The problem with getting more practice at chess is that many find the game so intimidating, the only ones who will agree to play with you are usually already quite good at it. It was during one such attempt of mine to improve my skills by losing a series of games to a friend that I decided to bone up on openings and defenses, hoping to gain an edge against my opponent. That’s when I discovered Paul Morphy, the New Orleanian known to the world as the “pride and sorrow of chess,” and I’ve been fascinated by him ever since.
Despite having only a two-year career on the international chess circuit, Morphy’s skill and strategy are still studied by not just chess enthusiasts, but also mathematicians interested in understanding how he made his calculations so quickly. Michael Kurtz provides a short but comprehensive biography of Morphy in his 1993 Louisiana History article, “Paul Morphy: Louisiana’s Chess Champion,” which you should read in case my even shorter sketch of Morphy’s life piques your interest.
Paul Morphy was born in the family home at 1113 Chartres in 1837 (the house is known as the Beauregard-Keyes House today), and grew up in a larger house at 417 Royal Street. He came from a leading Creole family; his father, Alonzo, was a lawyer who served as a state legislator, Louisiana Attorney General, and sat on the Louisiana Supreme Court. The name, Morphy, was originally Murphy, but was changed by his great grandfather upon his immigration from Ireland to Spain in 1753. An uncle later embellished some stories of Morphy’s childhood, but the documented events of the young Morphy’s life are impressive enough. In December, 1846, General Winfield Scott was travelling through New Orleans on his was to take command of the army in Mexico, and let it be known to his hosts that he wished to play the city’s best chess player during his stay. At age nine, Morphy already had a reputation in New Orleans, and General Scott was persuaded to play the young boy. Morphy beat Scott fairly quickly in the first game, and announced shortly into the second that Scott had set himself up for an inevitable checkmate. Having quickly lost two games to a young boy, Scott’s pride was surely hurt, as he left in a huff without congratulating Morphy on his wins. Just after his thirteenth birthday, in 1850, Morphy had an even more impressive showing by defeating, in three matches, the Hungarian chess master János Löwenthal. Löwenthal, considered to be one of the premier chess players in the world at the time, would, in 1860, write a book on Morphy’s strategy.
Though recognized as a chess prodigy in New Orleans, Paul Morphy showed little interest in anything other than his ultimate goal: to become a successful lawyer like his father. After his 1850 match against Löwenthal, Morphy dove headlong into his studies. Completing law school in 1857, at age twenty, Morphy was forced to wait until he turned twenty-one to take the bar exam in Louisiana (though, as Kurtz notes, there was no doubt that Morphy would pass the exam, as he could recite the entire Louisiana Civil Code in both French and English). With a year to fill before he could become a lawyer, Paul Morphy turned to chess: that summer was the occasion of the first American national chess championship. Morphy travelled to New York in the summer of 1857, winning the tournament with fourteen wins, one loss, and three draws, a record that stood until broken by Bobby Fischer in 1963. Morphy’s one loss was due to a frustration that would plague him throughout his brief career; in the days before timed chess games, Morphy’s opponents could take up to two hours to contemplate a single move, while Morphy never took more than twelve minutes. To keep himself entertained, Morphy would adapt his style to include dramatic sacrifices before winning.
Capitalizing on his recent win at the first American chess competition, the New Orleans Chess Club issued a challenge to invite Howard Staunton to play Morphy. In the years before an official world chess championship, Staunton was considered by many to be the de-facto world champ. Staunton dodged the offer as best he could, even after Morphy travelled to England in 1858 to accommodate Staunton’s teaching obligations as a Shakespearian scholar. Morphy occupied himself by playing matches against the best players in London before striking out for Paris, then considered to be the international hub of chess. In Paris, Morphy began taking on the well-respected opponents from across Europe he found at the Café de la Régence. While waiting for one such opponent to (reluctantly) return to finish a series of games that Morphy was winning, Morphy began designing feats to keep himself entertained. In September, 1858, Morphy sent out a challenge to the chess masters of the Café de la Régence, in which he would take on eight of the best players that Paris had to offer simultaneously, and while blindfolded. Owing to the long periods of time his opponents took in calculating their moves, the eight-way match took ten hours (Morphy never once leaving his seat or taking a drink). Of the eight concurrent games, Morphy won six and drew two.
Morphy quickly became a celebrity in Paris, and, perhaps due to his elite Creole upbringing, blended into the city’s aristocracy seamlessly. Morphy was feted and often invited to the opera (a lifelong passion of his) by the finest of Paris, though they often did so only to challenge Morphy to a game in their private boxes. In his time in Paris, Morphy was also steadily racking up victories over all of the European greats to be found. When he returned to the United States in 1859, his celebrity followed. Morphy, however, seems to have become increasingly bored with the game. After arriving in New York that May, he began taking on opponents only after they agreed to an advantage (typically the advantage of a knight). Michael Kurtz traces Morphy’s disillusionment with the professional chess circuit, in part, to Howard Staunton’s repeated refusals to take on the young challenger. In 1860, Morphy declared that he would never again play the game for money, and from that point on would never play the game without his opponent having the advantages of pawn and move (having one more pawn and making the first move).
Morphy’s return to New Orleans to establish his law practice was thwarted by the start of the Civil War. There is much speculation as to why Morphy did not use his ties to Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard to take a commission as an officer in the Confederate Army (one reputable biographer depicts Morphy as a Unionist), but as it stood, Morphy spent the majority of the war in Havana and Paris. Morphy’s absence from New Orleans (and the Confederacy) during the war could be one reason why his law practice never took off in the years after it. One popular legend about Morphy’s failure as a lawyer is that many potential clients only pretended to have legal concerns so that they could personally challenge Morphy to a game of chess. With little to occupy him professionally, Morphy fell into a daily rhythm of attending mass, taking long walks followed by a late afternoon bath, and attending the opera in the evening. In this stagnation, many reported that signs of a mental imbalance or illness were becoming steadily more apparent in Morphy’s character. On July 10, 1884, after one of his long walks around New Orleans, Morphy suffered an apparent stroke during his bath and died. Rumors of his mental decay fuelled even more rumors about the circumstances of his death, as the former chess champion of the world was remembered in New Orleans more as an oddity than a prodigy.
Personally, I’ve always wanted to do more research on Morphy’s Civil War years in Havana and Paris, and am very interested to see if it was his politics, rather than his later mental decay, that doomed his law practice. Many commentators on Morphy’s life have had trouble avoiding the temptation to apply armchair psychology to the known facts about Morphy after he left the game, and comparisons to America’s other most famous chess prodigy, Bobby Fischer, seem unavoidable as well. While it was Fischer who first broke many of Morphy’s records, attempting to utilize the little that exists on Morphy’s mental state or his private motivations in the historical record to make such comparisons is a dubious practice.