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 Paul Morphy - J.J. Lowenthal;
 New Orleans, 1850. 

 By  U.S.C.F.  LIFE-Master  A.J. Goldsby I 
 (Click  here  to visit my main chess home-page.)  


This material was originally generated for use on the "About"  website, but was rejected by the chess guide, Mark Weeks. These writings are my work and may  only be used with my specific permission. No other usage is allowed. 

  Copyright A.J. Goldsby I, 2002, 2003, & 2004.  


This was originally intended to be a series on the best players in the world and/or the world champions, starting with A. Anderssen. But since I have already written so much about  Morphy, (Click here or here.); I have decided NOT to write about him any further. Instead I decided to write about Morphy, the young man and the prodigy.

Paul Morphy, The prodigy

Paul Morphy was quite simply one of the greatest prodigies who ever lived. But just how good was he really? And at what age did he begin to evince an obvious and superior chess skill? In this article, we will attempt to answer all of these questions. ---> Then we will look at a game played by the young Morphy when he was about 12 years old. And against an opponent who was quite possibly one of the best players in the whole world, at least at that time. (J. Lowenthal. In fact, Lowenthal - at that time - was easily one of the best players in the U.S.  Sonas  has no rating list for 1850, but in  1851  he ranks him as the "Number Ten" player in the whole world. And by 1856Lowenthal  would be rated "Number Three" {#3.} in the world, and would stay there for almost five years.) 


First some basic information. Paul Morphy was born on June 22nd, 1837 to a judge, Alonzo Morphy and his wife Thelcide in New Orleans. Paul's whole family played chess and apparently he began playing at a very early age. 

Morphy learned the game really just by watching. (For the full story, see the book on Morphy by Lawson, page # 14.)

Apparently Paul made VERY rapid progress. His uncle later told Edge that, "before he was out of skirts, young master Paul was easily dispatching his elders." (Boys used to wear frocks until they were four, five, or maybe six at the oldest. Then they were given a "man's" haircut and dressed in pants.)


When Paul was only nine, (December, 1846.) he played his first real public match. His opponent was none other than the very famous figure, General Winfield Scott. (Scott fancied himself a very good chess player and a strong amateur. And apparently he was one of the strongest players in the country, especially in the military.) {See the book on General Scott by John S.D. Eisenhower.}

At first Scott thought that the little boy who was presented as his opponent was a jest. Then he was assured that the young fellow would prove to be a worthy adversary. (Morphy already had the reputation of being able to defeat just about anyone in New Orleans.) Anyway, the whole affair turned out to be a huge let-down. In the first game, Paul as White mated the General in 10-12 moves. Then when Paul got Black, they played a certain number of moves. Paul now announced, "mate-in-X." And sure enough, this is what happened. At first General Scott was full of rage and indignation. Later in his memoirs he was to write that he witnessed the birth of a legend and the first real chess genius. 
{See the Lawson book, pages 14-17 for the full story.} 


After Scott, the family let Paul try his hand against other opponents as well. When Paul was 10, one of his relatives got married. (Apparently there was quite a party, and a few people even got snookered.) Anyway, Paul worked his way into a room where there was non-stop chess. Once there, Paul owned the room and defeated all comers for hours and hours ... until he was discovered by his mother and taken home. (This was reported - amazingly enough - a few months later in a Cincinnati newspaper.) 


Before he was 12, Paul began to play the strongest players in all of New Orleans, and on a regular basis. This included Eugene Rosseau, whom might have been one of the best 3-4 players in all of the continent North America. (Paul usually won.) 

On his 12th birthday, Paul played his Uncle Ernest ... blindfolded! After he won the game, Dr. A.P. Ford presented him with a very expensive mother-of-pearl inlaid chess-board, which was owned by Lawson. Judge James McConnell (later) said that Morphy possessed the greatest skill and grasp of the game ... of all the players that he had ever played. (The Judge was a good player and for over 50 years, played some of the best players in the country.)


In late 1849, J.J. Lowenthal visited New Orleans. (Lowenthal was widely considered to be one of the five best chess players in the world.) He returned the following May to play a "real, set match," against young Paul. They played.  Paul did well, but apparently the results of this encounter were kept secret for almost six years!  

