The Opera Game

The Opera Game

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We are on November 2, 1858. The American young walks quickly the Rue Le Peletier up to the main door of the Paris Opera. Today it represents "Il Barbiere di Siviglia" and the young music lover is desired to savour the Rossini’s work. He smooths his slicked hair back and crosses the entrance. The smell of the street, a mixture of bread fresh and foul smell of sewage, is suddenly transformed into an explosion of parfums.

The lobby looks like a forest of hats. The knightswalking around the elegant corseted ladies. The warning bell rings and the young man goes straight to the box.

When he is introduced into the cubicle, the first thing he sees is a chessboard with the pieces ready to start a game. The man who has invited him, the deposed Duke Karl of Brunswick, standing, talking with another gentleman. Both are strong amateur players.

Bon soir  released the Duke with a German accent . I introduce you the Count of Vauvenargue Isouard, who will help me in the game tonight.

Count, I have the pleasure to introduce Mr. Paul Morphy.

Un goût, Monsieur  Isouard says addressing the young man . J'ai beaucoup entendu parler de vous.

Morphy nods politely but frowns. They will not let him to enjoy the opera tonight.

The three took seats at the time the lights go out. It is the silence and begin the bars of the overture of the first act. Morphy looks resigned the board and moves his king pawn two squares.

Nobody knows it, but is just about to prodece a great art work.

While on stage, with the help of Figaro, the beautiful Rosina and Count Almaviva get married, ending the hopes of Bartolo, in the box, Paul Morphy defeats the two aristocrats in only seventeen moves, in a beautiful game that will be known in the history.

Paradoxically, the next day, the Paris newspapers criticize harshly the Duke of Brunswick for have being playing chess in a so sacred room. But surely Gioacchino Rossini would not have minded, quite the opposite.

  On the left, Paul Morphy. On the right, inside the Opera House of Paris
  (painting by Eugene Lami, 1843)

Let us see this incredible game annotated movement to movement:

The so-called "Opera Game" as well as beautiful, is very instructive. In this game appears clearly enough important concepts of modern chess to be discussed below:  the development, the mobility, the initiative and the founded attack.

Paul Morphy joined up with the romantic school of its time an important new concept: the development. In this sense, as Kasparov said, "Morphy can be considered the true founding father of the modern chess."

A good development consist in not to lose time in the opening game and put the pieces in game as quickly as possible, giving space and searching for the dominance of the center of the board.

  Example of development in a minimum of moves. The white ones has only moved two pawns, and have
  taken out of the first row the knights,the bishops and the queen. After castling, the towers are
  reported. (The position will be better or worse depending on how they have developed the black).

The game of the opera is an example of how to maximize the opponent's loss of time, placing immediately the pieces in strong boxes, although with the cost of sacrifices. This forces the opponent's king to stay in the center till succumb in the wonderful end combination. Compare, for example, the development of the white ones respect to the black ones after move 9.Bg5.

  Position after 9.Bg5. The difference of development between white and black is abysmal.

The idea of development was unknown at that time. But for Morphy, the development was the original purpose of fighting. "Help your pieces to help you" he said once. His contemporaries used to attack before having developed all their pieces, and if they won it, was because they were an inadequate defense, as the opponent neither developed its pieces. Morphy realized that a combination was not only a matter of imagination, but you have to create the conditions for carrying out: to gain times and gain spaces. The accumulation of these advantages naturally trigger combinations tactics. In the words of Richard Reti, "Morphy was the first positional player who understood the strategic bases of the attack unlike their romantic rivals."

Another important chess concept is the mobility. Consider what it means. Once starting a game, the white pieces  can choose from 20 different possible moves (one or two squares for each pawn, and two possible moves for each horse), so, they have a total of 20 mobility units. After 1.e4, white's mobility increases, as it opens the diagonal for the queen and the king's bishop, and there is one more square to the king's knight. Now you can choose between 29 moves, so, the white ones have a total of 29 mobility units.

  Mobility of the whiteones  after 1.e4. (In black, squares for pawns. In red squares for horses. In green
  squares to the king's bishop. In blue squares for the queen).

The chart below shows the opera game in terms of mobility units after each move. The X axis represents successive moves, and the Y axis the total mobility for each side.

  Mobility of the white ones and the black ones after each move played in the opera game.
  (Source: Chess History Center, Edward Winter).

As can be seen, except for the second move, in the entire game the white ones have a much higher mobility than the black ones. Morphy is putting his pieces  in the best squares and, in turn, restricts the movement of the black pieces.

  Position After 13.Rxd7.The whiteones  have a mobility of 54 units versus 29 units for the black ones!

As Emanuel Lasker said, "From the first moves, Morphy wanted to show the internal energy contained in its pieces. The truth is that, suddenly, his pieces had much more dynamist than the enemy forces".

A key chess concept is the initiative. Who has the initiative determines the movements of the opponent. You can force the opponent's moves with checks, captures and threats. It tries to force what you want to play, not what the opponent wants to play. A player who manages to impose his will on his opponent, usually wins.

In the opera game, the white ones take the lead throughout the game. Of the seventeen movements, almost all force the opponent's play. This is exceptional in a chess game.

Another essential idea is the founded attack. An attack is likely to thrive if the number of attacking pieces is higher than the defenders pieces of the rival. Under the opera game, Morphy took all his pieces to the attack. So, the black's position was absolutely undefenceble.

  Position after 14.Rd1. All white pieces are in a position to attack, while black pieces are nailed or
  immobile. (The bishop and the black king's rook have not moved yet).

Well, if you got here, I recommend you to replay the game with confidence and see how all these concepts are present in it. Enjoy a real lesson of chess. Mikhail Botvinnik advised it: "Until today, Morphy is an unbeatable master in open play. Simply finding the evidence that nothing substantially new has been created in the field since Morphy. Every player, from the beginner to the master, should play over and over the games of the American genius."

Paul Morphy (1837-1884) was a flash in the history of the chess. For a moment he lit up everything. Then he disappeared. At nine years he was one of the best players in New Orleans and at twelve he was able to defeat the renowned chessmaster Johann Löwenthal. In 1858 he traveled to Europe to challenge the best players in the world. He beat everyone except Howard Staunton, who shied away from dealing with it. The opera game took place in Paris Opera while he was awaiting the arrival of Adolf Anderssen from Breslau to challenge a duel with him. He returned to the U.S. and, he didn’t find an opponents of its height, he left the chess definitely at the age of twenty years. As he was sunk in depression, paranoia and mania of persecution, his last years were tragic. He died at the age of 47, in a stroke after showering with cold water.

  The young Paul Morphy in 1851, 1854 and 1857.

"He played, if we can express like this, a pure chess. For his harmonious and deep positional understanding intuition, Morphy would have been a very dangerous opponent for even the most skilled players of our era"(Vassily Smyslov). Studies and scientific comparisons, statistical and mathematical, have concluded that Morphy was undoubtedly the best player in the history, ahead of Bobby Fischer and Garry Kasparov.

We will finish with a video, a tribute by the author of this article into the world of chess based on the the opera game:

  Watch Opera Game film (8 min)

: The strategic concepts extracted from the opera game, are based on the excellent article "The Best Chess Game Ever Played" by GM Gserper, published in

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