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Paul Morphy
Morphy in Philadelphia, 1859
Full name Paul Charles Morphy
Country United States
Born (1837-06-22)June 22, 1837
New Orleans, Louisiana, U.S.
Died July 10, 1884(1884-07-10) (aged 47)
New Orleans, Louisiana, U.S.

Paul Charles Morphy (June 22, 1837 – July 10, 1884) was an American chess player. Living before chess had a formal world championship, he was widely acknowledged to be the greatest chess master of his era. He won the tournament of the First American Chess Congress of 1857, winning matches with each opponent by lopsided margins. He then traveled to England and France to challenge the leading players of Europe. He played formal and informal matches with most of the leading English and French players, and others including Adolf Anderssen of Germany, again winning all matches by large margins. He then returned to the United States, and before long abandoned competitive chess. A chess prodigy, he was called "The Pride and Sorrow of Chess" because he had a brilliant chess career but retired from the game while still young. Commentators agree that he was far ahead of his time as a chess player, though there is disagreement on how his play ranks compared to modern players.


Early life

Morphy was born in New Orleans to a wealthy and distinguished family. His father, Alonzo Michael Morphy, a lawyer, served as a Louisiana state legislator, Attorney General, and a Louisiana State Supreme Court Justice. Alonzo, who held Spanish nationality, was of Spanish, Portuguese, and Irish ancestry. Morphy's mother, Louise Thérèse Félicité Thelcide Le Carpentier, was the musically talented daughter of a prominent French Creole family. Morphy grew up in an atmosphere of genteel civility and culture where chess and music were the typical highlights of a Sunday home gathering.

Sources differ about when and how Morphy learned how to play chess. According to his uncle, Ernest Morphy, no one formally taught Morphy how to play chess; rather, Morphy learned on his own as a young child simply from watching others play. After silently watching a lengthy game between Ernest and Alonzo, which they abandoned as drawn, young Paul surprised them by stating that Ernest should have won. His father and uncle had not realized that Paul knew the moves, let alone any chess strategy. They were even more surprised when Paul proved his claim by resetting the pieces and demonstrating the win his uncle had missed. In 1845, Ernest acted as the second for Eugène Rousseau in Rousseau's match with Charles H. Stanley, and Paul was taken along.

Childhood victories

By the age of nine, Morphy was considered one of the best players in New Orleans. In 1846, General Winfield Scott visited the city on his way to the Mexican War and let his hosts know that he desired an evening of chess with a strong local player. Chess was an infrequent pastime of Scott's, but he enjoyed the game and considered himself a formidable player. After dinner, the chess pieces were set up and Scott's opponent was brought in: diminutive, nine-year-old Morphy. Scott was at first offended, thinking he was being made fun of, but he consented to play after being assured that his wishes had been scrupulously obeyed and that the boy was a "chess prodigy" who would prove his skill. Morphy easily won both of their two games, the second time announcing a forced checkmate after only six moves.

During 1848 and 1849, Morphy played the leading New Orleans players. Against the strongest of these, Eugène Rousseau, he played at least fifty games, and lost at most five.

In 1850, when Morphy was twelve, the strong professional Hungarian chess master Johann Löwenthal visited New Orleans. Löwenthal, who had often played and defeated talented youngsters, considered the informal match a waste of time but accepted the offer as a courtesy to the well-to-do judge.

Löwenthal soon realized he was up against a formidable opponent. Each time Morphy made a good move, Löwenthal's eyebrows shot up in a manner described by Ernest Morphy as "comique". Löwenthal played three games with Paul Morphy during his New Orleans stay, scoring two losses and one draw (or, according to another source, losing all three).

Schooling and the First American Chess Congress

Paul Morphy

After 1850, Morphy did not play much chess for a long time. Studying diligently, he graduated from Spring Hill College in Mobile, Alabama, in 1854. He then stayed on an extra year, studying mathematics and philosophy. He was awarded an A.M. degree with the highest honors in May 1855.