Apparently, Mr. Lowenthal was anything but honest about this match. At first he was supposed to have won one, drawn one, and Paul won the other ... but only after a terrible mistake by Lowenthal. Later he changed this account to the tune that Paul won two, and the other game was drawn. (The score of this game, altered by the loser - apparently a Petroff - was published in Lowenthal's book.) Lowenthal also was once asked in Boston - several years later - about the supposed strength of the young 'phenom' from New Orleans. He replied that although a relatively good player, Paul was basically just a "Rook-odds player." (Perhaps he thought that his remarks were not recorded.) To his chagrin, his comments about Morphy and Rook-odds were published in the newspaper. (1855-56)  Imagine his embarrassment when Paul showed up for the Chess Congress in New York in 1858, and it was discovered that Mr. Lowenthal's story and the "Rook-odds" comment was a complete fabrication! 

Apparently Paul won ALL of the games he contested with Mr. Johann J. Lowenthal!!! For the complete story of this match, and the very thorough documentation of Lowenthal's fabricated story, see Chapter Three of the Lawson book.


So just how strong was young Paul Morphy? It is hard to say. (Records are pretty sketchy.) From the games that were published and the accounts, apparently Paul was playing at a real Master-level somewhere between eight to ten years of age. From some of his earliest games, it is obvious that Paul was very, very strong. While not playing perfect chess, he must have already been one of the strongest players in the country before he was ten years of age! (His encounters with Paulsen and General Scott demonstrate this pretty clearly.) After he went to college in 1850, although he played infrequently, Charles Marian, (Morphy's best friend and life-long companion); often recorded accounts and the games that Paul played. It is pretty clear from my computer-assisted examination of these games, that Paul was an extremely strong player. (Probably as strong as the average GM of today ... at least!!) 

Paul Morphy (2400) - Johann J. Lowenthal (2650)

Match Game
New Orleans, LA;  1850.

[A.J. Goldsby I]


An incredible game that shows even a very young Morphy was more than a match for one of the very best players in the whole world. (Of that time.) 

  [Sonas ranks him as being in the 'Top Ten' in the world.]   

Using simple moves, Morphy outplays a <supposedly> much stronger opponent. 

This game has been poorly annotated. Virtually everything that has been written about this game over the years is simply dead wrong. 

"Experience meets genius ... and experience loses." 
 (From the introduction to this game from the Lawson book on Morphy. Game # 6, page # 341.)  


1.e4 c5;  2.f4!?,  (Maybe - '!')  
A case of Morphy anticipating modern theory. This line later came to be known as ... "The Grand Prix Attack," and was all the rage in the late 70's and during the 80's. (And even well into the 90's.)

Players later GREATLY criticized this move ... one writer calling it: "The move of an amateur."

Steinitz - in one of his later articles on Morphy - was to give this move a whole question mark. Suffice it to say that Steinitz would have lost to any modern GM from the Black side of this position. (Assuming, of course, he would be unable to update his knowledge prior to any actual contest.)  

     [ A modern player would probably play the move:  2.Nf3;  leading to variations that can be  found in any current manual on the opening. ]   

2...e6;  3.Nf3 d5!;  
Black correctly strikes back at the center. 

4.exd5 exd5;  5.d4! Bg4!?;  
It is too early to bring this Bishop out. I have noticed however that Lowenthal often did this as a matter of course.  (An early exchange of a Knight for a Bishop.) 

Today we know this move is NOT correct, however Morphy's opponent was operating without any opening books or databases! 

All joking aside, this game CLEARLY shows that ONLY Morphy seemed to understand (perhaps intuitively) the principles of modern chess. 

The Bishop move is clearly not the best here, and gives White a clear advantage. (But in the context of the time period in which this game was played, this was not such a terrible move.)

( Whomever annotated this game in Lawson's book, gave this move a whole question mark. {'?'}

But to compare this Bishop sally to something like the Trompowski's Attack, (1.d4, Nf6; 2.Bg5!?); this move is not all that out of place. (Several computers, like  'DEEP Thought'  ...  also play this move here.) {In a way, ...Bg4;  can be seen as a fairly logical attempt here. d4 is a very important square, and this move undermines those squares.} 

Another thing I can say for an absolute certainty here. I have tested this position on literally dozens of computers. Most consider Black to be slightly better from this position. NONE see this as a won position for White. So ...Bg4; is not all that bad, it certainly is NOT the losing move in this game!! 

