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         The History and The Culture of Chess

May 2007

This article comes courtesy of Lawrence Totaro

from the American Chess Bulletin, September,1911. p. 201

When Morphy Was a Boy.

A communication addressed to the Staten Islander by Silas F. Catchings, a member of the Staten Island Chess Club, has a special interest at this time. Mr. Catchings is the father of Waddil Catchings, president of the Harvard Chess Club, in 1901, the year he represented his university in the intercollegiate tournament in New York. We quote his father's reminiscences in full:

     "When I was a lad of 14 or 15, my father was in the cotton commission business in New Orleans, and, as he was a lover of the game of chess and both he and Paul Morphy belonged to the New Orleans Chess, Checkers and Whist Club, they naturally came to know each other quite well. While my father was no sort of match for Morphy, of course, his play would have entitled him to belong to our special "C" class. There was hardly a day they did not have a game or two. In New Orleans in those days there was little or no business done after three o'clock, so there were always games going on at the club after that hour. My father's office was at 62 Carrondalette street [ sic - should read: Carondelet Street ] and was on the ground...[ one line was misprinted ] ... yard known there as Patios, filled with semi-tropical plants and with a fountain in the center, and, as the sun did not reach this yard after three p.m., it was always a delightfully cool and pleasant spot. It was here that Morphy and my father usually had their games.

     "It was my custom and privilege to spend my afternoons there after school hours with three of my associates and very naturally we became interested in watching the games between Morphy and my father; so that my father had boards painted on little iron tables and bought us sets of chessmen and set us boys learning the game. Some of the most pleasant hours of my boyhood were spent in that backyard. Both Morphy and my father took interest in the matches between the boys, and through their advice and instruction we four soon became the champions of our high-school.

     "My father had a room in which were thrown the cotton samples. This room was often filled to the depth of 7 to 8 feet with loose cotton. Before starting our games, we boys would pull of our coats and shoes and get up on top of a ladder and jump off into this "well of Cotton," of course going out of sight. Morphy was just about our size, and as big a boy as any of us, entering into this sport with as much zest as if he had been our age. You can well imagine what hilarious times we had in this kind of sport. We would come out of it with our eyes, mouths and nostrils filled with lint and would had to go to the
washroom to get rid of it.

     "When we were again dressed, Jack, my father's old negro porter, would have the tables and chairs all arranged in the yard; in the center of each table would be placed two tall glasses filled with lemonade, crushed ice, a dash of claret and a straw. On the table for my father and Morphy, however were two glasses filled with mintjulep instead of lemonade. We would begin our games and enjoy our long cool drinks at our leisure.

     "Now a word as to the appearance of Morphy: In pictures I have seen of him his eyes and hair appear to be dark, while, on the contrary, his eyes were dark blue and his hair light. In fact he was a blond creole, with the small feet and hands of his race, and he was beyond doubt the most refined man I ever knew. I never heard him utter an oath or say anything that could not be said in the presence of ladies, in fact he had more the appearance of a refined woman than of a man. He was, as you know, the greatest chess player that the world had ever known. He also was possibly the poorest prophet, for he often said to my father, 'Captain, we are going to make a fine chess player out of this boy of yours.' You and my fellow members of the Staten Island Chess Club know what a poor pupil I proved to be."


1. Waddil Catchings was a respected early 20th century economist, often associated with
    William Trufant Foster.

2. The New Orleans Chess, Checkers and Whist Club came into existence in 1880.
    Does this mean Morphy played chess after 1880? Or did the author err by calling the New
    Orleans Chess Club, of which Morphy was once president, by it's later incarnation?

3. A mint julep is "a mixture of water, sugar, mint leaves, and good American whiskey."

4. The Staten Island Chess Club was founded by Albert Beauregard Hodges who served
    as it's president for 12 years [ Kurt Landsberger's Steinitz Papers, p.290]. William Steinitz
    represented the Staten Island Chess Club in 1897,  vying for the  Staats Zeitung
    Chess Cup ( Chess Archaeology)



scrambler at found this information which clarifies a few things:

According to the records at Ellis Island, Silas Catchings took the steamship Ivernia from Liverpool to N.Y., arriving on Mar.17, 1903. He listed his age as 50 years old.  If this is accurate, he would have been born in 1853 and "14 or 15" in 1867-8, during the time Morphy that returned from his second trip to Paris.

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