The ability to play chess is the sign of a gentleman. The ability to play chess well is the sign of a wasted life.
– Paul Morphy
Full Name: Paul Charles Morphy
Born: 22nd June 1837
Place of Birth: New Orleans
FIDE Ranking: 2689 (Converted to current standards)
Paul Morphy was born towards the end of the first half of the year 1837 to a family of wealthy individuals. His father was then a lawyer and served as an attorney general, supreme court justice, and state legislator for Louisiana. Morphy’s mother, on the other hand, was a renowned musician. Essentially, this provided young Morphy with an environment of chess and music. Now, Morphy did not learn the game of chess from the tutelage of a grandmaster. Nor did he learn his amazing skills from any chess expert.
Most surprisingly, he taught himself through watching other people play. Paul once watched his father – Alonzo Michael Morphy – and his uncle – Ernest Morphy – play along, and he drew a silent game of chess that they later abandoned since the match. During this time, his parents had not known that he was watching, and he understood all the moves.
Therefore, when he suggested that his uncle could have won the drawn game if he had played different moves, the father and uncle were stunned. To add to the surprise, Paul reorganized the chess pieces and demonstrated the move that the uncle had missed. After this incident, the family of Paul Morphy discovered that he had a great talent and that he needed nurturing.
Consequently, they encouraged him to play at local events, family gatherings, and local chess tournaments. By the time Morphy was celebrating his ninth birthday, he had already become one of the chess players in New Orleans. When General Winfield Scott visited Morphy’s city in 1846 and informed the city that he wanted to pass his evening playing chess, the city decided to find him the best player. Scott was not a regular chess player but had adequate belief in his chess skills.
When the evening came, dinner was served, the chessboard was set up, and the tiny nine-year-old Morphy was brought in. Initially, this irked the general. However, after assurances that his wishes had been observed, the general agreed to play with the young Morphy. When Morphy beat general Scott in the first round, the general demanded a second round. However, Morphy announced victory over the general after only six moves. When Morphy was 12 years, he played against a professional chess player – Johann Lowenthal – who he beat twice and scored a draw in the third match.
How did the beginning of Morphy’s life morph into a legend that is talked about decades after passing?
Interestingly, beating two formidable chess players had created confidence in young Morphy. However, he did not start playing chess until much later in life when he completed schooling. Essentially, after the game with Lowenthal, Morphy dedicated much of his time to this education. He graduated in 1854 from Spring Hill College and later went ahead to study philosophy and mathematics. Later, he joined the University of Louisiana to study law.
When he graduated with a law degree in 1857, he had not attained the legal age. This prevented him from practicing law. Essentially, this would become the starting point for Morphy’s professional chess. Since he could not practice, Morphy found himself with a lot of free time. Around the same time, he was invited to participate in the first chess congress of America. Though he declined the invitation, he later decided to go to the congress when his uncle implored him. When he played, he defeated all of his rivals, including:
- James Thompson
- Louis Paulsen
- Theodor Lichtenhein
- Alexander Beaufort
- German masters
When he beat Paulsen and Lichtenhein in the semifinals and finals, he was regarded as the ultimate chess champion of the USA. However, this sudden fame did not affect him. Now, Morphy’s dominance in the United States of America gave him the highest regard. However, he was still not known by European chess players. In addition, Europe was considered to have the strongest chess players. This led to the opinion that European players were not obligated to travel to the US to play with an unknown and young player.
To prove the Europeans wrong, Morphy and his hometown chess club decided to challenge the ultimate winner of European chess. During the time, that champion was Howard Staunton. This challenge was issued through a letter. Howard Staunton declined the invitation to America and suggested that the young champion goes to Europe for the challenge.
Finally, Morphy agreed to go to Europe for the challenge. However, the various attempts to play the European champion failed. According to Staunton, the young man did not have the resources and money for the high stakes that a game of chess should have. According to Morphy, it was not right to play chess for money. After this incident, Paul Morphy went ahead and defeated the French champion in Paris. During the matches in France, Morphy developed a severe illness that caused significant bleeding causing him to grow week. However, he insisted on playing against a German chess master who he defeated.
Morphy’s fame grew, and he was regarded as the chess champion of the world. At one point, Morphy played against five chess masters where he won three games, drew on two games, and lost one game to Thomas Wilson Barnes.
Morphy is famous for various styles. Some of the notable openings that he used include:
- 1.e4 opening and offensive play with dashing tactical.
- King’s gambit and other standard chess openings of the time
- Giuoco piano opening when playing with white pieces
- Dutch defense when playing with black pieces
- Ruy Lopez developed a variant defense strategy that later got named after him – 1.e4 e5, 2.Nf3 Nc6, 3.Bb5 a6.
- Playing fantastic positional Chess
Morphy had an open dislike for the Sicilian defense and all 1.d4 openings. According to him, these moves were dull and led to a boring game. The only time Morphy had played the Sicilian defense was when he had faced Lowenthal. This dislike for the moves led to the European tour stipulation that required his opponents to play 1.e4 e5 moves in at least half of the games.
Morphy’s FIDE Rating
FIDE ratings didn’t exactly exist back in the era of Morphy. We wanted to see if there was a way to make a possible estimate to what his rating would be if he was playing today. Since ELO and rankings didn’t exist during the era of Morphy, what do you think his ELO estimation would be? Morphy’s FIDE rating is estimated to be converted to 2689 in today’s ratings.
There are too many games worthy of listing to include them all here, however we included a few of the most famous Morphy games that have been studied relentlessly by Grandmasters and every player should familiarize themselves with them. Memorizing the entire line of each game wouldn’t be futile at all.
Morphy vs Paulsen
Morphy versus Paulsen – four knights and 28 moves. Morphy won.
Morphy vs Le Carpentier
Morphy versus Le Carpentier – 13 moves. Morphy won
Morphy vs Anderssen
Morphy versus Anderssen – 23 moves with King’s gambit accepted. Morphy won.
A Night at the Opera
Perhaps the most famous Morphy game, the Opera Game in 1858.
Morphy versus Duke Karl – 17 moves. Morphy won.
If you’d like to go though more of Morphy’s games, here’s a collection of his best games.
Frequently Asked Questions
Did Paul Morphy go mad?
Paul Morphy was never legally diagnosed with a state of being “mad”. This rumor about Morphy going mad doesn’t have any substantiated proof and is mostly gossip amongst the Chess community. However, there are many secondhand stories of Morphy displaying strange behavior prior to his 40th birthday that all seem to say the same thing. For more information on this, you can visit this page.
Why Did Paul Morphy Stop Playing Chess?
Around 1864, Paul Morphy had been under tremendous stress and criticism from the public and colleagues for Chess causing him to be a failure as a lawyer, which was his profession. All of this led to his Chess career ending by choice.
Morphy is regarded as one of the modern players of his time. He introduced fast-paced chess tournaments and developed tactics that players of the time had not yet adopted. After playing with virtually every serious opponent, Morphy decided that he would not play chess anymore without particular odds. In 1859, he took his retirement from active chess playing.
I hope you enjoyed reading about the legendary Chess player Paul Morphy. If you like learning about the lives of the best Chess players in history. You may want to read the Chess player profiles of Magnus Carlsen and Mikhail Tal.