THE LIFE AND CHESS OF PAUL MORPHY                                                                                                                                                                    Paul Morphy by Reuben Fine 

This article was made possible due to the efforts of Calli at


Reuben Fine (1914-1993), an American, was one of the best players in the first half of the 20th century. While never winning the U.S. championship, Fine came close to becoming the World Champion. He tied with Paul Keres in the 1938 AVRO tournament, the winner of which unofficially earned the right to challenge Alexander Alekhine, the current champion. With the intervention of WWII  and the subsequent death of Alekhine in 1946, Fine declined to participate in the 1948 tournament designed to fill Alekhine's vacancy. Instead, Fine gave up professional chess for a new career in psychology. He earned a doctorate in psychology from the University of Southern California.

In 1956 he published an article entitled, "Psychoanalytic Observations on Chess and Chess Masters," in the professional journal Psychoanalysis which, in turn,  was later published in booklet form in 1967 under the title, The Psychology of the Chess Player.

One of the players Fine discussed and analyzed was Paul Morphy.


PAUL MORPHY (1837-1884) has attracted psychiatric attention because of his psychosis in later life. He is the subject of the study by Ernest Jones mentioned earlier. Morphy was born in New Orleans on June 22, 1837; his father was of Spanish-Irish descent, his mother of French extraction. When he was ten years old he learned chess from his father. By twelve he was able to beat his uncle (father's brother), then chess king of New Orleans. Until 1857 he devoted himself to his studies. In that year he travelled to New York, where he easily gained first place in the American championship, the first ever held. The next year he visited London and Paris, where the world's leading chess masters were then concentrated, and defeated every opponent he played, including Adolf Anderssen. Only Staunton refused to meet him, in spite of all his efforts to arrange a match. He then returned to New Orleans, where he issued a challenge to play anyone in the world at odds. On receiving no response to this challenge he declared his chess career closed; it had lasted barely eighteen
months, only six of which had seen him in public play. After his retirement (at the age of twenty one!) he took up law-his father was a judge-but was unsuccessful at it. He gradually relapsed into a state of seclusion and eccentricity which culminated in unmistakable paranoia. At the age of forty-seven he died suddenly of "congestion of the brain", presumably apoplexy, as had his father before him.

About Morphy's symptoms during his later illness Jones reports the following. He imagined himself persecuted by people who wished to render his life intolerable. His delusions centered on the husband of his elder sister, the administrator of his father's estate, who he believed was trying to rob him of his patrimony. Morphy challenged him to a duel, and then brought a lawsuit against him, spending his time for years in preparing his case. In court it was easily shown that his accusations were quite groundless. He also thought that people, particularly his brother-in-law, were trying to poison him, and for a time refused to take food except at the hands of his mother or his younger, unmarried sister. Another delusion was that his brother-in-law and an intimate friend, Binder, were conspiring to destroy his clothes, of which he was very vain, and to kill him. On one occasion he called at the latter's office and unexpectedly assaulted him. He was given to stopping and staring at every pretty face in the street. During a certain period he had a mania for striding up and down the verandah declaring the following words: "Il plantera la bannière de Castille sur les murs de Madrid au cri de Ville gagnée, et le petit Roi s'en ire tout penaud.see note  His mode  of life was to take a walk' every day, punctually at noon, and most scrupulously attired, after which he would retire again until the evening when he would set out for the opera, never missing a single performance. He would see no one except his mother, and grew angry if she ventured to invite even intimate friends to the house. Two years before Morphy's death he was approached for his permission to include an account of his life in a projected biographical work on famous Louisianians. He sent an indignant reply, in which he stated that his father, judge Alonzo Morphy, of the High Court of Louisiana, had left at his death the sum of $146,162.54, while he himself had followed no profession and had nothing to do with biography. His talk was constantly of his father's fortune, and the mere mention of chess was usually sufficient to -irritate him. The question naturally arises as to what connection, if any, there was between Morphy's chess genius and his psychosis. Jones attributes greatest significance to Staunton's refusal to play Morphy. Staunton was for him the supreme father-imago, and Morphy made the overcoming of him the test of his capacity to play chess, and  unconsciously of much else besides. When Staunton, instead of meeting Morphy on the chess board, engaged in vicious and scurrilous attacks on him, Morphy's heart failed him, and he abandoned the "wicked path" of his chess career. It was as though the father had unmasked his evil intentions and was now adopting a similarly hostile attitude toward Morphy in retaliation. Chess, which had appeared to be an innocent and laudable expression of his personality was now revealed to be actuated by the most childish and ignoble of wishes, the unconscious impulses to commit a sexual assault on the father and at the same time to maim him utterly.

