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Philidor, The First Modern Master,
and Morphy, The Greatest Player


François Philidor:

François André Danican-Philidor was born in Dreux, France, on September 7, 1726, into a family well known for its musical heritage. His father, uncles, and many of his cousins were court and chapel musicians. François joined their ranks at age 6, becoming a page and choir member at the royal chapel at Versailles where he studied music composition and arranging. At age 11, Philidor performed his first composition for the King.

François began his chess education as an observer watching matches between the older members of the choir. (Evidently there was an abundance of "standby" time between performances, and chessboards were provided to keep the lads out of mischief.) When he finally was invited to play, he surprised his friends by winning his first game. By the time he completed his duties as page at age 14 he had the reputation of being the best chess player in the chapel.

He soon found himself in Paris, where he composed music, taught lessons, and copied manuscripts as his primary means of support while spending all his free time at the Café de la Régence (the unofficial and informal "headquarters" of French chess), observing the greatest players in the city. There, François was befriended by M. de Légal, known throughout France as the country's strongest player, and became a devoted student of the great master. (It wasn't until 1755 that Philidor finally beat de Légal. It was said he was the only man who ever did.)

While de Légal was able to teach Philidor many of the finer points of the game, his student was already capable of impressive demonstrations of blindfold chess. He would give regular exhibitions at the Régence, playing three games simultaneously against strong players. By today's standard, three blindfold games isn't a great feat, but in mid- 18th-century France it brought significant fame and notoriety as an amazing display of memory and concentration. (Decades later François would receive a letter from his friend, the French philosopher Diderot, exhorting him to stop playing blindfold chess before people started saying, "There is that Philidor creature, he is nothing anymore, he lost all the sense he had by pushing little pieces of wood across a chessboard.")

Philidor's greatest contribution to the world of chess was his famous book, Analyse de Jeu des ÿchecs, which he wrote when he was only 23. Here he laid out principles, theories, and analyses of the game, organizing explanations complete with details and examples. This book, the first of its type, became so popular that it was eventually reprinted in 10 languages and in more than 100 editions.

In the course of his life François married, raised a family, composed some very successful music, traveled frequently, and played a lot of chess. Between 1775 and 1792, he spent five months each year in England as the professional teacher and guest opponent for an extremely exclusive chess club.

In a bizarre twist of fate, Philidor was in England in 1793 when the Reign of Terror began in his home country and England and France declared war against one another. Because of his long association with the French and English nobility, no one doubted that his career (and stature) would have been dramatically shortened had he been in France at the time.

In spite of the personal danger, however, Philidor longed to return to join his family. Sadly, when the hostilities ceased in 1795, he couldn't obtain a passport to go home, as the political climate remained hostile to the aristocracy. He died broken-hearted in August of that year without having seen his wife or children. Just days after his death, and before the sad news had been delivered to his family, François Philidor was finally granted a passport.



Philidor's Game:

Unfortunately, Philidor's greatest games — those played at the height of his abilities — were never recorded. One particular game, against Count Bruhl, played in January 1789, (François was 62), demonstrates his approach to the strategic use of pawns.

Before the game started, Philidor gave Count Bruhl the odds of Queen's Knight for King's Bishop's pawn. This means that Philidor removed his Queen's Knight and the Count removed his King's Bishop's pawn. Such a display of generosity on the part of Philidor was a fairly common courtesy that strong players would offer to players of lesser ability.



Paul Morphy:

Paul Morphy was born in New Orleans on June 22, 1837. His Irish great-grandfather had changed the spelling from Murphy after emigrating from Ireland to Spain in 1753. In 1809, Morphy's grandfather, Don Diego Morphy, was posted as the Spanish consul to New Orleans. Alonzo Morphy, Morphy's father, was a successful attorney (eventually a judge), and his mother, Thelcide, was a gifted musician and composer.

His family was close, wealthy, and anchored within the genteel society of New Orleans. Morphy was raised as a gentleman of the antebellum South in a family where honor, sincerity, kindness, and civility were everyday virtues.

By the age of 8, Morphy had learned the moves of chess from observing games his father and uncle, Ernest, would play on Sundays. (Ernest Morphy held the reputation of being the strongest player in the city.) It didn't take Morphy long to demonstrate his unique abilities at the chessboard; in short time he was beating his father and uncle as well as other local competition.

In 1846 General Winfield Scott, while visiting friends in New Orleans, asked if it would be possible to arrange an evening of chess with one of the local players. (Scott was known to be a strong amateur.) His friends told him that this was possible. After dinner the board was set and a very small child was introduced to the General as his opponent for the evening. Scott was indignant that a joke of such poor taste had been played. His hosts reassured the general that no finer player could be found in all of New Orleans. An angry and insulted General Scott was finally persuaded to sit down and play.

The 9-year-old checkmated the general on the 10th move. A second game was played and Scott again suffered defeat. At this point the visibly agitated General Scott excused himself and took his dignity home to recuperate. Morphy was taken home and tucked into bed.

When Morphy was 12 he played a three-game match with the great Hungarian player, Johann Löwenthal. The first was a draw and Morphy won the next two. Afterward, Löwenthal was quoted as saying Morphy would grow up to be " . . . the greatest player who ever lived."

Morphy spent the next six years ignoring chess in favor of concentrating on his studies and other extracurricular activities. He attended Spring Hill College in Alabama, where he excelled in Latin, Greek, French, English, and mathematics. His interests outside of class included fencing and acting. (His closest friends recalled that Morphy rarely spoke about chess during his school days.) In 1855 he was graduated from college with the highest honors ever awarded by the school. The following year he completed his law degree at the University of Louisiana, graduating before his 19th birthday.

