THE LIFE AND CHESS OF PAUL MORPHY                                                                                                                                              Short Story: The Day Kasparov Played Morphy

The Day Kasparov Played Morphy

Mark Kislingbury
Houston, Texas

reproduced here by permission of the author



Garry Kasparov (1963-) did play a game of chess against Paul Morphy (1837-1884). It's true. Without a doubt. How do I know, you ask? I was there. I saw it. Let us see the game, you say. Well, as a matter of fact, I have it. I'll show it to you -- the whole thing. Ah, but I am getting ahead of myself. I must back up to tell you how this all came about so that, if possible, you just might believe my story.

One late night I went to bed, being particularly tired from a hard day's work, and I quickly dozed off into what must have been a very deep sleep. It was at this time that I had a vivid dream -- a dream that I had died and ascended to Heaven. One rather singular aspect of this dream was that I was afforded the opportunity to stand before The Almighty. We had a wonderful conversation. And during the conversation, the subject of chess came up. God asked me if I would like to return to earth and fulfill any chess wish that I desired.

Suffice it to say that I asked God if I could please see Garry Kasparov play chess against Paul Morphy, and He said yes! He told me that I could return to the universe of space and time, find Garry Kasparov, and that I could accompany him back in time to meet Morphy in New Orleans. So, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye...
Oh, wait -- I am under direct orders to not tell you anything about what Heaven is like, or how to get there, other than to say, "If you want to know, read your Bible." But that's another story.

This story concerns The Game.


Saturday, May 10th, 1997. Central Park. New York City, New York. United States of America. Earth. I found myself standing in the south end of Central Park, near the Park Plaza Hotel. A horse and carriage, carrying an amorous couple, clip-clopped by. Then I saw Garry Kasparov striding toward me, head down, walking slowly, hands clasped behind him, apparently lost in deep thought. Kasparov had the habit of taking long walks in Central Park during his 1997 match with Deep Blue.

"Excuse me, Mr. Kasparov," I said apologetically, genuinely sorry to disturb him. He stopped.

"Yes?" he said, his face stern.

"You're going to think I'm crazy, but.... Well, do you believe in God?" I blurted.

"Of course I do," he shot back.

"Well, uh, Garry, I... God has told me that He's going to allow you to play chess with Paul Morphy." There was a long silence. "Tonight," I added. I expected him to wheel about and hurry away.

"God? Me, play Morphy?"  His countenance softened. "You know, I have always wanted to play Morphy.... even... even more than Fischer. So... how will I play him? You know, I'm playing a match with Deep Blue, and the last game is tomorrow, and --"

"I know, and I'm sorry about that," I said, "but God chose the date to send me here. You have to play him tonight, or never."

"Let's do it," said Kasparov, with suppressed excitement showing through a serious face. "Where do we play?"

"I think this is where we stand with our eyes closed," I said. In the very next moment, daylight hit our faces, and we were standing on the corner of Canal and Baronne Streets in New Orleans. The air felt cold, and the sun shone high in the sky.

"I can't believe this! I can't believe this!" cried Kasparov, as he looked about. "We are in New Orleans! I am going to play the great Morphy!" He stood, taking in the sights and sounds of old New Orleans, as the full import of what he was about to take part in settled over him. "What year is it?" he suddenly asked. "Just where is Morphy in his chess career at this point?" A tall man in a long coat and top hat hurried past us.

"Excuse me, sir," I said. "I -- I have this terrible memory, and -- well, could you please tell me, what is the date?"

"Why, it's December 14th, young man!" he answered.

"But, the year, sir... What is the year?" I implored. The man looked at me, his head slightly cocked to the side, as if he'd never heard such a question. He looked at Kasparov, then back to me.

"Young man, it's Eighteen-and-fifty-nine! You'd best get inside before you catch a cold and forget your own name!" And with that the stranger hurried off, but not without looking back at us and shaking his head.

"Eighteen-fifty nine!" Kasparov mused. "In 1859 Morphy had returned to the U.S., having beaten the best players in Europe! He is at the top of his game!"

"Come on," I said. "We've got to get moving. We need to find Royal Street. I know that's where he lives." We walked briskly, crossing Bourbon Street.

