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Paul Morphy

Full name Paul Charles Morphy
Country United States
Born June 22, 1837
New Orleans, Louisiana, United States
World Champion 1858-62 (unofficial)

Paul Charles Morphy (June 22, 1837 - July 10, 1884) was an American chess player. He is considered to have been the greatest chess master of his era and an unofficial World Chess Champion. He was a chess prodigy. He was called "The Pride and Sorrow of Chess" because he had a brief and brilliant chess career, but retired from the game while still young. Bobby Fischer included him in his list of the ten greatest players of all time, and described him as "perhaps the most accurate player who ever lived".

Morphy was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, to a wealthy and distinguished family. He learned to play chess by simply watching games between his father and uncle. His family soon realized the boy's talent and encouraged him to play at family gatherings, and by age nine, he was considered one of the best players in New Orleans. At just twelve years of age, Morphy defeated visiting Hungarian master Johann Löwenthal in a match of three games.

After receiving his degree in 1857, Morphy was not yet of legal age to practice law, and found himself with free time. He received an invitation to play at the First American Chess Congress in New York City, and, at his uncle's urging, accepted. Morphy won the tournament, which included strong players of the day, such as Alexander Meek and Louis Paulsen. Morphy was hailed as the chess champion of the United States and stayed in New York playing chess through 1857, winning the vast majority of his games. In 1858, Morphy travelled to Europe to play European Champion Howard Staunton. Morphy played every strong player in Europe, usually winning easily. The match with Staunton never took place, but Morphy was hailed by most in Europe as the world's best player.

Returning to the United States in triumph, Morphy toured the major cities playing chess on his way back to New Orleans. By 1859, on returning to New Orleans, Morphy declared he was retiring from chess to begin his law career. However, Morphy was never able to establish a successful law practice and ultimately lived a life of idleness, living off his family's fortune. Despite appeals from his chess admirers, Morphy never returned to the game, and died in 1884 from a stroke at the age of forty-seven.


Early life

Morphy was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, to a wealthy and distinguished family. His father, Alonzo Michael Morphy, a lawyer, served as a Louisiana state legislator, attorney general, and Supreme Court Justice. Alonzo, who held Spanish nationality, was of Spanish, Portuguese, and Irish ancestry. Morphy's mother, Louise Thérèse Félicité Thelcide Le Carpentier, was the musically talented daughter of a prominent French Creole family. Morphy grew up in an atmosphere of genteel civility and culture where chess and music were the typical highlights of a Sunday home gathering.

According to his uncle, Ernest Morphy, no one formally taught Morphy how to play chess; rather, Morphy learned on his own as a young child simply from watching others play. After silently watching a lengthy game between Ernest and Alonzo, which they abandoned as drawn, young Paul surprised them by stating that Ernest should have won. His father and uncle had not realized that Paul knew the moves, let alone any chess strategy. They were even more surprised when Paul proved his claim by resetting the pieces and demonstrating the win his uncle had missed.

Childhood victories

After that incident Morphy's family recognized him as a precocious talent and encouraged him to play at family gatherings and local chess milieus. By the age of nine, he was considered one of the best players in New Orleans. In 1846, General Winfield Scott visited the city, and let his hosts know that he desired an evening of chess with a strong local player. Chess was an infrequent pastime of Scott's, but he enjoyed the game and considered himself a formidable player. After dinner, the chess pieces were set up and Scott's opponent was brought in: diminutive, nine-year-old Morphy. Scott was at first offended, thinking he was being made fun of, but he consented to play after being assured that his wishes had been scrupulously obeyed and that the boy was a "chess prodigy" who would tax his skill. Morphy beat him easily not once, but twice, the second time announcing a forced checkmate after only six moves. As two losses against a small boy was all General Scott's ego could stand, he declined further games and retired for the night, never to play Morphy again.

In 1850, when Morphy was twelve, the strong professional Hungarian chess master Johann Löwenthal visited New Orleans. Löwenthal, who had often played and defeated talented youngsters, considered the informal match a waste of time but accepted the offer as a courtesy to the well-to-do judge.

By about the twelfth move in the first game, Löwenthal realized he was up against someone formidable. Each time Morphy made a good move, Löwenthal's eyebrows shot up in a manner described by Ernest Morphy as "comique". Löwenthal played three games with Paul Morphy during his New Orleans stay, scoring two losses and one draw (according to another source - losing all three).

