THE LIFE AND CHESS OF PAUL MORPHY                                                                                                                                                                   The Problem of Paul Morphy 








VOLUME XII                        JANUARY 1931                           PART 1 _______________________________________________________________ 








     Paul Morphy was born at New Orleans on June 22, 1837; he had a sister six and a half years older than himself, one two and a quarter years younger, and a brother two and a half years older.2 His father was a Spaniard by nationality, but of Irish descent; his mother was of French extraction.

     When Paul was ten years old his father, who was himself no mean player, taught him chess. In a year or two he proved himself the superior of his elder brother Edward, his father, his mother’s father, and his father’s brother who was at that time the chess king of New Orleans. A game is preserved which, according to an eye-witness, he is said to have played victoriously against his uncle on his twelfth birthday while blindfolded. At the same age he played against two masters of international renown who happened to be in New Orleans at the time. One of these was the famous French player Rousseau, with whom he played some fifty games, winning fully nine-tenths. The other was the Hungarian master Löwenthal, one of the half-dozen greatest living players; of the two games played the young Paul won one and the other was drawn. After this period little serious chess was played for some eight years while he was pursuing his studies; his father allowed him to play occasionally on Sundays, but .with the exception of Judge Meek, the President of the American Chess Congress, against whom he played and won six games when he was seventeen years old, he encountered only much inferior opponents. His uncle had by then left New Orleans for the West, Rousseau was otherwise absorbed, and Paul’s brother, father and grandfather had abandoned chess when he was in the teens, so the statement that has been made is probably true that in these years he never met anyone to whom he could not give a rook, consequently no one from whose play he could learn anything. In 1851 the first International Chess Tournament had taken place, at which Anderssen emerged as victor, and in 1857, when Morphy was just twenty years old, one was held in New York. He easily gained the first place, losing only one game out of seventeen, and during his stay in New York played a hundred games with the best players there, losing only five of them. In circumstances which will engage our attention presently he visited London and Paris in the following year and his prodigious feats there read like a fairy tale. He not only defeated every champion he could induce to meet him, including Anderssen himself, but also gave several astounding exhibitions of simultaneous blindfold play against eight picked players, winning the large majority of the games. Towards the end of his stay in Paris he defeated blindfold the whole of the Versailles Chess Club playing in consultation. On his return to New Orleans he issued a challenge to play anyone in the world at odds. On receiving no response to this he declared his career as a chess-player—which had lasted barely eighteen months, comprising actually only six months of public play—finally and definitely closed.

     Of the actual quality of Morphy’s play we shall have something to say later, but for the moment it will suffice to say that many of the most competent judges have pronounced him to have been the greatest chess-player of all time. After his extraordinarily premature retirement he took up the practice of law, his father’s profession, but although he possessed much skill in the work be was unsuccessful in practice. He gradually relapsed into a state of seclusion and introversion which culminated in unmistakable paranoia. At the age of forty-seven he died suddenly of ‘congestion of the brain’, presumably apoplexy, as his father had before him. The evident problem arises of what relation, it any, his tragic neurosis bore to the supreme activities of his life, activities for which his name will always be remembered in the world of chess.

     It was popularly believed that the excessive preoccupation had affected his brain, but his biographers, who were naturally chess enthusiasts and zealous for the credit of their beloved pursuit, asserted with conviction that this was in no way responsible. Nevertheless, with our present knowledge we should find it impossible to believe that there was not some intimate connection between the neurosis, which is necessarily concerned with the kernel of the personality, and the superb efforts of sublimation which have made Morphy’s name immortal. In contemplating this problem let us begin with some reflections on the nature of the sublimation in question.

     The slightest acquaintance with chess shows one that it is a play-substitute for the art of war and indeed it has been a favourite recreation of same of the greatest military leaders, from William the Conqueror to Napoleon. In the contest between the opposing armies the same principles of both strategy and tactics are displayed as in actual war, the same foresight and powers of calculation are necessary, the same capacity for divining the plans of the opponent, and the rigour with which decisions are followed by their consequences is, if anything. even more ruthless. More than that, it is plain that the unconscious motive actuating the players is not the mere love of pugnacity characteristic of all competitive games, but the grimmer one of father-murder. It is true that the original goal of capturing the king has been given up, but from the point of view of motive there is, except in respect of crudity, no appreciable change in the present goal of sterilizing him in immobility. The history of the game and the names for it are of confirmatory interest here. Authorities seem to be agreed that the game originated in India, passed from there to Persia, whose Arabian conquerors transmitted it to Europe nearly a thousand years ago. Its first name, from which all others are derived, was the Sanscrit [sic] one of chaturanga, literally four members. This was also the Indian word for ‘army’, probably because of the four components of elephants, chariots, horse and foot. The old Persians shortened the name from chaturanga to chatrang and their Arabian successors, having neither the initial nor the final sound of this word in their language, modified it into shatranj. When it re-emerged into later Persian the unconscious must have been at work, for it had by then been shortened to Schah, an assimilation having evidently taken place with the Persian Shah = King; ‘chess’ thus means the royal game, or the game of kings. Shah-mat, our ‘checkmate’, German ‘Schachmatt’, French ‘échec et mate’, means literally ‘the king is dead’. At least so the Arabian writers on chess thought, and most European authors copy them in this. Modem Orientalists, however, are of opinion that the word ‘mat’ is of Persian, and not of Arabian, origin, and that ‘Shah-mat’ means ‘the king is paralysed, helpless and defeated’. Again from the point of view of the king it makes very little difference.