"Should I be white, or black?" muttered Kasparov. "If  I'm white, should I play e4 or d4?" I wanted to make a suggestion as to what opening he might try, but I thought I'd better not. I didn't want to influence this great moment in history -- or was it in history? "I think it would be a great feat to defeat him with black, more than with white." Kasparov continued his soliloquy uninterruped. "I think I'll take black."

Finally I found the nerve to speak. "What will you do if Morphy plays e4 on his first move?" I asked, as we hustled past a dress-maker's shop. Kasparov looked at me for the first time since we started walking.

"What do you mean, 'if'? He will play e4 on his first move. Haven't you studied Morphy's games?"

I felt two feet tall. "Right. I knew that." I could see Royal Street ahead of us.

"I will play the Sicilian. I'll play the line I've prepared for Deep Blue tomorrow."

"The Najdorf?" I asked.

"No. Deep Blue is too booked up for that. No, I found a line that most computers play quite poorly, and I think that Deep Blue won't know how to handle it. And, most likely, neither will Morphy." Suddenly he stopped and turned toward me, looking at me for only the  second time since we left New York. His large frame seemed to tower over me. "You will not say a word to anyone about the Sicilian line I plan to play tomorrow against Deep Blue. Feng-Hsiung Hsu has spies everywhere, I know it." I knew I had received a command. I assured him that I would tell no one. At the stone obelisk that read "Rue Royal," we turned left.

"We're almost there," I told Garry. He seemed lost in thought. His rapid gait had slowed a little.

"Perhaps I should offer him a draw when it appears that I will win. I love to win, yet, somehow, I would feel sad to defeat the great Paul Morphy. He was a true genius. But --"  

We were in front of what I knew to be the Morphy home, because it's the same building that later became the famous Brennan's restaurant in the late Twentieth Century. I looked at Kasparov, his eyes fixed on the door like a little boy about to meet his idol. A large brass knocker hung in the middle of the door. Kasparov just stood there, so I grabbed the knocker and made three loud raps. It seemed like we'd waited forever before the door opened. A handsome  woman who appeared to be in her sixties stood before us, wearing a long, Victorian style, green velvet dress with a high lace collar.

"Gentlemen? How may I help you?" she asked.

I cleared my throat. Kasparov looked nervous.

"Madame," I said, trying to pronounce it as I thought the French would, accenting the last syllable, "we have come a long way, in the hope of gaining an audience with Mr. Paul Morphy."  The woman's eyes seemed unapproving. "This man beside me is without a doubt the strongest chess player that Mr. Morphy will ever face," I added quickly. Apparently she did not have much appreciation for this statement, because the door began to close.

"I'm sorry, gentlemen, but Mr. Morphy is not entertaining --"  The door began to open again, and a small man looked out at us. 

"And to whom do I owe the pleasure of this visit?" the man asked. Paul Morphy stood before me and Kasparov. His boyish looks belied the great chess mind which dwelt inside his slightly built body. I felt small next to Kasparov, yet Morphy was even smaller than me.

"Kas-PAR-ov," said Garry, "Garry Kas-PAR-ov."

"I am pleased to make your acquaintance," said Morphy. "Please come inside." I could see that Morphy wondered at the strange cut of Kasparov's clothing. Morphy must have quickly determined who was the real chess player here, for I don't think he ever laid his eyes upon me again after he invited us inside. The Victorian woman had quickly disappeared to another part of the house, and Morphy directed us up a staircase on the right. Morphy made conversation as we ascended the staircase.

"So, Mr. Kasparov, if I heard correctly, you are a very strong player. I always enjoy playing against strong players, but, alas, I have found very few of them. Very few indeed."

"The honor is mine, I assure you," responded Kasparov. Morphy waved us into a large library, which had a substantial fireplace at one end, and high ceilings. A grand chandelier hung from the middle of the ceiling. A table with chessmen sat between two high-backed chairs, and I was delighted to see a third chair placed in just the right position for watching a chess game.

"Where did you receive your chess training?" Morphy inquired. "I am having trouble placing your accent."
"In Russia -- or, Armenia," answered Kasparov.

"Would you care for some tea?" asked Morphy. He was quite the gentleman.

Just as I thought about how nice it would be to taste Nineteenth Century New Orleans tea, Kasparov answered, "No, thank you. I'm fine."