There is however one rather serious objection to Jones' theory about Morphy, ingenious as it is. In 1858 the unacknowledged world champion was no longer Staunton, but Anderssen. Chess historians would certainly rank Anderssen above Staunton at that time. In 1866, when Steinitz won the world championship, he did so by defeating Anderssen. And Morphy had beaten Anderssen, most decisively. It is thus not clear why he should have been so disturbed by Staunton's refusal to meet him. More importance must be attached to Morphy's repeated declaration that he was not a professional. When he 'returned to New York from his European triumphs in 1858, his reception was overwhelming. It was widely felt that this was the first time in history in which an American had proved himself, not merely the equal, but the superior of any representative in his field drawn from the older countries, so that Morphy had added a cubit to the stature of American
civilization. In the presence of a great assembly in one University he was presented with a testimonial consisting of a chess board with mother-of-pearl and ebony squares and a set of men in gold and silver; he also received a gold watch, on which colored chess pieces took the place of the numerals. At this presentation, Colonel Mead, chairman of the reception committee, alluded in his speech to chess as a profession [see note], and referred to Morphy as its most brilliant exponent. Morphy took strong exception to being characterized as a professional player, even by implication, and he expressed his resentment in such a way that Colonel Mead withdrew from the committee. In his speech on this occasion Morphy also made the following remarks:

It is not only the most delightful and scientific, but the most moral of amusements. Unlike other games in which lucre is the end and aim of the contestants, it recommends itself to the wise, by the fact that its mimic battles are fought for no prize nor honor. It is eminently and emphatically the philosopher's game. Let the chess board supersede the card table and a great improvement will be visible in the morals of the community. . . . Chess never has been and never can be aught but a recreation. It should not be indulged in to the detriment of other and more serious avocations should not absorb or engross the thoughts of those who worship at its shrine, but should be kept in the background, and restrained within its proper provinces. As a mere game, a relaxation from the severe pursuits of life, it is deserving of high commendation.

Now Morphy's refusal to embrace chess as a profession was followed by his refusal to embrace any profession. Such a deep refusal to take life seriously must have much deeper roots than the accident of Staunton's verbal dyspepsia. In fact, the withdrawal from life must have been present very early and compensated by the overpowering interest in chess. He learned the game at the age of ten, was champion of New Orleans at twelve, champion of the U.S. at twenty and champion of the world at twenty one. These feats have in broad outline been repeated by many others since Morphy. But they can only be achieved at the expense of enormous time and effort. In other words, throughout his adolescence, Morphy must have spent a major portion of his time playing chess. So far as is known, he never had any sexual experiences, or at best only casual ones. Thus the usual competitive-sexual activities of the adolescent boy were abandoned by Morphy, in favor of chess. In effect, his chess playing warded off the psychosis.

The accident of native genius catapulted him into a world famous celebrity. As world champion, he could no longer take chess lightly, or look upon it as a mere game. If chess could not be recreation, it lost its defensive value, and hence a further regression took place; the psychosis, previously concealed, broke out in full force. I would also like to call attention to one peculiarity of the Morphy literature. Some four hundred of his games are preserved, including twenty-two from his earlier days, and more than fifty odds games. Of these only some fifty-five are tournament or match games. Nowadays it is not customary for any master to keep records of off-hand games or games at odds. How is it that so many of Morphy's games are recorded? Most of them have no intrinsic value; off-hand games rarely do. They must have been preserved by Morphy (or with his consent) with an unconscious exhibitionistic intent, to publish a collection at some future date. By becoming famous, this exhibitionistic desire threatened to be unmasked (in his mind) and only a regression could rescue him from the danger. Also the existence of so many recorded off-hand games shows that Morphy could not take chess lightly. It was a deadly serious matter to him at the same time that he had to go to great lengths to deny this repeatedly. When he became famous, his unconsciously determined protestations that chess was a mere game for him could no longer convince others; here again a regression had to ensue.

The analysis of Morphy's style is complicated by an historic accident. Morphy was active in chess for a period of a little over a year (1857-1858), a period in which the development of chess was most rudimentary, compared to its present state. Because of the increased strength of the masters, the bold, slashing style which was so characteristic in his day has tended to recede and give way to a much more subtle, refined, conservative type of game. Chess critics have lamented this tendency and have pointed to Morphy as an example of the great genius of combinative play who would have defeated all these frightened
moderns blindfolded. This is nothing more than the usual myth about the past and the common complaint of the older generation that "in my day there were real he-men ball players, chess players, prize fighters" and so forth. If we confine ourselves to the fifty-five serious games that are included in the Morphy collection,
only a few can, by any stretch of the imagination, be called brilliant. Many are quite stodgy. What Morphy had that his opponents did not have was first, the ability to see combinations clearly (which is a matter of strength, and not of style) ; and second, the intuitive realization of the importance of position play, which
was almost entirely unknown in his day. In fact, if Morphy is compared stylistically with such major opponents as Anderssen and Paulsen, the chief difference lay in his grasp of the principles of development. In some way this must have been an expression of the deepest roots of his personality. Position play is primarily the ability to organize the chess pieces in the most effective manner. We have seen how over-organized Morphy became in his psychosis-the walk at noon, the afternoon with mother, the opera at night. We are also familiar with such extreme organization in other obsessional and paranoid personalities. Morphy's development of position play thus arose out of his attempt to arrange his world in a more meaningful manner. Its particular application through chess can, however, only be attributed to his native genius.