     In the Middle Ages an interesting innovation was introduced into the rules of chess which deserves incidental mention. By the side of the king stands another piece who was originally his counsellor, Persian firz (Turkish vizier). As his main occupation was supposed to be, not fighting, but advising and defending, he was in action the weakest piece on the board, his only move being one square diagonally. In the Middle Ages he gradually changed his sex, thus passing through the same evolution as the Holy Ghost, and came to be known as the regina, dame, queen, and so on. It is not known why this happened. It was suggested by Freret [Frère?], an eighteenth-century writer on chess, that a confusion must have arisen between the words ‘fierge’, the French for firz, and ‘vierge’. It has more generally been thought that as this used to be the only piece for which a pawn could be exchanged on reaching the eighth square, when it was sometimes called ‘un pion damé’, this circumstance led to its being given the same name as the French one for draughts, i.e. dames. About the middle of the fifteenth century this change in sex was followed by a great increase in power, so that the piece is now stronger than any other two together. Whatever may be the truth, therefore, about the linguistic speculations I have just mentioned, it will not surprise the psycho-analyst when he learns the effect of the change: it is that in attacking the father the most potent assistance is afforded by the mother (= queen).

It is perhaps worth remarking further that the mathematical quality of the game gives it a peculiarly anal-sadistic nature. The exquisite purity and exactness of the right moves,3 particularly in problem work, combine here with the unrelenting pressure exercised in the later stages which culminates in the merciless denouement. The sense of overwhelming mastery on the one side matches that of unescapable helplessness on the other. It is doubtless this anal-sadistic feature that makes the game so well adapted to gratify at the same time both the homosexual and the antagonistic aspects of the son-father contest. In these circumstances it will be understood that a serious match places a considerable strain on the psychical integrity and is likely to reveal any imperfections of character development. All games are apt at times marred by unsportsmanlike behaviour, i.e. by the sublimation undergoing a regression to its asocial origins, but with chess the strain is exceptionally great and is complicated by the circumstance that a specially high standard of correct demeanour is exacted.

     It is interesting to compare with these psychological considerations some historical data on the way in which the game has been variously received by religious authorities. Van der Linde and Murray, the two greatest authorities on the history of chess, discuss sympathetically the Indian tradition that the game was invented by the Buddhists. It is certainly suggestive that the first mention of it occurs in connection with a stronghold of Buddhists. According to their ideas, war and the slaying of one’s fellow-men, for any purpose whatever, is criminal, and the punishment of the warrior in the next world will be much worse than that of the simple murderer; hence—so runs the story—they invented chess as a substitute for war. In this they would appear to have anticipated William James’ suggestion of providing war-like substitutes, one quite in accord with the psycho-analytical doctrine of the displacement of affects. In a similar vein St. J. G. Scott narrates a Burmese story to the effect that chess was invented by a Talaing queen who was passing fond of her lord and hoped by this distraction to keep him out of war. Ambivalence runs through the whole story, however, for the view has also been put forward that chess was invented by a Chinese mandarin, Han-sing, who wanted to amuse his soldiers when in winter quarters. A Ceylon legend has it that the game was invented by Ravan, the wife of the King of Lanka, in order to distract that monarch when his metropolis was being besieged. On the other hand, about the year 1000, a puritanical regent of Egypt usually known as Mansar issued an edict forbidding chess. In medieval times chess became widely popular and the ecclesiastical attitude towards it appears to have been mainly negative. The statutes of the church of Elna, for example, lay down that clergy indulging in chess shall be ipso facto excommunicated. At the end of the twelfth century the Bishop of Paris forbade the clergy even to have a chess-board in their house, in 1212 the Council of Paris condemned it utterly, and some forty years later St. Louis, the pious King of France, imposed a fine on whoever should play the game. John Huss, when in prison, deplored having played at chess and thereby run the risk of being subject to violent passions.

     In returning to the problem of Paul Morphy I shall begin with giving some description of his personal attributes and the characteristics of his play. In appearance he was small, only five foot four in height, with preternaturally small hands and feet, a slim, graceful figure and a ‘ face like a young girl in her teens’ (F. M. Edge). Falkbeer, who knew him, observed that he appeared younger than he really was, adding ‘One would certainly have taken him rather for a schoolboy on his vacation than for a chess adept who had crossed the Atlantic for the express purpose of defeating, one after another, the most eminent players the world then knew.’ He had a very pleasing manner and a delightful smile. His demeanour was strikingly modest. On only two occasions was he known to invite anyone to play with him, and with an uncanny intuition he chose for these exceptions the two men, Staunton and Harrwitz, who were to exercise such a baleful influence on his life. He bore himself, even in the unpleasant controversy we shall presently relate, with the greatest courtesy and dignity. While playing he was very impassive, with his eyes fixed steadfastly on the board; opponents got to know that whenever he looked up. which he did without any exultation, it meant he could foresee the inevitable end. His patience seemed inexhaustible; Edge, his first biographer, records having watched the famous Paulsen spend an hour or two over a single move while Morphy sat calmly looking on without the slightest movement of uneasiness. He seemed insensitive to fatigue and I will recall a story which illustrates his powers of endurance as well as two other features: his astounding memory—which, incidentally, he possessed also for music—and his capacity for sensorial imagery, a quality which links chess players with musicians and mathematicians. It is narrated by Edge, who was at the time acting as his secretary, and  concerns an exhibition he was giving when just twenty-one at the Café de la Régence in Paris, then the Mecca of chess players from all over the world. He played blindfold eight games simultaneously against powerful opponents who, incidentally, were freely helped by advice from a crowd of expert players. It was seven hours before the first of them was defeated and the match lasted ten consecutive hours, during the whole of which time Morphy abstained from taking either food or even water. At the close there was a scene of terrific excitement, and Morphy had the greatest difficulty in extricating himself from the ovation in the streets and escaping to his hotel. There he slept well, but at seven in the morning he called his secretary and dictated to him every move in all the games, at the same time discussing with him the possible consequences of hundreds of hypothetical

