Review: A First Book of Morphy

Review: A First Book of Morphy

Mar 1, 2015, 7:38 PM |

So far in my chess journey, I've reluctantly ignored NM Dan Heisman's improvement advice to review thousands of master games. Yes, of course I review master games that have been included in the books I've read, such as How to Reassess Your Chess or Winning Chess Strategy for Kids, etc. Those talky, strategy-oriented books usually are based around 3-4 dozen games each. And there are the several opening books I've studied--again mostly based on master games.

But the only annotated game collection I'd read was Logical Chess (a must-read, itself). Until now,that is, as I just finished the 60+ games contained in A First Book of Morphy.

Paul Morphy is considered by many to be the first unofficial World Champion of Chess. Unofficial because no world wide organization yet existed that could sanction an official World Championship. Regardless, after winning the First American Chess Congress in 1857, Morphy traveled to Europe and challenged--and beat--all the leading players of Europe. Except the English master Howard Staunton, that is, who repeatedly agreed to play Morphy but always found a reason to back out.

Did I mention Morphy was only 19 years old at the time?

It's a wonderful story that, unfortunately, you won't read about in A First Book of Morphy. No, if you want to delve into the personal story of Morphy, you're best served by picking up a copy of Morphy's Games of Chess by Sergeant. Besides Morphy's detailed personal narrative, that books includes hundreds of Morphy's games--not a mere 60 or so.

So why not just buy Sergeant's book and skip A First Book of Morphy? Because Sergeant's book is really designed to document Morphy, the man, and his games. The annotations are extremely terse and sparing. There are few variations included.

After I finished Logical Chess in August, 2013, I bought Sergeant's book and it was virtually useless for my purposes. I enjoyed the narrative about Morphy's life but the game annotations were worthless for learning how to improve my game. They were literally nearly unannotated. I would have gotten as much from just downloading the unannotated PGN's from a site such as 

A First Book of Morphy is completely different in design and purpose. The author, Frisco Del Rosario, set out to create an educational book, mainly for advanced beginners. The design of the book is quite unique. He has taken 30 chess principles as earlier laid out by the great Grandmaster and chess writer Reubin Fine and organized Morphy's games to illustrate 10 opening principles, 10 middlegame principles, and 10 endgame principles.

Some of the 30 included principles:

  • Open with a pawn center.
  • Develop with threats.
  • In cramped positions, free yourself by exchanging pieces.
  • All combinations are based on a double attack.
  • Don't place pawns on the same colors as your bishops.
  • Blockade passed pawns with the king.

Not only does the author use Reubin Fine's principles to explain Morphy's games but he uses the pithy and memorable phrases from the acclaimed chess master and writer CJS Purdy. Some of the gems quoted: "Use inactive force," and "Examine moves that smite."

Morphy must be the single best chess master for advanced beginners to study. His games are not overly strategic. Many of his opponents were not particularly strong--at least not close to Morphy's level or that of modern players. This leads to the reader observing game after game where Morphy executes the following plan:

  1. Control the center
  2. Develop quickly (and with threats)
  3. Castle
  4. Open lines, sacrificing material if needed, and either checkmate or win back material with interest.

This plan may not work in many games today, especially as one moves up the rating ladder. But it does still work sometimes. More importantly, knowing how to accomplish each of the steps above makes one a more capable and dangerous player who will swiftly decapitate any unwary opponent's.

Though Morphy wasn't a prolific chess writer himself, Frisco Del Rosario has done justice to Morphy's games, turning them into a treasure trove of chess gems.