Paul Morphy, Chess Prodigy


Morphy’s crowning achievement came when Adolf Anderssen, the unofficial world champion (there was no official title until later in the century), arrived from Germany to play him. Leaving a sickbed for the match, Morphy won by seven wins to two losses, with two draws. When someone tried to console Anderssen afterward by telling him that he had not played up to form, he replied: “No, Morphy won’t let me. It is no use struggling against him; he is like a piece of machinery which is sure to come to a certain conclusion.” Morphy’s return to New York on May 11, 1859, was the signal for patriotic rejoicing by American intellectuals. Well-wishers held a testimonial gathering at the chapel of New York University and presented him with a set of solid gold and silver chessmen made by Tiffany. The Union Chess Club crowned the self-possessed young man with a silver wreath. And later, at a banquet in Boston attended by Brahmins and Harvard scholars, James Russell Lowell offered a toast in verse to Morphy :

I give you the man who can think out and dare His bloodless Marengos on twelve inches square. Yet so modest, the conquered all feel that they meet With a Morphy and not marti-fying defeat.

Back in New Orleans, Morphy quit chess competition to establish himself as a lawyer. But he gave up this undertaking because the public could not believe a world chess champion would find their legal difficulties worthy of attention. Nothing else seemed to go right. A beautiful heiress whom Morphy, through a friend, approached about marriage declared she could not consider marrying “a mere chess player.” With the outbreak of the Civil War Morphy tried to get appointed to a diplomatic post with the Confederacy. He was rejected again.

Morphy’s family fled New Orleans when Union soldiers arrived. They spent the war years in Havana and in Paris, which Morphy loved. But frustration over the Staunton episode, the heights he had scaled and abandoned as a chess genius, the impact of the Civil War all left Morphy dejected.

His worried mother sent him to Paris again in 1867, hoping that a change of scenery would restore his spirits. He came back little better. In 1869 Morphy ended even the private games of chess he had enjoyed with a close friend. His melancholy gave way to a paranoia that led him to suspect relatives and friends of trying to steal his clothes, rob him of his inheritance, and poison his food. Over the next fifteen years he became firmly fixed as a local character a dapper little man with haunted eyes, strolling through the city by day and appearing at the opera by night.

On July i o, 1884, at the age of forty-seven, Paul Morphy genius and riddle died of apoplexy.