Paul Morphy's Shaky Shadow


The story of New Orleans chess is filled with larger-than-life figures, and at the top is Paul Morphy, considered the game's first world champion. Born in 1837, Morphy was only 8 years old when his father, a state attorney general and supreme court judge, took him to watch the country's first chess championship, which was held in New Orleans. A year later, the Evening Post reported that Gen. Winfield Scott was coming through New Orleans and had requested a chess match. When Scott entered the chess club on Royal Street, he scoffed at his opponent, "a small boy ... dressed in velvet knickerbockers, with a lace shirt and a big spreading collar of the same material. At first Gen. Scott imagined that it was a sorry jest ... " When Morphy won the first two games, Scott reportedly rose, trembling with anger. Morphy was taken home, "silent and sullen as usual," according to the Evening Post.

Morphy enjoyed a swift rise to international acclaim. After sweeping through the National Chess Congress in New York City, he traveled to London, Paris and Havana; in Paris he attracted crowds by playing blindfolded and announcing his moves in flawless French. He was photographed by Matthew Brady and praised by Oliver Wendell Holmes as a "hero of a long series of bloodless battles." Yet by the early 1860s, he had abandoned chess almost as quickly as he had conquered it; he lived the rest of his days in New Orleans, where he mostly obsessed over a failed lawsuit against a family member.

The written records of Morphy's games are still analyzed -- a new book by international grandmaster Valeri Beim, Paul Morphy: A Modern Perspective, came out this summer -- and chess experts love to debate whether or not he could have defeated today's top players. Yet Morphy's shadow over the local chess scene is a shaky one. In 1931, the International Journal of Psycho-analysis published the article "The Problem of Paul Morphy," which portrayed Morphy as a brilliant yet disturbed man, and writer David Lawson titled his Morphy biography, The Pride and Sorrow of Chess. Today, he's often spoken of in the same breath as Bobby Fischer, for both his chess genius and his bizarre life.

"He kind of started the tradition of chess players being weird guys," says John Parsons. The former manager of New Orleans piano legend James Booker, Parsons likes to compare Morphy and Booker's legacies: "They were born about a hundred years apart, they were both child prodigies, they both tore it up in Europe and then never left New Orleans, and they both developed paranoia."

In 1884, Morphy died at the age of 47. He is buried in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, around the corner from Marie Laveau. -- Tisserand


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