The Man Who Wouldn't Play Morphy


The Man Who Wouldn't Play Morphy - and other myths


Prologue -

Recently I read a brief bio on Morphy at Chessville under a sub-heading called Vignettes [Chessville Vignettes: Paul Morphy].   I subsequently learned, from an entry on Susan Polgar's blog, that the article was a contribution by a high school student.  Be that as it may, the article reminded me that there are many misconceptions floating around, not just about Morphy, but even about those who came into contact with Morphy. The article below hopes to explore some of those misconceptions.

Three statements particularly caught my eye and I want to deal with each separately:

1) "However, he played several matches against the leading English masters, all but Howard Staunton, whom had time to study Morphy's skill and abstained from a match against him.  He later excused his cowardice by remarking that Morphy had insufficient funds to play a staked match, and complaining of his own disposition due to time constraints imposed by a writing project he was then engaged in."

2) "Even though Morphy was too weak to move without aid, he insisted on playing the German Champion, Adolf Anderssen, supposedly the best player in Europe.  Anderssen had traveled from his hometown in Germany, seeking to defeat the American Champion and silence the hype; however, he was defeated with ease by the flu-ridden Morphy.  Anderssen admitted that Morphy was the stronger player, and that he was fairly beaten, but also commented that he was out of practice and wasn't ready to play Morphy."

3) "He eventually developed a mental disease, and would wander the streets of New Orleans talking to imaginary people."

Howard Staunton today is mainly remembered as the man who wouldn't play Morphy.  As far as it goes, this is almost true. Staunton, of course, did play Morphy in two games, playing in consultation with Rev. Owen against Morphy and Barnes, losing both games.

Staunton was a self-made man, both highly intelligent and extremely literate. He was by no means a lazy man judging from his chess literature output and his Shakespearean opus, not to mention his accomplishments on the chess board in both play and analysis. Through the haze of time he comes across as a man who wanted very much to be highly thought of, a trait that appears to have been both his strongest impetus and greatest weakness. What William Norwod Potter wrote in Staunton's obituary - "Nevertheless, all said and done, Staunton was, as we have often heard a distinguished enemy of his say, emphatically a MAN. There was nothing weak about him, and he had a backbone that never curved with fear of any one." - seems to have been true. 

When Morphy's club challenged Staunton, by mail, to play a match in New Orleans, Staunton rightfully refused to come to America, but wrote in his chess column: "if Mr. Morphy - for whose skills we entertain the highest admiration - be desirous to win his spurs among the chess chivalry of Europe, he must take advantage of his proposed visit next year; he will then meet in this country, in France, in Germany and in Russia, many champions whose names must be as household words to him, ready to test and do honor to his prowess."

When Morphy showed up in London on short notice and renewed his challenge in person, Staunton, rather than simply excusing himself for a variety of valid reasons, accepted the challenge conditionally - an action he must have later regretted but had no graceful, face-saving way to undo. Caught in a bad situation of his own creation, it seems Staunton tried to weather it out, hoping it would just blow over. Of course it never did and Staunton, being his cantankerous self, took his petty revenge out on Morphy in the press. Staunton had almost no close friends. With a couple exceptions, what few friendships he cultured, he destroyed. John Cochrane, who lived in India, claimed that his friendship with Staunton lasted through the years mainly because of the distance between them. Von der Lasa also had a high opinion of Staunton - it seems Staunton could be quite charming when he so desired - but, again, they seldom met.

Staunton, contrary to what many people seem to believe, was never seriously criticized in his day for not playing Morphy, but rather for leading Morphy on and for denigrating Morphy in his chess column.  By the same token, Morphy was never upset over not playing Staunton, but was chagrined by Staunton's ungentlemanly behavior in wasting his limited time abroad.  Staunton's needs to preserve what he construed as his public image and to assuage his bruised ego were his tragic flaws. The "Koward Staunton" image was just a creation of someone's fertile imagination.


Adolf Anderssen won the great London International Tournament of 1851, a tournament organized by Howard Staunton.  When Anderssen returned to Germany, he was crowned with a laurel wreath.  While he was so highly appreciated and respected by his peers in Germany, Anderssen was severely reprimanded for accepting the match with Morphy and traveling to Paris to play.  Max Lange, who was a great admirer of Morphy, was convinced that Morphy's friends (i.e. Frederick Edge and his cohorts), not Morphy himself, who had instigated a letter-writing campaign and media blitz to induce Anderssen to come to Paris, were in fact trying to augment Morphy's reputation at the expense of German national pride by insisting that an established master travel to a foreign country to meet his challenger. Lange was also convinced that Morphy would be forced to travel to Berlin and prove himself against the German masters or forever concede their superiority. Anderssen, on the other hand, was eager to cross swords with Morphy.

