~ Sour Grapes ~

This article was published, presumably under the editorship of Kolisch, Zytogorski, and Kling, in an 1859 edition of The Chess Player's Chroncle.


IT has been the popular belief for centuries, that the appearance of a  comet is portentous of some extraordinary events. The year which has just closed its account with Time, has had to boast, if astronomers are to be credited, of throe of those enigmatical stars, one of which only was visible to the naked or vulgar eye. By scrutinizing the political horizon of the elapsed 365 days ever so closely, there is nothing to be found in it to justify the ominous aspect of a comet ; it is, therefore, supposed that, like the star of old that conducted the wise men of the East to Bethlehem, our comet had simply the mission to announce a coming man, who in due time will make his appearance before the world at large. But Chess players have a world of their own ; and, though astrology is at present a sadly neglected science with the general public, not so with our Chess player, who makes it an invariable rule to set, at least in his own mind, the horoscope of every neophyte that enters the arena. This secret predilection for the forbidden fruit, and the contemporaneous appearance of the comet in the heavens, and of the American star, Paul Morphy, on the Chess horizon, are the only reasons we can assign for the extraordinary, unprecedented, and unqualified enthusiasm with which Mr. Morphy has been received by the great majority of Chess players, and especially of Chess writers. Morphy is the greatest Chess player that has been, is, or will be ; such was the war-cry of the slavish admirers of the new star. We do not mean to depreciate at all Mr. Morphy's high qualities, whatever they may be ; but it is in the interest of Chess, in the interest of Mr. Morphy himself, that we should not blindly admire, but soundly criticise Mr. Morphy's play, in order to assign to him his place in the annals of Chess according to his merits. This is a duty we owe to our readers in general, and to those of the English Chess players in particular, who for years have fought in the foremost ranks, and who, at the present moment, form a phalanx numerous and strong as no other country can boast of. In estimating Mr. Morphy's play, we must consider him under two different aspects—as a blindfold player, and over the chessboard. The great admiration Mr. Morphy's blindfold play has excited in England we can easily understand and readily sympathize with ; for he has done what no other Chess player, at his age, has done before him : he has played at Birmingham with eight players of a respectable force at once without seeing the board, and won six games, drew one, and lost one. Now, we give him full credit for this, the more frankly too, as we are fully aware that no English player can compete with him— nay, not even approach him in that line. The practical English mind cannot bend its stubborn sense so far as to undertake to do blindfold what it can do but imperfectly with both eyes open, that is, to play a very good game at Chess. But, though admiring Mr. Morphy's blindfold play, we cannot on that account alone call him, as many of the chess viriters do, an extraordinary phenomenon; for has not Mr. Paulsen, in America, played twelve games at once blindfold ; and has not Mr. Harrwitz, lately in Paris, astonished a large and chosen company by playing eight games blindfold, beginning at seven o'clock in the evening, and finishing at two in the morning, winning six, drawing one, and losing one ?

Leaving blindfold play to future consideration, let us look at Mr. Morphy over the Chessboard. There are two ways of appreciating the strength of a first-rate Chess player : first, by comparing him with former great masters ; and, secondly, by registering his successes with present adepts of the science. If we compare Mr. Morphy's games with those of former masters, it will be found that most of them are his superiors in style and depth ; an assertion which we are ready to prove in future numbers ; but candour obliges us to admit that Mr. Morphy is young enough to improve his style, and that strong Chess players rise with their opponents ; we therefore dismiss, for the present, the first way of appreciating Mr. Morphy's strength altogether, and adopt the second, by registering his successes with present adepts of the game.

It seems to be the general opinion that there is no antagonist worthy of measuring swords with Mr. Morphy to be found in England. Let us see how far this is founded upon fact. We will take twelve of the leading English players in the metropolis—Messrs. Staunton, Buckle, Brien, Campbell, Wyvill, Slous, Boden, Bird, Greenaway, Barnes, Mongredien, and Medley  ; but of this number four only had the pleasure of encountering Mr. Morphy, namely, Messrs. Boden, Bird, Barnes, and Medley ; true, they were beaten by a large majority of games, but not in a set match, and only in skittling parties ; they were neither prepared to encounter so formidable a foe, nor could they boast of any previous practice, so necessary to success in Chess, and of which the American champion had all the advantage. Now, although the acknowledged champion of English Chess, Mr. Staunton, will not at present encounter Mr. Morphy (and we think him fully justified in not doing it, for it would have been the fight of a knight leaving the ball-room with nothing but his drawing-room sword, to encounter another armed de pied en cap), we have good reason to believe that Mr. Morphy, if he wishes to do so, will find among the rest a willing and worthy opponent. Having registered Mr. Morphy's successes with the metropolitan players, let us pass to the country players, and take twelve of the leading ones among them—Messrs. Hanken, Kennedy, Gordon, Owen, Kipping, Pindar, Newham, Wonnald, Wilkinson, Withers, Hodges, Wayte  : two only of these Mr. Morphy has encountered and beaten, Mr. Kipping and Mr. Owen ; and to the latter he has successfully given Pawn and move—a feat which, we consider, as yet, his greatest performance in England. Speaking of Pawn and move, we cannot omit to allude here to the fact, that some papers have mentioned that Mr. Morphy offered Mr. Staunton Pawn and move ; if this be the case, we are authorised to state, that several of the pupils of Mr. Staunton are ready to take up the challenge, if Mr. Morphy will communicate time and conditions. The victories of Mr. Morphy, therefore, extend over six out of twenty-four strong players. A very fair result indeed ; but were those six the strongest of the twenty-four, or only the most willing to be beaten ?

