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Chess history once saw a streaking comet in Paul Morphy. From out of nowhere he shot into the chess firmament, burning brightly for everyone to see. When his short celestial course ran its end, he left them all regretting his transience and baffled by his mystery and legend.
Paul Morphy is one of the most incredible talents of chess. Great champions had come before and after him, but none of them possessed their combined strengths and defining qualities as did Morphy. He was as far ahead of his times as Philidor was in the previous century. He was as intuitive and quick-thinking as Capablanca, faster than any player of his generation. His competitive will was as intense as Gary Kasparov’s. His chess skills were as superior to that of his contemporaries as Robert Fischer’s and, like Fischer, he would climb the chess summit all by himself.
The Morphy’s had settled in New Orleans when Paul’s father, Alonzo, became a lawyer. He would be later appointed as Attorney General and Supreme Court Justice of Louisiana, making the Morphy’s a wealthy and distinguished family by the time Paul was born.
Paul was given a genteel upbringing and enjoyed a childhood that never lacked for weekly aristocratic pleasures. On Sundays, Alonzo, his brothers and their families would gather in the Morphy mansion to enjoy music, Paul’s mother, Louise Therese, being an accomplished musician. Chess also happened to be a favorite recreation as Alonzo and his brother Ernest were avid players and members of the New Orleans Chess Club. Ernest, in fact, was one of the city’s strongest players.
Paul was said to have learned chess merely by watching his father and uncle Ernest play. The first sign of his precocity was revealed when Alonzo and Ernest once agreed to a draw and had swiped the pieces aside when Paul suddenly quipped that his uncle should have won. “What do you know about the game” they asked half-jesting, but eager to indulge Paul. They set the final drawn position, and Paul then self-assuredly exclaimed: “Check with the Rook, the King takes it, and the rest is easy.” Paul had seen what the two experienced combatants had missed, leaving the two brothers who hadn’t even known yet that Paul had learned the game all by himself flabbergasted.
Thus was Paul initiated into his family’s Sunday tussles. Proving too good for everyone at home not long after, his uncle took him to the New Orleans Chess Club. Even for seasoned players, however, Paul was too much. At twelve, he was the best player of the city and an acknowledged master.
It was at this tender age that Paul’s celebrated conquests of adults happened. The first one, against General Winfield Scott, is perhaps less significant, as the likely truth is that the general wasn’t even strong enough for other amateurs like him. The second one against Johann Lowenthal, however, is one that is truly remarkable.
The encounter happened in 1850 when Lowenthal visited New Orleans. He was a distinguished European master whose most noteworthy achievement was beating the two-time Viennese champion Carl Hamppe in a match two years earlier. He would go on to win the Manchester Tournament of 1857, ahead of no less than Adolf Anderssen.
Morphy beat Lowenthal three to nothing. How he did it so easily without the benefit of a strong mentor, without quality materials that were usually circulated only in Europe, and without strong adversaries who would regularly test him in battle, spoke to Morphy’s natural but rare abilities.
Morphy’s reputation had spread far and wide, and many urged his father to send him to the Great London Tournament of 1851. This was to be the first ever international event, a gathering of the worlds best and the brightest stage there was where Paul could unveil his talents. Alonzo, however, valued Paul’s education more than anything else, and instead sent him to school to study Law.
In the time Morphy spent completing his studies, he hardly played chess. He finally received his Law degree from the University of Louisiana in 1857, but at twenty he was a year off from being allowed by Louisiana laws to practice his profession. Finding much spare time, Morphy decided to participate in the First American Chess Congress.
The American Chess Congress was the equivalent of the US Championship in Morphy’s days. The first edition in 1857 saw sixteen of the country’s best players battling in a match format. Two were paired each round, with the first player to win three games advancing to the subsequent rounds, until only one player was left unbeaten.
Morphy sliced through the competition in the first three rounds, winning nine games and drawing only one, and setting a finals encounter with a worthy adversary in Louie Paulsen. Paulsen had posted the same score on his way to the finals.
Paulsen was one of the greats of the Romantic age, and in the next decade he would rise as one of the five best players of the world. He was a profound thinker whose ideas would come to be accepted as important principles of the coming Scientific Era that was to be led by Wilhelm Steinitz. In between rounds he and Morphy would entertain the gallery with blindfold games, each of them playing as many as five boards.
The finals were a race to five and Morphy defeated Paulsen five games to one with two draws. Their spectacular sixth game has come down as a Morphy classic.
Morphy had become the US champion, and Louisiana was proud of its young hero that the New Orleans Chess Club challenged Europe’s greatest players to a match against him. The Europeans, however, saw Morphy as an incidental champion who rose to the throne for lack of quality opposition, and proud of their heritage from such great players as Philidor and La Bourdonnais, they eschewed crossing the Atlantic to face an inexperienced lad.
