The "M. A." Letter
in Bell's Life in London -- October 17, 1858
Trinity College, Cambridge, Oct. 9, 1858
Mr. Editor: If you enter any chess circle just now, the
questions sure to be asked are, How about the Staunton and Morphy match?
Will it come off" Suspect Staunton wants to shirk it? Now to these
questions it is not always easy to give an answer, and yet they ought to
be answered, so as to allow no possible misconstruction amongst either
friends or foes. There is one insinuation which may be very briefly
disposed of, namely, that Mr. Staunton wishes to avoid playing. Every one
who knows him is perfectly aware that he is only too ready to play at all
times, and that at every disadvantage, rather than incur even the faintest
suspicion of showing the white feather.
For the benefit of those who have not the pleasure of knowing him, or
whose memories are not over tenacious, I may cite as an example that in
1844, after vanquishing St. Amant, upon a hint in the French papers that
his opponent had expressed a wish to have his revenge, Mr. Staunton at
once started for Paris once more, and challenged him to the field: that
from 1840 to 1848 Mr. Staunton played with every antagonist, foreign and
English, that could be brought against him; and at the Chess Congress, in
1851, he rose superior to all personal considerations, and did not shrink
from risking his hardly-earned reputation, when the state of his health
was such that he felt he could not do himself justice; and all this solely
that the tournament might not want the éclat which his presence
could confer upon it. But, sir, I would submit that this is not simply a
question between Mr. Staunton and Mr. Morphy. We are all interested in it.
Mr. Staunton is the representative of English chess, and must not be
allowed to risk the national honor in an unequal contest, to
gratify either the promptings of his own chivalrous disposition or the
vanity of an antagonist. "Oh! then you admit that Morphy is the better
player?" No such thing. The question is, not as to which is the better
player, but whether, if they meet now, they can do so on equal terms.
Now, I call it an unequal contest when one player, in tiptop practice,
with nothing to distract his attention, engages another who is quite out
of play, and whose mind is harassed by the unceasing pressure of other and
more important avocations. This is precisely Mr. Staunton's case. He is
engaged, in addition to his customary occupations, upon a literary work of
great responsibility and magnitude, which leaves him scarcely a moment for
any other pursuit; certainly not for chess practice. Indeed, were it
merely a question of time it would be almost impossible for Mr. Staunton
to play a match at this precise moment; but this is a matter of small
importance compared to the mental strain which accompanies such incessant
There is nothing which requires more concentration of thought than chess.
One moment of relaxed attention, and the fruits of the most profound
combination are scattered to the winds. Real chess between two great
players is no mere recreation, but a severe study, and should never be
attempted when there is anything else to claim the least share of that
attention which alone can insure success. If Mr. Staunton can steal a few
months from business, and devote himself solely to chess, by all means let
him do so, and then meet Mr. Morphy when and where he pleases, and I for
one shall have no fear for the result. If he cannot do this, I trust he
will have the moral courage to say "No." If not, his friends should say it
for him. He is at least "Pawn and two" below his force of ten years back;
and I repeat that he owes it to the English chess world, whose
representative he is, not to meet Mr. Morphy at such odds, when he has
everything to lose and nothing to gain. In the present instance,
moreover, he is under not the slightest obligation to play, as Mr. Morphy
gave him no intimation that he was coming over at this particular time,
and I believe Mr. Staunton was not aware of his intention of so doing till
he was actually en route; and it is certainly rather a heavy price to pay
for the position which Mr. Staunton justly occupies if he is to be held
bound to enter the lists with every young adventurer who has nothing else
to do; and who happens to envy him the laurels so fairly won in many
hundreds of encounters with nearly all the greatest players of the day.
The result of any match which he might now play with Mr. Morphy would
prove literally nothing as to their relative chess powers, and I am very
unwilling to believe that the American would at all value a victory
snatched under such circumstances.
Yours obediently, M. A.
P. S. Since writing the above my attention has been drawn to a letter in
Bell's Life addressed to Mr. Staunton by Mr. Morphy, in which the
latter tries to assume the character of a much-injured and ill-used man.
Now, how stands the case. From the time he made his sudden appearance here
to the present moment Mr. Morphy has been fully aware that the delay in
the proposed contest did not depend upon Mr. Staunton, who, so far as he
is personally concerned, was, and is, prepared to play; though it does not
speak for that man's sense of honor who would ever think of forcing on a
contest when the inequality is so immense as it is between Mr. Morphy's
and that of Mr. Staunton -- the one with literally nothing to do but to go
where he lists to play chess, the other with scarcely time for sleep and
meals, with his brain in a constant whirl with the strain upon it; the one
in the very zenith of his skill, after ten years of incessant practice,
the other utterly out of practice for that very period.
Now, let any one read the reply of Mr. Staunton to the
preposterous proposal on the plat of Mr. Morphy's friends, that he (Mr.
Staunton) should go over to New Orleans, and then say whether Mr. Morphy,
after publicly announcing in the American papers his inability, from
family engagement, to visit England before 1859, and then to come over
without a moment's warning, has anybody but himself to blame if he finds
there is considerable difficulty in inducing a man with family cares, and
immersed in professional engagements, to sacrifice all for the sake of
engaging, upon the most unfair and unequal terms, in a match at chess? If
Mr. Morphy does not see the force of what I have advanced, perhaps the
following analogous case may bring conviction home to him.
Let us suppose some ten or fifteen years have elapsed,
and the Mr. Morphy, no longer a chess knight-errant, eager to do battle
against all comers, has settled down into a steady-going professional man,
(the bar, I believe, is his destination,) and with bewildered brain is
endeavoring to unravel the intricacies of some half-dozen lawsuits put
into his hands by clients, each of whom, in virtue of his fee, is
profoundly impressed with the belief that Mr. Morphy belongs, body and
soul, to him. Presently comes a rap at the door, and in walks a young man,
fresh from school or college, and at once proceeds to explain the object
of his visit, with: --"Mr. Morphy, I come to challenge you to a match at
chess. I am aware that you are quite out of practice, while I am in full
swing. I freely admit that you may have forgotten more than I am ever
likely to know; that you have not a moment you can call your own, whilst I
have just now nothing in the world to occupy my attention but chess.
N'importe. Every dog has his day. I expect you to play me at all costs.
My seconds will wait upon you at once; and if you decline I shall placard
you a craven through the length and breadth of the Union."
How would Mr. Morphy reply to such a challenge? Very
much, I suspect, as Mr. Staunton now replied to his: --"I have no
apprehension of your skill; I am quite willing to meet you when I can, but
I must choose my own time. I cannot put aside my professional engagements,
to say nothing of the loss of emolument entailed by such a course, and
risk my reputation as a chess-player at a moment's notice, just to gratify
your ambition." In giving such an answer Mr. Morphy would do perfectly
right, and this is precisely the answer which Mr. Staunton now gives to
him. And why Mr. Morphy should feel aggrieved I cannot possibly imagine.
There is one other point which think deserves mention, namely that four
years ago, on the occasion of being challenged in a similar manner, Mr.
Staunton put forth a final proposal to play any layer in the world, and to
pay his expenses for coming to England.
remained open for six months, and he announced that if not
taken up in that time he should hold himself exonerated in refusing
any future challenges. I now leave the question in the hands of the
public, who will, I doubt not, arrive at a correct appreciation of its