it will be agreed that only a mind working with exceptional ease could have accomplished such an astounding feat. Nor was it an isolated achievement sustained by excitement. There are few more exhausting occupations than serious chess and the number of those who can continue for more than three or four hours on end without feeling the strain is not very great. Yet Morphy has been known to play continuously from nine in the morning until midnight on many successive days without his play weakening in the least and without his showing any signs of fatigue. In psycho-analytical terms this must signify a very exceptional level of sublimation, for a psychological situation of such a degree of freedom can only mean that there is no risk of its stimulating any unconscious conflict or guilt.

     It is not easy to describe Morphy’s qualities as a player in other than general terms without presupposing a knowledge of chess technique. I hope that the generalizations I shall venture on will be in some measure trustworthy; we possess, at all events, ample data on which to found generalizations, for there survive some four hundred of Morphy’s games and an extensive literature has grown up of critical comments subsequent authorities have made on the individual moves.

     To begin with, there are different styles of chess which depend partly on the temperament and aim of the player and partly on the conditions under which he is playing. Speaking very roughly, it depends on whether one sets more store on winning or on not losing. In tournaments, for instance, where defeats are heavily penalized it may pay to aim at a few victories and a number of draws rather than at more victories but more defeats. The two extremes are represented by a slashing, but risky attack on the one hand and a tediously defensive stonewalling on the other. Naturally the ideal player combines the best from each attitude. He spends some time in fortifying his army, not so much for defensive reasons as to get them into the strongest position from which to deliver an attack. A player may excel in either of these activities, or his fortifying may have an almost purely defensive aim in which any opportunity for an attack comes rather as a piece of luck. In chess there are—if we omit the recent ‘hyper-modern’ play—two well-known styles, known as the combinational and the positional. which are sometimes said to correspond with the romantic and the classical temperaments respectively. At the period we are concerned with, about the middle of the last century, only the former existed and, indeed, the latter is essentially the product of the last fifty years. The main difference between the two methods. at least in its extreme form, may be likened to that between a cleverly designed attack in battle and a steady siege. The aim of the combinational method is to plan a skilful grouping of pieces to make a co-ordinated onslaught on the king, whereas that of the positional method is the more cautious—but in the end sounder—one of gradually building up a fortified position and taking advantage of the slightest weakness in the opponent’s position, wherever this may happen to be.

     Now Morphy certainly possessed in the highest degree the gifts necessary for a master of combinational play, those of foresight, calculation and power of divining his opponent’s intentions. Some of his games are masterpieces in this respect which have rarely been equalled and indeed the popular impression of his style among chess-players is that of vehement and victorious onslaught. One would therefore have anticipated with assurance that someone possessing such gifts, and whose brilliant performances were at such an early age, would have owed his success to an unusual genius in the qualities of intuition and adventurousness that might naturally be expected to appeal to youth. Yet the interesting thing is, and one that throws a good deal of light on Morphy’s psychology, that he passed beyond this style and, in fact, ranks as the first pioneer of positional play—though it was Steinitz who later developed the principles of it. It was a fortunate coincidence that the only player in history whose genius in combinational play has equalled Morphy’s was not only just at that time at the height of his career, but actually met Morphy in combat I refer to Anderssen, till that moment the foremost player of the day and virtually the world’s champion—though this title was not formally employed till a decade later. Murray says of the two men: ‘Both were players of rare imaginative gifts, and their play has never been equalled for brilliancy of style, beauty of conception, and depth of design. In Morphy these qualities blazed forth from sheer natural genius; in Anderssen they were the result of long practice and study’. Reti, in his Modern Ideas in Chess, has instructively explained that Morphy’s famous victory over Anderssen was, due, not to greater brilliance in the sense just indicated, but to his establishing the method of brilliance on a basis of the more mature positional play. It must have been a memorable scene to witness this slim youth overpowering the huge, burly Teuton of forty, not in the traditional fashion of the young hero overcoming a giant by more audacious imagination—for in this quality they were equally matched and equally unsurpassable—but by a more mature depth of understanding. The interest of this observation for our purpose is the indication it gives that in Morphy’s mind chess must

have signified a fully adult activity, and success in it the serious occcupation of a man rather than the rebellious ambition of a boy. I shall submit later that being shaken in this matter was one of the factors that led to his mental catastrophe.

