New Orleans, October, 1841
They were almost finished with their cigars, and the snifters were nearly empty. Four men were concluding a talk that had lasted for two cigars and most of a bottle of fine Spanish brandy. They had been lounging around in the overstuffed leather chairs for several hours discussing local political matters. The parlor of the Morphy residence, a large room perfect for the entertainment of many guests, lit now by the late sun shining through an adjoining glass rotunda, was richly adorned with the finest furniture, crystal, carpets, and wines that could be imported form France and Spain. The fading lights red glow shown warmly on the wooden walls, where portraits of the family and their ancestors were hanging, spaced by bronze or marble-sculpted heads or other works of art on pedestals, local efforts by local artists. A grand piano dominated the far wall, a harp sitting alongside.
Alonzo Morphy, former Congressman, state attorney general, and current Louisiana Supreme Court justice, was the evening's host; a clean shaven man of medium build with a receding hairline, eyes as keen as his wit, one of the most respected men from one of the most respected families in New Orleans. He grabbed the crystal decanter and gestured toward his guests. "Judge Meek, Minister Ellis, care for a little more?" The two shook their heads no, but his brother, bearded, dark-haired and olive-skinned Ernest indicated he would.
"No, your Honor, it will soon be dark, and we still have a long ride ahead of us. We'd better be getting on our way." Judge Alexander Meek, tall and thin, beardless with a high forehead and possessing a commanding voice, placed his snifter on a lace coaster and extended his right hand. "The Minister and I will be otherwise occupied in writing these provisions until Sunday, and we were planning on stopping by after church, when we can all relax properly on your lovely veranda."
Alonzo shook his hand, and Ernest lifted his glass in a salute to them, saying, "We can finalize the measures in the bill, then enjoy some chess, over brandy and cigars, of course." He gestured toward the Judge. "And I wish to discuss another King's Gambit with you, sir. My last one was as short as Harrison's presidency."
Judge Meek laughed and said, "Yes, I had some good fortune in that game. And in chess, like love, I've always said it is better to be lucky than to be good."
"Luck should have no place in the courtroom or on the chessboard," Alonzo chimed in. "But I'm afraid ignorance has much to do with both."
"Here, here. Spoken like a man after higher office," replied former Senator and current Minister to Mexico Powhatten Ellis of Mississippi, a short but compact man who had helped settle the state.
Alonzo pulled on a velvet rope and a young black man, dressed in a black suit, starched white shirt, and white gloves quickly appeared. "Yes, suh?"
"Have the Judge's carriage brought around to the front, then bring the coats and hats. And have the jets lit in the den." As he left, another black man dressed in the same attire as the first entered quietly, using a tray to remove the glasses and cigar stubs.
"Judge Morphy, I think your new house is simply beautiful. I've never seen such a delightful parlor. I want to thank you again for inviting us here to discuss these matters." The Minister took his coat and patted the Judge on the arm. Nodding toward the piano, he said, "Alexander tells me your wife is quite proficient on those instruments. Will she be playing Sunday?"
"Of course Telcide will play. She loves to perform--even when I don't want to hear her." He smiled at them. "The music, I love. It's the practice I can live without."
"Ah, yes, the joy and the curse of being married to talent." Meek put on his hat. "But she has to put up with your chess, and she is more talented at her endeavor."
Alonzo laughed. "Then I shall have to prove you wrong on that point this Sunday, your Honor." The servant escorted the guests toward the front, closing the door behind them.,
Immediately after they had gone, Ernest began teasing his brother. "'Luck should have no place on the chessboard'? You're lucky any time you beat me."
Alonzo smiled. "Come into my parlor, Mr. Fly. You can be the first victim on my new chess set." They crossed the room to a door and entered. The den was a large room with a brown leather sofa and a matching overstuffed chair, a secretary filled with neatly filed papers, a draftmans desk and, near the wall by then stairs, an ornate oak table. Two finely crafted chairs sat at opposite sides of it. A large wooden chessboard was centered on the table, topped by a hand-carved white marble and onyx chess set. "Minister Ellis brought this magnificent set with him from Mexico. I believe it is Aztec in design, is it not?"