6.Be2 Bxf3!?;  
Now Black feels compels to exchange this piece off as White threatens Ne5. 

(Once again, the annotator in the Lawson book awards a whole question mark here. But this is much too severe. The damage was really done by Black's last move.)  But ...Nc6! was a small improvement over the text.  

     [  >/=  6...Nc6!7.c3, "~"  ]  


7.Bxf3 Nf6;  
Black continues his development. 

     [ Maybe  7...cxd4!? ]  


Now both sides continue in pretty much - a normal mode of development. 
8.0-0 Be7;  9.Be3!? cxd4!?;  10.Bxd4 0-0!?;   
Black simply castles ... could this be so terrible?  

In actuality - - - I am quite sure Black should have played ...Nc6!

The course of play will reveal that White's Bishop on d4 is an extremely powerful piece, and should have been done away with at the earliest possible opportunity. 

     [  Better is:  >/=  10...Nc6!; 11.Nc3, "+/=" with a small advantage to White. ]  

White now simply wins the pawn on d5. Black immediately regains this pawn, by winning the button back on b2. However the piece activity - and open lines - that White gets, seems to convey to him a clear advantage. 

11.Nc3 Nc6;  12.Bxf6 Bxf6;  13.Nxd5 Bxb2;  14.Rb1 Bd4+; 15.Kh1 Rb8;  16.c3 Bc5!?;  17.f5!,  {Diagram?}  
In my mind,  this is the very best move. 

Modern masters know that to get - and keep - an advantage, one often must convert a temporary advantage, (such as a lead in development); to a more permanent type of advantage. (Such as a disruption of Black's K-side pawns, as Morphy achieves here. 

     [  White could have also played: 17.Re1!?, "+/="  and kept a small but secure advantage.  

       Also possible was: 17.Be4!? or 17.Rb5!?  ]   


Black seeks play.  (Understandably so.) ---> Yet this move has been universally condemned. 

  Steinitz called it a duffers move  
And the annotator for the Lawson book - once again - gives this move a WHOLE QUESTION MARK. ('?')  But is this really justified? What else was Black supposed to do? 

White's threat is to play f6, and Black has no good way of really preventing this move. I have subjected this position to a very deep analysis. It is difficult to come up with a better move. 

When Fritz 6.0 FIRST came out, I tested this game on a student's new computer. We loaded this game, and after thinking OVER five (5) minutes, the program played ... you guessed it, ...Qh4. 

(I think much - or all - of Black's many difficulties in this position basically stem from the very inaccurate way that Black handled this opening early on.) 

     [  Much, much worse was: </=  17...f6?18.Nf4, "+/="  and White is clearly better here. (Maybe - '+/')  ]


White now finds the most precise moves ...  that yield White a small but clear advantage. 
(White's 19th move was also given an exclam by the Lawson annotator as well.) 

18.g3!, "+/="  18...Qg5;  19.f6! Ne5!?;  
This looks natural, one newspaper column even praised this move. 
('Active play!') 

But it could be possible that this move is simply inferior. ('?!' or '?') 

Much of White's advantage comes from the fact that Black's pawns get split and his King becomes more exposed. The second player simply should not allow this. 

     [ >/=  19...g6; "~" ]  


20.fxg7 Rfd8!?;  21.Be4 Qxg7?!;  
This is very clearly not the best, and maybe even an error. ('?') Yet the Lawson annotator makes no comment here at all. 

     [ Live or die, Black almost certainly had to play the move: 21...Rd6[];  and try to hang on. ]  


White now continues to increase the pressure. (The Lawson annotator also awards an exclam to White's 23rd move as well.) 

  {Morphy saw Ne7+ and Nf5, but rejected it for some reason ...  but as to why, I am not sure.} 

22.Qh5 Rd6;  23.Bxh7+! Kf8;  24.Be4!?,    
This is good enough for a small White advantage, but the move 24.Rbe1, may have been better. 

