knowledge which is inconceivable for us; all that was possessed by Morphy fifty-four years ago. 

    Alexander Alekhine- 
How much more vivid, more rich does the figure of Morphy appear before us, how much clearer does the secret of his success and charm become, if we transfer ourselves in our thoughts to that era when he lived and created, if we take the trouble to study, only a little, his contemporaries! London and in particular in Paris, where the traditions of Philidor were still alive, where the immortal creations of La Bourdonnais and McDonnell were still in the memory, at that time, finally, when Anderssen was alive, and with brilliance alone it was hardly possibly to suprise anyone. The strength, the invincible strength of Morphy- this was the reason for his success and the guarantee of his immortality!


Mikhail Botvinnik- 
To this day Morphy is an unsurpassed master of the open games. Just how great was his significance is evidant from the fact that after Morphy nothing substantially new has been created in this field. Every player- from beginner to master- should in this praxis return again and again to the games of the American genius.

Bobby Fischer 
A popularly held theory about Paul Morphy is that if he returned to the chess world today and played our best contemporary players, he would come out the loser. Nothing is further from the truth. In a set match, Morphy would beat anybody alive today... Morphy was perhaps the most accurate chess player who ever lived. He had complete sight of the board and never blundered, in spite of the fact that he played quite rapidly, rarely taking more than five minutes to decide a move. Perhaps his only weakness was in closed games like the Dutch Defense. But even then, he was usually victorious because of his resourcefulness.


Vassily Smyslov- 
There is no doubt that for Morphy chess was an art, and for chess Morphy was a great artist. His play was captivated by freshness of thought and inexhaustible energy. He played with inspiration, without striving to penetrate into the psychology of the opponent; he played, if one can express it so, "pure chess". His harmonious positional understanding the pure intuition would have made Morphy a highly dangerous opponent even for any player of our times.

    Max Euwe- 
If the distinguishing feature of a genius is that he is far ahead compared with his epoch, then Morphy was a chess genius in the complete sense of the word.


Garry Kasparov- 
Morphy can be regarded as the forefather of modern chess.
    What was the secret of Morphy's invincibility?  I think it was a combination of a unique natural talent and brilliant erudition.  His play was the next, more mature stage in the development of chess.  Morphy had a well-developed feel for position, and therefore he can be confidently regarded as the first swallow - the prototype of the strong 20th century grandmaster.


  • 3 years ago


    Thanks, Notsofast...pretty cool stuff.

  • 3 years ago

    NM SamCopeland

    @hpanic7342, I haven't reviewed Capablanca's games from AVRO recently, but it's not unreasonable for a player to play well and have a bad tournament result in chess. Regan's work is based on the consistency and quality of a player's choice of moves as compared to a chess engine's. It's very possible to play on a high level for 95% of his moves and still blow it with a few key errors. The opponent's quality of play is also a factor obviously. Capablanca's poor result was only -2. For example, one of those games was Botvinnik's masterpiece with Ba3!! I think Capablanca's play was still on a high level in that game.

    Similarly, Regan posted his analysis of the most recent Candidates Tournament on Facebook and he clearly had Anand in front with a 2945 rating, but other players also played "well" and didn't have a good result. For instance, Topalov had a solid 2700 rating estimate according to Regan (slightly better than Aronian, Karjakin, and Mamedyarov), but he finished dead last.

    I think the impressive thing is how clearly Regan's results show objective skill increasing over time. I think it is entirely logical that that should be the case. The consistency of that increase seems really hard to argue with.

  • 3 years ago


    • "Morphy's principal strength does not rest upon his power of combination but in his position play and his general style....Beginning with la Bourdonnais to the present, and including Lasker, we find that the greatest stylist has been Morphy. Whence the reason, although it might not be the only one, why he is generally considered the greatest of all." ~ José Raúl Capablanca, in Pablo Morphy by V. F. Coria and L. Palau.
    • "[Paul Morphy] just appeared from nowhere and it was only thirty or forty years later that people understood why he was so dominant. His understanding of chess at [that] point was at least forty years ahead of the rest of the world. For the era in which he lived the kind of chess he played was unbelievable." ~ Current World Chess ChampionViswanathan AnandInterview with Shobha Warrier on his ten favorite chess players


    I would rather believe these former world champions...

  • 3 years ago


    Yury, I don't have a link to Bronstein's analysis of Morphy's games...

    He did struggle in closed positions. However, in open positions, Botvinnik said something to the effect that after Morphy, nothing new has been discovered in the handling of open positions...