The theoretical discussion of the previous section furnishes a ready explanation of Morphy's psychotic symptoms. The rivalry with the father was first acted out in chess, and then handled by a regressive psychotic identification. During his chess career Morphy was famous for his "gentlemanly" qualities; he repressed his
aggression completely. A further repression took place in the psychosis, punctuated only by the homosexual assault on Binder, the man who allegedly took his clothes, i.e., unmasked him. The absence of anxiety which so many observers noted was rather a sign of ego weakness than of strength; he had to pretend to be
free of all human emotions. Morphy's breakdown revealed traits which had previously been sublimated in chess: memory regressed to a fixation on his childhood environment; visualization broke down into voyeurism, gratified by the opera, by staring at women's faces, and by another eccentric habit of arranging
women's shoes in a semicircle in his room. When asked why he liked to arrange the shoes in this way he said: "I like to look at them." The connection between organization and paranoid systematization has been mentioned. The paranoia was also a regressive expression of the fear of attack which had been sublimated
in chess. Instead of being able to accept the imaginary chess world, he lost the ability to differentiate between fantasy and reality (he became his father through a psychotic identification with him). In spite of all this, however, the ego remained sufficiently intact to allow him to be maintained outside a hospital.

Note: "He will plant the flag of Castille on the walls of Madrid with the cry of the city won and the little King will go away all abashed." Jones states that he cannot find the origin of this saying. However it is clearly a cry of victory over the King, a regressive expression in words of what he could no longer do in
action. Compare the comments on conversation in the previous section.


Jan. 25, 1956

   I feel equally honoured and grateful for your courtesy in letting me read your essay, which I have very much enjoyed. It is certainly an important extension of my own. I agree with all your psa [psychoanalytic] interpretations and have very few comments to add. I still think there is a mystery about the change from Grand Vizier to Queen; you seem to accept the latter as fundamental. There is perhaps a question of mother and father's penis behind it all. On p. 62 there is an interesting Verschreiben, which I interpret as indicating a preference for Capablanca over Alekhine -understandable enough on personal grounds. I have made a few other minor suggestions in pencil. I think you dismiss the Morphy-Staunton affair too lightly. There is plenty of evidence that he had set his heart on the latter rather than on Anderson. There was doubtless an early negative father=transference behind it. Do you remember his early comment on Staunton's "devilish bad games", as if he needed taking down? It might be worth your commenting on the curious behaviour that often happens of a rather quick player (like Capa) choosing the best move almost at once and then in a state of self-doubting going on speculating and dreaming until in time trouble they dash at a poorer move. It shows how important is self-confidence, such as Capa seems to have had.
   My own interest in chess has run a curious course. My father taught me the moves when I was ten, the usual story, and he cautioned me to be wary about playing with someone who carried about a pocket set with him! After that I could nearly count the games I ever played, in my overworked life, until after being bombed out in London I came to live in my cottage here when with fewer patients I had more leisure. It was then, at the age of 63, that I found out what serious chess meant. I have read most of the best-known books and played the games of a dozen or more collections as well as those in the fortnightly Chess magazine. Then I play half
a dozen correspondence games. I don't do too badly over the board with ordinary amateurs, and they have even made me President of the Chichester Chess Club, although I can't often get there. I have your terrifying books on Chess Openings and Basic Endings, but have not the powers of memory any longer to get the best out of them, and I have greatly enjoyed your World Great Games, which is very illuminating.
   I am now working at Chernev's Thousand Best Short Games, which is most deceptive in giving one the idea that nothing is easier than to check your opponent in 15 or 20 moves! Colby of San Francisco was here some time ago and played a couple of Chernevs on me in reverse.
With kind regards and many thanks,
Sincerely yours,


   Many thanks for sending me your brochure on Chess, which has greatly expanded since I saw it in embryo. It will remain a classic. It was a great pleasure meeting you in the flesh in New York. You are more likely than I am to cross the Atlantic again, and when you do I shall hope you will pay us a visit in our country home.
Yours very sincerely,