     [ A small improvement might be: >/=  24.Rbe1!, ("")  and White keeps a small, but solid advantage. (...Re8; 25.Nc7!)  ]  


24...Rh6;  25.Qf5 Qxg3!?;  
This simply open lines for White.  (Black seems to regret this later) 

26.Rb2 Re8?;  
This could be the losing move, but our un-named commentator makes no mention of it. 

     [ It seems Black had to play:  26...Qh327.Rg2, "+/="  when White is slightly better, ... but a forced win is a LONG way off. ]  


27.Nf6 Re6?!;   {See the diagram just below.}  
Once again, our un-named commentator brands this move with a whole question mark. But he fails to tell us several things, most importantly the move that would have saved Black. (He also does not point out that Black is already 100% lost in this position.)  

     The actual game position after Black's 27th move. White to move, what move do YOU play here?  (a_p-mo1.jpg,  24 KB)



     [ Maybe  27...Rxf6!? ]  


Extensive computer analysis ... with Nimzo 8.0 and Fritz 7 ... show that Black is lost, and finds maybe the only way to reach an endgame where he does not get mated.  

This is good, but White probably had better. 

In a way its nice to know that a 12-year-old Morphy was not yet the calculating machine he was to become later on in life.  (A common human failing, seeing one win ... he failed to look any further.)  

     [ Apparently better was:  >/=  28.Nd7+! Kg7;  This is close to being forced.

         (28...Nxd7??; 29.Qxf7#.  or  28...Ke7; 29.Nxc5, "+/-")     

        29.Rg2, "+/-"  White has a won game. ]  


28...Qxg2+;  29.Bxg2 Rhxf6;   
Maybe Black was counting on this position to save him?

30.Qxf6! Rxf6;  31.Rxf6, "+/-"  
Morphy now has a decisive edge in this ending.

The rest of the game is a nice example of how to win a won game. Morphy shows he has no problem at all in this department.
31...Ng4;  32.Rf5 b6;  33.Bd5 Nh6;  34.Rf6 Kg7;  35.Rc6 a5;  36.Rc7 Kg6;  37.Kg2 f6;  38.Kf3 Nf5!?;  39.Be4 Kg5;  40.Bxf5 Kxf5;  41.h4 Kg6;  42.Rc6 Kh5;  43.Kg3 f5;  44.Rf6, f4+;  45.Kxf4 Bf2;  46.Ke4 Bc5;  47.Rf5+ Kxh4;  48.Rxc5!, bxc5;  49.Kd5,   "+/-"   Black Resigns.  

A great game by the young Morphy.

A game, that for nearly 20 years, defied resolution by computer analysis. (It is also a game that most writers and annotators have almost universally failed to understand.) 

Copyright (c)  A.J. Goldsby I   Copyright (c)  A.J.G;  2002.

  1 - 0  



I used dozens of books and magazines to compile this information, 
but the following were the most helpful: 

# 1.)   "Paul Morphy" (and the evolution of chess theory), by  Macon Shibut.  Caissa Editons, 1993.

# 2.)  "The Games Of Paul Morphy."  (Informant-style book.) 

# 3.)  "The Unknown Morphy," (Games, Writings, Biography) by  Phillip W. Sergeant.  Dover Books, 1973.

# 4.)  "The Exploits and Triumphs In Europe ofPAUL MORPHYThe Chess Champion."  by  Frederick M. Edge.  Dover Books, 1973. 

# 5.)  "Morphy's Games Of Chess."  selected and annotated games by  Phillip W. Sergeant. (Introduction by Fred Reinfeld.) Dover Books, 1957. 

# 6.)  "Paul Morphy: The Pride and Sorrow of Chess,"  by  David Lawson.  David McKay Books, 1976. 

 This concludes my article on the young Paul Morphy.  

 - A.J. Goldsby.  (May 20th, 2003.) 

 Click  HERE   to see the next article on Wilhelm Steinitz.  

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  of the World Championships by GM. R. Fine

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Page first posted on my web site in March, 2003. 
(Page last updated:  Sunday;  October 12th, 2003.)   Last edit/save on:  01/24/2015

  Copyright () LM A.J. Goldsby I.  

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