Paul Morphy (1837 - 1884)

"Paul Morphy was a great chessplayer, a genius... Morphy, I think everyone agrees, was probably the greatest genius of them all..."
- Bobby Fischer in 1992

Early life.

Paul Morphy was born on June, 22 1837 to Judge Alonzo Morphy and Thelcide Carpentier in New Orleans, Louisiana. He had two sisters, Mahrina and Helena, and a brother, Edward. Sources vary as to when he learned to play chess, but it seems accepted that it was between the ages of eight and ten, and learned the moves from either his uncle or father.

Paul attended Jefferson Academy in New Orleans for elementary education, and was accepted to St. Joseph's College in Alabama in December of 1850. He attended the Jesuit college even after his graduation in 1854, studying mathematics and law.

The Chess Juggernaut.

It is widely accepted that by age 13, Morphy was the best chessplayer in New Orleans, and that at 17 he solidly defeated Judge Meek, then President of the American Chess Congress, winning six games.

This was only a shadow of things to come. In 1857, Morphy went to New York to play in the first American Chess Congress. He left the Congress as the undisputed champion with 14 wins, one loss and three draws. Upon returning to New Orleans, Morphy offered pawn and move odds against any player in the United States. No one accepted.

In February 1858, U.S. organizers tried to form a match against the man currently understood to be the best in the world, Howard Staunton of Britain. At first, it appears as if he accepted, but as Morphy went to Europe and easily swept aside some of the strongest talent in the world, Staunton began to come up with excuses not to play, and in fact went so far as to try to ruin Paul's reputation.

Morphy was obsessed with defeating Staunton. There is no question about that, based on surviving letters and commentaries from his contemporaries. It would have granted him a seat in his lifetime that he did not get until after his death. The seat being the undisputed strongest chess player in the world.

Being avoided by Staunton depressed young Paul, and he returned to New Orleans in May of 1859. Upon his return he reissued his previous challenge with a new twist. Pawn and move odds to any player in the world. After nobody accepted, Paul gave up. One of the finest chess minds that ever lived retired from the game at the age of 21.

Although he was called the "World Chess Champion" by Oliver Wendell Holmes in 1859, there was no such title until Wilhelm Steinitz became the first World Champion in 1886.

Madness and Death.

Paul was vehemently opposed to the American Civil War. He left the country to spend time in Cuba and in Paris during the war. When he returned to New Orleans in 1867, Paul was terribly depressed, and his mother told him to return to Paris to cheer up. He returned 18 months later in an even worse state.

As he grew older, Morphy began to suffer from paranoid delusions. He believed that people were actively trying to kill him, although there was no basis for such a belief. He continued to descend into madness until his dying day.

Paul died on July 10, 1884 from a stroke while taking a bath, and was buried at St. Louis Cemetary No. 1 at 400 Basin St., New Orleans.


Thanks to Byzantine for the following information: The city of New Orleans now has a street named after Paul Morphy.

To supplement gitm's writeup above, what made Paul Morphy so great is that he was the first chess player to concentrate on the systematic, rapid development of his pieces. In essence, Morphy was the father of the modern chess opening.

Before Morphy chess players concentrated primarily on pawn moves, like trying to dig a trench before beginning a battle. What Morphy understood first is that by bringing out his minor pieces--- bishops, knights-- he could command many more spaces than his opponent. The combination of pawn and piece moves allowed him to bring much more presssure on the center more quickly, and to respond with greater flexibility than his chess opponents. His style in essence gave him an advantage of many tempos, or moves. Development permitted him to both build his own defensive structure while pressuring his opponent.

This made Morphy chess's first great innovator. It is a shame that Howard Staunton ducked him. Still, that evasion stands as proof to his brilliance.

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