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Chairman of the Board 

As near as I can tell, it's one of those hiccoughs of a street, maybe eight blocks long, sliced by cross streets named for now-forgotten civic heroes: Castiglione, D'Abadie, O'Reilly, Onzaga.

Its name is Paul Morphy and here's how the street got that name.

He was in some ways every mother's son of a New Orleanian. Or at least the kind of guy we like to think could have lived down the block. Or did live there.

The original family name was Murphy, but when Paul's great-grandpa arrived in Madrid in 1753, he changed to Morphy. In 1809, Paul's grandpa came to New Orleans as Spanish consul. Paul's pa, Alonzo Morphy, became a distinguished jurist and his ma, Thelcide, was a musician/composer who seldom had to be asked twice to show off her mezzo-soprano pipes. Paul was born June 22, 1837.

He was a slight boy who loved to watch dad and Uncle Ernest, members of the New Orleans Chess Club, duel in their favorite board game. He learned with alacrity. Gen. Winfield Scott, passing through town, inquired about a chess match and was set up with an 8-year-old boy. It took the boy all of 10 moves to defeat him.

At 13, Paul the prodigy took on touring Hungarian master Jakob Lowenthal and beat him 2 1/2 to 1/2. The master later tried to blame the New Orleans heat, a plausible alibi, but later admitted the presence of greatness.

Still, Alonzo Morphy only permitted his boy to play chess on Sundays, so as not to shortchange his studies. Paul excelled in math, Latin, Greek and French. Despite his 5-foot-4-inch height, he became proficient in fencing and acted as Portia in The Merchant of Venice. ("It is a wise father that knows his own child.")

In 1856, Paul lost his beloved father to "brain congestion" brought on by an eye injury he suffered when he bumped into a friend's Panama hat. The following year, Paul got a law degree from Spring Hill, though he was still too young to practice that profession.

The next two years (1857-59) were the most glorious yet seen for chess. At the urging of Uncle Ernest, the youth traveled to New York for the first National Chess Congress. He beat everyone in sight and met Louis Paulsen in the finals. Paulsen was a tall man whose deliberate play infuriated the usually patient Morphy. Before the key sixth game, he told a friend over sherry and biscuits, "Paulsen shall never win another game of me while he lives."

Morphy won that sixth game with a brilliant queen sacrifice, and also won the next two.

He took no prize money, insisting on the amateur status of the true gentleman. He played Charles Stanley (using the "pawn and move" handicap he would henceforth have to offer most opponents) and won a $100 prize. He mailed that prize to Mrs. Stanley, who gratefully named her next child Pauline.

Next he traveled to England, where his boyish mien and manners astonished the locals. English champion Howard Staunton evaded him like a contagious disease.

Morphy went to Paris, where he defeated French champ Daniel Harrwitz. He wowed his hosts by exhibitions like the one where he beat eight of eight opponents simultaneously while blindfolded and without a board. But chess tacticians say that his most brilliant game was an offhanded one played in an opera box during a performance of The Barber of Seville, when he crushed the combined efforts of the Duke of Brunswick and Count Isouard. Soon after, he met and was feted by Napoleon III.

Then he invited Adolf Anderssen of Breslau to Paris for a match. Anderssen, the German champion, was a professor of mathematics and a gentleman "amateur" like Morphy. The young New Orleanian won seven of nine matches and Anderssen wrote: "Morphy is too strong for any living player to hope to win more than a game here and there."

Homesick, Morphy returned to America on May 11, 1859. He was honored at a dinner attended by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Wendell Holmes and Samuel Morse. He was hailed as "The Chess Champion of the World" and given a diamond watch and a set of gold-and-silver chessmen. Already, merchandisers were hawking Paul Morphy cigars and straw hats.

Paul Morphy was now like the dog that chased and caught the car: What next? He may have given a hint in his acceptance speech in New York, delivered in his usual formal style: "Chess has never been and never can be ought but recreation. It should not be indulged in to the detriment of other and more serious avocations," he said.

He came back home, moved in with his momma and swore he would never again play chess for a stake.

The Civil War did its part in eroding the family fortune. Paul hung out his legal shingle, but clients were hard to find and he wasn't looking very hard. He became what was then described as an "idler," taking a promenade every day complete with monocle and walking stick. He never again played serious chess and began avoiding those who wanted to talk serious chess. He had never truly loved chess and he loved chess celebrity even less.

Here-and-gone bouts of irrationality began to plague him. Morphy challenged one of his old friends to a duel over an imagined slight. He became convinced there was a conspiracy to kill him and would eat nothing unless it was prepared by his mother or sister. At times he would bow and acknowledge imaginary friends.

A genius, a momma's boy, an eccentric, what could be more New Orleans than that?

On July 10, 1884, he came in from one of his walks and got into a cold bath. There he was found dead at age 47 of brain congestion, his father's cause of death. Six months later, his mother Thelcide died.

Check and mate.

click to enlarge "Chess has never been and never can be ought but recreation. It should not be indulged in to the detriment of other and more serious avocations"  Paul Morphy, Chess Champion
  • "Chess has never been and never can be ought but recreation. It should not be indulged in to the detriment of other and more serious avocations" Paul Morphy, Chess Champion
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