So far Mr. Morphy has certainly the best of it, for he is fairly entitled to say, " I have beaten every one in England with whom I have played ; " but it must not be forgotten that England is an exceptional country, and our metropolis an exceptional town. Although there are more Chess clubs, Chess rooms, and Chess players in this city than in any other in the world, the members of the different clubs never meet, and the strong players of the same circle scarcely ever play together. It is not long ago that one of the above-mentioned first-rate players, who knows the Handbook by heart, asked us, " What sort of man is Mr. Staunton?" Non credat Americanus. It requires an extraordinary stimulus to bring an Englishman before the public, but, once fairly launched, he is sure to steer, in spite of wind and weather. Mr. Staunton had a hard fight for the championship, but, once established in it, nobody thought of disputing his laurels. It was the very hardihood of the beardless young athlete from over the seas, to throw the gauntlet to England, that astonished the dormant energy of our gladiators for a moment ; but, once fully awake to the threatening disgrace, and, in spite of the defeats of the Löwenthals, Harrwitzes, and Anderssens, the English Chess player will do his duty.  We do not include here our glorious veterans who have some time since given up Chess—Messrs. Lewis, Q-. Walker, Fraser, &c.  We are fully aware that there is a great number of strong players, besides the above-named twelve gentlemen, in the country; but they will, we hope, pardon us for not mentioning their names, on account of space.


  • 8 years ago


    very interesting, both the articles (the Brit one and the US one) :) - Thanks, batgirl and gretagarbo!

  • 8 years ago


    Oh dear, oh dear. Manchester Utd aren't going to turn up this evening, and they'll still be the best team in Europe, because Barcelona might have beaten Chelsea, but Chelsea aren't as good as Man Utd. And Man Utd won it last year. So there.

  • 8 years ago


    Great articles.  It was interesting to see a contemporary English account of Morphy (with some drastic overestimation of the homegrown players) and gretagarbo's article shed some humorous light on Morphy's return.  Maybe that's why he gave up chess; long-winded ignorant speakers?

  • 8 years ago


    Merci, mon ami!


    for a different view on Morphy

    WJA Fuller was less kind to Morphy after Morphy's death.

  • 8 years ago


    An amusing   contrasting article concerning Morphy’s NY reception on his return from Europe.


    May 28, 1859


    NY Times


    What humane mind can have refused to sympathize with Mr. PAUL MORPHY, on reading the accounts of the ovation to which he was subjected, at the instance of the New-York Chess Club, on Wednesday evening last?


    Mr. Morphy unquestionably deserves a recognition at the hands not only of all who love the noble game in which he has approved himself so great a master, but also of all who know how to honor the quiet gallantry of an unobtrusive American gentleman, who has won for himself the crown of Philidor and Labourdonnais, without ceasing to be a man of sense, character and magnanimity. Let Mr. Morphy then, by all means, hold levees of his admiring fellow-citizens. Let  him be honored with mimic armies of silver and gold, on battle-fields of ebony and pearl; with diamond-mounted watches, and with the sunny smiles of Woman. To all this we cordially assent.


    But why should Mr. Morphy’s successes be made the occasion for boring himself, and the innocent public of New York, with dreary disquisitions on the history of chess since the Deluge, and the blatant glorifications of the unhappy bird, the American Eagle, whose whole existence is one long struggle of escape from those who cling to his tail in hope of soaring by his pinions? Will it never become possible for us in America to understand the difference between honest eulogy and flagrant “ Elijah Pogram;” between the frank, manly, intelligible, modest assertion of merit, and the ridiculous preconization  of inconceivable  excellencies?


    The discourse leveled at Mr. Morphy, on Wednesday evening, by Mr. W.J.A. Fuller, was a perfect specimen of all that a public address of homage offered a modest and intelligent gentleman ought not to be. It was, at the same time, we sorry to be obliged to say, only an average speciman of trash in which it has become customary for even superior men to envelope their ideas whenever they appear in public as the organs of any American association or demonstration whatever. It is this painful but eloquent fact alone, which makes it worth while for us to dwell on the subject. We ought to confess, however, in addition, that we are moved to do so by an irrepressible feeling of consideration for the victim of all this oratory, who really endured his martyrdom with a clam superiority of good sense which must have enlisted the regard of all present in his favor.