"I'll bring some in, if perchance you should change your mind." Morphy excused himself, and Kasparov walked straight to one of the massive bookshelves. He scanned the shelves quickly, and within a few seconds he reached out and pulled a chess book off the shelf. He held it as if it were a priceless treasure.

"The Handbuch. Amazing!" Kasparov spoke with reverence, in hushed tones. He pulled another book off the shelf. "Analyse du jeu des Echecs, by Philidor, published in the mid 1700's," whispered Kasparov. "This is worth many thousands of dollars today -- or, in 1997." I looked at it in wonder. The book was in excellent condition.

"I received that as a gift from some of my Parisienne friends." Morphy had returned to the room with a Sterling silver tea set and tiny cakes.

"I have a copy myself," said Kasparov. "But this one of yours is like new." Morphy set the tray down on a small wooden cart near the chess table.

"Well! Shall we have a partie?" he asked. He sounded peculiarly nonchalant, without emotion on his face, as though he merely asked, "Shall we have dessert?" I stumbled upon the realization that, among the three of us in that library, two fully understood the historical implications of this game, two were Americans, two were World Champions, and two were from the Twentieth Century.

"I would love to," Kasparov said, as he carefully reshelved the books, threw back his shoulders, and strode to the little chess table. 

Morphy motioned to the large chair on our right. "Please, be seated." After Kasparov sat down in the large velvet chair, I took my place in the simple wooden chair, and Morphy then slid himself into his large chair. The white pieces were aligned on Morphy's side of the board. I was delighted with my 50-yard-line seat. I helped myself to some tea and cakes, while the chess players had not the least bit of interest in them.

"Ready?" Morphy asked, still unsmiling. Kasparov also did not smile. He unbuttoned his collar. Morphy's gaze turned down to the chessboard, and he picked up the white king's pawn and placed it on king four. "Bonne chance," he said.

Kasparov then put his head in his hands, and he went into a long think on his first move. I wondered why he did not move right away. Morphy, as small as he was, sat up perfectly straight, and had an air of confidence about him, while Kasparov, though larger, was hunched over, his elbows on his knees, his tweed jacket unbuttoned in front. I was nearly finished with my cup of tea when a log shifted in the fireplace. Kasparov glanced at it as he moved his queen's bishop's pawn forward two squares. Morphy touched his forefinger to his cheek and after a few seconds played his king's knight to bishop three. Without waiting Kasparov grasped his queen's pawn and shot it forward one square. I thought I saw Morphy nod a bit with this move, and he glanced up for the briefest moment at Kasparov, but without moving the angle of his head. He then placed his queen's pawn on the queen's four
square. Kasparov took it with his pawn, and Morphy recaptured with his knight. I noticed the Victorian lady standing in the doorway when Kasparov picked up his king's knight and put it on his bishop three, but by the time I looked up after Morphy developed his other knight to bishop three, she was gone.

I wondered what Kasparov would play here. Certainly the Najdorf would be a perfect choice for the World Champion of my day, since Morphy would have never seen the variation. So great was my surprise when he reached for his king's pawn, and slid it forward, not one, but two squares. So this was his prepared line against Deep Blue! I wondered what other secrets Garry had up his sleeve. Morphy, with no visible emotion, contemplated the position before him. I am certain that he thought no more than one minute before he brought his knight back to bishop three again. Immediately Kasparov developed his king's bishop.

I couldn't help but admire these beautiful chessmen that were so fortunate to be the actors in this historic stage play. Morphy versus Kasparov! A match that chess enthusiasts could only dream of, and yet here it was happening, and I had a ring-side seat! I would be the arbiter, the judge, the scribe, the historian, the witness, I and I alone. What a privilege! I glanced upward and whispered my thanks. Morphy was thinking again, this time for about a minute. I couldn't take my eyes off of the gaping hole on black's queen four. I knew that Morphy could have never heard of a Boleslavsky hole. I pondered the possibility that Kasparov had probably forgotten more
about opening theory than poor Morphy ever knew! Morphy slid his king's bishop to queen bishop four. Very nice, I thought. White's setup was classical, typical Morphy, typical Nineteenth Century. Black's was a thoroughly modern-style defense, developed long after Morphy could have ever studied it. Kasparov's face was intense, his eyes slightly narrowed, his brow furrowed. He took off his watch and laid it beside the board. Morphy was regarding the watch with interest when Kasparov noticed and quickly picked it up and slid it into his breast pocket. Then Garry castled, and Morphy played his queen's bishop to knight five. The Victorian woman strode in and leaned over Morphy, whispering something in his ear. He nodded without taking his eyes off the board, and Kasparov glanced up at the woman as he slid his queen's bishop to king three. As she turned and strode out of the library, Morphy picked up his queen and quietly placed her on king two. Kasparov pulled on his chin, stroking his five-o'clock shadow. He looked confident, typical Kasparov. He was in his element, and in control. His eyes were narrow now as he seemed to be looking deeply into the position, visualizing positions far away from this one,
turning the pieces this way and that. I looked at Morphy. He was as calm as if he were reading poetry on a Sunday afternoon. His gaze was continual, his pose motionless. I wondered how these two confident, irresistible forces would fare today, on this arguably greatest day in chess history.