He studied law at the University of Louisiana (now Tulane University) and received an L.L.B. degree on April 7, 1857. During his studies, Morphy is said to have memorized the complete Louisiana Civil Code.

Not yet of legal age to begin the practice of law, Morphy found himself with free time. He received an invitation to participate in the First American Chess Congress, to be held in New York from October 6 to November 10, 1857. He at first declined, but at the urging of his uncle eventually decided to play. He defeated each of his rivals, including James Thompson, Alexander Beaufort Meek, and two strong German masters, Theodor Lichtenhein and Louis Paulsen, the latter two in the semifinal and final rounds. Morphy was hailed as the chess champion of the United States, but he appeared unaffected by his sudden fame. According to the December 1857 issue of Chess Monthly, "his genial disposition, his unaffected modesty and gentlemanly courtesy have endeared him to all his acquaintances." In the fall of 1857, staying in New York, Morphy played 261 games, both regular and at odds. His overall score in regular games was 87 wins, 8 draws, and 5 losses.


Morphy Löwenthal 1858
Morphy vs. Löwenthal, 1858
Winslow Homer - Paul Morphy, the Chess Champion - Google Art Project
Engraving of Paul Morphy by Winslow Homer appearing in Ballou's Pictorial (1859)

Up to this time, Morphy was not well known or highly regarded in Europe. Despite his dominance of the US chess scene, the quality of his opponents was relatively low compared to Europe, where most of the best chess players lived. European opinion was that they should not have to make the journey to the United States to play a young and relatively unknown player, especially as the US had few other quality players to make such a trip worthwhile.

Morphy returned to his home city with no further action. The New Orleans Chess Club determined that a challenge should be made directly to the European champion Howard Staunton.

Sir,—On behalf of the New Orleans Chess Club, and in compliance with the instructions of that body, we the undersigned committee, have the honor to invite you to visit our city, and there meet Mr. Paul Morphy in a chess match ...
... it was suggested that Mr. Morphy, the winner at the late Congress and the present American champion, should cross the ocean, and boldly encounter the distinguished magnates of the transatlantic chess circles; but it unfortunately happens that serious family reasons forbid Mr. Morphy, for the present, to entertain the thought of visiting Europe. It, therefore, becomes necessary to arrange, if possible, a meeting between the latter and the acknowledged European champion, in regard to whom there can be no scope for choice or hesitation—the common voice of the chess world pronounces your name ...

Staunton made an official reply through The Illustrated London News stating that it was not possible for him to travel to the United States and that Morphy must come to Europe if he wished to challenge him and other European chess players.

... The terms of this cartel are distinguished by extreme courtesy, and with one notable exception, by extreme liberality also. The exception in question, however (we refer to the clause which stipulates that the combat shall take place in New Orleans!) appears to us utterly fatal to the match ...
... If Mr. Morphy—for whose skill we entertain the liveliest admiration—be desirous to win his spurs among the chess chivalry of Europe, he must take advantage of his purposed visit next year; he will then meet in this country, in France, in Germany, and in Russia, many champions whose names must be as household words to him, ready to test and do honor to his prowess.
Morphy in 1859

Eventually, Morphy went to Europe to play Staunton and other chess greats. Morphy made numerous attempts at setting up a match with Staunton, but none ever came through. Staunton was later criticised for avoiding a match with Morphy, although his peak as a player had been in the 1840s and he was considered past his prime by the late 1850s. Staunton is known to have been working on his edition of the complete works of Shakespeare at the time, but he also competed in a chess tournament during Morphy's visit. Staunton later blamed Morphy for the failure to have a match, suggesting among other things that Morphy lacked the funds required for match stakes—a most unlikely charge given Morphy's popularity. Morphy also remained resolutely opposed to playing chess for money, reportedly due to family pressure, although the Creole culture he was from did not have any stigma against gambling.

Seeking new opponents, Morphy crossed the English Channel to France. At the Café de la Régence in Paris, the center of chess in France, Morphy soundly defeated resident chess professional Daniel Harrwitz. In the same place and in an other performance of his skills, he defeated eight opponents in blindfolded simultaneous chess.

