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Paul Morphy and the Evolution of Chess Theory

Paul Morphy and the Evolution of Chess Theory

by Macon Shibut

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This book about the best chess player of the 19th century analyzes Paul Morphy's games and positions in depth to get to the essence of his style. Chapters discuss other players of the period (Adolph Anderssen and Wilhelm Steinitz), Morphy's rare blunders and omissions, as well as selected endgames and openings. Also included are a 27-page essay on Morphy by


This book about the best chess player of the 19th century analyzes Paul Morphy's games and positions in depth to get to the essence of his style. Chapters discuss other players of the period (Adolph Anderssen and Wilhelm Steinitz), Morphy's rare blunders and omissions, as well as selected endgames and openings. Also included are a 27-page essay on Morphy by Steinitz and a series of letters between Alexander Alekhine and Eugene Znosko-Borovsky debating Morphy's chess style. With large, clear diagrams, "this book should take its place among first-rank historical chess works." — USA Today Sports Network. 15 halftones.

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Paul Morphy and the Evolution of Chess Theory

By Macon Shibut

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2004 Macon Shibut
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-14987-5


Paul Morphy and the Play of Our Time

Paul Morphy's masterpieces are ubiquitous in chess literature. Couple that with the brevity of his career, and it's easy for students to imagine they already know every Morphy game. In truth, most chess players probably have seen only a few dozen - but these they've seen a hundred times apiece.

Too often a champion's legacy derives from a minuscule, unrepresentative sample of his total product. In Morphy's case especially, the public has been conditioned to believe his games were all brilliancies and none of his contemporaries could make him break a sweat. This impression began to arise even while Morphy was still active. It was well-established by the time he died in 1884, at just forty-seven years of age. One year later, Wilhelm Steinitz attempted to impart some perspective on the Morphy Myth with his essay, "Paul Morphy and the Play of His Time." Writing in his International Chess Magazine, Steinitzargued that,

By mixing up Morphy's blindfold, off-hand, and odds games with those of his serious encounters against strong masters, popular prejudice has [wrongly] credited Morphy with the faculty of creating positions against his strongest opponents, in which brilliant sacrifices formed a distinct feature ...

But a popular prejudice, once entrenched, is not easily displaced. Steinitz's essay attracted notice and controversy in its day, but few modem players have had an opportunity to read it. Meanwhile, everyone has seen Morphy's famous game with the Duke of Brunswick! Thus a handful of Morphy's light workouts, against mostly weak amateurs, have come to be esteemed as the standard of 19th century "master" chess.

There are over four hundred recorded Morphy games. In setting out to explore them, a modem player will want to treat each move and each position with an open mind, to "play the board, not the man." In this regard, analysis of older games demands a special psychological discipline. The truth is that we do possess hindsight knowledge, not only regarding a particular game, but the players' whole careers and the age in which they played. Like it or not, this knowledge tends to intrude into the domain of "objective" analysis.

For example, old fashioned openings invoke a prejudice in modem players. The resulting middlegame structures look unsophisticated, and it becomes all too easy to substitute historical perspective ("he played thus because they didn't understand pawn weaknesses back then ...") for hard analysis.

Knowing the outcome of a game can likewise distort our assessment of its individual moves. The loser's mistakes will be mechanically identified and condemned; the winner's exploitation will be accepted uncritically. This danger exists even when dealing with modem games. The tendency is exacerbated with a game from another era, all the more so if a near-mythical figure like Morphy is involved. Annotators who want to educate or entertain are not interested in tearing apart an instructive Morphy combination. Rather, they want to find characteristic errors in the opponents' play, and they want the hero's consequent victory to seem a matter of course (and the more elegantly achieved, the better).

The effect of such presentations in countless beginner's texts has been to reduce Morphy's games to a collection of fables. Their moral is understood to be something about developing pieces, or the evils of chasing pawns in the opening. Whatever the pedagogical value of such portrayals, the games, so presented, can't help but appear shallow compared to modem grandmaster warfare.

