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Paul Morphy, Chess Prodigy

May 2024
4min read

Could he have beaten Bobby Fischer?

Oliver Wendell Holmes once celebrated Americans as a people “which insists in sending out yachts and horses and boys to outsail, out-run, out-fight, and checkmate all the rest of creation.” The concluding champion on his list was Paul Charles Morphy, whose youthful exploits in chess during the 1850’ won the admiration of poets, scientists, and thousands of ordinary buffs.

Born in New Orleans on June 22, 1837, Morphy early showed a flair for chess. By the age of ten he had learned the moves of the game by watching—propped up on books so he could see the board—his aristocratic Creole relatives play at gatherings in the elegant Morphy home on Royal Street. He was the leading player in New Orleans by the age of twelve, when he won two games and drew one playing with the touring Hungarian master Johann L’f6wenthal.

“The child has never opened a work on chess. …” his uncle Ernest wrote. “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 through his teeth and patiently seeks for the combination to get him out of trouble. Further, he plays three or four severe games … without showing the least fatigue.”

Morphy’s father, who was a judge on the supreme court of Louisiana, allowed his son to play only on Sundays or, later, during school vacations. The boy showed as much promise at his studies as he did at chess. His academic career included a bachelor’s degree with honors and an M. A. with highest honors from the Jesuit St. Joseph’s College (now Spring Hill College) in Alabama, and completion of legal studies at the Law School of the University of Louisiana, where he memorized nearly all of the state’s civil code. He achieved all this before his twentieth birthday.

Despite his father’s strictures, Morphy became so skilled at chess that he was one of sixteen major players in the nation invited to enter the First American Chess Congress in New York, which started in October, 1857. His father had died a year earlier, and Morphy felt free to squander on chess the year he had to wait before reaching twenty-one, when he could practice law. He showed up in New York, five feet four inches tall, slim, and darkhaired. “In appearance,” a niece wrote, “he was cold and distant, due to a certain degree to nearsightedness, but his coldness was only apparent, for he was exceedingly courteous and pleasant to all with whom he came in contact.”

Players in the tournament, unhampered by a time limit, sometimes lingered over a single move for more than an hour. Morphy outsat and outplayed the best of them, losing only one game as he captured the title. He accepted his victory with nonchalance, then issued a challenge to anyone in the country for a match at odds of a pawn and the first move. By then he was president of the New Orleans Chess Club and occasionally played at odds of a knight or a rook. He sometimes also played “blindfolded,” which most often meant seated with his back to the board; once he defeated seven opponents simultaneously in this fashion.

Morphy’s fans in New Orleans asked Howard Staunton, the champion of Créât Britain and a literary scholar, to visit New Orleans for a ten-thousand-dollar match with their hero. When Staunton begged off because of his work on a new edition of Shakespeare, Morphy’s friends urged the young man to go to Europe and take on the greatest masters there.

Once in England, where he landed a day before his twenty-first birthday, Morphy lost no time proving to skeptics that his daring style often climaxed by stunning sacrifices worked as well against Europeans as Americans. The only top English player to remain unscathed was Staunton, who, with silence, ambiguity, and scornful comments, repeatedly fended off Morphy’s challenges to play. Actually, Staunton’s playing ability had declined, and he did not dare to confront the newcomer in a match.

Bitterly frustrated by Staunton’s evasions, Morphy left for Paris after two and a half months in England. There he defeated experts at the Café de la Régence, the haunt of many great chess players, and soon he was the toast of Paris. In a dazzling display of blindfold playing, he took on eight opponents at once, defeating six and drawing with two. At the end, his secretary wrote, “Morphy stepped from the armchair in which he had been almost immovable for ten consecutive hours, without having tasted a morsel of anything, even water, during the whole period; yet as fresh, apparently, as when he sat down.”

Morphy’s crowning achievement came when Adolf Anderssen, the unofficial world champion (there was no official title until later in the century), arrived from Germany to play him. Leaving a sickbed for the match, Morphy won by seven wins to two losses, with two draws. When someone tried to console Anderssen afterward by telling him that he had not played up to form, he replied: “No, Morphy won’t let me. It is no use struggling against him; he is like a piece of machinery which is sure to come to a certain conclusion.” Morphy’s return to New York on May 11, 1859, was the signal for patriotic rejoicing by American intellectuals. Well-wishers held a testimonial gathering at the chapel of New York University and presented him with a set of solid gold and silver chessmen made by Tiffany. The Union Chess Club crowned the self-possessed young man with a silver wreath. And later, at a banquet in Boston attended by Brahmins and Harvard scholars, James Russell Lowell offered a toast in verse to Morphy :

I give you the man who can think out and dare His bloodless Marengos on twelve inches square. Yet so modest, the conquered all feel that they meet With a Morphy and not marti-fying defeat.

Back in New Orleans, Morphy quit chess competition to establish himself as a lawyer. But he gave up this undertaking because the public could not believe a world chess champion would find their legal difficulties worthy of attention. Nothing else seemed to go right. A beautiful heiress whom Morphy, through a friend, approached about marriage declared she could not consider marrying “a mere chess player.” With the outbreak of the Civil War Morphy tried to get appointed to a diplomatic post with the Confederacy. He was rejected again.

Morphy’s family fled New Orleans when Union soldiers arrived. They spent the war years in Havana and in Paris, which Morphy loved. But frustration over the Staunton episode, the heights he had scaled and abandoned as a chess genius, the impact of the Civil War all left Morphy dejected.

His worried mother sent him to Paris again in 1867, hoping that a change of scenery would restore his spirits. He came back little better. In 1869 Morphy ended even the private games of chess he had enjoyed with a close friend. His melancholy gave way to a paranoia that led him to suspect relatives and friends of trying to steal his clothes, rob him of his inheritance, and poison his food. Over the next fifteen years he became firmly fixed as a local character a dapper little man with haunted eyes, strolling through the city by day and appearing at the opera by night.

On July i o, 1884, at the age of forty-seven, Paul Morphy genius and riddle died of apoplexy.

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