Morphy, Paul Charles (1837-1884)

views updated May 14 2018

Paul Charles Morphy (1837-1884)


Chess master

Paul Charles Morphy was born in New Orleans to a prosperous family. His father was a prominent attorney, and his family was socially secure. Young Morphy was taught the game of chess by his grandfathers, a Spaniard and a Frenchman, and within two years of first playing the game the boy was acknowledged as city champion. When he was thirteen, he played three games against J. J. Lowenthal, one of the foremost players of the day, winning two and drawing one.

Morphy was admitted to Spring Hill College at the age of thirteen, graduating with honors in 1854. He was a brilliant student who spoke French, Spanish, and German fluently. After a year of graduate study, he attended the University of Louisiana law school and graduated in 1857 at the age of twenty, a year after the death of his father. He was admitted to the bar with the qualification that he could not practice law until he reached an appropriate age. The chess community imposed no such restriction. Already his reputation as a young master of the game had reached New York, and he was invited to attend the first American Chess Congress there in fall 1857. He went to New York and stole the show. He played quickly and with enough eccentric genius to make his game entertaining to watch. He left New York after the congress acknowledged him as the most talented chess player in the nation. When he returned to New Orleans, the short, nattily dressed, well-mannered Morphy was a celebrity, and he played to the audience. That winter he began publically playing simultaneous games of chess blindfolded, and astonished chess aficionados by managing to win six games in one blind sitting.

In summer 1858 Morphy went on a chess tour of England and Europe. The British champion, Howard Staunton, refused to play him, and Morphy responded by soundly beating Lowenthal, who had recently defeated Staunton, and then playing eight of Englands best players simultaneously while blindfolded: he won six of those games and played one game to a draw. In Paris he was similarly impressive. By the end of the tour he was acknowledged as the best chess player in the world, and he began to break under the pressure. He was unable to establish a career in law for himself in New Orleans, and increasingly he acceded to the wishes of his mother, who considered chess to be an interesting pastime but not a pursuit that should distract her son from serious work, which he seemed unable to undertake.

Morphy served as an editorial advisor for Chess Monthly late in the 1850s and wrote a column for the New York Ledger beginning in 1859, but in 1860 he began to withdraw from the chess community and from most other social contact. When the Civil War broke out, Morphy went to Havana and Paris with his mother and sister, playing arranged games under a low profile, avoiding publicity. After the war, he returned to New Orleans to live with his mother, and played only occasionally. His last recorded game was in 1869. It is generally thought that his career was ended by an emotional illness. He spent his last years obsessively preparing a lawsuit against the executor of his fathers estate, and his mother attempted to commit him to a mental institution at one point. In 1875, he refused an invitation to play at the Centennial Exhibition of 1876. He died in 1884, less than three weeks after his forty-seventh birthday. He was the greatest chess player of his time.


David Lawson, Paul Morphy: The Pride and Sorrow of Chess (New York: McKay, 1976).