     Morphy was master of all aspects of the game in such a high degree, ~and was so free of mannerisms and individual peculiarities of style, that it is not easy to single out any particular characteristics. Chess, it is true, like all other games, is replete with unconscious symbolism. One could, for instance, comment on the skill he showed in attacking the king from behind or in separating the opposing king and queen; the latter, by the way, is illustrated in the first of his games ever recorded, which was played against his own father. But such details are not to our purpose, for pre-eminence in chess depends on a broad synthesis of exceptional qualities rather than on skill in any particular device or method. Careful consideration of the whole of Morphy’s manner of play yields, I think, the indubitable conclusion that the outstanding characteristic he exhibited in it was an almost unbelievably supreme confidence. He knew, as though it was a simple fact of nature, that he was bound to win, and he quietly acted on this knowledge. When the Americans who had seen him play prophesied that on meeting any European champion he would, in the manner of Raphael, ‘bring the sweat into that brow of his,’ chess players in Europe scoffed at the prediction as mere American bombast, and the only question in their minds was whether it was worth their leaders’ while to play such a youngster. To anyone who knows what years of assiduous practice and rich experience go to attaining any degree of prowess in chess nothing could seem more utterly unlikely than that a beginner embarking on this arduous path, as Paul Morphy was, should have the career he actually did on reaching Europe. Yet before he left his native town he calmly predicted his coming victories with the completest assurance. Such presumption might reasonably be regarded as megalomania were it not for the awkward fact that it was justified. On his return home, far from being flushed with pride, he remarked that he had not done so well as he should have, and in a sense this also was true, for when playing on a few occasions in a state of indisposition he was guilty of some weak moves that fell below his usual standard of play and even cost him a few games. It is not surprising that endowed with such confidence in his powers his play was marked by a boldness and even audacity in his moves that give at first the impression of being over-adventurous, and perhaps even of hazarding risks, until one perceives the sureness of the calculation behind them. His intrepidity was naturally more manifest when he had to do with relatively inferior players. Here he could behave with apparent recklessness, extravagantly flinging away one after another of his pieces until with an unsuspected movement his small remaining force would suddenly deliver the coup de grace; on one such occasion he achieved the extraordinary feat of effecting a mate by simply castling. His boldness and his sense of how important position is in chess playing are shown in two other characteristics for which he is well known: the extent to which he appreciated the value of developing the pieces early and continuously, and his willingness to make sacrifices to gain a better position. There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, that when he was a child he was so eager to bring his pieces forward that he regarded his pawns as a nuisance to be got rid of as soon as possible: how different from the great Philidor, who had declared pawns to be the very soul of chess! It is at all events quite fitting that the name ‘Morphy opening’ in chess has been attached to the following device. What is called the Muzio opening is characterized by a bold attack in which a knight is sacrificed in the fifth move so as to obtain what is believed to be a commensurate advantage in position. In the Morphy opening the same tactics are followed up by sacrificing a bishop also, so that it is sometimes known by the name of ‘double Muzio’. Very few people indeed are to be found confident enough of their attack to be able to risk such grave initial losses. Even the defence named after him, the Morphy defence to the Ruy Lopez opening, one which is so valuable as to have been elaborated since into some twenty named variations, is the most aggressive of the manifold defences to this opening.

     With Morphy chess sense, if one may use such an expression, was far more innate than acquired. He had read a good deal, but gave away the book as soon as he had looked through it. He said himself that no author had been of much value to him, and that ‘he was astonished at finding various positions and solutions given as novel— certain moves producing certain, results, etc., for that he had made the same deductions himself, as necessary consequences” (Edge). MacDonnell, who watched his play in London, wrote later of it in his Chess Life-Pictures: ‘I fancy he always discerned the right move at a glance, and only paused before making it partly out of respect for his antagonist and partly to certify himself of its correctness, to make assurance doubly sure, and to accustom himself to sobriety of demeanour in all circumstances’. The following story raises the whole question of the method employed in mental calculation. In the famous seventeenth move in the Four Knights’ game played with Paulsen on November 8, 1857, Morphy offered to exchange his queen for his opponent’s bishop. Paulsen was naturally suspicious of a trap and carefully investigated the possibilities. After pondering on the situation for more than an hour, and detecting no trap, he accepted the offer and after eleven more moves had to resign. Years afterwards Steinitz carried out a full analysis of the situation and maintained as a result of it that the future possibilities in the game were far too numerous and complicated for it to be conceivable that any human brain could calculate and predict them. It so happened that an onlooker had asked Morphy after the game was over whether he had been able to foresee the end of it from his famous move; to the question he returned the enigmatic answer: ‘I knew it would give Paulsen a deal of trouble’. Steinitz was doubtless right in his conclusion so far as consciousness is concerned, but one wonders whether the so-called intuitive chess sense does not imply a special power of pre-conscious calculation. The experiments Milne Bramwell carried out showed that the subconscious capacity for arithmetical calculation, as tested in hypnosis, far exceeds the conscious capacity, and the same may well hold good for the computation of chess moves.

     We may take it that this remarkable combination of capacity and confidence could not occur unless it was a direct representative of the main stream of the libido and was providing the best possible solution of any conflicts in the deepest trends of the personality. It follows that anything interfering with such an indispensable expression of the personality would be Likely gravely to endanger its integrity, and so indeed events proved. Our knowledge of the unconscious motivation of chess-playing tells us that what it represented could only have been the wish to overcome the father in an acceptable way. For Morphy the conditions necessary for its acceptability were essentially three: that the act in question should be received in a friendly manner; that it should be ascribed to worthy motives; and that it should be regarded as a serious and grown-up activity. We shall see that each of these conditions was grossly violated on his fateful visit to Europe and shall try to trace the mental consequences of this. It is no doubt significant that Morphy’s soaring odyssey into the higher realms of chess began just a year after the—unexpectedly sudden—death of his father,4 which had been a great shock to him, and we may surmise that his brilliant effort of sublimation was, like Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Freud’s Traumdeutung, a reaction to this critical event.

