| June 6,
The easiest way to establish an argument is to formulate your conclusion and
then emphasize all the supporting data, de-emphasize or ignore all the
contradicting data, and feed the results to an audience predisposed to your way
of thinking. |
It's done all the time on talk radio.
The better way, and by far the more unusual way, is to
look at whatever data you are able to amass, weight the information and draw
whatever conclusion seem more likely and then find the severest critics of that
position to see if your conclusions hold up against their scrutiny. The results
will be whatever they will be.
For the longest time, I've been an admirer of Paul Morphy. I don't know why
the attraction exists and I don't know if understanding the "why" is even
important. It's seems enough just to acknowledge it. I've made an ever-growing
website on the diminutive chess player from Louisiana and I'm constantly
changing my ideas on the man the more I learn. Philip Sergeant, the British
author of Morphy's Games of Chess and Morphy Gleanings (reprinted
as the Unknown Morphy) wrote:
There will always be two extreme schools of thought among chess-players
concerning Paul Morphy, that which considers Morphy perfectly justified in his
confidence and looks on him as the greatest genius at the game there ever was
or ever is likely to be, and that which - while, of course, admitting him to
be a genius - refuses him a class to himself and attributes his phenomenal
success to the weakness of his opponents and the poor form of others. In the
former school is naturally found the laudator temporis acti, in the
latter, many a would-be Morphy of to-day who is not free from that worst fault
of chess-players, jealousy.
I think there's at least one more school (and maybe more) that believes that
19th century players were inherently inferior due to the lack of development of
chess theory and the small pool of potential players - in other words, they were
big fish in little ponds.
I've observed, when discussing Morphy, that the divergent views have less to
do the Morphy himself than with some hidden, even insidious, reasons. Sergeant curiously wrote,
"while, of course, admitting him to be a genius" as if to do otherwise
would be an unthinkable affront. Even today, most critics will preface their
inevitable criticism with something along the line that, "In his day Morphy
stood out from his fellow chess players, but...." and I have to wonder
what is says about a person when everyone feels compelled to acknowledge his
greatness before giving any adverse comments. If Morphy's greatness is so
universally accepted then, where is the origin of the criticism? Even in
Morphy's day, the same phenomenon occurred.
Max Lange praised
Morphy in his book before offering all his reasons why Anderssen should have won
their match. His German best-seller flopped in it's American edition, even with
the superb translation by Falkbeer.
It seems to me that the root of this perennial debate it more about
nationalism than about chess. Lange was convinced of Germany's superiority in
chess - and, with the exception of Morphy, he had a good case. The French and
the English (at least at that time and with the exception of Staunton and a few
others) didn't seem to have that nationalistic hang up. It's been noted that the
staid English players were enamored with Morphy's combinative genius while the
French coffee house players marveled at his solide style. During his
lifetime, after he retired from the game, Morphy's very existence hung over
chess like a specter. No matter what achievements anyone attained, they were
compared unfavorably against what Morphy had achieved, or what people figured he would achieve if he
were to take up the game again. Even Steinitz felt this pressure and (in my
opinion) spent a great deal of time and energy trying to either lessen Morphy or
demonstrate the superiority of his own ideas in light of Morphy.
Then there was Staunton. Staunton's place in
chess was overshadowed by his peculiar treatment of Morphy. Savielly Tartakower
said something to the effect one bad move nullifies 40 good ones and this seems
to have been the case with Staunton. I won't enumerate all of his
accomplishments here (click the Staunton link) but
they were far more than Morphy's. Yet Staunton has been vilified far in excess
to what his actions, which amounted to a bit of human pride and frailty,
warranted. Rightfully, the British wished to reclaim some of his glory. The
problem is, rather than simply doing justice to Staunton, many British
historians felt that Staunton's rightful place could only be restored through
some denigration of Morphy and some creative and revisionist interpretation of
events. Bertram Goulding Brown (1881-1865), chess historian for the Trinity
College in Cambridge (where Raymond Keene attended and played in 1967) for about 60 years,
attacked Morphy - with the subtle idea of elevating Staunton - using unfounded
and provocative insinuations in his writings (or at least in those that I've
read). Even Sergeant subscribed to some of B. Goulding Brown's theories. Later
Ken Whyld and David Hooper, two of the most respected chess authorities, used
the same approach unabashedly by creating the fictional insinuation (only to retract it -
actually, to even deny their intentions ) that Morphy was having an affair with
Edge. In their Oxford Companion to Chess, comparatively little space is
given to Morphy (nor to women, for that matter).
