Morphy's Place

     This article, which is itself a reprint of an article by John Barry,  came from the American Chess Bulletin,   May-June 1920 issue   (edited by Herman Helms and Hartwig Cassell).


     In a recent issue of the "Transcript," the question of Paul Morphy's unique position, as to which there can  be little quibble, inasmuch as masters and amateurs alike unite in paying him homage, is gone into at  considerable length by John F. Barry.   ln view of the approaching Morphy anniversary, the subject is  most timely and we, therefore, reprint Mr. Barry's argument in full:

     In the light of modern progress in the game, can Morphy's supremacy be maintained?
     This question, in varying forms, has been the stock question generally discussed in every chess  center for years. And its usual answer is a test of the reverence which the chess world has for Morphy's  enduring place in the Hall of Fame. It very likely will never concede a supremacy to another. But there are  specific reasons to justify this staunch faith in Morphy's prowess.
     Morphy played Anderssen a match in Anderssen's prime—a few years after the latter had won a big  English tournament-—in 1851, and defeated Anderssen decisively, if not easily. Some years later when  Anderssen was much older, Steinitz, then a young man in his prime, won the world's championship from  Anderssen by a close score. Steinitz was the father of modern chess. This test of the connecting link with  Morphy by the modern school is some measure of a greater strength to be accredited to Morphy. Steinitz  was comparatively an old man when Lasker, a youth, defeated him after twenty-five years of undoubted  supremacy. Yet Lasker did not defeat Steinitz more decisively than Morphy beat Anderssen. Modern  progress in the game has little bearing on anything but the opening. Morphy was just as capable of  keeping pace with it as the modern master. The test of the same Morphy with the modern master would  be a test of native skill in other respects.
     The great players of Morphy's day were deep and analytical, but not as much so as Morphy. Morphy  had a superior sense of strategy and position judgment which no modern master has ever excelled, so  far as the writer has been able to observe, nor has any modern master demonstrated a finer power of  analysis, though Lasker and Capablanca and even Pillsbury have displayed extraordinary depth of  analysis on occasions; so did Morphy. Morphy erred strategically in some of his games with Anderssen.  Steinitz did this in his later years, as he developed idiosyncrasies in his style. All the big players have  done so at some time or other in their careers. But we must remember that the modern top masters have  covered a number of years in achieving their present skill and judgment and it is not surprising that  neither Lasker nor Capablanca now make few if any mistakes in strategy. No doubt Morphy would have  equally developed in this respect within a similar length of time.
     Morphy's public chess career covered only a brief period—about two years. In that time he gave the  chess world a collection of games which, considered from the standpoint of uniform quality and number  within the same length of time is unequalled by any later master. You would be obliged to cover the long  career of these later masters to equal it. Again Morphy played successive matches within a short period  of each other. He never seemed to tire or diminish his strength and skill from constant effort if he ever  really exerted effort. The modern master demands a long period of rest between such contests and  always a long period of preparation for such. This is a collateral sidelight which puts Morphy into a class  by himself. These modern requirements are human needs which the ordinary mind accepts without  question and so without comparison. Once a comparison is noted the ordinary mind equally appreciates  that only the superman can disregard such common needs and still measure up to the best in all others.  The writer is not unmindful, however, that other considerations connected with the financial magnitude of  modern contests may be the governing factor for the seeming procrastination of such desirable events,  but it is well known that the interim is profitably employed in the promotion of physical and mental health;  all of which Paul Morphy did not treat as seriously necessary to his powers.
     The writer hesitates to compare Steinitz with Morphy, except as noted. Yet Steinitz enriched the chess  world as a teacher. Pillsbury was the nearest approach to Morphy in the chivalry of chess and his early  brilliant style foreshadowed him as a worthy wearer of the Morphy mantle. The conservative style later  acquired by contact with the modern school subdued his brilliant inclination and the touch of genius only  sparked occasionally. - Lasker is a genius in a different school—a laborious school which makes  patience its cardinal virtue and "safety first" its guiding star. He knows more chess than his  temperamental characteristics will let him express. Possibly even more than Morphy. But it is harnessed  and Morphy ran free. Morphy would tire him with his lively imagination. It was in such contests of  imagination with Pillsbury that Lasker succumbed. Capablanca is acclaimed as the nearest approach to  Morphy that the world has seen. But it has taken him years to gain this high opinion by the apparent  possession in late years of all of Morphy's virtues; he has much of Lasker's self-restraint, however, an  acquired characteristic developed to meet Lasker on his own ground. If he ever beats Lasker and  achieves his ambition he will cast it off. The writer shares the chess world's opinion, based more upon a  study of his game in its fundamental aspects. His career, however, has been a gradual growth, aided in  many respects by a more active chess thought and discussion than prevailed in Morphy's day.
     Morphy was unaided by anything stated up to his time as his games disclose innovations from  contemporary practice. He founded a school of his own which later masters could not exactly follow.  What they would do in a given situation of judgment was never a criterion of what Morphy would do in the  same position. It is the unfathomable reason for his play at times that compels us to believe that the  modern master would be equally puzzled as Anderssen, who does not seem to be any weaker. Morphy  was a boy when he evinced all this superior comprehension of chess as an art. No later master at the  same age possessed any of his powers in a similar measure. He was a superman then, and we observe  nothing in any later master to justify a belief of superiority and little to denote equality. Taking all the facts:  Morphy's age, the period, the skill of his opponents, the decisive results, his untiring devotion to play, his  rapid style, deep insight into intricate positions without ponderous effort, etc., and we recall no figure to  match his unique place in chess. Who can say, without finding a career more unique and startling, that  his supremacy is challenged? No modern master fills such a place.