     I shall now consider the critical period of Morphy’s life in more detail, and for this purpose shall find it necessary in the first place to introduce to those of you who are not conversant with the history of chess some of the most prominent figures of the day in that world. Six of these need to be mentioned in this context: four of them became friendly admirers of Morphy, the other two set him a psychological problem to which he was not equal.

     First in order of time was Löwenthal, whom Morphy had already successfully encountered when a child. Löwenthal had made further progress since then and in the Birmingham Tournament that took place during Morphy’s visit to England, in which the latter did not participate, he won the first place, although both Staunton and St. Amant were also competitors. In a match arranged between the two Morphy decisively beat him, and Löwenthal became a firm friend and admirer, taking his side in the unfortunate controversy to which we shall presently have to refer. He foretold that after Morphy’s games were published—a task which he himself successfully undertook later—the chess world would rank him above all other players, living or dead. The stakes in the Löwenthal match were £100, and after winning Morphy immediately presented Löwenthal with some furniture costing £120 for a new house he was taking. We shall repeatedly have occasion to note how fastidious Morphy was over the subject of money. Before he left America, for instance, when the New Orleans Chess Club offered to subscribe money to enable him to participate in the Birmingham tournament, he had refused—not wishing to travel as a professional chess-player. Next comes Paulsen, an American, famous at that time for his amazing exhibitions in blindfold chess and later for win fling two matches against Anderssen as well as for his important contributions to chess theory. He was Morphy’s only serious rival at the New York tournament and from reading a couple of his published games he predicted on that occasion that Morphy would beat him; just before the tournament they played three games blindfold, of which Morphy won two and drew one. Paulsen also became a devoted friend of Morphy’s. St. Amant was at that time the foremost player in France.

    He did not play any single-handed games with Morphy, but lost five and drew two of seven consultation games against him. He also became a fervent admirer, and said of his blindfold play that it was e the bones of Philidor and La Bourdonnais rattle in their grave, without doubt the handsomest compliment a Frenchman could pay.  The genial Anderssen we have already met. He was the living and was generally recognized to be the world’s champion until his defeat by Steinitz some years later; he obtained a prize at each of the twelve tournaments he took part in and won the first place in seven of them. Mongredien, the president of the London Chess Club, said of him that he was ‘except Morphy,’ the most splendid and chivalrous player whom I ever encountered’, and his treatment of Morphy certainly confirms this estimate of him. Although his colleagues brought the greatest possible pressure to bear to prevent his impairing German prestige by going abroad to play a match with a youngster of no official standing, and in spite of his having no opportunity to practise beforehand, Anderssen made no excuses but travelled to Paris to meet his fate at Morphy’s hands. Reproached afterwards for not having played so brilliantly as he had in his famous match with Dufresne, he made the generous rejoinder, ‘No, Morphy wouldn’t let me’.

Morphy’s relations with these four men contrast sadly with his experiences of the two who will next concern us. Of these the more important was Staunton, and to explain his significance for Morphy a word must be said about the position he occupied. He was a man with a greater prestige than his tournament record would lead one to suppose. It is true that by his victory over St. Amant, Horwitz and Harrwitz in the ‘forties he could claim to be considered the leading player in the world, but he was not able to sustain this position, being beaten, for instance, in the London tournament of 1851 and the Birmingham one of 1858. He was, however, a great analyst; and the standard text-book that he wrote, together with his position as one of the first chess editors, made him the doyen of the English, if not of the European, chess world. In the middle of the last century England was easily paramount in chess, and perhaps this contributed to the reasons that made Morphy select Staunton as the antagonist he most wanted to meet; it was the wish to play against Staunton that was his main motive in crossing the Atlantic. In psycho-analytical language we may say that Staunton was the supreme father imago and that Morphy made the overcoming of him the test case of his capacity to play chess, and unconsciously of much else besides. A piece of evidence is extant which goes to show that this choice of father imago was far from being a recent one. At the age of fifteen Morphy had been presented with a copy of the games played at the first International Tournament of 1851, of which Staunton was the secretary. He took it on himself, to write on the title page: ‘By H. Staunton, Esq., author of the Handbook of Chess, Chess-Player’s Companion, etc. (and some devilish bad games)’. After Morphy’s victory at the New York tournament some enthusiasts mooted the possibility of a European champion coming to America to play him. On hearing of this Staunton published a deprecatory paragraph in his weekly chess column and remarked that ‘the best players in Europe are not chess professionals but have other and more serious avocations’. To hint that Morphy’s chess was either a juvenile pastime or else a means of making money were innuendoes that must have wounded him to the quick, for there is ample evidence that he was morbidly sensitive to either suggestion. His New Orleans friends nevertheless issued a challenge to Staunton to come to America, which he not unnaturally refused, dropping, however, a broad hint that Morphy would find him at his disposal were he to come to Europe. Morphy crossed four months later and on being introduced to Staunton at once asked him for a game. Staunton pleaded an engagement and followed this by a course of such ungentlemanly behaviour as to be explicable only on the score of neurotic apprehension; it was in fact said of him that he suffered from what was called ‘nervous irritability’. For three months, during his stay in England and after, Morphy endeavoured in the most dignified manner to arrange a match, to which Staunton responded by a series of evasions, postponements, broken promises and pretexts that his brain ‘was overtaxed by more important pursuits ‘—not that the latter prevented him from participating in the Birmingham Tournament in the very same month. Foiled in his hopes Morphy laid the whole matter before Lord Lyttelton, the President of the British Chess Association, who made a sympathetic reply, and the matter rested at that. During this time, however, Staunton kept up in his chess column a steady fire of criticism of the man he avoided meeting, depreciating his play, hinting that he was a monetary adventurer, and soon. One sentence maybe quoted from Morphy’s final letter to him: ‘Permit me to repeat what I have invariably declared in every chess community I have had the honor of entering, that I am not a professional player—that I never wished to make any skill I possess the means of pecuniary advancement ‘.5  The whole episode led to an acrimonious wrangle in the chess world in which the large majority  supported Morphy, and subsequent opinion almost unanimously regards Staunton’s behaviour as totally unworthy of him. The effect on Morphy was immediate, and it showed itself in a strong revulsion against chess. As Sergeant, Morphy’s latest and best biographer, writes,

‘Morphy sickened of chess tactics—off the board. Is there any wonder?’

