Paul Morphy (A brief biography)

MiramarMan
MiramarMan
Apr 9, 2009, 7:27 AM |
1

Early life

Morphy was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, to a wealthy and distinguished family. His father, Alonzo Michael Morphy, a lawyer, served as a Louisiana state legislator, attorney general, and Supreme Court Justice. Alonzo was of Portuguese, Irish, and Spanish ancestry. Morphy's mother, Louise Thérèse Félicité Thelcide Le Carpentier, was the musically-talented daughter of a prominent French Creole family. Morphy grew up in an atmosphere of genteel civility and culture where chess and music were the typical highlights of a Sunday home gathering.

According to his uncle, Ernest Morphy, no one formally taught Morphy how to play chess; rather, Morphy learned on his own as a young child simply from watching others play. After watching a lengthy game between Ernest and Alonzo, young Paul surprised them by stating that Ernest should have won. His father and uncle had not realized that Paul even knew the moves, let alone any chess strategy. They were even more surprised when Paul proved his claim by resetting the pieces and demonstrating the win his uncle had missed.

[edit] Childhood victories

After that incident Morphy's family recognized him as a precocious talent and encouraged him to play at family gatherings and local chess milieus. By the age of nine, he was considered one of the best players in New Orleans. In 1846, General Winfield Scott visited the city, and let his hosts know that he desired an evening of chess with a strong local player. Chess was an infrequent pastime of Scott's, but he enjoyed the game and considered himself a formidable player. After dinner, the chess pieces were set up and Scott's opponent was brought in: diminutive, nine-year-old Morphy. Scott was at first offended, thinking he was being made fun of, but he consented to play after being assured that his wishes had been scrupulously obeyed and that the boy was a "chess prodigy" who would tax his skill. Morphy beat him easily not once, but twice, the second time announcing a forced checkmate after only six moves. As two losses against a small boy was all General Scott's ego could stand, he declined further games and retired for the night, never to play Morphy again.

In 1850, when Morphy was twelve, the strong professional Hungarian chess master Johann Löwenthal visited New Orleans. Löwenthal, who had often played and defeated talented youngsters, considered the informal match a waste of time but accepted the offer as a courtesy to the well-to-do judge. When Löwenthal met Morphy, he patted him on the head in a patronizing manner.

By about the twelfth move in the first game, Löwenthal realized he was up against something formidable. Each time Morphy made a good move, Löwenthal's eyebrows shot up in a manner described by Ernest Morphy as "comique". Löwenthal played three games with Morphy during his New Orleans stay, losing all three.[2]

[edit] Schooling and the First American Chess Congress

After 1850, Morphy did not play much chess for a long time. Studying diligently, he graduated from Spring Hill College in Mobile, Alabama, in 1854. He then stayed on an extra year, studying mathematics and philosophy. He was awarded an A.M. degree with the highest honors in May 1855.

He next was accepted to the University of Louisiana to study law. He received an L.L.B. degree on April 7, 1857, in preparation for which he is said to have memorized the complete Louisiana book of codes and laws.[3]

Not yet of legal age to begin the practice of law, Morphy found himself with free time. He received an invitation to participate in the First American Chess Congress, to be held in New York in the fall of 1857. At first he declined, but at the urging of his uncle he eventually decided to play. He defeated each of his rivals, including the strong German master Louis Paulsen in the final round. Morphy was hailed as the chess champion of the United States, but he appeared unaffected by his sudden fame. According to the December 1857 issue of Chess Monthly, "his genial disposition, his unaffected modesty and gentlemanly courtesy have endeared him to all his acquaintances."

[edit] Morphy goes to Europe

Morphy vs. Löwenthal, 1858

Soon after returning to New Orleans he was invited to attend an international chess tournament to be held in Birmingham, England in the summer of 1858. Still too young to start his law career, he accepted the challenge and traveled to England. Instead of playing in the tournament, however, he ended up playing and easily winning a series of chess matches against all the leading English masters except the veteran Howard Staunton, who was well past his prime, and who initially promised a match but eventually declined after witnessing Morphy's play.[4]

Staunton was later criticised for avoiding a match with Morphy. Staunton is known to have been working on his edition of the complete works of Shakespeare at the time, but he also competed in a chess tournament during Morphy's visit. Staunton later blamed Morphy for the failure to have a match, suggesting among other things that Morphy lacked the funds required for match stakes—a most unlikely charge given Morphy's popularity.

