What's So Great About Paul Morphy Anyway?



     The easiest way to establish an argument is to formulate your conclusion and then emphasize all the supporting data, de-emphasize or ignore all the contradicting data, and feed the results to an audience predisposed to your way of thinking.
It's done all the time on talk radio.

     The better way, and by far the more unusual way, is to look at whatever data you are able to amass, weight the information and draw whatever conclusion seem more likely and then find the severest critics of that position to see if your conclusions hold up against their scrutiny. The results will be whatever they will be.

     For the longest time, I've been an admirer of Paul Morphy. I don't know why the attraction exists and I don't know if understanding the "why" is even important. It's seems enough just to acknowledge it. I've made an ever-growing website on the diminutive chess player from Louisiana and I'm constantly changing my ideas on the man the more I learn. Philip Sergeant, the British author of "Morphy's Games of Chess" and "Morphy Gleanings" (reprinted as the "Unknown Morphy") wrote:

     There will always be two extreme schools of thought among chess-players concerning Paul Morphy, that which considers Morphy perfectly justified in his confidence and looks on him as the greatest genius at the game there ever was or ever is likely to be, and that which - while, of course, admitting him to be a genius - refuses him a class to himself and attributes his phenomenal success to the weakness of his opponents and the poor form of others. In the former school is naturally found the "laudator temporis acti,"  in the latter, many a would-be Morphy of to-day who is not free from that worst fault of chess-players, jealousy.

     I think there's at least one more school (and maybe more) that believes that 19th century players were inherently inferior due to the lack of development of chess theory and the small pool of potential players - in other words, they were big fish in little ponds.

     I've observed, when discussing Morphy, that the divergent views have less to do the Morphy himself than with some hidden, even insidious, reasons. Sergeant curiously wrote, "while, of course, admitting him to be a genius"  as if to do otherwise would be an unthinkable affront. Even today, most critics will preface their inevitable criticism with something along the line that, "In his day Morphy stood out from his fellow chess players, but...."  and I have to wonder what is says about a person when everyone feels compelled to acknowledge his greatness before giving any adverse comments. If Morphy's greatness is so universally accepted then, where is the origin of the criticism? Even in Morphy's day, the same phenomenon occurred. Max Lange praised Morphy in his book before offering all his reasons why Anderssen should have won their match. His German best-seller flopped in it's American edition, even with the superb translation by Falkbeer.

     It seems to me that the root of this perennial debate it often more about nationalism than about chess. Lange was convinced of Germany's superiority in chess - and, with the exception of Morphy, he had a good case. The French and the English (at least at that time and with the exception of Staunton and a few others) didn't seem to have that nationalistic hang up. It's been noted that the staid English players were enamored with Morphy's combinative genius while the French coffee house players marveled at his "solide" style. During his lifetime, after he retired from the game, Morphy's very existence hung over chess like a spectre. No matter what achievements anyone attained, they were compared unfavorably against what Morphy had achieved, or what people figured he would achieve if he were to take up the game again. Even Steinitz felt this pressure and (in my opinion) spent a great deal of time and energy trying to either lessen Morphy or demonstrate the superiority of his own ideas in light of Morphy.

