Irish Cross Memorial New Orleans

Irish Cross Memorial New Orleans
The Celtic Cross Memorial in New Orleans, Louisiana. Photo by Adrian McGrath. Click the image for the story about the cross.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Chess Master Paul Morphy

Chess Master Paul Morphy
By Adrian McGrath

Paul Morphy
(Wikimedia Commons)

Born in New Orleans in 1837, his mother, Therese, was from a distinguished French Creole family. His father, Alonzo, was from Charleston, SC and had a multicultural background -- Spanish, in part, and Portuguese. But he was also Irish.

Alonzo, was a distinguished lawyer who became the Attorney General of the state of Louisiana and later served on the Louisiana Supreme Court. The son would also study law and obtain a law degree. But he is not known to history for his legal skills nor for his academic accomplishments, which were indeed excellent. He is remembered for one thing only: He was the greatest chess player in the world and arguably the greatest chess player of all time. And then he suddenly went mad.

Therese and Alonzo's son was Paul Morphy, a child prodigy and a chess genius, perhaps on the same level with the more modern-day chess genius Bobby Fischer. Or maybe greater?

Although often seen as a Creole -- an elite descendant of colonial French and Spanish heritage in old New Orleans, Morphy's Irish background could not be denied. The name “Morphy” is a variation of one of the most commonly held names in Ireland today, Murphy, derived from the Irish “Murchadha” or "Murchadh."

In ancient Irish history, Murchadh was the name of the son of the greatest High King of Ireland, Brian Boru. Both Brian and Murchadh fought at the Battle of Clontarf in 1014 AD against the invading Vikings at what is now a suburb of Dublin, Ireland. Interestingly enough, in this great battle, Murchadh and Brian were victorious, defeating the Vikings (often referred to as "Danes"). Despite this great victory, both King Brian and Murchadh died in the battle. In a sense this would be the fate of Paul Morphy too -- extraordinary success and glory and then a sudden, tragic loss.

The word "Murchadh" or Murphy or Morphy comes from two Irish words: "Muir" which means "sea" and "cath" which means "battle." So, Morphy means in the Irish Gaelic language a warrior or a "sea warrior." And indeed Paul Morphy did travel across the sea, the Atlantic Ocean, to Europe to achieve his greatest victories in London and Paris.

In Paul Morphy's case, his Irish ancestry may have also been connected to the "Wild Geese," Irish soldiers who left British occupied Ireland to join the armies of major European countries such as France or Spain. Morphy most likely had an ancestor who was an Irish soldier in the Spanish army. It is said that Paul's ancestor Michael Murphy left Ireland for Spain in 1753 and joined the Spanish army becoming an officer. Michael Murphy then changed his name to Miguel Morphy to better adjust to Spanish society. The Morphy family, over time, became prominent in the Spanish government, to some extent, and eventually went to the Caribbean -- San Domingue -- and then to the United States.

In many ways Paul Morphy had no equals. He defeated all serious competition while he traveled through America and Europe. He learned to play chess by watching his father and uncle play the game; and his parents, recognizing his talents, encouraged him to develop his chess skills while preparing for his education in law.

Morphy was educated by the Jesuits at Spring Hill College in Mobile, Alabama. By all accounts he was an outstanding student studying mathematics and philosophy. He obtained a bachelor's degree. Later he studied law at the University of Louisiana (which became Tulane University).

Although he obtained his law degree, he did so when he was still too young to actually practice law. So, he spent his time pursuing his career in chess. In 1857 he won the American chess championship in New York defeating Louis Paulsen. In 1858 he was in London and defeated Johann Loewenthal. Morphy then went to Paris, France and defeated Adolf Anderssen, a highly respected German chess master who was considered to be the best in the world at that time. Morphy also defeated, while still in Paris, Daniel Harrwitz and Rev. John Owen, an English clergyman.

Three very noteworthy things happened during Morphy’s European tour which showed his absolute dominance. First, when Morphy was in London, the English champion Howard Staunton -- considered one of the greatest players of all time -- successfully avoided playing Morphy despite attempts to arrange a game. No one really knows why the match did not take place. Some people say Staunton greatly feared Morphy, and others speculate that Staunton was in ill health or otherwise busy. (By the way, perhaps the most traditional style of chess pieces used today are named after Staunton.)

Second, Morphy became famous for the expression in chess “a pawn and a move.” This came about because Morphy gave his opponent, Rev. John Owen, an advantage of an extra pawn and allowed him to always move first. Morphy, of course, still won. And third, Paul Morphy destroyed all the serious competition in the ”civilized world” at that time in a period of one single year -- something unheard of. He was simply sensational.