Seeking new opponents, Morphy crossed the English Channel to France. At the Café de la Régence in Paris, the center of chess in France, he played a match against Daniel Harrwitz, the resident chess professional, soundly defeating him.

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. When asked about his defeat, Anderssen claimed to be out of practice, but also admitted that Morphy was in any event the stronger player and that he was fairly beaten. Anderssen also attested that in his opinion, Morphy was the strongest player ever to play the game, even stronger than the famous French champion La Bourdonnais.

Both in England and France, Morphy gave numerous simultaneous exhibitions, including displays of blindfold chess in which he regularly played and defeated eight opponents at a time. Morphy played a well-known casual game against the Duke of Brunswick and Count Isouard at the Italian Opera House in Paris.

[edit] Morphy is hailed as World Champion

Still only twenty-one, Morphy was now quite famous. While in Paris, he was sitting in his hotel room one evening, chatting with his companion Frederick Edge, when they had an unexpected visitor. "I am Prince Galitzine; I wish to see Mr. Morphy," the visitor said, according to Edge. Morphy identified himself to the visitor. "No, it is not possible!" the prince exclaimed, "You are too young!" Prince Galitzine then explained that he was in the frontiers of Siberia when he had first heard of Morphy's "wonderful deeds." He explained, "One of my suite had a copy of the chess paper published in Berlin, the Schachzeitung, and ever since that time I have been wanting to see you." He then told Morphy that he must go to St. Petersburg, Russia, because the chess club in the Imperial Palace would receive him with enthusiasm.

In Europe Morphy was generally hailed as world chess champion. In Paris, at a banquet held in his honor on April 4, 1859, a laurel wreath was placed over the head of a bust of Morphy, carved by the sculptor Eugene Lequesne. At a similar gathering in London, where he returned in the spring of 1859, Morphy was again proclaimed "the Champion of the World". He was also invited to a private audience with Queen Victoria. So dominant was Morphy that even masters could not seriously challenge him in play without some kind of handicap. At a simultaneous match against five masters (Jules Arnous de Rivière, Samuel Boden, Thomas Barnes, Johann Löwenthal, and Henry Bird), Morphy won two games, drew two games, and lost one.

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Upon his return to America, the accolades continued as Morphy toured the major cities on his way home. At the University of the City of New York, on May 29, 1859, John Van Buren, son of President Martin Van Buren, ended a testimonial presentation by proclaiming, "Paul Morphy, Chess Champion of the World". In Boston, at a banquet attended by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Louis Agassiz, the mayor of Boston, the President of Harvard, and other luminaries, Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes toasted "Paul Morphy, the World Chess Champion". In short, Morphy was a celebrity. Manufacturers sought his endorsements, newspapers asked him to write chess columns, and a baseball club was named after him.

[edit] Morphy abandons chess

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Having vanquished virtually all serious opposition, Morphy reportedly declared that he would play no more matches without giving odds of pawn and move.[5] After returning home he declared himself retired from the game and, with a few exceptions, gave up public competition for good. Unfortunately, Morphy's embryonic law career was disrupted in 1861 by the outbreak of the American Civil War. Opposed to secession, Morphy did not serve in the Confederate Army. During the war he lived partly in New Orleans and partly abroad, spending time in Paris and Havana, Cuba.

Possibly because of his antiwar stance, Morphy was unable to successfully build a law practice even after the war ended. His attempts to open a law office failed; when he had visitors, they invariably wanted to talk about chess, not their legal affairs. Financially secure thanks to his family fortune, Morphy essentially spent the rest of his life in idleness. Asked by admirers to return to chess competition, he refused.

In accord with the prevailing sentiment of the time, Morphy esteemed chess only as an amateur activity, considering the game unworthy of pursuit as a serious occupation. Chess professionals were viewed in the same light as professional gamblers. It was not until decades later that the age of the professional chess player arrived.[6]

[edit] Tragedy and twilight

Paul Morphy's gravestone just outside the French Quarter, New Orleans, Louisiana, USA.
Morphy's crypt in Saint Louis Cemetery #1

On the afternoon of July 10, 1884, Morphy was found dead in his bathtub at the age of forty-seven. According to the autopsy, Morphy had suffered a stroke brought on by entering cold water after a long walk in the midday heat. The Morphy mansion, sold by the family in 1891, is today the site of Brennan's, a famous New Orleans restaurant.