Morphy and Me

Morphy and Me


One of the very first chess books I bought was Morphy's Games of Chess (1957) by Philip W. Sergeant. This book (I was 14 years old when I read it) made a lasting impression on me - I've been fascinated by the chess genius from New Orleans ever since. I think I have been heavily influenced by his games and his style, but this has not always been advantageous for my chess results. 

As a youngster, I tried not so much to copy Morphy's playing style (which I didn't really understand) but rather his openings. In my very first official tournament game ever (played in the 1988 OHRA chess tournament in Amsterdam) I proudly played the King's Gambit, which I've loved ever since. This was entirely forgiveable, of course, as the 'most romantic of all openings' is still occasionally played on the highest level (last week, it was even played by Garry Kasparov).

I didn't score particularly well with these "romantic" openings, but despite these setbacks I kept on playing them anyway, neglecting the study of more 'serious' openings such as the Ruy Lopez and the Petroff Defense. To my regret, these are openings which I still struggle with today, and which I somehow fail to grasp the subtleties of. Even more damagingly, I preferred studying these crazy lines (I remember looking at a line which started with the curious sequence 1.e4 e5 2.f4 exf4 3.Nf3 Be7 4.Bc4 Bh4+ 5.g3!? fxg3 6.0-0! gxh2 7.Kh1!) over things like closed middlegames and elementary endgames. This didn't exactly help improve my chess understanding and my Elo rating. 

Why did I do this? Interestingly, I never thought about the basic question until very recently, while I was reading a (relatively) recent book about Paul Morphy that I didn't know about before: Paul Morphy, A Modern Perspective by Valeri Beim (published in 2005 by Russell Enterprises).


In this book, Beim, who is a chess Grandmaster himself, offers a sophisticated, modern (i.e. computer-age) view of the games and playing style of Morphy. The biographical details and, more importantly, his game analysis are always strictly relevant to his arguments, and Beim's conclusions are extremely insightful. Sometimes, in my view, they are nothing less than revolutionary. Not everything he writes is new, but I think he is the first to put the chess legacy of the "Pride and Sorrow of Chess" (as Morphy is sometimes called) into the right perspective.

One of the key points Beim makes throughout the book is that Morphy never received any formal kind of training or coaching. He writes: 

Morphy was not just the first real wunderkind, but also the only wunderkind in chess history who was self-taught. Nevertheless, during the period when Morphy's talent was developing, the absence of a structured training regimen led to that strange deformation in his play (...). 

The example Beim uses to illustrate the above point is the following: 

Here Morphy played the very weak move 14...g5? (14...Nxd3 was fine for Black) after which Beim remarks: 

Certainly in this stage of his chess development, the problems of pawn structure were considerably less important to the activity of his pieces, development, and other elements constituting the dynamic basis of chess. He had a less intuitive feel for the static elements of the game linked to the pawn stucture. This is a completely normal phenomenon and occurs frequently. One player may be born with an innate sense of static elements; another may have its complete opposite. Yet the size of one's chess talent has nothing to do with the structuring of that talent. (...)

I must admit that when I read this little fragment, I got a shock of recognition as I couldn't help thinking of my own chess career. Not that I was ever even close to being a wunderkind or having any serious kind of talent... but the remarks about never having had any kind of training or a personal trainer, who would have been able to correct my dubious opening play, or the fact that I, too, had no feel for static positions (whereas in dynamic situations I was usually feeling much better), rang painfully true.

I now saw what should have been obvious years ago: that because I never had someone who would tell me that it was time to 'move on' and start studying the games of Capablanca and Botvinnik, I kept returning to the same old stuff Morphy and his contemporaries played, simply because I liked it and had grown up with it.

And the same was true for Morphy! Beim convincingly argues that, because Morphy retired from chess so very soon after his had appeared on the scene, he never really changed the way he played (including his opening repertoire):

Morphy never changed his approach to the game; other than expanding his opening repertoire, enlarging his store of middlegame ideas - his style remained unchanged. Thus he maintained his chess individuality, playing such chess that had not been played before, and which no one in his era could play, yet his approach to the game was not even accepted until decades later!

I believe this is an entirely correct assessment of Morphy's legacy and a point I have not seen being made very often. It is a far cry from the usual praise by the likes of Bobby Fischer, who once declared:

Morphy would beat anyone 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 (...).

Or Botvinnik, who wrote: 

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

Even Kasparov appears to have misunderstood Morphy's opening knowledge when he wrote, in the first part of My Great Predecessors (2003), of Morphy's "feel for position" and "brilliant erudition". 


Beim clearly shows with concrete examples, that these statements are superficial and miss the essence of Morphy's strength. For example, Beim demonstrates with game examples that, Morphy, although he was a chess genius and decades ahead of his time, played rather inaccurately in certain phases of the game, during certain (brief) periods, and against certain players, and his contribution to opening theory, even in the Open Games, was rather minimal, while he stuck to a limited number of favorite lines during his enitre (albeit brief) chess career.

The real reason, according to Beim, why Morphy still absolutely dominated the entire chess world during his active period, is that he was decades ahead of his time in terms of understanding dynamic play. Beim:

He firmly believed that sacrificing material to obtain long-term activity - even though it might not look very strong at first - was completely normal and justified. This distinguished him from his contemporaries. They also sacrificed material, but with concrete goals in mind such as an attack, the creation of a strong pawn center, or the prevention of the enemy's development. The difference might not seem very great, but it was a matter of principle. Morphy's approach was only adopted on a regular basis many decades later.

When I was a youngster, I thought that the kind of chess Paul Morphy played could best be approximated if I just copied his openings - a silly and naive thought to be sure, but one that seems to have misled Botvinnik and Kasparov in the above quotes somewhat as well. The openings have nothing to do with it - if anything, they stood in the way of Morphy's further development towards becoming a mature chess player.

Still, for a while it worked for me. While I was playing "Morphy's openings", it often became clear very quickly that my opponents had very little experience with these lines and wandered astray early on in the game. They didn't possess the knowledge, composure or relevant experience to deal with the raw and highly unusual complications they suddenly faced as early as move 6 or 7! 

Most of my opponents, typically decent club players but not players of international strength, were far more used to playing slower and more positional chess. They played the occasional Sicilian Najdorf or Botvinnik Slav if they wanted to, but they were often not ready for the good old-fashioned crazy stuff!

Here is an example in which I played another favorite line of Morphy's in the Philidor's Defense. It was a last-round game from a rapid tournament in St. Petersburg, Russia, in which a victory would have resulted in a decent prize. .  

This particular game, and my failure to grab a prize in the tournament, proved something of a turning-point for me. After this game, I think it finally dawned on me that this was just costing too much energy and causing too much crises early in the game, so I stopped playing this line. However, the fact that I still deployed it when I was already a relatively mature player, shows how stubborn I was and how desperately I wanted to follow in Morphy's footsteps.

As I said before, at the time I didn't really get what Morphy was actually doing, and why it was so effective. It was only through reading Valeri Beim's excellent treatise that I came to realize why Morphy was so superior - and why I hadn't been even though I played the same openings. I never understood what becomes obvious to most young players as soon as they show their games to any trainer or a coach: that chess has moved on since the 19th century, that I needed to work much harder, and that, moreover, I was no chess genius.

I guess it's never too late to learn.