In Paris, Morphy suffered from a bout of gastroenteritis. In accordance with the medical wisdom of the time, he was treated with leeches, resulting in his losing a significant amount of blood. Although too weak to stand up unaided, Morphy insisted on going ahead with a match against the visiting German master Adolf Anderssen, considered by many to be Europe's leading player. The match between Morphy and Anderssen took place between December 20, 1858, and December 28, 1858, when Morphy was still aged 21. Despite his illness Morphy triumphed easily, winning seven while losing two, with two draws. When asked about his defeat, Anderssen claimed to be out of practice, but also admitted that Morphy was in any event the stronger player and that he was fairly beaten. Anderssen also attested that in his opinion, Morphy was the strongest player ever to play the game, even stronger than the famous French champion La Bourdonnais.</ref>

Both in England and France, Morphy gave numerous simultaneous exhibitions, including displays of blindfold chess in which he regularly played and defeated eight opponents at a time. Morphy played a well-known casual game against the Duke of Brunswick and Count Isouard at the Italian Opera House in Paris.

Hailed as World Chess Champion

Paul Morphy standing New York 1859
Morphy in 1857, studio of Mathew Brady

Still only 21 years old, Morphy was now quite famous. While in Paris, he was sitting in his hotel room one evening, chatting with his companion Frederick Edge, when they had an unexpected visitor. "I am Prince Galitzin; I wish to see Mr. Morphy", the visitor said, according to Edge. Morphy identified himself to the visitor. "No, it is not possible!" the prince exclaimed, "You are too young!" Prince Galitzin then explained that he was in the frontiers of Siberia when he had first heard of Morphy's "wonderful deeds". He explained, "One of my suite had a copy of the chess paper published in Berlin, the Schachzeitung, and ever since that time I have been wanting to see you." He then told Morphy that he must go to Saint Petersburg, Russia, because the chess club in the Imperial Palace would receive him with enthusiasm.

Morphy offered to play a match with Harrwitz, giving odds of pawn and move, and even offered to find stakes to back his opponent, but the offer was declined. Morphy then declared that he would play no more formal matches, with anyone, without giving at least those odds.

In Europe, Morphy was generally hailed as world chess champion. In Paris, at a banquet held in his honor on April 4, 1859, a laurel wreath was placed over the head of a bust of Morphy, carved by the sculptor Eugène-Louis Lequesne. Morphy was declared by the assembly "the best chess player that ever lived". At a similar gathering in London, where he returned in the spring of 1859, Morphy was again proclaimed "the Champion of the World". He was also invited to a private audience with Queen Victoria. At a simultaneous match against five masters, Morphy won two games against Jules Arnous de Rivière and Henry Edward Bird, drew two games with Samuel Boden and Johann Jacob Löwenthal, and lost one to Thomas Wilson Barnes.

Upon his return to America, the accolades continued as Morphy toured the major cities on his way home. At the University of the City of New York, on May 29, 1859, John Van Buren, son of President Martin Van Buren, ended a testimonial presentation by proclaiming, "Paul Morphy, Chess Champion of the World". In Boston, at a banquet attended by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Louis Agassiz, Boston mayor Frederic W. Lincoln Jr., and Harvard president James Walker, Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes toasted "Paul Morphy, the World Chess Champion". Morphy's celebrity drew manufacturers who sought his endorsements, newspapers asked him to write chess columns, and a baseball club was named after him.

Abandonment of chess

After returning home in 1859, Morphy intended to start a career in law, but he did not immediately do so, and had not done so by 1861 at the outbreak of the American Civil War. His brother Edward had at the very start joined the army of the Confederacy, whereas his mother and sisters emigrated to Paris. Morphy's Civil War service is a rather gray area. David Lawson states "it may be that he was on Beauregard's staff (Confederate Army) for a short while and that he had been seen at Manassas, as had been reported". Lawson also recounts a story by a resident of Richmond in 1861 who describes Morphy as then being "an officer on Beauregard's staff". Other sources indicate that general Pierre Beauregard considered Morphy unqualified, but that Morphy had indeed applied to him. During the war he lived partly in New Orleans and partly abroad, spending time in Havana (1862, 1864) and Paris (1863).