Morphy, regardless, was raring to test himself against the vaunted European masters, Howard Staunton in particular who was the most eminent of them all. If they would not come to his shores, he resolved to sail to Europe himself.
As if to stoke this wish, Morphy incidentally received an invitation from England to play in the Birmingham Tournament of 1858. Given one more compelling challenge, he finally left for England, embarking on what would be a conquest of the chess bastion that was Europe.
When Morphy arrived in Birmingham on June 20, 1858, he learned that the tournament had been postponed but did not regret it as challenging Staunton and the rest of the European masters was just as desirable. He left for London and visited the Simpson’s and St. George, the chess haven of the English players.
Morphy met Staunton at St.George, and there asked him if he was accepting the New Orleans Chess Club’s challenge to a match against him. Staunton replied that he would, provided that he be given a month to prepare, as his other professional engagements had kept him away from chess. Morphy agreed.
While waiting for Staunton, Morphy managed to arrange private matches with the other English luminaries. He beat them all in a fashion that left no doubt about his superiority, and that sowed fear in everyone who were still up for a challenge. He smashed Thomas Barnes 19-7, John Owen 4-1, Samuel Boden 6-1. Johann Lowenthal, raring to avenge the thumping Morphy gave him eight years earlier in New Orleans, ventured into a rematch, but lost lopsidedly anew, 9-3. Another prominent English master, Henry Bird, uncharacteristically lost by a wide margin, 10-1. One of these victories against Bird is a beautiful specimen of the open, attacking game.
Staunton, meanwhile, was daunted by these results, and equivocated when pressed for the match. When it became all too apparent that he wasn’t staking his reputation anymore, Morphy decided to take his conquering act to France.
France was the only missing jewel left in Morphy’s crown, as it was as glorious a chess hub as England was. Its Cafe de la Regence was the Mecca of not only the French players but also of the chess professionals all over Europe. Its resident master, in fact, Daniel Harrwitz, along with Adolf Anderssen, had slowly taken over the mantle as Europe’s strongest player from Howard Staunton.
Harrwitz seemed up for the test. He won the first two games, but Morphy struck back to win five in a row, prompting Harrwitz to resign from the match prematurely.
Morphy then invited Adolf Anderssen to come to Paris, offering to defray his travel expenses from Breslau out of his winnings from the Harrwitz match. As if the most anticipated match was saved for last, Anderssen arrived in Paris in December 1858.
The match, in all respects, was the final clash between the Old and the New World, one represented by Anderssen, the winner of the Great London Tournament of 1851, and the other by Morphy, the young champion of the Americas. Morphy won, 7-2, giving a resounding final curtain to his historic tour.
Anderssen turned out to the most gracious opponent, heaping praise on Morphy after the match. “I consider Mr. Morphy the finest player who ever existed,” he said. “He is far superior now to any living, and would doubtless have beaten La Bourdonnais himself.” Content to have won two games, he added, “Morphy is too strong for any living player to hope to win more than a game here and there.”
Morphy was the toast of both ends of the Atlantic. A banquet was held for him in Paris and London where his fellow chess players hailed him as “Champion of the World.” It may have been humbling for them to be vanquished, but even they had to acknowledge Morphy’s genius. A similar banquet was held for him in New York when he returned home.
For all the phenomena that he was, however, Morphy withdrew from competitive chess and attempted to practice his profession. He may have felt he had nothing left to prove, but he likely gave in to his family’s wish for him to give up chess. For the southern aristocracy, chess was only for recreation, and to make a living out of it was to gamble. A high-born gentleman was made for a more dignified calling.
Sadly, Morphy’s legal career failed to flourish, as people of his community always took him for the brilliant chess player that he was instead of the lawyer that he wanted to be. The chess public clamored for him to come back, and rising stars from Europe sent him new challenges now and then, but Morphy remained adamant that he had retired from chess. Towards the end of his life, he suffered some form of mental paranoia that had him believing he was persecuted by people around him, and distrusting everyone outside of his immediate family. He died on July 10, 1884, only at the age of forty-seven.
Morphy’s chess career was short, and he would have left a greater legacy if he had played longer. A talent like his, after all, justified dedicating an entire life to chess. As it was, however, he was the finest player of the Romantic Age. His superior understanding of the principles of open, attacking play – rapid development, seizure of the center, the opening of lines, tempo for the initiative – coupled with his superb tactical vision, turned him into the unmatched, powerful player. On top of that, he was gifted with the natural flair, and while his rivals strained for the correct play, he seemingly divined them all.
Morphy’s future successor, the great Mikhail Botvinnik, may have well expressed Morphy’s true legacy when he said:
“To this day Morphy is an unsurpassed master of the open games. Just how great was his significance is evident from the fact that after Morphy nothing substantially new has been created in this field. Every player – from beginner to master – should in his praxis return again and again to the games of the American genius.”
True, Morphy was like a comet who momentarily appeared in all his resplendence, then shot away never to return. His games, however, have remained in the chess firmament, shining brightly.