One of the most incredible acts Morphy performed in chess, besides playing blind against multiple opponents and defeating them, was known as "the Opera Game." In 1858 in Paris, France, an avid chess player named the Duke of Brunswick invited Morphy to the opera. Knowing that Morphy was an opera fan, the German duke thought this would be a good chance to play chess with him. The Duke had his own private box near the stage and always kept a chess set there. Morphy went along and agreed to play chess so long as he could watch the opera, which was his real reason for going out that night. Furthermore, a French aristocrat friend of the Duke's, Comte Isouard de Vauvenargues, would help the Duke as a partner, discussing moves and giving advice.

The scene reached the point of near comedy as Morphy attempted to watch the opera, while the Duke and the French count frantically and sometimes loudly debated what move to make and how to respond to Morphy's brilliance, while the actors and performers on the stage, being aware of the commotion in the Duke's box, tried to see what Morphy, the Duke, and the Count were doing. Morphy played white; the Duke and the Count played black. The Duke and the Count used the Philidor Defense as their opening; Morphy used the traditional P-K4, pawn to king four. Morphy sacrificed his Queen on move 16 for positional advantage and checkmated his two opponents on move 17 ... while watching the opera.

It was a stunning and spectacular performance on the chess board in an incredible setting at the opera house in Paris.

 "Opera Game" End Position, Move 17
R-Q8 mate by Morphy's white (silver) rook
despite a Queen and Knight advantage for the
Duke of Brunswick and the Comte
(Photo by Adrian McGrath)

Paul Morphy was now clearly the greatest chess master on planet Earth and maybe the greatest chess player in all of human history. It all worked like clockwork: He started playing competitive chess in 1857, becoming the finest player in America. He conquered the European world of chess in 1858. In 1859 he returned to the United States in glory!

But then, much to everyone’s surprise and dismay, Morphy proceeded to distance himself from serious competition and then abandoned competitive chess altogether. He openly rejected chess and even began to openly despise it. He attempted to practice law, but he could never make a success of it. He was able to live, luckily, from a family inheritance.

Part of his life was  disrupted, of course, by the American Civil War, 1861 to 1865. Morphy, however, traveled outside of America during the war and did not participate in it. It appears that Morphy’s main problem was mental illness.

We do not know why Paul Morphy lost his mind. We do know that he died in 1884 in New Orleans -- probably from a stroke at the young age of 47. He is buried in one of the most famous cemeteries in New Orleans, St. Louis Cemetery Number One, not far from the French Quarter where his family home was located.

He always considered himself to be an “amateur” chess player, not playing for money. He was fortunate that his family had some degree of independent wealth. But although his talents at chess were impressive in the chess world, people who did not really appreciate chess just felt this was a useless and meaningless accomplishment. Perhaps this upset him? But perhaps not? And after all being a chess genius seemed to make a person a bit odd, always lost in distant thought about chess with its countless number of possible moves, always detached from the real world, living only on a flat board of 64 squares, while dreaming of glory and destroying the opponent and fearing defeat, that your own king could be checkmated. It is enough to drive a person mad.
Bobby Fischer in 1960,
admired and studied Paul Morphy
(Wikimedia Commons)

Was Paul Morphy the greatest chess player ever? It is, of course, impossible to say. Bobby Fischer, whom some people believe was the greatest player of all time, held Morphy in very high esteem. Fischer certainly appreciated Morphy's profound contribution to chess. Fischer certainly studied the games of Morphy and analyzed them in depth, learning from them.

Surely there were other great chess players too -- many, for example, from the Soviet Union or Russia. The Communist Soviets had an obsession with being superior at chess and dominated the game for years ... until they met Bobby Fischer. And surely there will be other chess players in the future who will be called “the greatest of all time.”

But Paul Morphy was the Bobby Fischer of his day and a legend for all time. He was also a descendant of the Irish diaspora, which brought the Irish people to the distant parts of the world, leaving their marks, and the marks of their descendants’, in many different ways. In this case, the Irish diaspora left its mark producing America’s first world champion in chess ... and maybe the greatest chess master of all time.

Sources and further reading:
See the article at on Morphy’s Obituary (Charles de Maurian’s Obituary of Paul Morphy) at and its main article on Paul Morphy at ; Wikipedia article on Paul Morphy at ; Fischer v. Spassky by C.H.O.D Alexander, Vintage Books, 1972; The World’s Great Chess Games by Reuben Fine, Dover Publications, 1976; The photo of Paul Morphy is from Wikimedia Commons at; Wikipedia's article on the History of Chess at; Wikipedia's article on the name "Murphy" at; Wikipedia's article on "the Opera Game" (Morphy vs the Duke of Brunswick) at ; The photo of Bobby Fischer is from Wikimedia Commons, Bobby Fischer 1960 in Leipzig, at ; a youtube educational video which discusses Morphy's life and games by, "The Life and Chess of Paul Morphy" by Lucas Anderson, at ; also see "The Life and Chess of Paul Morphy" at from a chess website called "Edo Historical Chess Ratings" at


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