  • 3 years ago


    Dear kamalakanta!

    Could you give the name of that (or submit a link to) Bronstein's work where he analyzes Morphy's games?

    I once read in Russian "64" magazine an article "Morphy vs closed openings". (Of course, NOT by Bronstein). It showed clearly that playing in such positions was difficult for him (you can yourself find those games in bases and agree).

  • 3 years ago


    GM Seirawan talks about Bronstein....

  • 3 years ago


    In my opinion, the idea that you can measure a player's strength based on some ratings calculation is preposterous.

    You can't measure brilliance, genius and beauty, you just can't.

    I respect the fact that some people get satisfaction by doing their number-crunching, but for me, and let me emphasize this, for me, I would rather just find one or more of Morphy's games that amazes, inspires and teaches me something. For me, THAT is the real value of the great Masters of the past.

    With the kind of mental genius they had, these great Masters would still be at the top these days. That is MY point, and not some extrapolation which does not really make sense to me, because rating is performance, not strength, against a given opposition.

    In modern days, perhaps Ivanchuk is the best example. His strength is, in my opinion, of WC caliber. His performance is not always at that level. He has a great tournament, followed by a dismal performance.

    So Ivanchuk's rating does not stay up.....fine, and true. But his chess strength, if you look at his games, is quite obvious.

    Going back to evaluating the great Masters of the past, their brilliance and strength is such that, given the resources we have today, I believe they would perform at the very top level in chess. In this, both Fischer and Bronstein are in agreement.I cannot prove it, but I know it in my gut. A genius is a genius, no matter when he is born.

    But I have to make another point: Fischer and Bronstein STUDIED closely Morphy's games...they understood his genius much more than I or anyone else here can. We are talking about Fischer and Bronstein, two of the greatest GMs of the modern era.

    To each his own. This is my own, subjective feeling and thought. This is my last post on this subject.

  • 3 years ago


    Can someone clarify something for me about the Regan study? How could Capablanca possibly have a higher rating at AVRO than the AVRO tournament as a whole, when he performed so poorly in that tournament?

  • 3 years ago


    "So 20 year-old Morphy slaughters 43 year-old Anderssen 8-3 in 1858.  Steinitz narrowly beats Anderssen 8-6 some 8 years later so Morphy is obviously much weaker than Steinitz.


    That is to misrepresent Regan's results though. He ranks the pre-1870 Steinitz that played Anderssen as considerably weaker than Morphy.

  • 3 years ago


    "In Paris, Morphy suffered from a bout of intestinal influenza. In accordance with the medical wisdom of the time, he was treated with leeches, resulting in his losing a significant amount of blood. Although too weak to stand up unaided, Morphy insisted on going ahead with a match against the visiting German master Adolf Anderssen, considered by many to be Europe's leading player. Despite his illness Morphy triumphed easily, winning seven while losing two, with two draws."
    "Anderssen also attested that in his opinion, Morphy was the strongest player ever to play the game."
  • 3 years ago


    "So Morphy slaughters Anderssen 8-3 in 1858.  Steinitz narrowly beats Anderssen 8-6 in 1866 so Morphy is obviously much weaker than Steinitz."

    Such comparison of scores is void.

    Both Steinitz around 1880 or Tarrasch around 1890 would beat Morphy easily.

    It should be noted that in 1863 Ignatz Kolish offered Morphy to play a match, but the latter refused (to save his myth).

  • 3 years ago


    So 20 year-old Morphy slaughters 43 year-old Anderssen 8-3 in 1858.  Steinitz narrowly beats Anderssen 8-6 some 8 years later so Morphy is obviously much weaker than Steinitz.


  • 3 years ago


    Yes, sorry I found that link on previous pages.

    I should say that OK, maybe Reegan's ratings should be recalculated, because he used too shallow ply depth (some results featured in that article look nonsence), but his idea that T1-T4 analysis per se is less indicative than the deviation between the evaluation of engine move and the actual move is bright.

  • 3 years ago

    NM SamCopeland

    @Marignon, thanks for linking the estimates from Regan. I did mention Regan's work earlier and linked to the following post I wrote which talks about Regan's work. (

  • 3 years ago


    " In his book "Miniatures from the World Champions", Anatoly Karpov examines a few of Morphy's games "

    I should reveal a secret: Karpov never wrote a single book published under his name. He even did not open some of them. He just gives his name for some share of profit to his friends (or you can call them "pen slaves").

    So, this fluffy nonsence is absolutely NOT a Karpov appreciation, of which we can only guess. 

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