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         The History and The Culture of Chess

Fred Reinfeld - Paul Morphy - June-July, 1946, Chess Review.

October, 2007

Thanks to my lovely friend, Deb, for supplying me this information.

A M E R I C A N   C H E S S   C H A M P I O N S

1.   Paul  Morphy

           By FRED REINFELD

In 1857 American chess was in its infancy. The infant was not strong and lusty, giving promise of vigorous growth:
it was weak, pulling feebly, helplessly dependent on its European wet-nurse.

     To contemporary chess players, the state of affairs in those days must seem incredible. There was no chess organization of any sort; the mortality rate among the scrawny, poorly supported chess periodicals was fearful; newspaper columns were few and far between (they still are!); no chess master of note had been produced; chess literature and analysis leaned heavily on European sources. As Charles Gilberg, chronicler of early American chess congresses, puts it in his delectably genteel nineteenth-century prose: "A few intermittent and spasmodic efforts had, indeed, been previously made by the worshipers of CA¤SSA to allure fresh converts to her shrine, for the purpose of strengthening some local organization; but, unsustained by the fervor of the enthusiastic laborer, those efforts had become too soon relaxed to yield the courted fruit, and club after club had been permitted to disintegrate and decay until few remained. The chess pageantry of the Old World had been but slightly reflected across the ocean, and the stray gleams that reached our shores proved too evanescent to penetrate the plebian soul of the uninitiated."
     There were extenuating conditions, to be sure. The country now proudly stretched from ocean to ocean, but the "Iron Horse" had not been built. Transportation, and consequently communication, was still slow. The resulting predominance of regional and sectional feeling over national sentiment severely handicapped any attempt at nation-wide organization.  And, as we know from the development of the arts in this country, American chess was not the only field in which we were imitative, lacking in self-confidence, dependent on European models. The country was still new, ever-advancing frontiers were being opened up constantly, the emphasis was on making a living; such things as leisure, culture and research had to be deferred to the future. Above all, the country became ever more intensively preoccupied with the bitter controversy which was to explode into civil war.
     At all events, 1857 witnessed a radical proposal by D. W. Fiske, a professor of languages at Cornell and a great chess enthusiast. Let us have a national championship tournament, he urged, tirelessly calling on chess players all over the country to support the project. The more they considered Fiske's suggestion, the more obvious its attractions appeared: the game would receive valuable publicity; the outstanding players would make each other's acquaintance; their comparative strength would be accurately measured; chess devotees would have delightful entertainment, chess laws would be efficiently codified.
     Fiske's proposal found popular favor. A committee was organized, a local was obtained for the tournament, the necessary funds were raised, an don October 6, 1857, the First American Chess Congress got under way in New York.  The tournament was run on the same foolish "knock-out" principle that had been used in the first International Tournament at London in 1851: the players were paired by lot, and the first to win three games from his opponent qualified for the next round. while the loser fell out of the tournament. The process was continued until the final round, when the victor had to score five wins. (The obvious flaw in this system - that accidental elimination of strong players who start in poor form - led to the adoption of the now universal system of round-robin play, a much more conclusive test of strength.
     There were 16 entries: 8 from New York, and 1 each from Hasting, Minn.; Bridgeport; Chicago; Mobile; Philadelphia; New Orleans; Dubuque; Louisville. Imagine, if you can, the astonishment and frenzy of the whole American chess public at the victory of the New Orleans entrant, a complete unknown, who was also the youngest competitor: 20-year-old Paul Morphy. Despite his inexperience, the youngster had simply run through his opposition: 14 wins, 1 loss, 3 draws. But he not only scored like a champion - he played like a champion!  His play was sound, but so brilliant that nothing like it had been seen before - certainly not in American chess. At last the United States had a master who could be matched with the best that the Old World could offer - and no American need be ashamed of the outcome.
     Morphy's admirers were insistent: he must got to Europe, demonstrate his ability against the great British and German masters. Finally, in June 1858, Morphy sailed for Europe. His immediate goal was a match with Howard Staunton, the leading English player of his day and famous as the  author of Staunton's Handbook - probably the chess best-seller of all time. Like later champions past their prime, Staunton skillfully parried all attempts to pin him down and successfully side-stepped the match.
     Rather than come home empty-handed, Morphy played matches with L÷wenthal and Owen, whom he defeated with the greatest ease. He also played many off-hand games with leading English masters and amateurs, always scoring phenomenally high percentage of wins, and repeatedly winning  his games in that strikingly brilliant manner which has made him the most famous player in the history of the game. Toward the end of the year, he crossed the Channel to play Harrwitz, then the best player in France. Morphy started badly by losing the first two games; but he followed this with five successive wins, whereupon Harrwitz became "indisposed," and the match was terminated. Still disappointed by the Staunton fiasco, Morphy had the pleasure of arranging a match with the great Adolf Anderssen. Although Morphy was ill during the contest, he defeated Anderssen decisively by 7-2, thus becoming the first, although unofficial World Champion.
     The pleasant relations between Morphy and Anderssen were a happy relief from Staunton's devious dickering and name-calling. Anderssen did not admit Morphy to be his superior and remarked bitterly that one could not keep one's ability locked up in a glass case (he had played no serious chess since 1851). Yet, he accepted defeat graciously, and both men acted with courtesy and consideration.
     During his stay in Europe, Morphy also gave several blindfold exhibitions on eight boards. These were perhaps the most sensational events of his trip, for no one in Europe had thought of breaking Philidor's record of three games - set way back in 1783!  Morphy himself, who was by way of being an aristocrat, set no great store by blindfold play, contemptuously dismissing the exhibitions  as circus performances.
     In 1859, Morphy returned to the United States, where he was given receptions fit for a victorious general. At a banquet in New York, he received  board and men which cost $1700. The Union Club presented a silver laurel wreath to him; and in Boston, such distinguished men as Agassiz, Holmes, Longfellow and Lowell attended the dinner given in his honor. At a second dinner in Boston, he was presented with a gold crown. In New York, Robert Bonner paid him $3000 a year in advance to edit a chess column in the New York Ledger.
     On his return to his native city, Morphy announced an offer of Pawn and move to any player in the world - a challenge which had no acceptance. A few months earlier, he had defeated James Thompson, one of the best American players, by 5-3 at the odds of a Knight. Morphy now retired more and more from active chess, and in 1860 he withdrew completely from public competition. Thus Morphy's unique fame rests on a career of barely three years' duration!
     Morphy's ancestry has been the source of extensive investigation, for every country likes to take credit for a great man. There were four racial strains in his ancestry: Irish and Spanish on the paternal side, Huguenot-French and Creole-French on the mother's side. Morphy's great-grandfather started life as Michael Murphy, but fled to Spain in 1753 during a period of particularly virulent oppression in Ireland. In Malaga, where he made his residence, he became Miguel Morphy. The Morphy family emigrated to Philadelphia toward the turn of the century, then to Charleston and finally moved to New Orleans, where Paul was born in 1837.
     Morphy's ancestral background is interesting because it conforms so closely to America's "melting pot" pattern - partly in the diversity of the racial strains, partly in the fact that some of his ancestors had to leave their native lands because of racial and religious persecution. But there is still another sense in which Morphy was a representitive American. Tot he best of my knowledge, he was the first American who attained world-wide preeminence in any field. Before Morphy's time, we had, of course, had great men, but none who were as outstanding in their fields as Morphy was in his. This distinction explains why Morphy's feats aroused so much enthusiasm: every American, chess player or not, could follow Morphy's glorious victories with patriotic pride.