"Morphy, therefore, in his reply, declined Anderssen's proposition, and in return invited the Professor to Paris, to play the desired match in that capital. Thereupon Anderssen, as he confessed himself afterwards, ought to have insisted upon, and remained satisfied with, his own challenge.
It is evident that the distinguished American player would have done everything to effect the match, for if he had not played after having been challenged, he would thereby at once have acknowledged the superiority of the German champion.  Burning, however, with impatience to break a lance with the youthful hero, who was so much admired abroad, and personally invited by him in a letter, which contained several reasons why they should not meet in Germany (which motives, however, were quite indifferent to a German, and valueless in themselves), the veteran German champion went at once to Paris, to meet the young foreign master, and presented himself, confident in his tried powers, to the fatal combat." - Max Lange.

Anderssen made a poor showing against Morphy. Morphy, at the time, was suffering from intestinal influenza and was bed-ridden. Anderssen, like his countrymen, felt Morphy's illness, just like excuses not to come to Berlin, were subterfuges. In his letter to v.d. Lasa, Anderssen wrote: "Altogether, he is not only a great chess player but also a great diplomat and all maneuvers which he inaugurated in reference to me since his arrival in England had not other purpose than to lure me to Paris and to burden me with the inconvenience of the trip. Likewise, I admired from the very beginning as a very tactful diplomatic maneuver that he took to his bed when I arrived in Paris, and I have never changed my mind about that."

Anderssen is often presented as a big, likable, but somewhat clueless, individual, who had nothing but praise for Morphy after their match. This isn't quite an accurate portrayal. According to Max Lange: "the most innocent expressions, which sometimes had quite a different meaning, or were spoken occasionally by the German player, were laid hold of, and undue importance attached to them. Amongst these may be mentioned the words attributed to him, "that it was a rare fortune for a player to win one or two games against Morphy." The fact is, that at dinner, before the last game was played, Anderssen said, jokingly and in good temper, " He was glad to have already two sheep in safety." Again, Anderssen is reported to have said, "II joue non seulement le coup juste, mais le coup le plus juste." (Morphy makes not only the best, but the very best move.) " No living player has a chance in play against Morphy ; it is uncertainty struggling against certainty."
     The truth is, that Anderssen only spoke of the great correctness of Morphy's play, and simply remarked, that the American never made a mistake, and very rarely an error. We do not intend, by correcting these misstatements, to diminish the glory of the American; for, after all we have said before, it is evident this can not be our intention; but an impartial presentation of facts, devoid of national vanity, can only be in favour of the youthful champion who came off victorious; and, therefore, we will add here a few expressions of Anderssen's, which we can warrant to be authentic. He was asked if the American was superior in coolness and self-possession, and if his play in general had seemed to him superior to his own. The first part of the question was not strictly answered, for Anderssen merely replied to it as follows :—" I cannot say I believe so; for, in my own opinion, I was quite cool, but still I have overlooked the most simple moves." The second question was answered without reserve:—" He did not even in his dreams," he said, " believe in the superiority of his opponent; it is, however, impossible to keep one's excellence in a little glass casket, like a jewel, to take it out whenever wanted; on the contrary, it can only be conserved by continuous and good practice."

Finally Lange wrote: "Finally, the same parties inquired how the American master spoke of Anderssen's play. Upon this the German player replied with well-founded confidence:— 'To express an opinion upon this subject was impossible for Morphy, as I had not gone to Paris to get a certificate of ability. Those who surrounded the American, however, seemed to think that they flattered me most when they said, how high an opinion the American had of my play, and that he considered me the strongest of all opponents he had met till now. But to be reckoned stronger than a Loewenthal I consider next door to nothing!'"



"He eventually developed a mental disease, and would wander the streets of New Orleans talking to imaginary people."

Like several noted men of genius, Morphy talked to himself, often with gestures (see previous blog entry). These helter-skelter, merit-less reiterations of sensationalized misconceptions do a tremendous disservice to Morphy and to mental illness. Most of Morphy's mental condition is unknown, the rest is made-up.


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