Friday, April 27, 2007

Pride and sorrow of chess

By Frank “Boy” Pestaño

KNOWN as the “Pride and Sorrow of chess,” Paul Morphy was born in New Orleans, Louisiana on June 22, 1837 to a well-to-do family. His father, Alonzo, was a lawyer, state congressman, state attorney general and State Supreme Court justice while his mother belonged to a prominent French Creole family.

Both his father and uncle were avid chess players. According to his uncle, Ernest, known as the “Chess King of New Orleans”, nobody taught Paul how to play and recounted how little Paul, after watching a game between him and his father, told him afterwards that he should have won the game. They were both surprised as they did not known that little Paul knew the moves.

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After that, his family encouraged him to play and at the age of nine, was considered one of the best players in the city. A General Winfield Scott once visited the city in 1846 and let it be known that he would only play with the best player in town. When Morphy was introduced to him he was at first offended thinking that he was being made fun of but was assured that the boy was a prodigy. Morphy beat him easily not once but twice.

In 1850, the strong professional player Johann Lowental met the same fate and lost three times.

Paul abandoned chess for a while and concentrated on becoming a lawyer. At the tender age of 19, he had earned his law degree and admission to the bar. but was too young to practice. He is said to have memorized the entire civil code of Louisiana!

With time to spare, he participated in the First American Chess Congress, winning it handily and was now hailed as the chess champion of the United States.

Still too young to practice law, Morphy decided to go to Europe. Arriving in June of 1858, he quickly crushed all the players there, including England`s very best, the Rev. John Owen.

Finding no more worthwhile opponents, he proceeded to France and visited Café de la Regence, where he soundly defeated the resident professional, Daniel Harrwitz. Despite suffering from intestinal flu, he insisted on going ahead with his match against Adolf Anderssen, the European champion at that time, who came all the way from Germany just to play the now famous American chess wonder.

Despite his illness Morphy won easily, grabbing seven wins against two losses and two draws. Andessen now attested that in his opinion, Morphy was the strongest to ever play the game.

He went home and returned to England in the spring of 1859, where he was sought after by the best people including Queen Victoria. His chess supremacy was now accepted and he played mostly exhibition games including blindfold games.

Nobody wanted to play against him despite giving odds such as a pawn and move and he decided to go home where major cities received him with popular acclaim.He was now the most popular person in America where manufacturers sought his endorsements, newspapers asked him to write chess columns and he thrilled the public with exhibitions. They say that his mental problem later was a result of too many blindfold exhibitions.

He wanted to start now his law career but Civil war broke out. Opposed to secession, he went to Paris to avoid the war .His principled stance against the war was unpopular in the South and he was unable to practice law. He also refused to play chess again saying that chess is not a serious occupation.

His final years were tragic. He spent his remaining years wandering around in the city, talking to people no one could see and feeling persecuted.

Morphy was found dead in his bathtub on July 10, 1884 at a still young age of only 47.

“Morphy, I think everyone agrees, was probably the greatest of them all”—Bobby Fischer.

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