Towards the end of this episode Morphy crossed to Paris, where he at once approached Harrwitz, le roi de la Regence. This gentleman also does not appear in an amiable light in his dealings with Morphy, which were marked by morbid vanity and a total lack of chivalry (Sergeant). We need not go into the sordid details, which have been fully described by Edge, but the upshot was that Harrwitz withdrew from the match when he was being decisively beaten. Morphy at first refused to accept the stake, a sum of  290 francs, but on its being represented to him that other people would lose money unless his victory was officially sealed in this way he assented, but devoted the sum towards defraying Anderssen’s travelling expenses to Paris. Morphy’s neurosis increased after this, and it was only temporarily abrogated by the pleasant episode of the match with Anderssen, the final flare-up of his chess fever.

     Something should now be said about the reception Morphy’s successes met with, for they were of such a kind as to raise the question whether his subsequent collapse may not have been influenced through his perhaps belonging to the type that Freud has described under the name of Die am Erfoige scheitern (‘Those wrecked by success ‘). I alluded earlier to the scene at the Café de la Régence on the occasion of the brilliant tour de force when Morphy successfully encountered eight strong players at once when blindfold; it was so tumultuous that soldiers ran up in the expectation that there was another revolution. Morphy became the lion of Parisian society, was entertained everywhere, politely allowed himself to be defeated at chess by duchesses and princesses, and finally left France in a blaze of glory, the culmination of which was a banquet at which his bust, made by a famous sculptor, was presented crowned with a laurel wreath. His reception on his return to New York, where patriotic fervour was added to the other enthusiasms, may well be imagined. 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 the chapel of the 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 coloured chess-pieces took the place of the numerals. An incident that occurred at this presentation may be mentioned as illustrating Morphy’s sensitiveness. Colonel Mead, the chairman of the reception committee, alluded in his speech to chess as a profession, and referred to Morphy as its most brilliant exponent. ‘Morphy took exception to be characterized as a professional player, even by implication, and he resented it in such a way as to overwhelm Colonel Mead with confusion. Such was his mortification at this untoward event that Colonel Mead withdrew from further participation in the Morphy demonstration’ (Buck). At the Union Club of New York he was presented with a silver wreath of laurels. He then proceeded to Boston, where a banquet was given in his honour at which were present, among others, Agassiz, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Longfellow and Lowell; in a speech at this banquet Quincey made the witty remark: ‘Morphy is greater than Caesar, because he came and without seeing conquered’. Shortly after this he was presented with a golden crown in Boston.

     Adulation of this degree showered on a young man of twenty-one inevitably imposes a severe strain on his mental integrity, and one may well ask whether it did not play some part in the tragedy that followed. In this connection I should like to quote an interesting passage from the obituary notice written years later by Morphy’s boyhood friend Maurian. Maurian ascribes the revulsion against chess—which, by the way, he does not associate with the subsequent mental derangement—to the completeness of Morphy’s success, but in quite the opposite sense to that we have just indicated. He writes:

‘Paul Morphy was never so passionately fond, so inordinately devoted to chess as is generally believed, An intimate acquaintance and long observation enables us to state this positively. His only devotion to the game, if it may be so termed, lay in his ambition to meet and to defeat the best players and great masters of this country and of Europe. He felt his enormous strength, and never for a moment doubted the outcome. Indeed, before his first departure for Europe he privately and modestly, yet with perfect confidence, predicted to us his certain success, and when he returned he expressed the conviction that he had played poorly, rashly—that none of his opponents should have done so well as they did against him. But, this one ambition satisfied, he appeared to have lost all interest in the game’.

     Before attempting to answer the question just raised I think it well to finish the story itself and give some account of the later mental developments. On settling down in New Orleans Morphy’s intention was to devote himself to the profession of law, of which he had an excellent knowledge. He found, however, that his now unwelcome fame as a chess player prevented people from taking him seriously as a lawyer, and this injustice preyed greatly on his mind. Buck, who had the assistance of Morphy’s relatives in compiling the story of his later years, states that ‘he became enamoured of a wealthy and handsome young lady in New Orleans and informed a mutual friend of the fact, who broached the subject to the lady; but she scorned the idea of marrying “a mere chess-player”’.

     Within a year or two of his establishing himself in what he intended to be his serious permanent profession the Civil War broke out and Morphy was faced with the prospect of a real war interfering with his endeavour to substitute a peaceful occupation for his pastime of mock war.6   His reaction was characteristic of the man who had built his mental integrity on converting hostile intentions into friendly ones— he hastened to Richmond, and in the midst of hostilities applied for a diplomatic appointment. This was refused and soon after his return to New Orleans, his mother-town, it was captured by the Federal enemy. The Morphy family fled on a Spanish warship to Cuba, thence to Havana, Cadiz and Paris. He spent a year in Paris and then returned to Havana until the war was over.

