Who was Paul Morphy? I hear he was a brilliant chess champion from New Orleans. Is that true?
Morphy was born in New Orleans in 1837, and at the age of 21 in 1858, he defeated chess master Adolf Anderssen of Germany, considered the world's leading chess champion in the mid-1800s.
The victory not only drew attention in Morphy's hometown of New Orleans, but nationwide. According to Mel Leavitt's book Great Characters of New Orleans, the young chess prodigy's victory was significant because it was hailed as a sign the American intellect was emerging, especially in the eyes of British society, which considered the United States a backwater. Author and physician Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. proclaimed Morphy a "triumph of the American intellect" who showed that Americans had learned to "outrun, outsail, outfight ... and checkmate all the rest of Creation."
According to his family, Morphy learned chess at an early age by watching his uncle and father, who were members of the New Orleans Chess Club. Morphy was considered a prodigy by age 9, and at 12, in 1850, he twice defeated Hungarian chess master Johann Lowenthal, who was visiting New Orleans. Morphy gave up chess while he went to college, receiving a law degree in 1857 at what is now Tulane University. Because he was too young to practice law, he took up chess again to fill his time, accepting an invitation to the First American Chess Congress in New York City, where he beat all his opponents.
Shortly after returning to New Orleans, he reluctantly agreed to attend an international chess tournament in England and stayed on to win matches across Europe, sometimes playing blindfolded or participating in several games at a time, finally defeating Anderssen in Paris. After the match, Anderssen reportedly wrote, "Morphy is too strong for any living player to hope to win more than a game here and there."
Morphy returned to New Orleans and lived with his family in a mansion that today houses Brennan's Restaurant. He also retired from playing chess publicly, saying during a speech in New York: "Chess has never been and never can be aught but recreation. It should not be indulged in to the detriment of other and more serious avocations."
He served under Confederate Gen. Pierre Beauregard during the Civil War, then opened a law practice that later failed. After that, Morphy reportedly spent much time walking around the French Quarter and experienced periodic bouts of irrationality, sometimes talking to imaginary people. He became convinced there was a conspiracy to kill him and would only eat food prepared by his mother or sister.
After one of his long walks on July 10, 1884, Morphy got into a cold bath. His mother later found him dead. At age 47, Morphy died of "brain congestion" or a stroke, the same thing that killed his father in 1856. His mother died six months after her son. Morphy is buried in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, not far from Marie Laveau.
For more information about Morphy, see Michael Tisserand's "Paul Morphy's Shaky Shadow" (Gambit cover story, Oct. 3, 2006) and Ronnie Virgets' "Chairman of the Board" (News & Views, May 6, 2008).