Schooling and the First American Chess Congress


After 1850, Morphy did not play much chess for a long time. Studying diligently, he graduated from Spring Hill College in Mobile, Alabama, in 1854. He then stayed on an extra year, studying mathematics and philosophy. He was awarded an A.M. degree with the highest honors in May 1855.

He studied law at the University of Louisiana (now Tulane University) and received an L.L.B. degree on April 7, 1857. During his studies, Morphy is said to have memorized the complete Louisiana book of codes and laws.

Not yet of legal age to begin the practice of law, Morphy found himself with free time. He received an invitation to participate in the First American Chess Congress, to be held in New York from October 6 to November 10, 1857. He at first declined, but at the urging of his uncle eventually decided to play. He defeated each of his rivals, including James Thompson, Alexander Beaufort Meek, and two strong German masters, Theodor Lichtenhein and Louis Paulsen, the latter two in the semifinal and final rounds. Morphy was hailed as the chess champion of the United States, but he appeared unaffected by his sudden fame. According to the December 1857 issue of Chess Monthly, "his genial disposition, his unaffected modesty and gentlemanly courtesy have endeared him to all his acquaintances." In the fall of 1857, staying in New York, Morphy played 261 games, both regular and at odds. His overall score in regular games was 87 wins, 8 draws, and 5 losses.


Morphy vs. Löwenthal, 1858

Engraving of Paul Morphy by Winslow Homer appearing in Ballou's Pictorial (1859)

Early on, Morphy's playing ability was underestimated in European chess circles, with few of his games being seen by top players of that time. Because of his age and strength of opposition in his own country, opinion on him in Europe wasn't the same as it was in America. Due to his success in the American Chess Congress, many people in America felt confident they had a player strong enough to challenge the best players abroad and that he should be supported by the American Chess Association to make those challenges. Initially, there were problems with travel. European opinion was that they should not have to make the journey to the United States to play a young relative unknown.

The American Chess Association, it is reported, are about to challenge any player in Europe to contest a match with the young victor in the late passage at arms, for from $2,000 to $5,000 a side, the place of meeting being New York. If the battle-ground were to be London or Paris, there can be little doubt, we apprehend, that a European champion would be found ; but the best players in Europe are not chess professionals, but have other and more serious avocations, the interests of which forbid such an expenditure of time as is required for a voyage to the United States and back again.

Morphy returned to his home city with no further action. The New Orleans Chess Club determined that a challenge should be made directly to the European champion Howard Staunton.

Sir, - On behalf of the New Orleans Chess Club, and in compliance with the instructions of that body, we the undersigned committee, have the honor to invite you to visit our city, and there meet Mr. Paul Morphy in a chess match ... ... it was suggested that Mr. Morphy, the winner at the late Congress and the present American champion, should cross the ocean, and boldly encounter the distinguished magnates of the transatlantic chess circles; but it unfortunately happens that serious family reasons forbid Mr. Morphy, for the present, to entertain the thought of visiting Europe. It, therefore, becomes necessary to arrange, if possible, a meeting between the latter and the acknowledged European champion, in regard to whom there can be no scope for choice or hesitation - the common voice of the chess world pronounces your name ...

Staunton made an official reply through The Illustrated London News stating that it was not possible for him to travel to the United States and that Morphy must come to Europe if he wished to challenge him and other European chess players.

... The terms of this cartel are distinguished by extreme courtesy, and with one notable exception, by extreme liberality also. The exception in question, however, (we refer to the clause which stipulates that the combat shall take place in New Orleans!) appears to us utterly fatal to the match ... ... If Mr. Morphy - for whose skill we entertain the liveliest admiration - be desirous to win his spurs among the chess chivalry of Europe, he must take advantage of his purposed visit next year; he will then meet in this country, in France, in Germany, and in Russia, many champions whose names must be as household words to him, ready to test and do honor to his prowess.


Eventually, Morphy went to Europe to play Staunton and other chess greats. Morphy made numerous attempts at setting up a match with Staunton, but none ever came through. Staunton was later criticised for avoiding a match with Morphy. Staunton is known to have been working on his edition of the complete works of Shakespeare at the time, but he also competed in a chess tournament during Morphy's visit. Staunton later blamed Morphy for the failure to have a match, suggesting among other things that Morphy lacked the funds required for match stakes - a most unlikely charge given Morphy's popularity.

Seeking new opponents, Morphy crossed the English Channel to France. At the Café de la Régence in Paris, the center of chess in France, he played a match against Daniel Harrwitz, the resident chess professional, soundly defeating him.