     Already at that time his mental state could not have been at all satisfactory, for within a couple of years of returning to New Orleans his mother persuaded him to spend eighteen months in Paris, his third visit there, in the hope that the change of environment would restore him. His aversion to chess was by now so complete that he did not go near the scenes of his former triumphs.

     Before long there manifested itself unmistakable evidence of paranoia. 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 fathers estate, who he believed was trying to rob him of his patrimony. He challenged him to a duel and then brought a law-suit against him, spending his time for years in preparing his case; in court it was easily shewn that his accusations were quite baseless. 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 in the latter’s office and unexpectedly assaulted him. He was given to stopping and. staring at every pretty face in the street, which I should ascribe to feminine identification. He was also passionately fond of flowers. I will quote one habit from this time, on which, however, I am unable to throw any light. During a certain period, according to his niece’s account, he had a mania for striding up and down the verandah declaiming 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 ira tout penaud’. It sounds like a quotation, but if so I have not been able to trace it, nor can I explain the allusion. 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 intimates to the house. Two years before his death he was approached for his permission to include 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 dollars and 54 cents, 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 problem we have set ourselves at the outset is what relation did Morphy’s chess career bear to his later mental disorder? Sergeant is at pains to demonstrate that mere preoccupation with chess could not be held responsible, and every medical and psychological expert can only confirm this opinion. His summary of the pathogeny of the disorder is so clear as to merit full quotation.  ‘Firstly, Morphy had some reason to be disgusted with, not chess, but chess-masters, whom he found of a very different character from himself. He set out, very young, generous, and high-spirited, recognizing, as he said himself, no incentive but reputation, and met not fellow-knights but tortuous acrobats of the pen, slingers of mud, and chess-sharpers. Granted he also met very decent gentlemen such as Anderssen, Löwenthal, and the majority of the leading amateurs in London and Paris. But the mean wounds inflicted by the other sort did not readily heal. Secondly, he always kept himself pure from any taint (as he rightly or wrongly imagined it to be) of professionalism in chess, yet was constantly being, if not called, at least looked on as a professional. And, lastly, he was ambitious in the career he had chosen for himself in life, and, failing in that through an unfortunate combination of circumstances, laid the blame upon chess. The disappointed ambition was assuredly a cause of Morphy’s sad fate. . . . A super-sensitive nature like his was ill-fitted to stand such trials’.   How much Morphy strove to conceal his wound from himself may be seen from the following passage from his speech at the presentation made to him on his return to New York:

‘Of my European tour, I will only say that it has been pleasant in almost every respect. Of all the adversaries encountered in the peaceful jousts of the checkered field, I retain a lively and agreeable recollection. I found them gallant, chivalrous and gentlemanly, as well as true votaries of the kingly pastime’.

     Let me put the problem in another way. Was Morphy’s mental derangement brought on by his very success or by his failure and disappointment? Was his situation that of Browning’s Pictor Ignotus, from whom the approach of supreme fame brought forth the cry:

‘The thought grew frightful, ‘twas so wildly dear.!’? 

Did he say to himself, like Andrea: 

‘Too live the life grew, golden and not grey,

And I’m the weak-eyed bat no sun should tempt

Out of the grange whose four walls make his world.’ 

Did he withdraw from the world with the disdainful consolation: 

‘At least no merchant traffics in my heart’’ 

Couched in more psychological language, was Morphy affrighted at his own presumptuousness when the light of publicity was thrown on it? Freud has pointed out that the people who break under the strain of too great success do so because they can endure it only in imagination, not in reality. To castrate the father in a dream is a very different matter from doing it in reality. The real situation provokes the unconscious guilt in its full force, and the penalty may be mental collapse.

     I do not think the full explanation can lie here. We have to remember that in the aim most vital to Morphy he had not succeeded, but failed. We have seen how Staunton must have been to him the arch imago, and he had not managed to bring him to book. It was all very well to have shewn himself to be the best player in the world, with a good presumption that he could have defeated Staunton also. But the cold fact remains that this arch-opponent eluded him. The dreaded father was not merely still at large, but had himself shown signs of unmistakable hostility. Morphy’s aim had miscarried of dealing with his. repressed hostility towards his father—and the fear of his father’s towards him—by converting this into a friendly homosexual encounter. The following consideration gives, I think, a hint that Morphy himself was partly conscious of the failure of his aim. When he returned to New York he declared he would not play any American again except at odds, and this was doubtless justified in the circumstances. But when, a few weeks later, he reached the safety of his home in New Orleans he issued a challenge to play anyone in the world at odds of pawn and move, the only instance in his whole chess career of his probably over-estimating his powers.7 I read this as indicating a psychological compensation for the underlying sense of having failed, and the anxiety this must have stirred in his unconscious.