*          *          *          *

     Morphy's character was already well-defined in childhood. As a schoolboy, he was shy, very reserved, very studious, exceptionally courteous, he shunned athletics, kept pretty much to himself. If the word introvert had been known in those days, it would have fitted him perfectly. At the age of 10, he was taught chess by his father, who was a passionate enthusiast of the game. Alonzo Morphy, by the way, must have been a man of superior intelligence; at the age of 42, in 1840, he was appointed a judge of  Louisiana's Supreme Court. Young Paul was likewise destined for the law, and his studies left him little time for chess. Yet, when he was thirteen, he managed to beat the noted master L÷wenthal during a visit to New Orleans. So impressed was the master that he embraced the child and prophesied that he would become the greatest player the world had ever seen. At this time, Paul was so short that he had to sit on several books, or else stand, in order to get a clear view of the pieces on the board!
     In the years that followed, Paul continued to play chess at home and in school, at such times as his studies permitted. So intense was his concentration on law that he was admitted to the bar at the age of 19 (he had to wait until he was 21 before he could practice), and he knew most of  Louisiana's Civil Code by heart. Yet his purely local fame as a chessplayer in New Orleans was sufficient to secure him a place in the First American Chess Congress, and the rest is history - glorious history. It is true that only one of his rivals was a master of real stature - Louis Paulsen - but Morphy beat him by the crushing score of 5-1.
     Here is how Gilberg describes Morphy at the height of his powers: "Morphy is below the medium stature, with a slight but active frame. He possesses a handsome and peculiarly intellectual countenance: a clear, lofty brow, and large, dark gray eyes, which seem to emit in brilliant flashes coruscations from the great mental furnace within. Over the chessboard his genial, placid countenance gave no indication of the mental exertion while delving into combinations of the profoundest depth, and his moves were generally made with a rapidity which seemed to betoken the possession of an intuitive faculty of always selecting the proper reply; but that readiness in action was due to a memory that was remarkably tenacious in retaining its stores of learning, to wonderful analytical powers, and an inexhaustible supply of resources at command to meet every emergency. During his blindfold performances he engaged freely in conversation, and upon at least one occasion amused himself by perusing a book while waiting for the moves of his opponents.  Every board was so clearly limned upon his mental vision that a distracted attention could not efface the pictures."
     After returning from his European triumphs, Morphy was at the height of his fame. Unequalled by any living master, lionized by his countrymen, having every advantage of family, wealth, education and culture, he could look forward to a brilliant career, fruitful activity and a happy old age. Yet at 23, Morphy's life was over; the remaining 24 years were to be pure misery.