The contrast between black-and-white morality plays of the 19th century, and the rich ambiguity of modem chess, is often ascribed to evolution in strategic understanding. Even back in 1885, Steinitz emphasized that, "it would be misleading if we were to represent Morphy's play as a model for our time, when, as a matter of fact, the game has made progress since his period in all directions." While there can be no denying the effect of this progress, it doesn't follow that modem play should seem more complex in a subjective sense. The impression that Morphy played a somehow simpler variety of chess has more to do with the fact that his games are rarely subjected to serious analysis nowadays, and their appearance in the literature is mainly limited to primers. On the other hand, there are many Morphy games that haven't been embraced by anthology editors and textbook writers precisely due to the difficulty and obscurity of the play, which renders them unsuitable for such books. Even some of Morphy's better-known efforts don't seem so cutand-dried once subjected to the sort of probing investigation that is popular today.

A move indicative of the era in which it was played. In his Morphy's Games of Chess, Philip Sergeant cheekily observed how, "in nothing was Morphy so fortunate as the frequency with which his opponents played P-R3." But Morphy himself was more apt to play this move than would be a modern master. So we have here a concrete example of evolution in strategic understanding; today, beginners are warned against such "wastes of tempo." But as we shall see, such "inaccuracies" don't render the ensuing play transparent. Moreover, it's one thing to criticize on the strength of theory and general principles, and quite another to assess the merits of a particular move in a specific position. So here, how much better are the "modern" alternatives to Morphy's 9th move? A modem grandmaster might consider 9. Qf3 0-0 10. e5?!

But then 10 ... Ng4! 11. Nc6 Ne5 12. Ne5 de5 13. Rd1 Qc8 14. Qe2 f6 15. Be3 Be6 gave Black a good position in Tal-Böök, Stockholm 1961. Incidentally this variation even reveals some purpose behind Morphy's choice! 10. Re1 (instead of 10. e5) would have been more patient, but then Black could play either 10 ... Rb8 or 10 ... Re8 to get an acceptable game.

9. b3 introduces another possible plan that might appeal to modem tastes.

9 ... 0-0 10. Bb2 Re8 11. Re1 Bf8 12. Qd3 g6 13. Rad1 Bg7 is a plausible continuation. Other moves are possible of course, but we can say this for Black's position: It looks no worse than what he might get from some topical Lopez defense.

Opening manuals condemn the Steinitz Defense as "cramped," "lifeless," etc. But most of the great champions found a place for it in their repertoires at one time or another.

Black's bishop is soon repulsed with tempo. The immediate 15 ... g6 Bg7 was a sensible alternative.

By 19 ... f5! Black could apply meaningful pressure against the center, the tactical justification being 20. e5? Qh3. But the text move is fine also, a fact that has been obscured by those annotators who were already looking for the seed of Black's defeat!

Because the pawn may be lost eventually, this decision of Morphy's has been portrayed as a dynamic, risk-loving enterprise. Actually, there was little choice since the only alternative, 25. ed6 cd6, gives Black an easy game.

Inaccurate. White should play 26. Nd5!

The tactical point is 26 ... Re6? 27. Nd4! Re1 28. Nc6, favoring White. If instead 26 ... Qc8 White could transpose to the game by 27. Ng1 or try to improve by 27. Nec3!? In any event, he avoids the possibility in the next note.

26 ... Bc3 27. Bc3 was not good either. For instance, in Morphy's Chess Masterpieces, Reinfeld and Soltis show that both 26 ... Ng7 28. e7! Qd7 (or 28 ... Re7 29. Bf6 Re2 30. Qe2 Qf6 31. Qe7) 29. Bf6; and 27 ... Be4 28. Re4 fe4 29. Qe4 Nf6 (29 ... Ng7 30. Qd5!) 30. Qe3 Qe7 31. f5! are unappealing for Black. However, 26 ... Nf6! Ne4 surrounding White's pawn, would have secured a plus.

White can't reply 27. Nd5 as 27 ... Nd5 28. cd5 Bb5 wins the exchange. The protected passed pawn would offer no real compensation because Black can dissolve the center with ... c6 whenever he feels ready.

White's point is 27 ... Re6? 28. Ne7 etc.

