By Donny Gray
Paul Morphy was an American chess player who played during the mid 1850’s. He was considered to be the World Chess Champion of his time, although it was unofficial.
He is called “The Pride and Sorrow of Chess” because he was extremely brilliant in chess, although he retired from the game while still young.
Morphy was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, and learned to play chess by simply watching games between his father and uncle. By age nine, he was considered one of the best players in New Orleans. At twelve years of age, Morphy defeated visiting Hungarian master Johann Löwenthal in a match of three games.
In 1857, he played in the First American Chess Congress in New York City and won the tournament. He was noted as the chess champion of the United States. In 1858, Morphy traveled to Europe to play European Champion Howard Staunton. Although the match with Staunton never took place, Morphy was considered to be the world’s best player. After he soundly defeated Adolf Anderssen by an 8 to 3 score with 2 draws, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that he was the best in the world.
In 1859 Morphy declared he was retiring from chess to begin his law career. He was never successful as a lawyer, and despite many requests to return to chess, he did not. He died in 1884 from a stroke.
Many say he was one of the best players of all time. Some say he was not as strong as today’s top grandmasters, but he dominated the rest of the world because competition was not as high as it is today. Who is correct?
My question is…could he play endings?!
Before we look into the answer of this question, how about we look at what world champions have had to say about Morphy. Whenever I want to know something about a chess subject, I like to know what the best of the best have had to say.
The man born too soon. – Alexander Alekhine
The magnificent American master had the most extraordinary brain that anybody has ever had for chess. Technique, strategy, tactics, knowledge which is inconceivable for us; all that was possessed by Morphy fifty-four years ago. – Jose R. Capablanca
Morphy possessed the most profound book knowledge of any master of his time, and never introduced a single novelty, whereas since his day the books have had to study the players. – Wilhelm Steinitz
In the handling of open positions, nothing new has been found after Morphy! – Mikhail Botvinnik
Alas, Morphy did not bother to explain the superiority of his method. Only the powerful mind of another chess giant, Wilhelm Steinitz, could systematize the profound positional rules that created a new outlook in chess progress. – Garry Kasparov
Perhaps the most accurate player who ever lived, he would beat anybody today in a set-match. He had complete sight of the board and seldom blundered even though he moved quite rapidly. I’ve played over hundreds of his games and am continually surprised and entertained by his ingenuity. – Bobby Fischer
A popularly held theory about Paul Morphy, is that if he returned to the chess world today and played our best contemporary players, he would come out the loser. Nothing is further from the truth. In a set match, Morphy would beat anybody alive today. – Bobby Fischer
Morphy was probably the greatest genius of them all. – Bobby Fischer
Wow! Pretty high praise from this list of world champions!
I have selected 4 games of his to look at his endings. In each game I will start analysis when the game has reached the ending. At the end of this article I will give all the games in full.
Jules Arnous de Riviere
In this game we start our analysis on move 35.
We start our analysis after black’s 34th move. Morphy is two pawns down but does have the black king a bit isolated from all of his pieces. According to the super chess computer program Komodo, black has only a slight advantage even though he is 2 pawns up.
With all of that said, let’s try to imagine playing Morphy from black’s point of view during this game. You are playing the world’s best player. You have probably spent an enormous amount of energy on each move trying to avoid being on the receiving end of another Morphy brilliancy.
Now the computer Komodo might be able to win this as black, but I’m not sure any human (past or present) would be able to withstand someone like Morphy playing white while the clock ticks away your precious time.
35.Rxe7+ Kxe7 36.Qg7+ Kd8 37.Qg8+ Kd7 38.Qxh7+ Kc8 39.Rf2 fxg4 40.hxg4 Be4 41.Qe7 Qc6 42.Re2 d5 43.cxd5
We stop here to say WOW! Since move 35, Morphy and Komodo have both agreed on what moves to make! Only now does Morphy play something that Komodo does not recommend as his 1st choice. Morphy makes Komodo’s 2nd choice! If Morphy consistently played moves that a super computer says is best 153 years later, no wonder he crushed all comers back then!
If you work with chess computers at all you know how stupid they can make you feel when they review your games. Seems as though with each move you miss something simple to the computer. So for the computer to agree with Morphy’s moves this much is astounding.
