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Paul Morphy

By Edward Scimia

Born: June 22, 1837, in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Died: July 10, 1884, at age 47.

Paul Morphy is widely considered the greatest chess player of his era, and is often referred to as an unofficial World Champion.

Early Life

Morphy learned to play chess at a young age by observing games played by his family. By age 9, Morphy had established himself as one of the strongest players in New Orleans and was recognized as a chess prodigy.

His talents were further revealed in 1850, when Hungarian chess master Johann Löwenthal paid a visit to New Orleans. Although believing it to be a waste of time, Löwenthal agreed to play a game with the 12-year-old Morphy. Löwenthal would play three games with Morphy during his stay; Morphy is known to have won two of these games, while the result of the third game is disputed (some sources claim it was a draw, others a third victory for Morphy). Regardless of the score, Morphy had established himself as a player of the highest caliber.

American Chess Champion

For several years, Morphy focused on his schooling rather than chess. He graduated from the University of Louisiana with a law degree in 1857. Too young to practice law, he turned his focus towards competitive chess.

Morphy accepted an invitation to play in the First American Chess Congress, held in New York during the autumn of 1857. He easily advanced to the finals of the 16-player knockout tournament, where he faced master Louis Paulsen. Morphy won the final match with relative ease (+5 -1 =2, or five wins, one loss, and two draws), proving he was clearly the top player in the United States.

Morphy Travels to Europe

Soon after his triumph at the American Chess Congress, Morphy was invited to England to play chess. Rather than attending an international chess tournament in Birmingham, Morphy chose to play a series of matches against some of the world's greatest players.

Morphy proved his dominance over many of the other top players of the time, defeating Löwenthal (+9 -3 =2) and Henry Bird (+10 -1 =1) in England. He then traveled to Paris, where - despite losing the first two games of their match - he scored a convincing victory over French master Daniel Harrwitz (+5 -2 =1).

One notable player of the era never engaged Morphy in a match: English master Howard Staunton. While each player blamed the other for not allowing the match to occur, it seems likely that Staunton knew he could not defeat Morphy, and avoided playing him.

Despite his impressive victories, Morphy had yet to prove himself against Germany's Adolf Anderssen, who most considered to be Europe's best player. In December 1858, Anderssen arrived in Paris, and a match was quickly arranged. The first player to win seven games would be declared the winner. Despite being ill, Morphy agreed to begin the match just a few days later.

The match started badly for Morphy. Anderssen won the first game, and the second ended in a draw. Morphy then showed his true strength, winning five consecutive games to take a commanding lead. The outcome was no longer in doubt; Morphy finished the match in just 11 games (+7 -2 =2).

World Chess Champion

Morphy was now regarded by most as the world chess champion. Before leaving Europe, banquets were held in his honor in Paris and London. Upon returning to the United States in 1859, Morphy toured most of the country's major cities. He was greeted as an American hero, with several cities planning celebrations of his accomplishments. He was sought after for product endorsements, received a generous salary to write a chess column in the New York Ledger, and even had a Brooklyn baseball team - The Morphy Baseball Club - named in his honor.

Playing Style and Legacy

Morphy was far ahead of his time, a forerunner of modern chess masters. His understanding of positional concepts seemingly came naturally, as they were not widely accepted until many years after he had left competitive chess.

Many of Morphy's best known victories came in open games, and ended with spectacular sacrifices. His domination in open, tactical games combined with his deeper positional knowledge set him far apart from his contemporaries. He rarely blundered, despite playing much faster than his opponents.

Morphy was also known for his resourcefulness; his rivals found him difficult to defeat even on the rare occasions when they had a superior position. This helped Morphy win games even in the closed positions where his play was weakest.

Life After Chess

After 1859, Morphy rarely played chess. At the time, chess wasn't seen as a professional pursuit, and he wished to start his law career back in New Orleans.

Unfortunately, the start of his new career was interrupted by the American Civil War, which began in 1861. Morphy was opposed to the decision to secede from the Union, and this stance may have doomed his legal practice before it began. Even after the war, he was never able to succeed in New Orleans.

Later in life, Morphy withdrew from the public, spending time with only his family and close friends. On July 10, 1884, Morphy was found dead in his bathtub, due to congestion of the brain.

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