Kasparov took a long think here. I was just considering excusing myself to try to find where the restroom might be when finally, after what must have been ten minutes, Kasparov slapped his queen onto knight three with that unique sound that can only be made by a wooden chess piece striking a wooden chessboard. Things were getting interesting. I don't know if I was imagining it, but Morphy's eyes seemed to have a gleam in them as they darted about the board. For five solid minutes, while the fireplace crackled, Morphy seemed to be considering the right side of the board, then the left, then the right. Kasparov struck a thinker's pose. Morphy castled long. Kasparov raised his eyebrows. He seemed full of nervous energy. He shifted his weight first to one side, then the other. He leaned forward, then back. He tried to bite a piece of skin off of one of his fingers. Then he snatched up Morphy's bishop, capturing it with his own. He put the captured white bishop down where his watch had been. Morphy quietly picked up the black bishop and softly placed his queen onto the same square, placing the captured bishop on the opposite side of the board from the other. Another five minutes went by, as Kasparov pondered. He seemed weigh the pros and cons of an important move. Another five minutes passed, and then with a swoop of his queen Kasparov captured Morphy's king's bishop's pawn.

Morphy had given Kasparov a pawn!

Nobody can give Kasparov a pawn and get away with it! Kasparov, the master of attack, and a tiger in defense! It was then that I realized that Morphy's outdated style of sacrifice and attack would finally meet its match, and it would succumb to the greatest World Champion who ever lived. Morphy would go to his grave wondering what hit him. He would have to rethink his whole approach to the game. I was lost in these thoughts when Morphy played bishop captures knight, and Kasparov recaptured with his bishop. I saw that Morphy could play rook takes pawn, and Kasparov could remain a pawn up with queen takes knight pawn. I didn't see how Morphy's attack could succeed.

But instead Morphy played what appeared, to me, to be a strange move. He touched his right forefinger to his king's rook and slid it to the left one square, protecting the knight's pawn. Kasparov exuded confidence as he jumped his queen's knight onto queen's bishop three. Morphy was a model of placidity as he carefully pushed his king's rook's pawn forward two squares. Kasparov ran his fingers through his hair several times, then put his hands on his hips and rocked slowly back and forth, then grasped his bishop and pushed white's king's rook's pawn off of the board. Kasparov was two pawns up, and Morphy was attacking. Morphy was motionless. Kasparov, for the first time in the game, left his seat and strode about the library, his eyes scanning the titles on the bindings of the hundreds of books, but now and then stopping and studying the board from afar. Then he returned to his
high-backed chair and leaned on the back of it, analyzing the position from behind his chair.

Morphy hadn't thought long when he slid his queen's rook over two squares, attacking Kasparov's queen. Kasparov played queen to king six, check. Morphy moved his king to knight one. The World Champion -- er, the current World Champion -- well, I should say Garry Kasparov gained confidence with every move. He was a tower of strength. He was giving lessons to a schoolboy. He was taking him to the woodshed. He moved his bishop to bishop seven, attacking Morphy's rook. Somehow I felt that this game could not end in a draw. It was too imbalanced. Both sides had committed themselves to a game plan -- Morphy, to all-out attack; Kasparov, to winning two pawns and exchanging into a technically won endgame. Without much thought Morphy played rook to rook one, removing the rook from danger. Kasparov needed only 30 seconds to retreat his queen to queen's bishop four, and then I saw Kasparov staring across the board at Morphy. His was a look of superiority, the look of a victor regarding the vanquished. Black was offering to trade queens, when the endgame would be hopeless for white.