    Mr. John Van Buren was the leading orator of the occasion, and resisted the vulgar temptations of his position with singular resolution. Mr. Van Buren, however, is a speaker tried in the double furnace of popular assemblies and private associations. He has learned by sad experience the perils of eloquence, just as Mr. Bumble by sad experinec learned the horrors of matrimony. A speech Mr. Van Buren is always ready to make, but he has his own views of the limits within which a gentleman may safely parade his rhetoric.


    Like Spenser’s Knight, he will be “bold, bold, but not too bold.” He gratified the gallery with  a few dashing forays upon the field of history, but swiftly covered his more questionable enterprises by a judicious recurrence to the subject before him. He knew that he had a gentleman’s office to fulfill, and so fulfilled it in the main like a gentleman. Yet even in the midst of his clearly-worded and happily- illustrated observations, the idea must have suggested itself from time to time to the impatient audience that all this might have been dismissed in fewer words: that the folly  of King John of England seven hundred years ago did not particularly explain the victories of Mr. Morphy, of Louisiana, today: and that there is a point at which even the Encyclopedia ceases to be a positively entrancing interest for the mass of mankind.


    These are the considerations which can hardly have escaped the most thoughtless of listeners, when Mr. Morphy rose with his calm modest and sensible reply. Not  a word of historical reminiscence , not a single grandiose simile adorned this quiet recognition of what was supposed to be a spontaneous compliment. Mr. Morphy was even at the pains of putting his chess victories in their true light, and with keen precision of the statement, just veiled beneath the delicate proprieties of courtesy, rebuked the tendency of all hero worshipers  to over value that they honor, by distinguishing the worth of Chess when pursued  as a recreation, from its worthlessness when adopted as the chief business of life. Whether the orator who had just been talking in one breath of the games of chess and the great wars of nations as events of equal importance, felt the justice of this protest or not, we of course can only conjecture. It was at least quite thrown away upon another gentleman who had come to the tryst of Mr. Morphy, armed in all the panoply of the rhetoric most approved by  “ popular assemblies”, and who swooped upon his prey immediately afterwards with a wonderful gold watch and  a more wonderful oration. Mr. W. J. Fuller was more strictly Columbian than Mr. Van Buren. He took up the theme of Mr. Morphy’s victories in the style of that famous German philosopher, who, on being commissioned to write the history of the House of Brunswick, filled seven volumes folio with a preliminary sketch of the Creation of Man and the Temptation of Eden. Mr. Fuller began with Alexander on the Nile, and after tracing the  “civilization of Europe”, by some process original with himself to the fall of commerce of Egypt, dismissed ten centuries with a wave of his hand, to usher Columbus on the scene, and make him responsible for the foundation in the “cold North” of the Empire whereof in the “ order of Providence New York has become the metropolitan center.” Thence Mr. Fuller branched gracefully off into a constitutional history and political philosophy  of the United States, to whose institutions he openly attributed Mr. Morphy’s capacity for playing eight games of chess blindfold, and no doubt secretly referred Mr. Fuller’s talent for crowding the universe into an egg-shell. He also indulged in prophecy; in physical geography; in disquisitions on the “ alluvial  soil of the Mississippi;” on the “classic shades of the elms of New Haven;” on Whitney’s invention of the gin; on the merits of Mr. Morse as a  painter of “female beauty;” on the “ electric telegraph;” on the yacht America and George Steers; and finally on the American Watch Company, nad Mr. Morphy himself. In fact, had Mr. Fuller been a candidate for Congress in some remote district of the West and Mr. Morphy a pet “local question,” he could not have been favored with a more lavish profusion of incoherent allusions and impertinent panegyric, than was beswtoed upon him in this remarkable address, He  was told that “ neither in this nor in any preceding age” had there been “ any parallel to the proud postion at present occupied” by him. He was obliged with the declaration that the genius of Shakespeare “ towering as it does with Alpine height above the other Heaven-piercing peaks in the world of letters stands not so utterly alone as the genius of Morphy in chess.” And he was flattered by the assurance that Mr. Fuller” insensibly associated him( Mr. Morphy) with the great names to which he ( Mr. Fuller) had alluded.” With that simple remark that “ words of learned length or thundering sound would ill become the nature of the occasion,” Mr. Morphy waved aside all this astonishing cataract of declamation , and thanked the friends who had honored him, in language as full of feeling as it was void of pretence. His behavior on this occasion, he may be sure, will be remembered as not the least creditable feature of his brief and brilliant career; and the egregious contrast of his manly simplicity with the nosy balderdash and verbiage poured out upon his head, shall do anything to deliver his youthful fellow countrymen from that senseless passion for morbid and extravagant excitements which is our besetting national sin,  we shall have no cause to regret the somewhat silly exhibition of Wednesday evening last.

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