Opposing on the long diagonal takes the sting out of both ... Nd5 (see the game) and ... Ne4 (see the next note).

The complications would favor White after 28 ... Ne4?! 29. Bg7 Kg7 30. Re4! For example:

30 ... fe4? 31. Qc3 Kh6 (if 31 ... Kg8 32. Nf6 Kf8 33. Nh7! Kg8 34. Nf6 Kf8 35. Nd7! Bd7 (or 35 ... Kg8 36. Qf6) 36. Qf6 Kg8 37. Qg6 Kh8 38. Qf6 Kh7 39. Qf7 Kh8 (39 ... Kh6 40. g4!) 40. ed7) 32. Nf6 (32. f5 looks good too) Re6 33. Ng4 Kh5 34. Qg7, White wins.

30 ... Bd5 31. Qc3! Now if 31 ... Kg8 32. cd5 fe4 33. f5 Δf6-f7; while if instead 31 ... Kh6 32. cd5 fe4 33. f5 Δ f6 and Qe3 White's attack is irresistible.

It was natural that de Riviere preferred not to allow cd5, reconnecting the pawn on e6. But neither the text nor 29 ... Nb4 30. Qc3 was fully satisfactory for him. 29 ... Kg7! was best after all, and on 30. cd5 Bb5 31. Qc3 Kg8 32. Rf3, Black could undermine the pawn chain by 32 ... c6.

Here also Black should have cut off the pawn by 32 ... Be4. Then 33. Ree4 fe4 34. Qf6 Qd7 35. Qf7 Kh8 36. Rh4 looks menacing but 36 ... h5! proves to be a surprisingly tough defense. If 37. Qg6 Re7. Or if 37. Re4 ("winning without much trouble" according to Reinfeld and Soltis) Qf5! White has no obvious win.

Morphy elects to dissolve the kingside. But Black can evacuate the danger zone, and White winds up exposing his own king. 34. Qe3! was much stronger. For example, 34 ... Bd7 35. Nf3 h6 36. Rh4, etc.

Perhaps 38. Qb8? was Morphy's original plan, but it would have backfired after 38 ... Qa2 39. Kg3 g5! So White must surrender the initiative.

Instead of defending g6, Black should organize for counterattack by 40 ... Kb7! 41. Qg6 Rh8, aiming to cause trouble by Q-a5-e1. Black's pieces coordinate well, his king is safe, and White's king situation is very awkward. For example, 42. Nh3 (42. Kg3 Qa5 Qe1 doesn't seem any safer) Qa5 43. Qg7 Re8 with all variety of unpleasant threats (Qe1; Re1; Re3).

Here de Riviere merely compounds his difficulties by making his queen passive, whereas from a6 her threat to take a2 or worm in on the dark squares (Q-a5-e1/c3) was irritating to White. It would have been preferable to unashamedly retract his previous move by 41 ... Bc6!

Very poor, leaving the Black king at least as exposed as Morphy's, not to mention weakening the queenside pawns. 42 ... Bb1 was still a fight, at least.

Finally, de Riviere jettisons his g-pawn in the hope of exposing Morphy's king. But the prospects for such a sacrifice are much worse than they would have been at move 40!

Maybe 48 ... Qh6 was a little better, although to immediately trade queens would be no endorsement of Black's pawn sacrifice.

It takes a lot of mistakes to lose a chess game! Black should maneuver his queen, beginning 54 ... Qa1 or 54 ... Qd2. The text wastes time, as White can just reposition his queen with check and continue pushing the g-pawn.

Now the knight does a capital job shielding the White king.

So Morphy wins, as he usually did, but the analysis reveals that it was no walk in the park. On the contrary, both sides had chances, and there is little evidence of Morphy coasting on a "technique not equaled until the 1870s," to quote The Oxford Companion to Chess. Even some seemingly powerful moves (e.g. 24. g4 - "Breaks up the king's side pawns, to start the final attack," in the judgment of Chernev) appear to be not the best, upon closer scrutiny. Still, Morphy won.