The point isn't to bring all this to light; none of it's a secret anyway. The
point is that Morphy has been brown-bagged for years, not because of anything he
did, but because of what he represented. Morphy rose to fame seemingly out of
nowhere. He became the darling of the press, the toast of every town and the
most visible Champion of the American people. In the space between October 1857
when he won the 1st American Congress and May of 1859 when he played his final
match (against James Thompson at QKt odds, considered by Löwenthal
to be Morphy greatest accomplishment) Morphy turned the chess world upside-down,
created controversies that a century and a half couldn't solve, raised the level
of play a quantum leap above the status quo, and most importantly gave
the game an impetus never experienced before and rarely since. He did all this
with the most unassuming laissez-faire.
I've been fortunate enough to have been able to discuss some
chess history with
Keene at chessgames.com. Although
we haven't always seen eye-to-eye, Mr. Keene is always a delight to speak with.
Raymond Keene was the second English player to earn the grandmaster title. He's
retired from competitive chess but continues to support the game in other ways.
He's a prolific writer on both chess theory and chess history and his biography
of Howard Staunton is second to none. He has been no stranger to controversy
during his career and, maybe because of this, he is a man of myriad tastes and
In 1997, GM Keene wrote an article for The Spectator
entitled, The Greatest? in which he gives some thoughts on Morphy.
(It seems to be almost, but not quite, a review of Chris Ward's book, The
Genius of Paul Morphy).
In his introductory paragraph he observes, "Debate still rages
as to whether Paul Morphy, the mid-19th century chess genius who took the world
by storm, only to retire after the briefest of careers, was the greatest chess
player ever. There seems to be a doleful pattern amongst American chess greats.
First Morphy, then Fischer and now Deep Blue have all stunned the world with
their achievements, only to give the game up."
Then he attributes the following facts to Nathan Divinsky:
If you compare the percentages of the world's greatest players
against only their top contemporaries, Morphy registers an astonishing 76 per
cent ahead of Lasker on 66.9 per cent, Kasparov on 63.5, Capablanca on 62.3,
Fischer on 59.7 and Alekhine on 59.3. However, Morphy clocked up a mere 25 games
against his leading opponents, in comparison with Kasparov's 486, Alekhine's 460
and Karpov's 930. The bulk of evidence for Morphy is simply too small, though
the extent of his dominance against the very best players of his own time
tantalizingly suggests that he might have been the all-time number one, had he
persisted. In fact, having defeated everyone of any note in sight, Morphy
withdrew, challenged the world to play him at odds of a pawn and move and, when
his offer was not taken up, stopped playing completely.
The Spectator is touted as the oldest continuously published
magazine in the English language. It was founded in 1828 by Robert Stephen
Rintoul as a weekly periodical reflcting the philosophy of educated
radicalism. It's radical philosophy which originally supported the
parlimentary Reform Act of 1852 gradually became more conservative through
the remainder of the 19th century into the 20th.. Making another about face, it
grew even more liberal until already in the 1950s and 60s it supported such
ideas at homosexuals' rights and opposed such longstanding institutions as
capital punishment. Today it claims to have no internal agenda and no political
end with free and original thinking, eloquently expressed as it's only criteria.
While I'm not sure where the mere 25 games comes from, overall this is a
fair analysis from a leading proponent of Howard Staunton. The days of gross
innuendo may be over and the days of subtle understanding ushered in on this
An argument I hear over and over again is one based entirely on a sandy
foundation. When Anderssen played Morphy, Anderssen was out of practice, not
having played a serious game since 1851. When Staunton was trying to side-step
Morphy, he used the excuse that he was out of practice and had insufficient time
to brush up on his openings. When
Löwenthal played Morphy, he wasn't
playing his best and even had to put off a game due to ill health.
The sandy part is that all these arguments or excuses for why these players
either lost or couldn't play tell one side of the story. One must remember that
Morphy was in England only a couple of days before he formally challenged
Staunton and a month before he played Löwenthal and
six months before he played Anderssen. Before Morphy went to England he had only
played one world-class player, Löwenthal himself,
and that was when he was12 years old. It was the common thinking in England at
that time that this unknown player from America who had been getting all this
press didn't know what it meant to play real chess with real chess players; that
the players he would meet in England weren't the second rate ones he had beaten
in America. Now, if the only players Morphy had ever contended with were low
level players, this would mean, by their own definition, that Morphy was
completely and totally unprepared and that it was Morphy who was truly out of
practice - or rather, never in practice. Even by the time that Morphy played
Anderssen, he had only played ever matches with Harrwitz and Löwenthal.
