~ Sour Grapes ~

May 22, 2009, 6:20 PM 2,984 Reads 5 Comments

This article was published, presumably under the editorship of Kolisch, Zytogorski, and Kling, in an 1859 edition of The Chess Player's Chroncle.


IT has been the popular belief for centuries, that the appearance of a  comet is portentous of some extraordinary events. The year which has just closed its account with Time, has had to boast, if astronomers are to be credited, of throe of those enigmatical stars, one of which only was visible to the naked or vulgar eye. By scrutinizing the political horizon of the elapsed 365 days ever so closely, there is nothing to be found in it to justify the ominous aspect of a comet ; it is, therefore, supposed that, like the star of old that conducted the wise men of the East to Bethlehem, our comet had simply the mission to announce a coming man, who in due time will make his appearance before the world at large. But Chess players have a world of their own ; and, though astrology is at present a sadly neglected science with the general public, not so with our Chess player, who makes it an invariable rule to set, at least in his own mind, the horoscope of every neophyte that enters the arena. This secret predilection for the forbidden fruit, and the contemporaneous appearance of the comet in the heavens, and of the American star, Paul Morphy, on the Chess horizon, are the only reasons we can assign for the extraordinary, unprecedented, and unqualified enthusiasm with which Mr. Morphy has been received by the great majority of Chess players, and especially of Chess writers. Morphy is the greatest Chess player that has been, is, or will be ; such was the war-cry of the slavish admirers of the new star. We do not mean to depreciate at all Mr. Morphy's high qualities, whatever they may be ; but it is in the interest of Chess, in the interest of Mr. Morphy himself, that we should not blindly admire, but soundly criticise Mr. Morphy's play, in order to assign to him his place in the annals of Chess according to his merits. This is a duty we owe to our readers in general, and to those of the English Chess players in particular, who for years have fought in the foremost ranks, and who, at the present moment, form a phalanx numerous and strong as no other country can boast of. In estimating Mr. Morphy's play, we must consider him under two different aspects—as a blindfold player, and over the chessboard. The great admiration Mr. Morphy's blindfold play has excited in England we can easily understand and readily sympathize with ; for he has done what no other Chess player, at his age, has done before him : he has played at Birmingham with eight players of a respectable force at once without seeing the board, and won six games, drew one, and lost one. Now, we give him full credit for this, the more frankly too, as we are fully aware that no English player can compete with him— nay, not even approach him in that line. The practical English mind cannot bend its stubborn sense so far as to undertake to do blindfold what it can do but imperfectly with both eyes open, that is, to play a very good game at Chess. But, though admiring Mr. Morphy's blindfold play, we cannot on that account alone call him, as many of the chess viriters do, an extraordinary phenomenon; for has not Mr. Paulsen, in America, played twelve games at once blindfold ; and has not Mr. Harrwitz, lately in Paris, astonished a large and chosen company by playing eight games blindfold, beginning at seven o'clock in the evening, and finishing at two in the morning, winning six, drawing one, and losing one ?

Leaving blindfold play to future consideration, let us look at Mr. Morphy over the Chessboard. There are two ways of appreciating the strength of a first-rate Chess player : first, by comparing him with former great masters ; and, secondly, by registering his successes with present adepts of the science. If we compare Mr. Morphy's games with those of former masters, it will be found that most of them are his superiors in style and depth ; an assertion which we are ready to prove in future numbers ; but candour obliges us to admit that Mr. Morphy is young enough to improve his style, and that strong Chess players rise with their opponents ; we therefore dismiss, for the present, the first way of appreciating Mr. Morphy's strength altogether, and adopt the second, by registering his successes with present adepts of the game.

It seems to be the general opinion that there is no antagonist worthy of measuring swords with Mr. Morphy to be found in England. Let us see how far this is founded upon fact. We will take twelve of the leading English players in the metropolis—Messrs. Staunton, Buckle, Brien, Campbell, Wyvill, Slous, Boden, Bird, Greenaway, Barnes, Mongredien, and Medley  ; but of this number four only had the pleasure of encountering Mr. Morphy, namely, Messrs. Boden, Bird, Barnes, and Medley ; true, they were beaten by a large majority of games, but not in a set match, and only in skittling parties ; they were neither prepared to encounter so formidable a foe, nor could they boast of any previous practice, so necessary to success in Chess, and of which the American champion had all the advantage. Now, although the acknowledged champion of English Chess, Mr. Staunton, will not at present encounter Mr. Morphy (and we think him fully justified in not doing it, for it would have been the fight of a knight leaving the ball-room with nothing but his drawing-room sword, to encounter another armed de pied en cap), we have good reason to believe that Mr. Morphy, if he wishes to do so, will find among the rest a willing and worthy opponent. Having registered Mr. Morphy's successes with the metropolitan players, let us pass to the country players, and take twelve of the leading ones among them—Messrs. Hanken, Kennedy, Gordon, Owen, Kipping, Pindar, Newham, Wonnald, Wilkinson, Withers, Hodges, Wayte  : two only of these Mr. Morphy has encountered and beaten, Mr. Kipping and Mr. Owen ; and to the latter he has successfully given Pawn and move—a feat which, we consider, as yet, his greatest performance in England. Speaking of Pawn and move, we cannot omit to allude here to the fact, that some papers have mentioned that Mr. Morphy offered Mr. Staunton Pawn and move ; if this be the case, we are authorised to state, that several of the pupils of Mr. Staunton are ready to take up the challenge, if Mr. Morphy will communicate time and conditions. The victories of Mr. Morphy, therefore, extend over six out of twenty-four strong players. A very fair result indeed ; but were those six the strongest of the twenty-four, or only the most willing to be beaten ?

So far Mr. Morphy has certainly the best of it, for he is fairly entitled to say, " I have beaten every one in England with whom I have played ; " but it must not be forgotten that England is an exceptional country, and our metropolis an exceptional town. Although there are more Chess clubs, Chess rooms, and Chess players in this city than in any other in the world, the members of the different clubs never meet, and the strong players of the same circle scarcely ever play together. It is not long ago that one of the above-mentioned first-rate players, who knows the Handbook by heart, asked us, " What sort of man is Mr. Staunton?" Non credat Americanus. It requires an extraordinary stimulus to bring an Englishman before the public, but, once fairly launched, he is sure to steer, in spite of wind and weather. Mr. Staunton had a hard fight for the championship, but, once established in it, nobody thought of disputing his laurels. It was the very hardihood of the beardless young athlete from over the seas, to throw the gauntlet to England, that astonished the dormant energy of our gladiators for a moment ; but, once fully awake to the threatening disgrace, and, in spite of the defeats of the Löwenthals, Harrwitzes, and Anderssens, the English Chess player will do his duty.  We do not include here our glorious veterans who have some time since given up Chess—Messrs. Lewis, Q-. Walker, Fraser, &c.  We are fully aware that there is a great number of strong players, besides the above-named twelve gentlemen, in the country; but they will, we hope, pardon us for not mentioning their names, on account of space.


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