     Then there was Staunton. Staunton's place in chess was overshadowed by his peculiar treatment of Morphy. Savielly Tartakower said something to the effect one bad move nullifies 40 good ones and this seems to have been the case with Staunton. I won't enumerate all of his accomplishments here (click the Staunton link) but they were far more than Morphy's. Yet Staunton has been vilified far in excess to what his actions, which amounted to a bit of human pride and frailty, warranted. Rightfully, the British wished to reclaim some of his glory. The problem is, rather than simply doing justice to Staunton, many British historians felt that Staunton's rightful place could only be restored through some denigration of Morphy and some creative and revisionist interpretation of events. Bertram Goulding Brown (1881-1965), historian (and chess historian) at  the Trinity College in Cambridge (where Raymond Keene attended and played in 1967) for about 60 years, attacked Morphy - with the subtle idea of elevating Staunton - using unfounded and provocative insinuations in his writings (or at least in those that I've read). Even Sergeant subscribed to some of B. Goulding Brown's theories. Later Ken Whyld and David Hooper, two of the most respected chess authorities, used the same approach unabashedly by creating the fictional insinuation (only to retract it - actually, to even deny their intentions ) that Morphy was having an affair with Edge. In their "Oxford Companion to Chess," comparatively little space is given to Morphy (nor to women, for that matter).The point isn't to bring all this to light; none of it's a secret anyway. The point is that Morphy has been brown-bagged for years, not because of anything he did, but because of what he represented. Morphy rose to fame seemingly out of nowhere. He became the darling of the press, the toast of every town and the most visible Champion of the American people. In the space between October 1857 when he played in and won the 1st American Congress and May of 1859 when he played his final match (against James Thompson at QKt odds, considered by Löwenthal to be Morphy greatest accomplishment) Morphy turned the chess world upside-down, created controversies that a century and a half couldn't resolve, raised the level of play a quantum leap above the status quo, and most importantly gave the game an impetus never experienced before and rarely since. He did all this with the most unassuming "laissez-faire."

     I've been fortunate enough to have been able to discuss some chess history with GM Raymond Keene at chessgames.com. Although we haven't always seen eye-to-eye, Mr. Keene is always a delight to speak with. Raymond Keene was the second English player to earn the grandmaster title. He's retired from competitive chess but continues to support the game in other ways. He's a prolific writer on both chess theory and chess history and his biography of Howard Staunton is second to none. He has been no stranger to controversy during his career and, maybe because of this, he is a man of myriad tastes and interests.

     In 1997, GM Keene wrote an article for "The Spectator" entitled, "The Greatest?,"  in which he gives some thoughts on Morphy. (It seems to be almost, but not quite, a review of Chris Ward's book, "The Genius of Paul Morphy").

     In his introductory paragraph he observes, "Debate still rages as to whether Paul Morphy, the mid-19th century chess genius who took the world by storm, only to retire after the briefest of careers, was the greatest chess player ever. There seems to be a doleful pattern amongst American chess greats. First Morphy, then Fischer and now Deep Blue have all stunned the world with their achievements, only to give the game up."

     Then he attributes the following facts to Nathan Divinsky:

     If you compare the percentages of the world's greatest players against only their top contemporaries, Morphy registers an astonishing 76 per cent ahead of Lasker on 66.9 per cent, Kasparov on 63.5, Capablanca on 62.3, Fischer on 59.7 and Alekhine on 59.3. However, Morphy clocked up a mere 25 games against his leading opponents, in comparison with Kasparov's 486, Alekhine's 460 and Karpov's 930. The bulk of evidence for Morphy is simply too small, though the extent of his dominance against the very best players of his own time tantalizingly suggests that he might have been the all-time number one, had he persisted. In fact, having defeated everyone of any note in sight, Morphy withdrew, challenged the world to play him at odds of a pawn and move and, when his offer was not taken up, stopped playing completely.

     While I'm not sure where the "mere 25 games" comes from, overall this is a fair analysis from a leading proponent of Howard Staunton. The days of gross innuendo may be over and the days of subtle understanding ushered in on this "raging debate."

     An argument I hear over and over again is one based entirely on a sandy foundation. When Anderssen played Morphy, Anderssen was out of practice, not having played a serious game since 1851. When Staunton was trying to side-step Morphy, he used the excuse that he was out of practice and had insufficient time to brush up on his openings. When  Löwenthal played Morphy, he wasn't playing his best and even had to put off a game due to ill health.The same with Harrwitz who was perfectly well until he started his losing streak againt Morphy.