*          *          *          *

     Some time after his return to the United States, Morphy decided that he had had enough chess for a while, and that it was time to devote himself to the practice of law. But now he discovered, to his dismay, that his world-wide fame as a chessplayer completely overshadowed his hopes of becoming a lawyer. Unwilling to play chess, unable to continue with his chosen profession, still brooding over the insults of Staunton, Morphy was very unhappy. The coming of the Civil War, with the attendant chaos and misery it produced in the South put the finishing touches to the smashing of his professional career.
     In the end, his temporary renunciation of chess became permanent; he was neither a chessplayer nor a lawyer. But the career of gentleman of leisure, with the daily promenade and the nightly visits to the Opera, was hardly ample to absorb the capacities of a man like Morphy. He failures rankled, and as time went on, he became more moody, succumbing to a persecution mania which took alarming forms. He imagined, for example, that his brother-in-law was trying to poison him in order to obtain his inheritance. This led to a costly lawsuit which ended disastrously for Morphy.
     So Morphy's life dragged on in futile fears, plagued by shapeless phantoms. He died on July 10, 1884 of a cerebral hemorrhage.

*          *          *          *

     What was the secret of Morphy's success as a chessplayer? What was his "secret weapon?" The answer lies in one word: development. Morphy was the man who taught chessplayers the value of bringing out one's forces quickly, effectively, economically. Today this information is shouted from every housetop and appears n every chess book as a matter of course; but in 1857 the idea of development was known only to a genius, and that genius was Morphy.
     But Morphy was not only an "efficiency expert": it is not his system that gives his masterpieces their enduring vitality and charm. He was a great artist, and that is why his games are still studied today. The great Steinitz said of him: "Morphy's career marks a grand epoch in the history of our pastime, and a careful study of his games will always be essential for the purpose of acquiring a complete knowledge of the direct attack against the King, which forms a most important element in mastering our science." Morphy's games have left a deep impression on many a master. A chess wizard who has not studied Morphy's games is about as queer a concept as an engineer who is unable to count.

*          *          *          *

     As I write these lines I am sitting on the edge of a small but incredibly lovely lake. The sun beats down inexorably on the steely-blue brilliance of the wavelets. Shouts of swimmers and canoers are muffled by the muting haze of distance, while birds chirrup their delight. All these things are doubtless lost on my son, who concentrates on building sand-piles. One of these days he will be old enough to make one of life's most enchanting discoveries: playing over Morphy's games for the first time. This exquisite summer's day is like the years of Morphy's career - so brilliant, so steeped in beauty, and so very, very short!  It may be true, as a noted psychoanalyst has claimed, that Morphy's life was ruined by Staunton's contemptuous rebuffs; but while Stanton's tomes moulder in provincial libraries, Morphy's masterpieces still continue to delight every generation of chessplayers.

Fred Reinfeld was a strong mid-20th century American chess player. He is notable for his endless suppy of books and articles on a myriad of subjects, including chess. While he penned biographies and books on more advanced theory, he is best remembered for his chess books geared towards novices and many players owe their introduction to chess to Reinfeld.


Sometimes, however, his writing is more fanciful than accurate and such is the case with this particular article on Morphy. While his enthusiasm makes up in part for his inaccuracies, the reader should still be wary of accepting many on Reinfeld's statements on faith.



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