Bxd5 44.Nh3 Kb7 45.Nf4 Rh8+ 46.Kg3 Bh1 47.Re3 g5
Komodo now says that the game is even. Black now tries to expose the white king to attack and does not care about the pawns. As you will see, this plan does not work, although it looks very good for black.
48.Qxg5 Qa6 49.Qxc5 Qxa2 50.Qb5+ Ka8 51.Re8+ Rxe8 52.Qxe8+ Kb7 53.Qb5+ Kc8 54.g5 c6 55.Qf5+ Kb7 56.Qf7+
Here Morphy misses 56.Qh7+ picking off the bishop on h1. But he wins anyway with his idea.
Kb6 57.g6 Qd2 58.g7 Qe1+ 59.Kg4 Qg1+ 60.Kf5 Qc5+ 61.Kf6 Qd4+ 62.Ke7 Qc5+ 63.Kd7 Qd4+ 64.Kc8 and black is out of checks so he resigned
In the next game we will start after 20 moves have been made.
Here we see a rook and queen ending that is usually a hair-raising ordeal for the players involved. It is so very easy to miss a shot and go down in flames in this type of ending. Komodo says the ending is fairly equal at this point.
21.Qh3 Qf6 22.Rae1 Rhe8 23.Re5 Kg6 24.Rfe1 Rxe5 25.Rxe5 Rd8 26.Qg3+ Kh7 27.h3 Rd7 28.Qe3 b6 29.Kh2 c5 30.Qe2 Qg6 31.Re6 Qg7?!
After almost perfect play from both sides, black finally gives white a chance. White has to find the move or the advantage will go away. Better for black at this point was Qg8.
Morphy finds what Komodo recommends! A slight advantage is all that is needed for him now to win.
Rd5 33.b3 b5 34.Rxa6 Rd6 35.Qxf5+
Black’s pawns are evaporating and his chance for survival is going fast.
Qg6 36.Qxg6+ Kxg6 37.Ra5
Komodo’s 2nd choice. The computer beast likes the variation 37.Rd6 cd 38.Kg3 d5 39.Kf3 b4
with a study-like position. I would prefer Morphy’s human solution to win this over the computer’s line any day.
Rb6 38.g4 c6 39.Kg3 h5 40.Ra7 hxg4 41.hxg4 Kf6 42.f5 Ke5 43.Re7+ Kd6 44.f6 Rb8 45.g5 Rf8 46.Kf4 c4 47.bxc4 bxc4 48.Kf5 c3 49.Re3 1-0
In the next game we will start after 25 moves have been made.
1st American Chess Congress
As you can see in the diagram, this is the type of ending that can backfire on you quickly! Both queens are hanging and the possibilities of tactics are off the scale. Komodo says white has an advantage IF he plays the correct 26th move.
Morphy, indeed, finds the move that wins!
Again both queens are hanging!
27.Qxc8+ Rxc8 28.gxf4 Rxc2 29.Rac1 Rxf2 30.Rc8+ Ng8 31.Ne5 Rg7 32.Nxg6+ Kh7 33.Nf8+ Kh6 34.Nxd7 Rxd7 35.Rcxg8 Rxf4 36.Bxe6 Re7 and here black resigned after moving as he saw that Morphy had a mate in 4 with 37.R8g6+ Kh8 38.Bg8+ 39.Rh6+ Rh7 40.Rh7++
Here we pick up the action after black’s 32nd move. Komodo says it is almost equal with white having only a microscopic edge. Apparently that is all Morphy needed!
33.Bxe6 Kxe6 34.Kc4 g5?! Better is d5+ followed by Ra8
35.Kb5 axb4 36.cxb4 gxh4 37.Kxb6 Rb8+
Black plays the best defense. The tempting Rg2 loses to 38.a5 Rg8 39.a6 Rb8+ 40.Ka5 and black has serious problems that can not be solved.
38.Ka5 Kd5 39.Rd3+ Kc4 40.Rxd6 Rxb4 41.Rd4+! Kxd4 42.Kxb4 f5 43.f4!!
Ke3 44.a5 Kf2 45.a6 Kxg2 46.a7 h3 47.a8Q+ Kg1 48.Qf3 1-0
The following are the full games that are referenced above.