Ernest picked up several pieces, weighing them in his hand. "This is a beautiful set," he said. "Feel the weight of the pawns. The pieces, they just feel good in your hands. And there is remarkably good definition against the board, and clarity between the pieces." He looked up and smiled at Alonzo. "The clarity of the pieces should help you, brother, with seeing the end when it comes."
Alonzo was unfazed. "Would you be desiring a set yourself, brother? I can be persuaded to recommend you to the Minister, possibly; perhaps, for a fee?" Alozo paused, rubbing his chin. "A very large fee." He smiled broadly.
"Stick to the courtroom, your Honor. You've just shown me that your talent at chicanery matches your talent at chess." They were just sitting down to play when Alonzo's young son Paul came into the room. He was small, even for a four-year-old, with fine curly black hair and dark gray eyes like his father. He had already dressed for bed.
"Can I watch, papa? I'll be good."
"You have to be quiet when adults play chess." Alonzo tried to be stern, but it came out as more of a plea. "And when mama says it's bedtime; that's it! Off you go."
"I will, papa. I promise." The small boy climbed up the stairs and sat there quietly, watching from overhead.
Ernest leaned over and wispered into his brother's ear. "Do you ever wonder why he does that? Sit there and watch us play?"
Alonzo wispered back, "I have no idea why he does this. He's far too young to learn the game. But he keeps still, so...." He sat back in his chair, then quickly leaned forward, took the pawn in front of his king and confidently moved it ahead two squares. "Didn't you say something earlier about a King's Gambit?"
Ernest had accepted his brother's gambit, and the game had shifted back and forth, each player threatening destruction on the other, neither player allowing it to occur. After an hour of play, they were down to a king, a knight, and five pawns. A couple of moves prior, Ernest had tried to fork the king and rook with a knight move, but Alonzo had seen the trick and moved his rook to an open file. Ernest then brought his rook over with escalating threats of delivering checkmate. Alonzo was forced to exchange the knights, then pushed a pawn in front of his king, evading most of the mate threats. Ernest moved his rook again to try to renew the threats, but Alonzo pushed a pawn toward the other end of the board, threatening to make it a queen, and Ernest had to retreat the rook to stop it. Alonzo moved his rook to an open file, allowing Ernest to take the advanced pawn, but Ernest realized that taking it would allow a back-rank checkmate. He had to retreat the rook again, when Alonzo renewed the threat of queening. Ernest had to respond with the rook again, when Alonzo renwed his threat of back-rank mate. It was a little trick that saved the game, and Ernest reluctantly said to his brother, "You made a very good point with that move. I can no longer win the game."
"It was all I could do to hold on. Then it's a draw."
"No, no, uncle, you should have beaten papa!"
Startled, they both looked up at the child. "What's this you say?" Alonzo asked. "Come down here."
Paul quickly scampered down the stairs. "Papa, Uncle Ernest, let me set the men back to where they were after the horses ate each other." The little boy quickly set the pieces back on the board, restoring the position. "It was right here. Right, papa? You moved this little one after the square one ate the horse?"
"It's called a knight, Paul, and yes, this looks right." The boy's confident yet innocent expression was unsettling. "Ernest, do you agree?"
"Yes, that's right after we exchanged knights."
"No, uncle, you should move the square one here, even though the little one can take it."
Alonzo's expression was gently patronizing. "But Paul, the rook, the square one, is worth a lot more than the pawn, the little one."
"Not here, papa. If the square ones eat each other, uncle's little one goes to the end and becomes big. Your big one is too far away and too slow to stop it. And if the little one eats the square one, uncle's little one moves past your little one, and the square one can't stop it, so his little one gets big again. Uncle's big one will then eat up all your other ones. Right, papa?" Young Paul stopped and looked up at them.
All he saw was blank faces and open mouths.