In Paris, Morphy suffered from a bout of intestinal influenza. In accordance with the medical wisdom of the time, he was treated with leeches, resulting in his losing a significant amount of blood. Although too weak to stand up unaided, Morphy insisted on going ahead with a match against the visiting German master Adolf Anderssen, considered by many to be Europe's leading player. Despite his illness Morphy triumphed easily, winning seven while losing two, with two draws. When asked about his defeat, Anderssen claimed to be out of practice, but also admitted that Morphy was in any event the stronger player and that he was fairly beaten. Anderssen also attested that in his opinion, Morphy was the strongest player ever to play the game, even stronger than the famous French champion La Bourdonnais.

Both in England and France, Morphy gave numerous simultaneous exhibitions, including displays of blindfold chess in which he regularly played and defeated eight opponents at a time. Morphy played a well-known casual game against the Duke of Brunswick and Count Isouard at the Italian Opera House in Paris.

Hailed as World Champion

Morphy in 1859

Still only twenty-one, Morphy was now quite famous. While in Paris, he was sitting in his hotel room one evening, chatting with his companion Frederick Edge, when they had an unexpected visitor. "I am Prince Galitzine; I wish to see Mr. Morphy," the visitor said, according to Edge. Morphy identified himself to the visitor. "No, it is not possible!" the prince exclaimed, "You are too young!" Prince Galitzine then explained that he was in the frontiers of Siberia when he had first heard of Morphy's "wonderful deeds." He explained, "One of my suite had a copy of the chess paper published in Berlin, the Schachzeitung, and ever since that time I have been wanting to see you." He then told Morphy that he must go to Saint Petersburg, Russia, because the chess club in the Imperial Palace would receive him with enthusiasm.

In Europe, Morphy was generally hailed as world chess champion. In Paris, at a banquet held in his honor on April 4, 1859, a laurel wreath was placed over the head of a bust of Morphy, carved by the sculptor Eugène-Louis Lequesne. Morphy was declared by the assembly "the best chess player that ever lived." At a similar gathering in London, where he returned in the spring of 1859, Morphy was again proclaimed "the Champion of the World". He was also invited to a private audience with Queen Victoria. So dominant was Morphy that even masters could not seriously challenge him in play without some kind of handicap. At a simultaneous match against five masters, Morphy won two games against Jules Arnous de Rivière and Henry Edward Bird, drew two games with Samuel Boden and Johann Jacob Löwenthal, and lost one to Thomas Wilson Barnes.

Upon his return to America, the accolades continued as Morphy toured the major cities on his way home. At the University of the City of New York, on May 29, 1859, John Van Buren, son of President Martin Van Buren, ended a testimonial presentation by proclaiming, "Paul Morphy, Chess Champion of the World". In Boston, at a banquet attended by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Louis Agassiz, Boston mayor Frederic W. Lincoln, Jr., Harvard president James Walker, and other luminaries, Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes toasted "Paul Morphy, the World Chess Champion". Morphy's celebrity drew manufacturers who sought his endorsements, newspapers asked him to write chess columns, and a baseball club was named after him.

Abandonment of chess

Having vanquished virtually all serious opposition, Morphy reportedly declared that he would play no more matches without giving odds of pawn and move. After returning home he declared himself retired from the game and, with a few exceptions, gave up public competition. Morphy's embryonic law career was disrupted in 1861 by the outbreak of the American Civil War. Morphy's brother Edward had at the very start joined the army of the Confederacy, whereas his mother and sisters emigrated to Paris. Paul Morphy's Civil War service is a rather gray area. David Lawson states "it may be that he was on Beauregard's staff (Confederate Army) for a short while and that he had been seen at Manassas as had been reported." (Pride and Sorrow, pp. 268-9). Lawson also recounts a story by a resident of Richmond in 1861 who describes Morphy as then being "an officer on Beauregard's staff." Other sources indicate that general Pierre Beauregard considered Morphy unqualified, but that Morphy had indeed applied to him. During the war he lived partly in New Orleans and partly abroad, spending time in Havana (1862, 1864) and Paris (1863, 1867).

Morphy was unable to successfully build a law practice after the war ended. His attempts to open a law office failed; when he had visitors, they invariably wanted to talk about chess, not their legal affairs. Financially secure thanks to his family fortune, Morphy essentially spent the rest of his life in idleness. Asked by admirers to return to chess competition, he refused.

