Paul Morphy: Antebellum Chess Champion

One day, when I have the time and the money to do the research, I would like to write a biography of Paul Morphy (1837-1884), the greatest American chess player of the nineteenth century. He was the Bobby Fischer of his era, a natural talent without the extreme paranoia and anti-Semitic rants.

Born in New Orleans, Morphy was a prodigy. He learned by watching members of his family play and was able to defeat a world-class player, Hungarian Johann Löwenthal, at the age of twelve.

Morphy’s career lasted only a few years, with the peak of his play concentrated between 1855-1859. During that time, he traveled to New York, defeating German master Louis Paulsen, then on to Europe, where he defeated another German master, Adolf Anderssen, recognized as the best player in the world at that time.

Morphy eventually abandoned serious chess competition, believing that it was a frivolous activity given the circumstances facing the nation.

So, why would writing his biography interest me? I learned to play chess in the sixth grade and have sporadically played it competitively since my teens. While my chess rating* is unimpressive, I love the history of the game, especially in the United States. Morphy’s life offers an interesting way to examine sectionalism, southern masculinity, and popular culture in the mid-19th century U.S.

For more information about Morphy, consult back issues of Chess Life, the official magazine of the United States Chess Federation, and David Lawson’s Paul Morphy: Pride and Sorrow of Chess, recently revised and updated by historian Thomas Aiello. Normally, I wouldn’t suggest an online source such as this Yahoo Groups thread, but one of the users appears to know quite a bit about Morphy’s non-chess background, so it’s worth a look. Also, Jay Whitehead is doing exhaustive research on the nineteenth century history of the game.

*A chess rating is a quantitative measurement of one’s playing strength. (Don’t ask me to explain the formula–you can see it yourself here.) My OTB (over the board) rating, which is for normal tournaments where players meet face-to-face, is in the 1400s, while my correspondence rating, which covers tournaments played via postal mail or e-mail, is around 2000. There’s a substantial difference between my two ratings, which comes down to not playing OTB frequently enough to get used to the physical nuances of sitting at a board for extended periods of time. Believe it or not, playing chess can be physically exhausting because of the need to concentrate deeply for so long; controlling one’s emotions and adrenaline is also tiring. Correspondence chess allows one to spend more time examining a move (usually an average of three days per move) and also has the advantage of letting a player use databases and print resources to find the best move.

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2 Replies to “Paul Morphy: Antebellum Chess Champion”

  1. Thanks for sharing. Morphy does sound like an interesting character, and especially his chess genius. True, chess is just a game, but that is akin to saying New Orleans is just a city. There is much more for those who choose to see. Since my wife’s family is related to Old Hickory, we have visited New Orleans where the United States was kept free by winning the peace against the British after they decided to recapture the USA.

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