Paul Morphy by G. A. MacDonnell


Paul Morphy
 by Rev. G. A. MacDonnell

     On a beautiful sunshiny day in June, 1858, I was talking to the late Mr. Barnes at Simpson's Divan, when the door opened, and Paul Morphy entered the room. Unlike some other notabilities, he did not immediately unbonnet himself to display his capacious forehead, nor did he pause and look around to attract and gratify his admirers, but quietly and unobtrusively walked up the room to the place where we were sitting, and, having shaken hands with my companion, sat down to play him a game of chess.
     He was, literally speaking, canopied with a huge, broad Panama hat, and wore a light suit of clothes, seemingly of fine gray linen ; he was neat in his dress and gentlemanly in demeanor. Upon taking his seat at the board he doffed his hat, and revealed to my sight a large and well-proportioned head. His brow was remarkably fine and massive, broad as well as lofty. His eyes were dark, neither prominent nor deeply set, but very luminous, and, better still, very pleasant in expression. Just above them rose those bumps which are supposed to betoken the possession of the calculating faculty. The lower part of the face, and particularly the firmly set jaw, indicated, if not obstinacy, considerable determination of character. His smile was delightful; it seemed to kindle up the brain fuel that fed his eyes with light, and it made them shoot forth most brilliant rays.
     Morphy was short of stature, but well and even gracefully proportioned, save that his hands and feet were preternaturally small, the former being very white and well shaped. Throughout the game with Barnes he never uttered a word or raised his eyes from the board. He moved very fast, but never hurriedly. He never put his hand near a piece until he was going to move it, nor placed any of them inexactly on the board, so as to leave his antagonist doubtful as to its position, never swooped down upon a piece he was going to capture, nor described an atmospheric arc with his arm previous to making the coup that was to strike the spectators with wonder, or ensure for him the victory. The game I have just referred to — the first I ever saw him play — he lost,  whereupon he raised his eyes from the board, and, looking calmly at his opponent, observed, "I think I know where I went wrong. Would you mind just going over the game with me?" Mr. Barnes, ever the most courteous of opponents, having at once consented to do so, in a few seconds Morphy restored the sought-for position. "There," said he, "I ought not to have sacrificed my knight; I was too speculative, and deserve to lose. Of course in a match game I should not indulge in such vagaries."  Then, in a thoroughly modest manner, without the slightest assumption of superiority, he instantly pointed out the course he ought to have adopted. I witnessed nearly all his subsequent battles with Barnes, and noticed that on every occasion when the game was concluded Morphy proposed to play it over at once. No doubt this habit accounts in a large measure for his remembrance of all games he had ever played. "Yes," he would say, "I remember that position which you have shown me. It occurred in my match with Rousseau."
     The first game Morphy ever played publicly in England was at the Divan, when Mr. F. H. Lewis was his opponent, and the result was a drawn game.  Mr. Lewis was naturally very proud of his success.  He was a most ingenious player, and, strange to say, considering he was a very unpracticed player, he was also a perfect master of the endgame. Had he continued to cultivate chess he would, no doubt, have reached the foremost rank; but fortunately, for himself, he obtained a large practice at the bar, and abandoned chess. Like Buckle, Morphy generally kept his eyes fixed intently upon the board whilst he was playing, and, like that gentleman, he always looked up from it as soon as he had a winning game, but never with an exulting or triumphant gaze. He seldom — in fact, in my presence, never — expended more than a minute or two over his best and deepest combinations. He never seemed to exert himself to cudgel his brains, but played with consummate ease, as tho' his moves were the result of inspiration. I fancy he always discerned the right move at a glance, and only paused before making it partly out of respect for his antagonist and partly to certify himself of its correctness, to make assurance doubly sure, and to accustom himself to sobriety of demeanor in all circumstances.
     Some one has said of Pitt and Fox, comparing them as orators, that whilst the latter never wanted a word to express his meaning, the former always hit upon "the" word; and so it was with Morphy as compared with other great masters. They only found a move in certain complexities of position: but Morphy always found "the" move.
     And now, what was the secret of his success? Loewenthal thought he had accounted for it by simply stating the fact of his existence. "He was," said the Hungarian, "a meteor." Lowe sounded the mystery, and partly accounted for it thus:—"No wonder he plays so well. He never drinks anything stronger than coffee, never smokes even a cigarette, and always goes to bed before midnight."
     Now, no doubt his manner of living, his moderation in all things, coupled with his natural genius for chess, materially contributed to the excellence of his play; but then other men have been equally moderate, and perhaps equally gifted, and yet have failed to reach the eminence he attained.
     How, then, is this to be accounted for? It was, I think, his youth—it placed him on a vantage ground from which he was enabled to utilize in the most efficient manner the weapons he wielded. I hold that the faculty of chess when capable of the highest development, and affording fitting opportunities for its cultivation, will culminate in the early days of manhood, those days when the mind is undistracted by the cares and unworried by the troubles of life. Then, moreover, ambition to excel in a game is more likely to predominate, and indeed does so, for in after time other pursuits demand our attention and divide our interest, and the time that is being wasted in a pastime may be required by and given to nobler objects. Youth, then, has its advantages for the chess player, and this gift Morphy possessed when he first appeared in the European arena, being then but twenty-one years of age.
     I am sorry I cannot record any remarkable sayings of Morphy's, because I never heard him utter any; he was, indeed eminently taciturn, seldom if ever opening his lips, and only doing so to make some remarks about chess. One favorite phrase of his I do remember. When any one would suggest a move seemingly brilliant, but really futile, he would point out its inefficacy, and quietly observe, "It amounts to nothing." But though a silent man, Morphy was not unversed in English and classic literature, and in the deliverance of several speeches in this country he displayed a cultured taste and a ready command of choice language. He had no doubt been a diligent student of the best games published ; indeed he knew them all by heart, but he scorned routine where it did not commend itself to his judgment, and few if any players have done more to simplify the game and improve theopenings. Indeed, as regards the openings, it may truly be said of him that there is not one which he did not handle and his handling did not adorn. There is a story told of him which I only notice for the purpose of ridiculing. It is said that when he had lost the first two games in his match with Harrwitz, he telegraphed to London for Staunton's Handbook, in order to study the Prussian's variations in the Philidor defence. Morphy announced at this period that he would not let Harrwitz win another game. During his residence in London he devoted himself wholly to chess, never, so far as is known, manifesting any interest in anything else.
     On one occasion he lunched with Mr. Boden, and afterwards, as they were proceeding to the Divan, they passed by Westminster Abbey, whereupon lioden pointed it out to him, and asked him if he had seen the interior. "No," said Morphy, "I have not." "Would you iike to go in now?" "No," was the reply, "I don't care for it." Such was his absorption in his darling pursuit.
     It is often asked, "How would he have played with the modern magnates?" which, to compare small things with great, is like asking, "How would Wellington or Napoleon have contended with Moltke or Sir Garnet Wolseley?" I can only answer the question by expressing the opinion of all the best English players I have ever met: that, considering the materials with which he had to work, and the imperfect state of the game in his days as compared with the present period, he was unquestionably the greatest strategist that ever handled a chesspiece. No man so rarely gave his opponent an opportunity of winning, nor so rarely failed to take the fullest advantage of the position he had obtained. I fully agree with Mr. Boden's opinion, that he possessed a truly gigantic capacity for chess which was never fully called forth, because even its partial development sufficed to enable him to triumph over all opponents. Paul Morphy, true-hearted gentleman in the highest sense of the word, I hail thee! I call thee the greatest King that ever swayed the sceptre of chess—or rather, should I say, Perpetual President of our world-wide Republic.