Morphy, stoic, showing no sign of what was going on inside his head, pulled his own queen back to king two. Kasparov quickly drew his bishop to king's knight six, and now helped himself to a cup of tea. I wondered if Kasparov would like what was now lukewarm tea. I felt a sadness well up inside me, as I saw Morphy's attack,
which never really was an attack, come to naught. Yes, he had open lines, but they were striking granite at their end points. Kasparov was snatching pawns and pulling back at will. The Morphy era was over, and scientific chess had replaced it. I began to wonder if Morphy should just resign here. But of course that would be premature. A few more moves would make the result clear, surely. Morphy thought a few minutes, and then reached for his king
knight, then paused, leaving his hand suspended over the white wooden horse. Kasparov glanced up at Morphy, then back at the board. Morphy then grasped the knight and advanced it to king's knight five. It was an obvious threat on black's king rook two. Black really only had one choice.

Kasparov stared at the position. Four white pieces were trained at black's king side. I glanced at Kasparov, to try to read his face. He shook his large head back and forth. Suddenly he played pawn to king rook three and leaned back in his chair.

Morphy sat, unmoving, staring at the board. Minutes passed. I knew that Morphy must have been considering such attacking moves as queen to rook five, or queen to knight four, or rook to rook three, or even rook to bishop three. There were many attacking possibilities. Kasparov's queen seemed to be blocked from the defense of her king. For the first time, Kasparov seemed concerned. He was imperceptibly sliding down in his chair, leaning way back, but his eyes still glued to the board. Both players' eyes were fixed on the king's side.

I checked my watch. By my estimate, Morphy had been thinking right about twelve minutes when he scratched his head, looked up at Kasparov for a brief moment, and then picked up his king's rook and captured Kasparov's rook pawn. My eyes went wide and my mouth involuntarily dropped open. Morphy was sacking a rook against
Kasparov! Kasparov bolted erect. He shook his head, as if in a daze, and clutched his head in his hands. He captured the rook. Without a moment's hesitation Morphy slid his queen to rook five. Kasparov nudged his queen forward, to queen's bishop five. I could see that Kasparov's move defended his king's bishop two square and at the same time attacked Morphy's remaining rook. Kasparov's queen had not landed centered on its square. Morphy adjusted it, twisting it a half turn until it was centered, and then slid his rook to king rook one. Morphy's eyes again glanced up at Kasparov. Kasparov jerked his king's rook over to queen's bishop one, and stood up. Morphy then played queen captures rook pawn. It was now very clear, even to me, that Kasparov was being
mated. His king needed a flight square, but there was none to be found. He pulled his bishop back to rook five, into the line of fire, to certain death. What a futile move, I thought. Kasparov is dead lost, and he doesn't have the heart to resign! Kasparov has been demolished by a Nineteenth Century..... genius!

Morphy was without emotion. Morphy touched his queen's knight pawn with his left hand and carefully moved it up a square. Garry Kasparov gently laid his ebony king on its side and extended his right hand. It suddenly dawned on me that the impossible was occurring before my eyes -- that two current World Chess Champions were shaking hands, and they were born over a century apart. With a slight smile Morphy thanked Kasparov for the game, and he escorted us to the door. As we stepped out and the door was closing, I heard the Victorian woman say to Morphy something about "pawn-and-move from now on."

Kasparov had lost in 24 moves.


Back in Central Park, it was late at night, and neither Kasparov nor I said a word as we walked toward his hotel. My thoughts turned to Kasparov's match with Deep Blue. The match was tied 2.5-2.5, and Game 6, the final game, was tomorrow. Kasparov's head was down, and he was walking slowly. He was obviously in a depressed state of mind.

"What are you going to play against Deep Blue tomorrow?" I asked quietly. "You have black, right?" We stopped walking. Kasparov was quiet.

Then he replied, "I had specially prepared that Sicilian with 5...e5." He paused. "Now I don't know what I'm going to play." We both stood there for a while, saying nothing. Then Kasparov gave me a quick nod and walked across the street to his hotel. I stood watching him.

Just before he got to the hotel doors shouted, "Garry!"  He stopped and turned toward me. "Tomorrow, why don't you try the Caro-Kann?"