Morphy was unable to successfully build a law practice after the war ended in 1865. His attempts to open a law office failed; when he had visitors, they invariably wanted to talk about chess, not their legal affairs. Financially secure thanks to his family's fortune, Morphy essentially spent the rest of his life in idleness. Asked by admirers to return to chess competition, he refused. In 1883 he met Wilhelm Steinitz (who had tried unsuccessfully to get Morphy to agree to a match in the 1860s) in New Orleans, but declined to discuss chess with him.

In accord with the prevailing sentiment of the time, Morphy esteemed chess only as an amateur activity, considering the game unworthy of pursuit as a serious occupation.

Some authors claim Morphy "arranged women's shoes into a semi-circle around his bed", and that he died in his bath "surrounded by women's shoes". Edward Winter contends that this is not chess history but merely "lurid figments" stemming from a booklet written by Morphy's niece, Regina Morphy-Voitier.

Because they were his own shoes, it is concluded that these "seedy anecdotes" (as Winter puts it) are untrue.

Morphy lapsed into a state of delusion and paranoia; he believed that he was being persecuted by his brother-in-law. His best friend Charles Maurian noted in many letters that Morphy was "deranged" and "not right mentally". In 1882, his mother, brother and a friend tried to admit him to a Catholic sanitarium, but Morphy was so well able to argue for his rights and sanity that they sent him away.


Morphy's crypt in Saint Louis Cemetery No. 1
Morphy's gravestone

On the afternoon of July 10, 1884, Morphy was found dead in his bathtub in New Orleans at the age of 47. According to the autopsy, Morphy had suffered a stroke brought on by entering cold water after a long walk in the midday heat. A lifelong Catholic, Paul Morphy was buried in the family tomb in St. Louis Cemetery #1, New Orleans, Louisiana. The Morphy mansion, sold by the family in 1891, later became the site of the restaurant Brennan's.

Playing style

Morphy is chiefly remembered as a leading exponent of the Romantic school of chess, which focused on 1.e4 openings and dashing tactical and offensive play where opponents were often checkmated in under 30 moves. Morphy favored the usual chess openings of the day, particularly the King's Gambit and Giuoco Piano (when playing as White) and the Dutch Defense (when playing as Black). The Morphy Defense of the Ruy Lopez (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6) is named after him and remains the most popular variant of that opening, although he seldom used the Ruy Lopez when playing the white pieces. Morphy could play positional chess when required to do so; however, he was not enamored of it, and his closed games, while competently played, exhibit none of the imagination of his open games. He was openly critical of the Sicilian Defense and 1.d4 openings for leading to dull games, and the only known instance where he used a Sicilian Defense was a game against Löwenthal in 1858. During his tour of Europe, he included a stipulation that all matches must feature 1.e4 e5 openings in at least half the games.

Morphy can be considered the first modern player. Some of his games do not look modern because he did not need the sort of slow positional systems that modern grandmasters use, or that Staunton, Paulsen, and later Wilhelm Steinitz developed. His opponents had not yet mastered the open game, so he regularly played it against them; he preferred open positions because they brought quick success. He played open games almost to perfection but could handle any sort of position, having a complete grasp of chess years ahead of his time. Morphy was a player who intuitively knew what was best, and in this regard he has been likened to José Capablanca, who was also a child prodigy. Morphy played quickly; in an era before time control was used, he often took less than an hour to make all of his moves, while his opponents would need perhaps eight hours or more. Löwenthal and Anderssen both later remarked that he was very hard to beat, since he knew how to defend well and would draw or even win games despite getting into bad positions. At the same time, he was deadly when given a promising position. Anderssen especially commented on this, saying that, after one bad move against Morphy, one might as well resign. "I win my games in seventy moves but Mr. Morphy wins his in twenty, but that is only natural ..." Anderssen said, explaining his poor results against Morphy.

