Paul Morphy

A parent of one of my new students asked me the question “what’s up with that Paul Morphy guy?” For some reason I found this question delightful in its vagueness. Many times, parents will ask very specific questions that are designed to make them look like they know something about chess, such as “which variation for Black do you prefer against the Ruy Lopez.” Of course, my answer to such a question is usually “ ah…the winning variation,” at which point said parent mutters something about my lack of sanity and wanders off. However, I found the question regarding Paul Morphy to be one worth exploring. I told the parent, I would answer the question in this article. So Ian (parent), this one’s for you!

I think what Ian was getting at was the question of why Paul Morphy is so prevalent in my teaching program and the programs of many others. It’s a good question if you look at it from Ian’s point of view. His son goes to chess class one day, comes home and does nothing but talk about the amazing Paul Morphy. Ian looks up Paul Morphy online and becomes perplexed because he managed to find the one website that published descriptions of some of Morphy’s more eccentric non-chess habits. Fortunately, Ian did continue to read on and discovered that Paul Morphy played chess. Ian had also been trying to get his son interested in George Washington and American history with no luck. Ian wondered how his son could be so fascinated with one “old historical guy” (to quote Ian) and not with another. So what is it about Paul Morphy?

The question is really, what is it about Paul Morphy’s chess that appeals to both young and old alike? With that said, it should be noted that there are a plethora of chess players who find Morphy’s games to be unrealistic and ridiculous which makes this topic even more interesting. Love him or hate him, Morphy made an indelible mark on our beloved game. To answer Ian’s question, we must first look at the period in which Paul Morphy played. This was the romantic era of chess when gambits and all out daring attacks were the order of the day. The game of chess was played differently during the 1800s. Bravado seemed to be the watch word of Morphy’s day. I mention this because many modern players simply dismiss Morphy because he’d never hold up against today’s more sophisticated players. However, I would say to my modern counterparts that they need to look at Morphy in a historical context. Here’s an analogy: The Model T would certainly be an impractical car to drive around today. However, the Model T paved the way for the cars we do drive today and we should appreciate that! Morphy paved the way (along with others) for modern chess.

Chess students learn about specific chess players because those player’s game provide excellent examples of specific concepts. Those player’s games are published in books and used by chess teachers in their lectures. Chess teachers love games that clearly illustrate a specific point or multiple points. Clarity is the key when presenting a game during a lecture or lesson. Paul Morphy’s games clearly illustrate a number of crucial concepts beginning chess players need to learn. Those concepts include opening principles, attacking, defending and checkmating to name a few. However, what really makes Morphy so irresistible to many (but not all) chess teachers is the clarity of specific chess concepts combined with the excitement of his games.

I teach the game of chess to my beginning students in a rather theatrical way due to my past as a musician. I want them to share my passion for the game so I try to make the game interesting to them. I want to show them games that are both educational and exciting. This is where Paul Morphy’s games come into play. The majority of my students are young and youngsters like excitement. They want to see outrageous moves made on the board. I want to teach them specific fundamentals. The games of Paul Morphy allow my students to embark on an adventure and learn something during their travels across the sixty four squares.

One idea young beginners should embrace is the concept of playing attacking chess. Junior players should start their chess careers being attackers rather than defenders. Of course, they cannot be careless attackers or their careers will be short lived! Morphy’s games are ripe with brilliant attacks. To add intellectual icing to the educational cake, those attacks are extremely clear in scope. Take the first three moves of the game Morphy versus Charles the Duke of Brunswick and Count Isouard de Vauvenargue. Morphy, playing the White pieces follows the opening principles to the letter (1. e4…e5, 2.Nf3…d6, 3d4…Bg4) while the Duke and the Count do their best to hold on. Move three for White demonstrates a very straight forward attack to deny Black’s foothold in the center. 3. d4, attacks the pawn on e5. The d4 pawn is defended by the Knight on f3 and White’s Queen on d1, introducing the idea of counting attackers and defenders. Black’s Bishop on g4 pins the Knight on f3 to the Queen with 3…Bg4, introducing the pin to students and a subsequent discussion regarding this tactic. Three moves into the game and some very important ideas have cropped up!

Another lesson that can be learned through the games of Paul Morphy has to do with putting pieces on the rim or edge of the board. We teach the beginner to develop pieces toward the board’s center where they’re more powerful or influential. However, there are times when moving a piece to the a or h file makes sense. One of Morphy’s signature moves was to put his Queen-side Bishop on a3 where it attacks the f8 square stopping Black from Castling on the King-side.
Morphy was also a great Gambiteer. His Evan’s Gambit games were stunning in their Blitzkrieg-like assaults. I use his Evan’s Gambit games to introduce my students to the idea of the Gambit. While there are plenty of other great chess players who play the Evan’s Gambit better than Morphy, their games are nowhere near as user friendly to the beginner. Morphy’s games are beginner friendly and that is extremely important to someone who is new to the game. After all, to learn from a game you have to be able to follow along.

So Ian, there is your answer. Morphy’s games are exciting, educational and relatively easy to follow. I know some readers will disagree but Morphy’s games work within my program and most importantly, my students are crazy about the pride of New Orleans. Here’s a game by the great Morphy to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

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About Hugh Patterson

Prior to teaching chess, Hugh Patterson was a professional guitarist for nearly three decades, playing in a number of well known San Francisco bands including KGB, The Offs, No Alternative, The Swinging Possums and The Watchmen. After recording a number of albums and CDs he retired from music to teach chess. He currently teaches ten chess classes a week through Academic Chess. He also created and runs a chess program for at-risk teenagers incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities. In addition to writing a weekly column for The Chess Improver, Hugh also writes a weekly blog for the United States Chess League team, The Seattle Sluggers. He teaches chess privately as well, giving instruction to many well known musicians who are only now discovering the joys of chess. Hugh is an Correspondence Chess player with the ICCF (International Correspondence Chess Federation). He studied chemistry in college but has worked in fields ranging from Investment Banking and commodities trading to Plastics design and fabrication. However, Hugh prefers chess to all else (except Mrs. Patterson and his beloved dog and cat).