THE LIFE AND CHESS OF PAUL MORPHY                                                                                                                                               Short Story: The Best American Chess Player

 The Best American Chess Player
by NM Dan Heisman

Copyright 2001 Dan Heisman All Rights Reserved

 

"Sir, there is a Mister  Richard Franklin here to see you. He wishes to indulge in a game or two, if you are interested."

The study was filled with fine paintings and books that his family had collected over many decades. In the northwest corner, near a candleholder and window, sat a seldom used chessboard. The World Champion frowned. Franklin? The name was not familiar. He was probably another old, wealthy gentleman who wished to tell his grandchildren that he had played the famous recluse. Sometimes he humored them, more often not. Being a little bored with nothing else to do, this time it was humor:

"Show him in please, Charles."

"Very good, sir." Charles was never surprised no matter what his employer decided, or at least if he was, he never showed it.

Not half a minute later Charles reappeared, but no longer alone.

"Sir, Mr. Richard Franklin."

The Champion looked up and stared; he couldn't have been more wrong. Franklin was a young man, tall and somewhat slender, with large shoulders. But it was the eyes. These were the eyes of an assassin, or at least not those of someone who was here just to lose a couple of chess games. But why was he here?

"Do sit down Mr. Franklin. Tell me, what brings you to my home on such a nice Louisiana afternoon? You don't look like a local player."

"I .... am from the North." His accent confirmed this. Not that many Yankees wanted to be in the South these days.

"I see." The diminutive master of the house was almost a foot shorter than his guest. He let the subject drop, reasoning that the stranger's hesitation was due to political, and not social matters. "Charles says that you have come all this way just to play some chess with me."

"Yes, that it precisely the reason I came."

This was quite unusual. Usually guests would say something like, "I would be honored." No such courtesy was offered here. Straight. Harsh. Assassin?

Paul Morphy walked over to a handsomely carved bureau and opened a drawer. Inside was a box containing an exquisitely carved wooden set he had been given during his tour of Europe.

"Nice set, Mr. Morphy."

A pleasantry? Or a recognition of the set's rare quality?

"Thank you. You may have the White pieces if you wish."

"I would rather play Black."

Morphy set up the White pieces without comment, but before he could finish the Black army was ready and its commander waiting to move. Whoever his opponent was, he sure knew his way around the chessboard. Sometimes just the way someone captured a piece or set up the pieces was a clue. The World Champion played 1.e4.

Franklin's hand instinctively shot out for the c-pawn, but then he stopped. Apparently that would not serve his purpose; apparently only one move would; it was 1... e5. Franklin was not afraid of any lines with 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4. 3.Bc4 it was.

The game soon turned into a rare, old, and yet really not so old variation of the Max Lange attack. Black was close to equalizing, but there was plenty of play in the position and he had to be careful. Soon both sides were moving very slowly. White's extra space and development stacked against Black's extra pawn and solid pawn structure. But Morphy was happy; he was familiar with this type of position and had won handily many times. But it was not so easy today.

Nevertheless, the pressure on Black's King grew more quickly than the tall stranger had anticipated. He began to play even more slowly. Strange, thought Morphy. This Franklin fellow is much stronger than the average master. He has already stopped several subtle threats that almost anyone would not have seen. Usually when Morphy got to play his type of opening with White, things ended rather quickly. Anderssen and the other top players always did their best to avoid situations like these against him.

And for good reason. Despite the stranger's good defense, Morphy soon found his attack irresistible, and even though the stranger gave up the exchange to avoid the worst, it was not enough and Morphy finally won a nice endgame.

"You play very well, Mr. Franklin."

"Another game?"

It was only fair. Morphy took the captured Black pieces and began to set them up. He found himself obliged to answer 1.e4 with 1e5, just as Franklin had done in the first game. This time the game was a Ruy Lopez. It was the rare 3.Bxc6 exchange variation. This did not suit Morphy's style, but he had often won when his Bishop pair was unleashed later in the game. This time Morphy had some awkwardness defending the queenside, but eventually mustered enough threats on the Kingside to force his opponent to simplify.

The endgame, with Rook, Bishop, and six pawns against Rook, Knight, and six pawns was obviously drawn despite Black's doubled c-pawns. But Franklin was obviously not satisfied and pressed on for a win. Darkness started to fall and Charles dutifully lit the candles both beside the board and near the doorway. Morphy did not offer a draw. It was the obligation of the player trying to win to decide when he could not. Many times Morphy had won when his opponent tried too hard for a win in a drawn position, but Franklin was not giving him one chance at all. Only careful defense could hold the position. Morphy was not known for his defense, but as a World Champion he was not all that bad, either.

It was pitch black outside when Franklin frowned, extended himself to his full height, and offered his hand. Morphy acknowledged the draw. Without further pleasantries, Franklin spun around and got to the study door before Charles, in the next room, could react as an escort.

Normally a score of one-and-a-half out of two would be an embarrassment to Morphy, but not this time. The best player in American history picked up the pieces and, one by one, gently placed them back into the box.

 

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