     The sandy part is that all these arguments or excuses for why these players either lost or couldn't play tell one side of the story. One must remember that Morphy was in England only a couple of days before he formally challenged Staunton and a month before he played Löwenthal and six months before he played Anderssen. Before Morphy went to England he had only played one world-class player, Löwenthal himself, and that was when he was but 12 years old. It was the common thinking in England at that time that this unknown player from America who had been getting all this press didn't know what it meant to play real chess with real chess players; that the players he would meet in England weren't the second rate ones he had beaten in America. Now, if the only players Morphy had ever contended with were low level players, this would mean, by their own definition, that Morphy was completely and totally unprepared and that it was Morphy who was truly out of practice - or rather, never in practice. Even by the time that Morphy played Anderssen, he had only played even matches with Harrwitz and Löwenthal.  Morphy undoubtedly played hundreds of off-hand games between October 1857 and December 1859 but before the American Chess Congress it's known that Morphy didn't engage in excessive chess. In fact during his school years he played very little chess and the Congress took play shortly after he earned his law degree. Yet Morphy never asked for a single consideration and never made any excuses.

     So, what are the facts and do these fact show Morphy to be something unique?
Here are some thought to consider:

     Morphy never really studied chess, relying on his remarkable memory and natural intuition, nor did he train obsessively.

     I send you herewith a game of chess played on the 28th instant between Mr. R[ousseau] and the young Paul Morphy, my nephew who is only twelve. This child never opened a work of chess; he learned the game himself by following the parties played between members of his family. In the openings he makes the right moves as if by inspiration; and it is astonishing to note the precision of his calculations in the middle and end game. When seated before the chessboard, his face betrays no agitation even in the most critical positions; in such cases he generally whistles an air through his teeth and patiently seeks for the combination to get him out of trouble. Further, he plays three of four severe enough games every Sunday (the only day on which his father allows him to play) without showing the least  fatigue.    -Ernest Morphy to Lionel Kieseritzky, editor of "La Régence," Oct 31, 1849

     Morphy, as already mentioned, didn't produce a large catalogue of recorded games, but by the same token, except for a brief period, he never played a great deal of chess either.

      Paul Morphy was never so passionately fond, so inordinately devoted to chess as is generally believed. An intimate acquaintance and long observation enables us to state this positively. His only devotion to the game, if it may be so termed, lay in his ambition to meet and to defeat the best players and great masters of this country and of Europe. He felt his enormous strength, and never for a moment doubted the outcome.  Indeed, before his first departure for Europe he privately and modestly, yet with perfect confidence, predicted his certain success, and when he returned he expressed the conviction that he had played poorly, rashly - that none of his opponents should have done so well as they did against him. But, this one ambition satisfied, he appeared to have lost all interest in the game.       -  Charles Maurian in his obituary column for Paul Morphy in the New Orleans "Times-Democrat" -

     Morphy's opponents were not the weak players many people want us to believe they were. They were the best in the world at that time and playing through his games one can see the masterfulness many of his opponents exhibited. The weaker opponents were played at odds and Morphy's artistry never shone as much as when defeating  weaker opponents from such initial disadvantages.

     Morphy played with utmost honor. He never dodged a game, not even when sick, and never made any excuses. He always treated his opponents with proper respect regardless of their disposition towards him.

     Morphy played anyone under any conditions. In matches he accepted every term or demand from his opponents and made no demands in return (except one universal request, that the match be played for honor rather than stakes - a request to which only Anderssen agreed ).

     Even playing blindfold against multiple opponents, Morphy always tried to obtain the strongest opponents.  He seemed to have more to prove to himself than to the rest of the world.

     Even after reaching the highest heights, Morphy seemingly played chess for it's artistic merits and without desire for any pecuniary reward that his fame could have reaped.

     Morphy, before retiring, offered his challenge to play anyone in the world at odds of Pawn & move. He had no takers. But, in all fairness, this was a double-edged challenge. Anyone who played Morphy at odds and won wouldn't have beaten Morphy except at disadvantage and if that person lost, his skill would forever be in question. So for any serious opponent it was a no-win situation. However, Morphy, by the custom of the day felt, and probably was, entitled to such a challenge. It's possible it was also his way of retiring gracefully.

     It's fruitless to argue who might have been the greatest chess player of all time. In Morphy's case, it's sufficient to say that during his brief chess frenzy, he attempted to meet the greatest players available and those he did meet, he beat on their own terms without so much as a close match.

     It's hard to compare someone who was in a class all his own.


I first published this article June 6, 2006.