  • 5 years ago


    Thanks, Sarah, I always thought that that was an interesting historical possibility, that Lee may have been witness to the little force destroying the huge force, but Lee missed out.  The more I think about it, I'm fairly confident that his aide could have been McClellan, for obvious reasons.  It would go far to explain his actions as commander of the Army of the Potomac.  And thanks for taking the time to post this for me twice.

  • 5 years ago



    On somebody esle's blog you had speculated whether it's possible that Capt. Robert E. Lee, Scott's most dependable officer, had accompanied Winfield Scott to New Orleans when Scott played Morphy. I replied there, but in case you didnt see it, here's a re-reply.

    He did not.

    Winfield Scott reached New Orleans on Dec. 19, 1846 on his way to Mexico. Lee was also sent to Mexico via New Orleans, but that was earlier -in August of 1846.  Besides the end purpose - for Capt. Lee to join up with Gen. John Wool -  Lee also acted as a courrier, entrusted to carry $60,000.  While in New Orleans, Lee bought a mare whom he appropriately named Creole. During the Mexican War Scott found excellent reasons to pronounce Lee the most morally and physically brave soldier.

  • 5 years ago



    There are a lot of Morphy games worth studying, and not just the 15 move slaughters.  GM Shibut has a great book on Morphy, and it contains every game of his there is to be found (I believe).  Have fun; he's a great player to study.


    Morphy could never be on that list, as he didn't play competitively for a five-year span.  If this was measured in two-year spans, then he would qualify, but with this caveat--all the players who played him said he was never truly tested, that there was more to him that was never shown due to lack of competition.  So his "peak" is tainted by the realization that he was only playing around 85-90%--he never gave his all because he never had to.  To me, the most astonishing thing about Morphy is how little work he did to get to were he was.  From age 14 to 20, he didn't study at all, and only played something like 10 games on the occasions where he was home from school.  Most players would be hard-pressed to reach @1600 using this technique.  In my opinion, hands-down he was the most talented player to ever play the game.  Nobody else did as little to get as far.

  • 5 years ago


    That was a fascinating write up.  I've only looked at half a dozen of his games on and I don't study enough or possess the skills to give a worthwhile judgement, but he sure does seem like a fun player to watch.  I've seen a King's Gambit of his that blew my mind.  

  • 5 years ago


    bobby fischer considered morphy to be the best of all time.he should know!

  • 5 years ago


    Interesting article, but I don't agree with it even back in 1920 much less in 2011.

    #1     Garry Kasparov       2875       1989-Jan through 1993-Dec   
     #2     Emanuel Lasker       2854       1894-Jan through 1898-Dec   
     #3     José Capablanca       2843       1919-Jan through 1923-Dec   
     #4     Mikhail Botvinnik       2843       1945-Jan through 1949-Dec   
     #5     Bobby Fischer       2841       1969-Jan through 1973-Dec   

    NOTE: For each player, the "peak" five-year span of their career is identified. All possible five-year spans are considered (always starting in January) in which the player had an active rating for 60 consecutive months. The five-year span with the highest average rating (across all 60 months) is considered to be the player's "peak" five year range.


    This is a fascinating list with 100 players - and no Morphy, don't ask me why not. However considering his peak to be 1857-62 (when he retired) it's hard to imagine him even in the Top 10 due to his very short playing career and scarcity of world-class opponents.

Back to Top

Post your reply: