The Man Who Wouldn't Play Morphy

The Man Who Wouldn't Play Morphy - and other myths


Prologue -

Recently I read a brief bio on Morphy at Chessville under a sub-heading called Vignettes [Chessville Vignettes: Paul Morphy].   I subsequently learned, from an entry on Susan Polgar's blog, that the article was a contribution by a high school student.  Be that as it may, the article reminded me that there are many misconceptions floating around, not just about Morphy, but even about those who came into contact with Morphy. The article below hopes to explore some of those misconceptions.

Three statements particularly caught my eye and I want to deal with each separately:

1) "However, he played several matches against the leading English masters, all but Howard Staunton, whom had time to study Morphy's skill and abstained from a match against him.  He later excused his cowardice by remarking that Morphy had insufficient funds to play a staked match, and complaining of his own disposition due to time constraints imposed by a writing project he was then engaged in."

2) "Even though Morphy was too weak to move without aid, he insisted on playing the German Champion, Adolf Anderssen, supposedly the best player in Europe.  Anderssen had traveled from his hometown in Germany, seeking to defeat the American Champion and silence the hype; however, he was defeated with ease by the flu-ridden Morphy.  Anderssen admitted that Morphy was the stronger player, and that he was fairly beaten, but also commented that he was out of practice and wasn't ready to play Morphy."

3) "He eventually developed a mental disease, and would wander the streets of New Orleans talking to imaginary people."

Howard Staunton today is mainly remembered as the man who wouldn't play Morphy.  As far as it goes, this is almost true. Staunton, of course, did play Morphy in two games, playing in consultation with Rev. Owen against Morphy and Barnes, losing both games.

Staunton was a self-made man, both highly intelligent and extremely literate. He was by no means a lazy man judging from his chess literature output and his Shakespearean opus, not to mention his accomplishments on the chess board in both play and analysis. Through the haze of time he comes across as a man who wanted very much to be highly thought of, a trait that appears to have been both his strongest impetus and greatest weakness. What William Norwod Potter wrote in Staunton's obituary - "Nevertheless, all said and done, Staunton was, as we have often heard a distinguished enemy of his say, emphatically a MAN. There was nothing weak about him, and he had a backbone that never curved with fear of any one." - seems to have been true. 

When Morphy's club challenged Staunton, by mail, to play a match in New Orleans, Staunton rightfully refused to come to America, but wrote in his chess column: "if Mr. Morphy - for whose skills we entertain the highest admiration - be desirous to win his spurs among the chess chivalry of Europe, he must take advantage of his proposed visit next year; he will then meet in this country, in France, in Germany and in Russia, many champions whose names must be as household words to him, ready to test and do honor to his prowess."

When Morphy showed up in London on short notice and renewed his challenge in person, Staunton, rather than simply excusing himself for a variety of valid reasons, accepted the challenge conditionally - an action he must have later regretted but had no graceful, face-saving way to undo. Caught in a bad situation of his own creation, it seems Staunton tried to weather it out, hoping it would just blow over. Of course it never did and Staunton, being his cantankerous self, took his petty revenge out on Morphy in the press. Staunton had almost no close friends. With a couple exceptions, what few friendships he cultured, he destroyed. John Cochrane, who lived in India, claimed that his friendship with Staunton lasted through the years mainly because of the distance between them. Von der Lasa also had a high opinion of Staunton - it seems Staunton could be quite charming when he so desired - but, again, they seldom met.

Staunton, contrary to what many people seem to believe, was never seriously criticized in his day for not playing Morphy, but rather for leading Morphy on and for denigrating Morphy in his chess column.  By the same token, Morphy was never upset over not playing Staunton, but was chagrined by Staunton's ungentlemanly behavior in wasting his limited time abroad.  Staunton's needs to preserve what he construed as his public image and to assuage his bruised ego were his tragic flaws. The "Koward Staunton" image was just a creation of someone's fertile imagination.


Adolf Anderssen won the great London International Tournament of 1851, a tournament organized by Howard Staunton.  When Anderssen returned to Germany, he was crowned with a laurel wreath.  While he was so highly appreciated and respected by his peers in Germany, Anderssen was severely reprimanded for accepting the match with Morphy and traveling to Paris to play.  Max Lange, who was a great admirer of Morphy, was convinced that Morphy's friends (i.e. Frederick Edge and his cohorts), not Morphy himself, who had instigated a letter-writing campaign and media blitz to induce Anderssen to come to Paris, were in fact trying to augment Morphy's reputation at the expense of German national pride by insisting that an established master travel to a foreign country to meet his challenger. Lange was also convinced that Morphy would be forced to travel to Berlin and prove himself against the German masters or forever concede their superiority. Anderssen, on the other hand, was eager to cross swords with Morphy.

"Morphy, therefore, in his reply, declined Anderssen's proposition, and in return invited the Professor to Paris, to play the desired match in that capital. Thereupon Anderssen, as he confessed himself afterwards, ought to have insisted upon, and remained satisfied with, his own challenge.
It is evident that the distinguished American player would have done everything to effect the match, for if he had not played after having been challenged, he would thereby at once have acknowledged the superiority of the German champion.  Burning, however, with impatience to break a lance with the youthful hero, who was so much admired abroad, and personally invited by him in a letter, which contained several reasons why they should not meet in Germany (which motives, however, were quite indifferent to a German, and valueless in themselves), the veteran German champion went at once to Paris, to meet the young foreign master, and presented himself, confident in his tried powers, to the fatal combat." - Max Lange.

Anderssen made a poor showing against Morphy. Morphy, at the time, was suffering from intestinal influenza and was bed-ridden. Anderssen, like his countrymen, felt Morphy's illness, just like excuses not to come to Berlin, were subterfuges. In his letter to v.d. Lasa, Anderssen wrote: "Altogether, he is not only a great chess player but also a great diplomat and all maneuvers which he inaugurated in reference to me since his arrival in England had not other purpose than to lure me to Paris and to burden me with the inconvenience of the trip. Likewise, I admired from the very beginning as a very tactful diplomatic maneuver that he took to his bed when I arrived in Paris, and I have never changed my mind about that."

Anderssen is often presented as a big, likable, but somewhat clueless, individual, who had nothing but praise for Morphy after their match. This isn't quite an accurate portrayal. According to Max Lange: "the most innocent expressions, which sometimes had quite a different meaning, or were spoken occasionally by the German player, were laid hold of, and undue importance attached to them. Amongst these may be mentioned the words attributed to him, "that it was a rare fortune for a player to win one or two games against Morphy." The fact is, that at dinner, before the last game was played, Anderssen said, jokingly and in good temper, " He was glad to have already two sheep in safety." Again, Anderssen is reported to have said, "II joue non seulement le coup juste, mais le coup le plus juste." (Morphy makes not only the best, but the very best move.) " No living player has a chance in play against Morphy ; it is uncertainty struggling against certainty."
     The truth is, that Anderssen only spoke of the great correctness of Morphy's play, and simply remarked, that the American never made a mistake, and very rarely an error. We do not intend, by correcting these misstatements, to diminish the glory of the American; for, after all we have said before, it is evident this can not be our intention; but an impartial presentation of facts, devoid of national vanity, can only be in favour of the youthful champion who came off victorious; and, therefore, we will add here a few expressions of Anderssen's, which we can warrant to be authentic. He was asked if the American was superior in coolness and self-possession, and if his play in general had seemed to him superior to his own. The first part of the question was not strictly answered, for Anderssen merely replied to it as follows :—" I cannot say I believe so; for, in my own opinion, I was quite cool, but still I have overlooked the most simple moves." The second question was answered without reserve:—" He did not even in his dreams," he said, " believe in the superiority of his opponent; it is, however, impossible to keep one's excellence in a little glass casket, like a jewel, to take it out whenever wanted; on the contrary, it can only be conserved by continuous and good practice."

Finally Lange wrote: "Finally, the same parties inquired how the American master spoke of Anderssen's play. Upon this the German player replied with well-founded confidence:— 'To express an opinion upon this subject was impossible for Morphy, as I had not gone to Paris to get a certificate of ability. Those who surrounded the American, however, seemed to think that they flattered me most when they said, how high an opinion the American had of my play, and that he considered me the strongest of all opponents he had met till now. But to be reckoned stronger than a Loewenthal I consider next door to nothing!'"



"He eventually developed a mental disease, and would wander the streets of New Orleans talking to imaginary people."

Like several noted men of genius, Morphy talked to himself, often with gestures (see previous blog entry). These helter-skelter, merit-less reiterations of sensationalized misconceptions do a tremendous disservice to Morphy and to mental illness. Most of Morphy's mental condition is unknown, the rest is made-up.


Welcome to Chess History, the land of Myths and Make-Believe.





  • 24 months ago


    PCharlesMorphy, that's a very myopic, and somewhat skewed, viewpoint.

  • 24 months ago


    Staunton was a coward. He knew that Morphy was stronger that him, and he and so he refused to play a match.

    In 1943 Saint Amant won a match against Staunton by 3'5-2'5.

    In 1951 Anderssen won a match against Staunton by 4-1

    In 1958 Bird won a game against Staunton

    In 1958 Morphy won a game against Saint Amant

    In 1958 Morphy won a match 4-0 against Bird

    In 1958 Morphy won a match against Anderssen 8-3


    St.Amant = Staunton < Anderssen < Morphy

  • 9 years ago


    Wow, good article. I like it when folk really consider their opintion, and you have done this in a clear and consise manner. Ah, to be remembered a coward or not at all.Undecided

  • 9 years ago


  • 9 years ago


    "and I stand firmly by my assessments"

    and my dear batgirl, I stand firmly by mine.Smile

  • 9 years ago


    Which account seems more likely?

    "He happened to make some ordinary observation on the great correctness of Morphy's play, to the effect that he seldom or never made an error..." -- Max Lange  


    "Morphy makes not only the best, but the very best move, and if we play the move only approximately correct, we are sure to lose. Nobody can hope to gain more than a game, now and then, from him." -- Frederick Milnes Edge


    Both, I believe. "II joue non seulement le coup juste, mais le coup le plus juste"  refers to the great correctness of Morphy's play. But, I think, at the same time, has Anderssen indirectly putting himself as Morphy's equal by virtue of knowing that such a move is, in fact, le plus juste.


    To conclude Lange's/Anderssen's appraisal, Lange wrote: "To sum up our remarks, we can state in a few words, that at all events the American was, at the time, the superior, that is, the more practiced match player." [italics mine]

  • 9 years ago


    Thank you for correcting many of my conceptions regarding Morphy.
  • 9 years ago


    Thanks for your comments.

    1. First, I'm not an apologist for Howard Staunton. He had many character flaws that he magnified through his position in the chess community and through his unsanctioned availablity of the press. Whether he actually wrote letters under a false name isn't at all provable, but likely. Whether he knew that Deacon's games were invented is highly questionable, unprovable and personally, I feel it's unlikely. I think it's more likely that Staunton was thrilled about finding games in which Morphy played weakly and avoided looking for reasons to question them.

    To say that Staunton was a coward because he didn't play Morphy and because he denigrated Morphy in the press only addresses one side of the issue. Staunton denigrated everyone in the press, particularly when they were on his bad side, but even when he would have had the high road otherwise - viz. his match with St-Amant and the proposal for a second match. There was nothing that could be construed as cowardly about any of this vituperation. Staunton seemed to feel that by lessening the stature other people, he elevated his own stature.

    Staunton felt he represented English Chess. Even Walker alluded to this in his own denunciation of Staunton. It may well be that Staunton though he still had the ability to defend England's honor if could play at his best. Who knows?  It's even possible that Staunton's written reply to the N.O. chess club didn't imply he would play Morphy. It's rather ambiguous in that respect. At any rate, at that time, Morphy wasn't expected to travel to England, or if he did, it wouldn't have been until the following year. But Morphy showed up almost out of the blue. Staunton, in spite of his seemingly high social stature, was not well off financially. He didn't even own his own home and was dependent upon his writing for his sustenance.  His reasons for not playing Morphy were sound. He was out of practice; he did need a lot of time to prepare; he was engaged in his livlihood; and to play Morphy under such conditions, trying to defend the English honor, would be, as he said, madness. Even Walker agreed to this. Not playing Morphy was not cowardice on his part, but a reasonable reaction.  However, Staunton got himself in too deep by not simply stating these things up front. Pride, not cowardness. Not the honorable pride in his skills, but the unsavory pride in how he looked to others.  After Streatham and then the Owen match at P&move, any lingering hope that he might be able to win after "brushing up on his openings" probably went out the window. But pride kept him from publicly admitting the obvious. For all this, I see tragic weakness of character on Staunton's part, but not cowardice.  Potter's statements, reflecting that of people who knew and dealt with Staunton in his chess, business and everyday life, certainly carries much more weight than any you and I might have looking at Staunton throught the fog of a century and a half.


    2. Of course I take issue the statement that Anderssen admitted Morphy was a stronger player - because that's not what Anderssen admitted to, unless we are to assume Anderssen is a liar. Max Lange's account was Anderssen's account and his reporting of Anderssen's sentiments, "He did not even in his dreams," he said, " believe in the superiority of his opponent," was published with Anderssen's approval, unlike newspaper accounts. Lange has a point, that newspapers can print what they want, retaining the facts while slanting the meaning.  The issue isn't who was the better player - the results speak for themselves - but Anderssen's assessment of the match which, almost without doubt, is nothing as is portrayed in most places.


    3. Of course Morphy had a mental illness. What constitutes a disservice is writing nonsense - things either made-up or without documentation to support. - about his condition and/or his actions and even most so-called eyewiness reports are as suspect as they are contradictory.


    I wasn't out to lambaste this boy's article, especially since he probably simply got his material here and there. I certainly don't wish to spend my life trying to correct truckloads of Morphy articles. In fact I only mentioned that particular article because, as I said, I came across it recently and because Chessville is used by many as a portal for chess knowledge. If anything, I was trying to hold up the article as an example of how universal such things are.

    and I stand firmly by my assessments.

  • 9 years ago


    Anderssen was the unofficial world champion for many years, although not in top form during the Morphy-Anderssen matchup. Which account seems more likely?


    "He happened to make some ordinary observation on the great correctness of Morphy's play, to the effect that he seldom or never made an error..." -- Max Lange




    "Morphy makes not only the best, but the very best move, and if we play the move only approximately correct, we are sure to lose. Nobody can hope to gain more than a game, now and then, from him." -- Frederick Milnes Edge

  • 9 years ago


     I respectfully disagree with you. 


    1)      Staunton was a coward. 


    “There was nothing weak about him, and he had a backbone that never curved with fear of any one.” 



    I don’t believe that for a minute.  I would classify Staunton’s behavior during that whole episode when Morphy was in London as weak. To lead Morphy on, postponing the match again and again, using one lame excuse after another to avoid playing , would be the  action  of a person of weak character in my opinion.  


    To write letters under false names and publish them in his paper in order to denigrate Morphy is ,again,the markings of a weak and cowardly person. And after Morphy  was back in the U.S., Staunton continued showing his weakness by knowingly publishing games that never occurred between an amateur  (Deacon) and Morphy  .  


    The New Orleans Delta – 1/16/1860 “The games published in the London Illustrated News of  the 17th December last, purporting to have been played between Messrs Morphy and Deacon, were certainly never played by the former gentleman: indeed, he never played a game with Mr Deacon. If we did not know who he Chess editor of the Illustrated News is, we might suppose he had here committed an error, but being aware that the Chess Department of that paper is under the care of Howard Staunton, we do not hesitate to say that he willfully attributed games of inferior quality to Mr Morphy, well knowing they had never been played by him. This is in perfect accordance with the course heretofore, but it is needless to say that no one will be gulled by this new dodge of Mr Staunton, as it will be duly exposed, we hope, by all chess publishing papers.”  


     2) You seem to take issue  with the statement that Anderssen  admitted that Morphy was the stronger player. 


     “The truth is, that Anderssen only spoke of the great correctness of Morphy's play, and simply remarked, that the American never made a mistake, and very rarely an error” 


    That seems superior play to me.  Why can’t one believe “the reported” statements of Anderssen. Are they all misrepresentions? Are we only to believe Anderssen’s comments to  Lange?   


     3) I believe, the last comment about  Morphy’s meanderings   around New Orleans  and mental lapses are written about in several places ( didn’t he attack his barber and challenged him to a duel?)   It’s not the fact that they occurred that you are arguing about but that its classified as a mental illness? 


    The article you posted  from Léona Queyrouze Barel , has a few descriptions  which I would say was of a mentally troubled person who would have been under various medication if alive today. 


    If you consulted the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, I’m sure you would find several catogories for Morphy.



    There are many false and inaccurate statements made in articles and postings but I don’t believe this kid made any gross misrepresentations.          
  • 9 years ago


    It seems the American's had their own views of Morphy, colored by national pride, and didn't want to learn anyone else's viewpoint.


    Typical Americans.  ;) 

  • 9 years ago


    Staunton was ill-prepared to meet Morphy.  He knew to have even a fighting chance, he'd need to put in some real study. Perhaps he was hoping to find that time and never could.  But at any rate, the work on his Shakespearean book, which was being done in installments, paid his bills and Staunton was not a rich man.



    Max Lange was a leading critic of Anderssen's decision to play Morphy under those circumstances. However, Lange was a big fan of Morphy's and tried, with the German national trait of fairness, to handle his book evenly.  Of course, his national pride probably shaded his ideas. More importantly though is that he shows us Anderssen's own state of mind, which isn't always as we are led to believe. By the way, Lange's book was a best seller in Germany, so much so that the the next year Falkbeer translated it into English and it was published in America -  where it flopped big-time. It seems the American's had their own views of Morphy, colored by national pride, and didn't want to learn anyone else's viewpoint.

  • 9 years ago


    Thanks for publishing these insights into Anderssen's actual words. Max Lange was a German chessplayer... I wonder to what extent that coloured his account.

  • 9 years ago


    I read that what kept him from meeting Morphy was his work on Shakespeare.
  • 9 years ago


    Interesting info. I say that a Morphy-Staunton match would have been a sight to see, unfortunately, it did not happen and it never will. Thanks Batgirl.
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