Too young to practice law, the teenager was persuaded by friends to pursue his latent chess talent and enter the First American Chess Congress. The Congress was to be held in New York in 1857, but Alonzo Morphy died unexpectedly in November of 1856. The death of his father was a severe blow to Morphy, and it was only through the encouragement of his Uncle Ernest that he decided to continue with his plan to travel to New York.

To say the Congress was a "walk in the park" for Morphy would be inaccurate, but it certainly didn't provide much competition. His only real challenger was Louis Paulsen, a man known for taking as much as two hours for a single move. (One of the incredible aspects of Morphy's game was his speed of play.)

In 1858, the Reverend George MacDonnell made the following comment after witnessing Morphy defeat Löwenthal [again] 9-3; "He seldom -- in fact, in my presence never — expended more than a minute or two over his best and deepest combinations. I fancy he always discerned the right move at a glance, and only paused before making it partly out of respect for his antagonist . . .") The match was a rout for Morphy: five wins, one loss, and two draws. The sixth game is considered a masterpiece.

Paul Morphy was now America's champion!

At the instigation of his friends, and with words of cautious encouragement from his family, Morphy traveled to London in 1858 with the hope of playing against England's champion, Howard Staunton. Staunton had a well-deserved reputation as a masterful chess player, Shakespearean actor, and knowledgeable editor of his own chess column in the Illustrated London News. He was also known to be an egotistical and irascible man, not above using his column to spread misleading information about his competitors.

When word of Morphy's arrival in London reached Staunton, the editor started a writing campaign to make Morphy appear intimidated, money-hungry, unsophisticated, and fearful. In fact, the opposite was true. Morphy did everything within his power to arrange a match with Staunton, but it would never materialize. Most historians agree that Morphy would have trounced Staunton. Evidently Staunton recognized this and wished to avoid what he considered certain humiliation at the hands of this unsophisticated bumpkin. Morphy's secretary, Frederick Edge, was quoted later as saying, "Mr. Staunton's weakness was want of sufficient courage to say, 'He is stronger than I.'"

Morphy left England and traveled to Paris in August 1858 to challenge all players at the Café de la Régence. Once there, it didn't take long to establish his reputation as the greatest player anyone had ever encountered. During this time, Morphy issued a cordial challenge (and included the money for all expenses) to Adolf Anderssen, who was then generally considered one of the greatest chess masters in the world.

While waiting for Anderssen to arrive, Morphy gave a stunning demonstration of blindfold chess competing against eight of the strongest players at the Café. The outcome after 10 hours was six wins and two draws for Morphy. The victory was overwhelming and Morphy became the toast of the city. (The following morning Morphy dictated all the moves of all the games to Edge!)

When Anderssen arrived in mid-December he found Morphy ill in bed. Anderssen wanted to postpone the match but Morphy, knowing Anderssen had only two weeks available, insisted on beginning immediately. The first game went to Anderssen; the second was a draw. During a break, Anderssen was asked why he wasn't playing as well as he usually did. "Morphy won't let me," he answered. Ever the gracious gentleman and consummate sportsman, Adolf Anderssen was observed beaming in admiration as he watched his opponent box him into unrecoverable positions. When the end was obvious, he would simply laugh and begin resetting the pieces for the next game. The final score was seven wins, two losses, and two draws for Morphy.

With the exception of a cordial game with a friend, Morphy never again played chess in Paris. In the spring of 1859 he and his brother-in-law traveled to London, where Morphy gave another brilliant demonstration of blindfold play and then left for America shortly afterward.

In June of 1859 Morphy was greeted in New York as a national hero. He played one serious match, this time winning against New York's favorite son, James Thompson, (five wins, three losses, and one draw), and then left for home. It was his last competition.

Morphy was trained in the legal profession and attempted to start a law practice. Unfortunately for Morphy, while his reputation as a chess phenomenon was already established, his practice never got off the ground. He blamed his involvement in the game for his inability to be taken seriously as an attorney. At this point he refused to play anything but an occasional game with friends and eventually turned his back on chess entirely, forbidding even its mention.

During the last years of his short life, Morphy's mind drifted in and out of lucid thought. He took up the habit of dressing in his finest suit and walking the streets of New Orleans. Sometimes he muttered to himself, and at other times he compelled others to listen to an often-told and jumbled tale regarding his father's estate.

On July 10, 1884, Morphy returned home from his daily walk complaining of being tired, hot, and unbathed. He was found a few hours later unconscious in the tub. Attempts to revive him failed; his death was attributed to brain congestion. Paul Morphy was 47.



Morphy's Game:

A game played between Paul Morphy and Louis Paulsen in 1857 is considered a masterpiece! Morphy deliberately sacrificed his queen (which stunned the audience and Paulsen alike) and drew the unsuspecting Paulsen into his trap.

Even the great master Anderssen succumbed to the sublime art of Morphy.

The chess world will always be divided regarding the game's greatest player. Paul Morphy played competitive chess for only two years and even then never gave it the serious thought or attention most other masters devoted. Most historians agree Morphy was never challenged to the depth of his ability. (Anderssen would have been the most likely candidate to provide the impetus at the time, but Morphy was evidently already well beyond his reach.)

Life is full of "what ifs?" Imagine if Morphy had concentrated on chess during his college years! What if he'd been born in the late 20th century with the same innate abilities but with the advantage of being able to study 150 years of recorded games by the world's great masters? What if he had even considered chess a serious profession?

Mozart is considered the most naturally gifted musician who ever lived. On the basis of the biographical evidence, it doesn't seem out of place to consider Paul Morphy in the same light as related to chess.



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