In accord with the prevailing sentiment of the time, Morphy esteemed chess only as an amateur activity, considering the game unworthy of pursuit as a serious occupation. Chess professionals were viewed in the same light as professional gamblers. It was not until decades later that the age of the professional chess player arrived.


Morphy's crypt in Saint Louis Cemetery No. 1 Morphy's gravestone just outside the French Quarter, New Orleans, Louisiana, U.S.

On the afternoon of July 10, 1884, Morphy was found dead in his bathtub in New Orleans at the age of forty-seven. According to the autopsy, Morphy had suffered a stroke brought on by entering cold water after a long walk in the midday heat. The Morphy mansion, sold by the family in 1891, became the site of the well known restaurant Brennan's.

Urban legends about his life

Some authors claim Morphy "arranged women's shoes into a semi-circle around his bed", and that he died in his bath "surrounded by women's shoes". Edward Winter contends that this is not chess history but merely "lurid figments" stemming from a booklet written by Morphy's niece, Regina Morphy-Voitier. She wrote:

Now we come to the room which Paul Morphy occupied, and which was separated from his mother's by a narrow hall. Morphy's room was always kept in perfect order, for he was very particular and neat, yet this room had a peculiar aspect and at once struck the visitor as such, for Morphy had a dozen or more pairs of shoes of all kinds which he insisted in keeping arranged in a semi-circle in the middle of the room, explaining with his sarcastic smile that in this way, he could at once lay his hands on the particular pair he desired to wear. In a huge porte-manteau he kept all his clothes which were at all times neatly pressed and creased.

Therefore, because they were his own shoes, it is concluded that these "seedy anecdotes" (as Winter puts it) are untrue.

Playing style

Today many amateurs think of Morphy as a dazzling combinative player, who excelled in sacrificing his queen and checkmating his opponent a few brilliant moves later. One reason for this impression is that chess books like to reprint his flashy games. There are games where he did do this, but it was not the basis of his chess style. In fact, the masters of his day considered his style to be on the conservative side compared to some of the flashy older masters like La Bourdonnais and Anderssen.

Morphy can be considered the first modern player. Some of his games do not look modern because he did not need the sort of slow positional systems that modern grandmasters use, or that Staunton, Paulsen, and later Wilhelm Steinitz developed. His opponents had not yet mastered the open game, so he played it against them and he preferred open positions because they brought quick success. He played open games almost to perfection but could handle any sort of position, having a complete grasp of chess years ahead of his time. Morphy was a player who intuitively knew what was best, and in this regard he has been likened to José Capablanca. He was, like Capablanca, a child prodigy; he played quickly and was hard to beat. In an era before time control was used, Morphy often took less than an hour to make all of his moves, while his opponents would need perhaps 8 hours or more. Löwenthal and Anderssen both later remarked that he was indeed hard to beat since he knew how to defend and would draw or even win games despite getting into bad positions. At the same time, he was deadly when given a promising position. Anderssen especially commented on this, saying that after one bad move against Morphy one might as well resign. "I win my games in seventy moves but Mr. Morphy wins his in twenty, but that is only natural..." Anderssen said, explaining his poor results against Morphy.

Morphy vs. Anderssen, Paris 1858
a b c d e f g h
7 7
6 6
5 5
4 4
3 3
2 2
1 1
a b c d e f g h
Position after 7...Ng3. Morphy now sacrificed his rook with 8.Bxf4.

Of Morphy's 59 "serious" games - those played in matches and the 1857 New York tournament - he won 42, drew 9, and lost 8.

Former World Champion Bobby Fischer, noting that "Morphy and Capablanca had enormous talent", stated further that Morphy had the talent to beat any player of any era if given time to study modern theory and ideas. Some commentators disagree, including British GM Raymond Keene and American GM Reuben Fine, who wrote that "if we examine Morphy's record and games critically, we cannot justify such extravaganza."