Of Morphy's 59 "serious" games—those played in matches and the 1857 New York tournament—he won 42, drew 9, and lost 8.


Garry Kasparov held that Morphy's historical merit is realizing the relevance of 1) the fast development of the pieces, 2) domination of the center, and 3) opening lines, a quarter-century before Wilhelm Steinitz had formulated those principles. Kasparov maintained that Morphy can be considered both the "forefather of modern chess" and "the first swallow – the prototype of the strong 20th-century grandmaster".

Bobby Fischer ranked Morphy among the ten greatest chess players of all time, and described him as "perhaps the most accurate player who ever lived". He noted that "Morphy and Capablanca had enormous talent", and stated that Morphy had the talent to beat any player of any era if given time to study modern theory and ideas.

Reuben Fine disagreed with Fischer's assessment: "[Morphy's] glorifiers went on to urge that he was the most brilliant genius who had ever appeared. ... But if we examine Morphy's record and games critically, we cannot justify such extravaganza. And we are compelled to speak of it as the Morphy myth. ... He was so far ahead of his rivals that it is hard to find really outstanding examples of his skill... Even if the myth has been destroyed, Morphy remains one of the giants of chess history."

Garry Kasparov, Viswanathan Anand, and Max Euwe argued that Morphy was far ahead of his time. In this regard, Euwe described Morphy as "a chess genius in the most complete sense of the term".

Morphy is frequently mentioned in Walter Tevis's novel The Queen's Gambit and its 2020 Netflix eponymous adaptation, as the favorite player of the main character, a chess prodigy named Beth Harmon.


Here are Morphy's results in matches and casual games not played at odds:

  • + games won; − games lost; = games drawn
Date Opponent Result Location Score Notes
1849−1850 Eugène Rousseau Won New Orleans c. 45/50 c. +45−5=0 casual
1849−1864 James McConnell Won New Orleans c. 8/8 +8−0=0 probably casual
1850 Johann Löwenthal Won New Orleans 2½/3 +2−0=1 casual
1855 Alexander Beaufort Meek Won Mobile, Alabama 6/6 +6−0=0 casual
1855 A.D. Ayers Won Mobile, Alabama 2/2 +2−0=0 casual
1857 Alexander Beaufort Meek Won New Orleans 4/4 +4−0=0 casual
1857 James Thompson Won New York 3/3 +3−0=0 1st American Chess Congress, elim.
1857 Alexander Beaufort Meek Won New York 3/3 +3−0=0 1st American Chess Congress, q-final
1857 Theodor Lichtenhein Won New York 3½/4 +3−0=1 1st American Chess Congress, s-final
1857 Louis Paulsen Won New York 6/8 +5−1=2 1st American Chess Congress, final
1857 Louis Paulsen Won New York 3½/4 +3−0=1 casual
1857 Theodor Lichtenhein Won New York 2/3 +1−0=2 casual
1857 Alexander Beaufort Meek Won New York 2/2 +2−0=0 casual
1857 Daniel Fiske Won New York 3/3 +3−0=0 casual
1857 Napoleon Marache Won New York 3/3 +3−0=0 casual
1857 Samuel Calthrop Won New York 1/1 +1−0=0 casual
1857 Lewis Elkin Won New York 1/1 +1−0=0 casual
1857 William James Appleton Fuller Won New York 2/2 +2−0=0 casual
1857 Hiram Kennicott Won New York 1/1 +1−0=0 casual
1857 Charles Mead Won New York 1/1 +1−0=0 casual
1857 Hardman Montgomery Won New York 1/1 +1−0=0 casual
1857 David Parry Won New York 1/1 +1−0=0 casual
1857 Frederick Perrin Won New York 2/3 +1−0=2 casual
1857 Benjamin Raphael Won New York 1/1 +1−0=0 casual
1857 James Thompson Won New York 5/5 +5−0=0 casual
1857 George Hammond Won New York 15/16 +15−1=0 casual
1857 John William Schulten Won New York 23/24 +23−1=0 casual
1857 Charles Henry Stanley Won New York 12/13 +12−1=0 casual
1857 Daniel Fiske, W.J.A. Fuller, Frederick Perrin Lost Hoboken, New Jersey 0/1 +0−1=0 casual
1858 Thomas Barnes Won London 19½/27 +19−7=1 casual
1858 Samuel Boden Won London 7½/10 +6−1=3 casual
1858 Henry Edward Bird Won London 10½/12 +10−1=1 casual
1858 Edward Löwe Won London 6/6 +6−0=0 casual
1858 Thomas Hampton Won London 2/2 +2−0=0 casual
1858 George Webb Medley Won London 3/4 +3−1=0 casual
1858 John Owen Won London 4/5 +4−1=0 casual
1858 Johann Löwenthal Won London 10/14 +9−3=2 match
1858 Augustus Mongredien Won London 2/2 +2−0=0 casual
1858 James Kipping Won Birmingham 2/2 +2−0=0 casual
1858 Henri Baucher Won Paris 2/2 +2−0=0 casual
1858 Paul Journoud Won Paris 12/12 +12−0=0 casual
1858 H. Laroche Won Paris 6/7 +5−0=2 casual
1858 M. Chamouillet Won Versailles 1/1 +1−0=0 casual
1858 Pierre Charles Fournier de Saint-Amant Won Paris 1/1 +1−0=0 casual
1858 Jules Arnous de Rivière, Paul Journoud Lost Paris 0/1 +0−1=0 casual
1858 Jules Arnous de Rivière Won Paris 6½/8 +6−1=1 casual
1858 Daniel Harrwitz Won Paris 5½/8 +5−2=1 match
1858 Adolf Anderssen Won Paris 8/11 +7−2=2 match
1858 Adolf Anderssen Won Paris 5/6 +5−1=0 casual
1859 Augustus Mongredien Won Paris 7½/8 +7−0=1 match
1859 Wincenty Budzyński Won Paris 7/7 +7−0=0 casual
1859 A. Bousserolles Won Paris 1/1 +1−0=0 casual
1859 F. Schrufer Won Paris 1/1 +1−0=0 casual
1859 Johann Löwenthal Drew London 2/4 +1−1=2 match
1859 George Hammond Won Boston 1/1 +1−0=0 casual
1862 Félix Sicre Won Havana 2/2 +2−0=0 casual
1863 Augustus Mongredien Won Paris 1/1 +1−0=0 casual
1863 Jules Arnous de Rivière Won Paris 9/12 +9−3=0 match

Notable games

Morphy vs. Anderssen, 1858
a b c d e f g h
a8 black rook
b8 black knight
c8 black bishop
d8 black queen
e8 black king
f8 black bishop
h8 black rook
a7 black pawn
b7 black pawn
c7 black pawn
d7 black pawn
f7 black pawn
h7 black pawn
f4 black pawn
g4 white knight
h4 white pawn
d3 white pawn
g3 black knight
a2 white pawn
b2 white pawn
c2 white pawn
g2 white pawn
a1 white rook
b1 white knight
c1 white bishop
d1 white queen
e1 white king
f1 white bishop
h1 white rook
7 7
6 6
5 5
4 4
3 3
2 2
1 1
a b c d e f g h
Position after 7...Ng3. Morphy now sacrificed his rook with 8.Bxf4.
  • Louis Paulsen vs. Morphy, New York 1857; Four Knights Game, Spanish Variation, Classical Variation (C48), 0–1. Morphy's queen sacrifice transforms his positional pressure into a decisive attack on Paulsen's king.
  • The "Opera Game"—a casual game against amateurs, but at the same time one of the clearest and most beautiful attacking games ever. Often used by chess teachers to demonstrate how to use tempo, develop pieces, and generate threats.
  • Morphy vs. Adolf Anderssen, casual game 1858; King's Gambit Accepted, Kieseritzky Gambit, Berlin Defense (C39), 1–0.

See also

Kids robot.svg In Spanish: Paul Morphy para niños

  • List of chess games
  • Morphy Number – connections of chess players to Morphy
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