     There was, however, more than this. When Staunton eluded him he did so in a way that must have suggested to a sensitive person, as Morphy assuredly was, that his aim was a disreputable one. We know that mental integrity rests essentially on moral integrity, that mental stability can exist only so long as there is guiltlessness. It is impossible that Morphy could have displayed the capacities he did had not his gifts and mental functioning been free to be wholly concentrated on the tasks he set them. But this was so only as long as he could be relieved from any possibility of the counter-forces in his unconscious being stirred. He was at the mercy of anything that might do this. I have pointed out earlier how abnormally sensitive he was to any hint that his aims might not be received in a friendly manner, i.e. that they might be treated as if they were unfriendly themselves; to any suggestion that they did not proceed from the purest incentives, and particularly to the possibility of their being tainted by mercenary motives; and to any attitude that betrayed disdain for their juvenile nature.8  Staunton bitterly wounded him in each of these three respects. His treatment of him was certainly the reverse of friendly—it is hardly an exaggeration to call it scurrilous; he practically accused him of being a penniless adventurer; and he finally avoided him on the plea that he had more serious, i.e. grown-up, matters to attend to. In the face of these accusations Morphy’s heart failed him, he succumbed and abandoned the wicked path of his chess career. It was as if the father had unmasked his evil intentions and was now adopting a similarly hostile attitude towards him in turn. What had appeared to be an innocent and laudable expression of his personality was now being shewn 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: in short, to ‘mate’ him in both the English and the Persian senses of that word. Obedient to his actual father’s wishes he now engaged in the grown-up profession of law and discarded what he had been told was the childish pre-occupation of chess.9 But it was too late: his ‘sins’ pursued him. In the two things that comprise manhood, a serious career among men and the love of women, his chess past dogged and thwarted him. He was never able to escape from the ‘sins’ of youth and to take his place among the world of men. Little wonder that his abandonment of chess became increasingly complete, until he loathed the very name of it. The only recourse left to him in attempting to deal with his burden of guilt was to project it. In the delusions of being poisoned and robbed we recognize the oral- and anal-sadistic phantasies projected on to his sister’s husband. His homosexual friendliness to men had broken down, and the antagonism underlying it lay exposed. This emerged in the direction of his brother-in-law, evidently a substitute for his brother, while the last anecdote of his life related above, shews how he clung to the exaltation and veneration of his father, to whom was reserved the patriarchal privilege of ‘making money’.

     Perhaps a general conclusion emerges from contemplating this tragic story. It would seem to afford some clue to the well-recognized association between genius and mental instability. It may well be that Morphy’s case is a general one. Genius is evidently the capacity to apply unusual gifts with intense, even if only temporary, concentration. I would suggest that this, in its turn, depends on a special capacity for discovering conditions under which the unconscious guilt can be held in complete abeyance. This is doubtless to be connected with the well-known rigour, the sincerity and the purity of the artistic conscience. It is purchased, however, at the cost of the psychical integrity being at the mercy of any disturbance of these indispensable conditions. And that would appear to be the secret of ‘artistic sensitiveness’.

     The story also lends itself to a discussion of some important psychoanalytical considerations which I have scarcely time here to adumbrate.

     It will have been noticed that, for the sake of simplicity, I have throughout referred to Morphy’s gifts as a mark of his capacity for sublimation, and the question may well be asked whether this is a just description of a disguised way of gratifying hostile, e.g. parricidal, impulses. In answer I would admit that the impulses behind the play are ultimately of a mixed nature, but the essential process seems to me to be a libidinal one. I conceive that the parricidal impulses were bound by an erotic cathexis, actually a homosexual one, and that this in its turn was sublimated. The enormous value of the process to Morphy’s mental health is evident from the considerations adduced above, and this I take to be an example of an important general law, namely that the process of sublimation has ultimately a defensive function.10   By discharging id energy along a deflected path, and particularly by transforming a sexualized aggressivity it protects against the dangers to the ego which we know to proceed from excessive accumulation of that energy.

     Finally, it is worth pointing out that when one speaks clinically of the ‘breakdown of a sublimation one really means the cessation of its defensive function. Morphy could play chess as well after as before his mental failure, as may be seen from his occasional games with Maurian: in most such cases, perhaps in all, the actual capacity acquired in the sublimating process remains intact in itself. What is lost is the ability to use this talent as a means of guarding against overwhelming Id impulses, and this is really what patients are fearing when they express the anxiety lest ‘psycho-analysis will take their sublimations away from them.‘ 11




1  Read before the British Psycho-Analytical Society, November 19, 1930. 

2  As the dates of their birth are not given in any of the biographies,  I may usefully mention them here: Mahrina, [sic] February 5, 1830; Edward, December 26, 1834: Paul, June 22, 1837; Helena, October 22, 1839. 

Chess may well be called the art of the intellect 

4  This occurred on November 22, 1856.           

5  F. M. Edge: Exploits and Triumphs of Paul Morphy. 1859 

6  In the discussion of this paper Dr. Bryan and Miss Sean attached great importance to the effect of this episode on Morphy’s mind, and I am inclined to agree with them; it may even have been the precipitating cause of the psychosis, as the London experiences certainly were of the neurosis. 

7  ‘Against this, I admit, the fact might be brought forward that no less a master than Saint-Amant had maintained that Paul Morphy must in future give odds to every opponent.’ 

8  ‘How beautifully Morphy ‘moralized’ the pastime may be observed in the following passage from the speech already cited: ‘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 honour. 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.’ 

9  To quote again from the speech mentioned above: ‘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 commendations.’ 

10  Dr. Glover expressed a similar conclusion in his recent paper before this Society: ‘Sublimation, Substitution and Social Anxiety, October, 1930. 

11  The original material on which this essay is based can mostly be traced through the bibliographical references given in the Encyclopedia Britannica (eleventh and fourteenth editions), and P. W. Sergeant’s Morphy’s Games of Chess (1921). I am also greatly indebted to Mr. Sergeant for his courtesy in placing at m~ disposal much unpublished material, including the manuscript of another forthcoming book by him on Paul Morphy. I am also obliged to Paul Morphy’s niece, Mrs. Morphy. Voitier, of New Orleans, for kindly furnishing me with much useful information about him and the family.