September 9, 2011
Morphy’s character was already well-defined in childhood. As a schoolboy he was shy, reserved, very studious, exceptionally courteous; he shunned athletics, kept pretty much to himself. If the word introvert had been known in those days it would have fitted him perfectly. At the age of 10, he was taught top chess by his father, who was a passionate enthusiast of the game. Young Paul was likewise destined for the law, and his studies left him little time for chess. Yet when he was thirteen, he managed to beat the noted master Loewenthal during a visit to New Orleans. So impressed was the master that he embraced the child and prophesied that he would become the greatest player the world had ever seen. At this time, Paul was so short he had to sit on several books, or else stand, in order to get a clear view of the pieces on the board!
In the years that followed, Paul continued to play chess at home and in school, at such times as his studies permitted. So intent was his concentration on law that he was admitted to the Bar at the age of 19 (he had to wait until he was 21 before he could practice), and knew most of Louisiana’s Civil Court by heart. In the first American Chess Congress, there were 16 entries including the youngest competitor: 20-year old Paul Morphy. Despite his inexperience, the youngster had simply run through his opposition: 14 wins, 1 loss, 3 draws. But he not only scored like a champion – he played like a champion! His play was sound, but so brilliant that nothing like it had ever been seen before – certainly not in American chess. At last the United States had a master who could match with the best that Old World could offer – and no American need be ashamed of the outcome.
Morphy’s admirers were insistent: he must go to Europe to demonstrate his ability against the great British and German masters. Finally, in June 1858, Morphy sailed to Europe. His immediate goal was a match with Howard Staunton, the leading English player of the day and famous as the author of Staunton’s Handbook. Like later champions past their prime, Staunton skillfully parried all attempts to pin him down and successfully side-stepped the match.
Rather than come home empty-handed, Morphy played matches with Loewenthal and Owen, whom he defeated with the greatest ease. He also played many off-hand games with leading English masters and amateurs, always scoring a phenomenally high percentage of wins, and repeatedly winning his games in that strikingly brilliant manner which has made him the most famous player in the history of the game. Toward the end of the year, he crossed the channel to play Harrwitz, then the best player in France. Morphy started badly by losing the first two games, but he followed with five successive wins, whereupon Harrwitz became “indisposed”, and the match was terminated. Still disappointed by the Staunton fiasco, Morphy had the pleasure of arranging a match with the great Adolf Anderssen. Although Morphy was ill during the contest, he defeated Anderssen decisively by 7-2, thus becoming first, although unofficial, World Champion.
The pleasant relations between Morphy and Anderssen were a happy relief from Staunton’s devious dickering and name-calling. Anderssen did not admit Morphy to be his superior, and remarked bitterly that one could not keep one’s chess ability locked up in a glass case Yet he accepted defeat gracefully, and both men acted with courtesy and consideration.
During his stay in Europe, Morphy also gave several blindfold exhibitions on eight boards. These were perhaps the most sensational events of his trip, for no one in Europe had thought of breaking Philidor’s record of three games – set way back in 1783! Morphy himself, who was by way of being an aristocrat, set no great store by blindfold play, contemptuously dismissing the exhibitions as circus performances.
In 1859, Morphy returned to the United States, where he was given receptions fit for a victorious general. At a banquet in New York, he received a board and chessmen which cost $1700. At a second dinner in Boston, he was presented with a gold crown. In New York, Robert Bonner paid him $3000 a year in advance to edit a chess column in the New York Ledger.
On his return to his native city, Morphy had announced an offer of Pawn and move to any player in the world – a challenge which had no acceptance. A few months earlier, he had defeated James Thompson, one of the best American players, by 5-3 in the odds of Knight. Morphy now retired more and more from active chess, and in 1860, he withdrew completely from public competition. Thus, Morphy’s unique fame rests on a career of barely three years’ duration!
Morphy was the first American who attained world-wide preeminence in any field. Before Morphy’s time, none were as outstanding in their fields as Morphy was in his. This distinction explains why Morphy’s feats aroused so much enthusiasm: every American, chess player or not, could follow Morphy’s glorious victories with patriotic pride.
Here is how Gilberg describes Morphy at the height of his powers: “Morphy is below the medium stature, with a slight but active frame. He possesses a handsome and peculiarly intellectual countenance; a clear, lofty brow, and large dark gray eyes, which seem to emit in brilliant flashes coruscations from that vast mental furnace within. Over the chess board his genial, placid countenance gave no indication of mental exertion while delving into combinations of the profoundest depth, and his moves were generally made with a rapidity which seemed to betoken the possession of an intuitive faculty of always selecting the proper reply; but that readiness of action was due to a memory that was remarkably tenacious in retaining its stores of learn, to wonderful analytical powers, and an inexhaustible supply of resources at command to meet every emergency. During his blindfold performances he engaged freely in conversation, and upon at least one occasion amused himself by perusing a book while waiting for the moves of his opponents. Every board was so clearly limned upon his mental vision that a distracted attention could not efface the pictures.
After returning from his European triumphs, Morphy was at the height of his fame. Unequalled by any living master, lionised by his countryman, having every advantage of family, wealth, education and culture, he could look forward to a brilliant career, fruitful activity and a happy old age. Yet at 23, Morphy’s life was over; the remaining 24 years were to be pure misery.
Some time after his return to the United States, Morphy decided that he had had enough chess for a while, and that it was time to devote himself to the practice of law. But now he discovered, to his dismay, that his world-wide fame as a chess player completely overshadowed his hopes of becoming a lawyer. Unwilling to play chess, unable to continue with his chosen profession, still brooding over the insults of Staunton, Morphy was very unhappy. The coming of the Civil War, with the attendant chaos and misery it produced in the South, put the finishing touches to the smashing of his professional career.
In the end, his temporary renunciation of chess became permanent; he was neither a chess player nor a lawyer. But the career of gentleman of leisure, with the daily promenade and nightly visit to the Opera, was hardly ample to absorb the capacities of a man like Morphy.
So Morphy’s life dragged on in futile fears, plagued by shapeless phantoms. He died on 10 July 1884 from a cerebral hemorrhage.
Morphy introduced ‘the chess development’. Morphy was the man who taught chess players the value of bringing out one’s forces quickly, effectively, economically. Today this information is shouted from every house-top and appears in every chess book as a matter of course; but in 1857 the idea of development was known only to a genius that was Morphy.
But Morphy was not only an ‘efficiency expert’; it is not his system that gives his masterpieces their enduring vitality and charm. He was a great artist, and that is why his games are still studied today.
World Champion Steinitz said of him: “Morphy’s career marks a grand epoch in the history of our pastime, and a careful study of his games will always be essential for the purpose of acquiring a complete knowledge of the direct attack against a king, which forms a most important element in mastering our science.” Morphy’s games have left a deep impression on many a master. A chess wizard who has not studied Morphy’s gems is about as queer a concept as an engineer who is unable to count.