The extraordinary Paul Morphy

Mar 5, 2009, 10:20 PM |

Born to a well-to-do family in New Orleans, Paul Morphy became quite a strong player (thanks largely to the fact that his father – a Judge who also served in the House of Representatives from 1825-1829 – was an avid chess fan) by the age of eight. His uncle Ernest, known as the “Chess King of New Orleans,” played the young Paul often, and this undoubtedly had a major impact on his nephew’s quick rise in strength. In fact, Paul became so strong that he was able to blindfold himself and still beat Ernest (who had full sight of the board) at the age of twelve!

In 1850 Paul got his first real test when the visiting Hungarian master, Johann Lowenthal, paid a visit to the Morphy household. There can’t be any doubt that Lowenthal thought the thirteen year old would be “easy pickings,” so one can imagine his surprise and humiliation when the child beat him 2 ½ - ½ (some sources claim the score to be 3-0).

Paul wasn’t only skilled at chess, he also excelled in his academic pursuits and, by the tender age of nineteen, he had earned his law degree and admission to the bar (he had memorized the entire Civil code of Louisiana!). Unfortunately, Morphy’s scholastic success was a bit too quick for his own good – it wasn’t legal to practice law at that age. With time to kill, he decided to travel and play chess.

His victory at the First Congress (which included all the finest players in the United States) brought him many fans, and his match win over Charles H. Stanley – one of America’s strongest – so shocked chess aficionados everywhere that they begged Morphy to go to Europe and challenge the very best (Morphy, giving Stanley pawn and move odds, won four straight before his embarrassed opponent conceded). The Englishman Staunton, in particular, was his main “target” as he was considered to be the unofficial world champion at that time.

Arriving in England in June of 1858, Morphy quickly crushed all the best players there (Staunton, realizing that he would be wiped out, refused to play by offering a never-ending list of excuses.). The highlight was a match against the Rev. John Owen, one of England’s very best. Giving Owen pawn and move odds, Morphy smashed him 5-0 with two draws.

Moving on to Paris, he crossed swords with the very strong Daniel Harrwitz. After losing the first two games (it’s said that he had a bad cold), the American came back strong, winning the next five in a row (with one draw). This 5-2 match victory set up a highly anticipated contest against the great Adolf Anderssen, which ended in yet another triumph for Morphy by 7-2 with two draws.

At this point in his life Morphy was, perhaps, the most famous person in the world (it’s been said that he enjoyed greater notoriety than the Beatles did in their heyday). Courted by royalty, politicians, and the “in” crowd, Paul was invited to endless functions, balls, dinners, operas, and who knows what else.

Morphy had conquered virtually every top player in the world with the exception of Staunton, who simply avoided the American like the plague! Nevertheless, this author has never been impressed by Staunton’s games, and at this time Anderssen (who was still getting better while Staunton’s best days were past) was clearly Staunton’s superior. Thus, virtually everyone viewed Morphy as the champion of the world when he returned, the conquering hero, back to the United States in 1859.

He made a couple more trips to Europe in the next few years and continued to dominate every player who sat before him. Then, in 1863, Morphy returned to New Orleans and gave up all serious chess.

I wish I could report a happy continuation to this genius’ life, but that wasn’t the case. Viewed as a chess professional (though he stridently insisted that chess could never be a profession, and that it was merely a pleasurable game, not to be taken too seriously), his career in law never got off the ground. Depression followed, and when a woman refused his offer of marriage by telling him that he was “a mere chessplayer,” he retreated farther into isolation. In time he began to manifest symptoms of deep paranoia, and insisted that someone was trying to poison him and that others wanted to set fire to his clothing. At this point he would only eat food prepared by his mother and he had little to do with anyone other than family members and a small group of friends.

Though all this makes Paul Morphy sound as mad as a hatter, Steinitz visited him in 1883 and said, “Morphy is a most interesting man to talk to. He is shrewd and practical and apparently in excellent health.” Perhaps he wasn’t as cracked as one might have guessed (though Steinitz himself eventually ended up in a mental institution, which makes us wonder…), but one year later, on July 10th 1884, Morphy took a walk, got into a cold bath, and died.

How good a chessplayer was Paul Morphy? Let’s look at a match he played against James Thompson, a man thought to be one of the top dozen American players. Giving him the outrageous odds of a Knight, Morphy beat him 5-2! After looking over Morphy’s games, Fischer said that, given time to study modern theory and ideas, Morphy would beat any modern player (except Fischer, of course!).

Morphy was blessed with an exceptionally quick sight of the board, and he rarely took more than a few minutes on any single move. He knew all the opening theory of that time and had brilliant tactical vision. However, what allowed him to dominate all the opposition (don’t forget that vicious attacks were the “way to play,” and this didn’t change until Steinitz demonstrated a whole different view of chess many years later) was his balanced understanding of the game: he recognized that an attack would play itself if you developed ALL your pieces first (most other players would attack before their whole army was ready), he was a genius when he had the initiative, his use of positional ideas was ahead of its time, and his excellent endgame technique carried him to many wins that lesser players would never have earned.