Notable games


Here are Morphy's results in matches and casual games not played at odds:

Date Opponent Result Location Score Notes
1849−1850 Eugène Rousseau Won New Orleans c. 45/50 c. +45−5=0 casual
1849-1864 James McConnell Won New Orleans c. 8/8 +8−0=0 probably casual
1850 Johann Löwenthal Won New Orleans 2½/3 +2−0=1 casual
1855 Alexander Beaufort Meek Won Mobile, AL 6/6 +6−0=0 casual
1855 A.D. Ayers Won Mobile, AL 2/2 +2−0=0 casual
1857 Alexander Beaufort Meek Won New Orleans 4/4 +4−0=0 casual
1857 James Thompson Won New York 3/3 +3−0=0 1st American Chess Congress, elim.
1857 Alexander Beaufort Meek Won New York 3/3 +3−0=0 1st American Chess Congress, q-final
1857 Theodor Lichtenhein Won New York 3½/4 +3−0=1 1st American Chess Congress, s-final
1857 Louis Paulsen Won New York 6/8 +5−1=2 1st American Chess Congress, final
1857 Louis Paulsen Won New York 3½/4 +3−0=1 casual
1857 Theodor Lichtenhein Won New York 2/3 +1−0=2 casual
1857 Alexander Beaufort Meek Won New York 2/2 +2−0=0 casual
1857 Daniel Fiske Won New York 3/3 +3−0=0 casual
1857 Napoleon Marache Won New York 3/3 +3−0=0 casual
1857 Samuel Calthrop Won New York 1/1 +1−0=0 casual
1857 Lewis Elkin Won New York 1/1 +1−0=0 casual
1857 William James Appleton Fuller Won New York 2/2 +2−0=0 casual
1857 Hiram Kennicott Won New York 1/1 +1−0=0 casual
1857 Charles Mead Won New York 1/1 +1−0=0 casual
1857 Hardman Montgomery Won New York 1/1 +1−0=0 casual
1857 David Parry Won New York 1/1 +1−0=0 casual
1857 Frederic Perrin Won New York 2/3 +1−0=2 casual
1857 Benjamin Raphael Won New York 1/1 +1−0=0 casual
1857 James Thompson Won New York 5/5 +5−0=0 casual
1857 George Hammond Won New York 15/16 +15−1=0 casual
1857 John William Schulten Won New York 23/24 +23−1=0 casual
1857 Charles Henry Stanley Won New York 12/13 +12−1=0 casual
1857 Daniel Fiske, W.J.A. Fuller, Frederick Perrin Lost Hoboken, NJ 0/1 +0−1=0 casual
1858 Thomas Barnes Won London 19½/27 +19−7=1 casual
1858 Samuel Boden Won London 7½/10 +6−1=3 casual
1858 Henry Edward Bird Won London 10½/12 +10−1=1 casual
1858 Edward Löwe Won London 6/6 +6−0=0 casual
1858 Thomas Hampton Won London 2/2 +2−0=0 casual
1858 George Webb Medley Won London 3/4 +3−1=0 casual
1858 John Owen Won London 4/5 +4−1=0 casual
1858 Johann Löwenthal Won London 10/14 +9−3=2 match
1858 Augustus Mongredien Won London 2/2 +2−0=0 casual
1858 Frederic Deacon Drew London 1/2 +1−1=0 casual
1858 James Kipping Won Birmingham 2/2 +2−0=0 casual
1858 Henri Baucher Won Paris 2/2 +2−0=0 casual
1858 Paul Journoud Won Paris 12/12 +12−0=0 casual
1858 H. Laroche Won Paris 6/7 +5−0=2 casual
1858 M. Chamouillet Won Versailles 1/1 +1−0=0 casual
1858 Pierre Charles Fournier de Saint-Amant Won Paris 1/1 +1−0=0 casual
1858 Jules Arnous de Rivière, Paul Journoud Lost Paris 0/1 +0−1=0 casual
1858 Jules Arnous de Rivière Won Paris 6½/8 +6−1=1 casual
1858 Daniel Harrwitz Won Paris 5½/8 +5−2=1 match
1858 Adolf Anderssen Won Paris 8/11 +7−2=2 match
1858 Adolf Anderssen Won Paris 5/6 +5−1=0 casual
1859 Augustus Mongredien Won Paris 7½/8 +7−0=1 match
1859 Wincenty Budzyński Won Paris 7/7 +7−0=0 casual
1859 A. Bousserolles Won Paris 1/1 +1−0=0 casual
1859 F. Schrufer Won Paris 1/1 +1−0=0 casual
1859 Johann Löwenthal Drew London 2/4 +1−1=2 match
1859 George Hammond Won Boston 1/1 +1−0=0 casual
1862 Félix Sicre Won Havana 2/2 +2−0=0 casual
1863 Augustus Mongredien Won Paris 1/1 +1−0=0 casual
1863 Jules Arnous de Rivière Won Paris 9/12 +9−3=0 match

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