Morphy undoubtedly played hundreds of off-hand games between October 1857 and
December 1859 but before the American Chess Congress it's known that Morphy
didn't engage in excessive chess. In fact during his school years he played very
little chess and the Congress took play shortly after he earned his law degree.
Yet Morphy never asked for a single consideration and never made any excuses.
So, what are the facts and do these fact show Morphy to be something unique?
Here are some thought to consider:
Morphy never really studied chess, relying on his remarkable memory and
natural intuition, nor did he train obsessively.
I send you herewith a game of chess played on the 28th
instant between Mr. R[ousseau] and the young Paul Morphy, my nephew who is
only twelve. This child never opened a work of chess; he learned the game
himself by following the parties played between members of his family.
In the openings he makes the right moves as if by inspiration; and it is
astonishing to note the precision of his calculations in the middle and end
game. When seated before the chessboard, his face betrays no agitation even in
the most critical positions; in such cases he generally whistles an air
through his teeth and patiently seeks for the combination to get him out of
trouble. Further, he plays three of four severe enough games every Sunday (the
only day on which his father allows him to play) without showing the least
- Ernest Morphy to Lionel Kieseritzky, editor of La Régence
Oct 31, 1849 -
Morphy, as already mentioned, didn't produce a large catalogue of recorded games, but by the
same token, except for a brief period, he never played a great deal of chess
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 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.
- Charles Maurian in his obituary column for Paul Morphy in the
New Orleans Times-Democrat -
Morphy's opponents were not the weak players many people want us to believe
they were. They were the best in the world at that time and playing through
his games one can see the masterfulness many of his opponents exhibited. The
weaker opponents were played at odds and Morphy's artistry never shone as much
as when defeating weaker opponents from such initial disadvantages.
Morphy played with utmost honor. He never dodged a game, not even when
sick, and never made any excuses. He always treated his opponents with proper respect
regardless of their disposition towards him.
Morphy played anyone under any conditions. In matches he accepted every
term or demand from his opponents and made no demands in return (except one
universal request, that the match be played for honor rather than stakes - a
request to which only Anderssen agreed ).
Even playing blindfold against multiple opponents, Morphy always tried to
obtain the strongest opponents.
He seemed to have more to prove to himself than to the rest of the world.
Even after reaching the highest heights, Morphy seemingly played chess for
it's artistic merits and without desire for any pecuniary reward that his fame
could have reaped.
Morphy, before retiring, offered his challenge to play anyone in the world
at odds of Pawn & move. He had no takers. But, in all fairness, this was a
double-edged challenge. Anyone who played Morphy at odds and won wouldn't have
beaten Morphy except at disadvantage and if that person lost, his skill would
forever be in question. So for any serious opponent it was a no-win situation.
However, Morphy, by the custom of the day felt, and probably was, entitled to
such a challenge. It's possible it was also his way of retiring gracefully.
It's fruitless to argue who might have been the greatest chess player of
all time. In Morphy's case, it's sufficient to say that during his brief chess
frenzy, he attempted to meet the greatest players available and those he did
meet, he beat on their own terms without so much as a close match.
It's hard to compare someone who was in a class all his own.
Sarah's Serendipitous Chess Page
The Life and Chess of Paul Morphy
Sarah's Chess History Forum
Chess - in general
Rythmomachy Chess Links
Mark Week's History on the Web
Chess Journalists of America
Chess History Newsgroup
Chess Tourn. & Match History
Super Tournaments of the Past
La grande storia degli scacchi
Bill Wall's Chess Pages
Schaaklinks - biographical links
My Chess Biographies
Carlos Repetto Torre
Henry Thomas Buckle
Francois Andre Philidor
William E. Napier
G. H. Mackenzie
Prince André Dadian
The Duke of Brunswick
Charles Henry Stanley
Jacob Henry Sarratt
del Rio, Lolli, Ponziani
My Historical Explorations
Seeds to the Renaissance
Schaccia, Ludus by Vida
The Black Death
by William Jones
The Origins of Chess
Chess History is a Pain!
Girl Chess I
The Forgotten Philidor
Franklin's Morales of Chess
Six Chess Vignettes
My Life as a Chess Criminal
Celebrities Playing Chess
Morphy's Brilliant Moves
What is Chess