The overall structure of this game was not unlike something that could arise from a modem opening system. Other examples look more dated in this respect.; but they too have aged well as absorbing, intense struggles. Moreover, some of these contests can help us to place the question of Morphy's "brilliance" in proper context. In some old issues of Shakmatny Vestnik ("Chess Bulletin"), Alexander Alekhine discussed the fallacy, as he considered it, of "seeing the center of gravity of Morphy's game in its beauty." Alekhine wrote:

Yes, Morphy sometimes played "beautifully" (if by this you mean the creation of cheap effects like sacrificing the queen with the calculation of two or three moves, etc.), but for the most part he succeeded in doing this only against opponents having a very remote idea of the necessity for a normal development of the pieces, and in general rather weak in consideration. When he encountered players of his own class, he no longer achieved victories with these rattles.

But victories he did still achieve, and when victory was not possible, he often snatched half a point even from desperate-looking positions. He collected his points thanks not so much to his "brilliance" but, rather, the fact that at moments of crisis, he was a tougher infighter than any of his rivals.

Again quoting Alekhine:

In the sixties and seventies of the last century in London, and principally in Paris where the traditions of Philidor were alive, where the immortal works of Labourdonnais and McDonnell were still remembered, at the time, finally when Anderssen was living - beauty alone could scarcely have astonished anyone. Strength, Morphy's unconquerable strength - that is the reason for his success and the guarantee of his immortality. And that the essence of that strength consists of the fact that Morphy always played positionally goes without saying, in the broad sense of the word ... That is, he clearly pictured to himself in each separate instance just what the given position required, and adopted himself to these requirements.

We examine the following game with these remarks in mind. The opponent, Lowenthal, was among the world's leading masters, i.e. a reasonable claimant to membership in Morphy's "own class." Still, he was not Paul Morphy, and modern students may reflexively give benefitof the doubt to White's (Morphy's) moves, while always dropping the burden of proof onto the poor underdog. Prejudged this way Morphy's sacrificial attack might easily be interpreted as "typically" brilliant and daring. But a sober analysis reveals a different state of affairs. The introductory phase of the attack is, in fact, positionally incorrect, so that Morphy soon found himself in grave danger. But he appraised this situation correctly and recognized that extreme risks were justified, indeed there was hardly anything left to lose. In this light, the sacrificial phase that followed is revealed to be a desperate scrapping for chances, during which Morphy's true strength showed itself and the lost game was saved.

More about this later!

While it may not be so familiar to modern players, this "Normal Position" of the Evans Gambit was a staple in the repertoire of nearly every 19th century master, including Paul Morphy. The two main continuations are 9. d5, associated with Anderssen, and 9. Nc3, associated with Morphy and praised by Reti as positionally more astute. In fact, Morphy was equally fond of both moves.

One of Morphy's more celebrated attacks, also versus Lowenthal in 1859, illustrates the problem with the natural-looking 9 ... Ne5. The continuation was 10. Ne5 de5 11. Bb2 (11. Ba3! is even stronger.) Qe7? (Now Black's game becomes critical, as White recovers material and keeps his initiative. 11 ... f6 12. Kh1 Δ f4 was better, but even this is promising for White.) 12. Bb5 Bd7 13. Bd7 Kd7 14. Qg4 f5 (Unfortunate, but both 14 ... Ke8? 15. Qg7 Qf6 16. Be5; and 14 ... Kd6? 15. Nd2 Δ Nc4 would be disastrous.) 15. Qf5 Ke8 16. Be5 Nh6 17. Qf4 Kd7 (Setting a trap. Now 18. Nc3? unexpectedly drops the bishop to 18 ... RaeB) 18. Nd2 Rae8 19. Nc4 Bc5 20. Rad1 Bd6 21. Bd6 cd6 22. Rb1 b6 23. Rfc1 (Δ24. Rb6! ab6 25. Nb6 Kd8 26. Rc8#) Qf6 24. Qe3 Ng4 25. Nb6! ab6 26. Rc7! Kd8 (26 ... Kc7 27. Qb6 Kd7 28. Qa7 Kd8 29. Rb8#) 27. Qb6 Qf2 28. Qf2 Nf2 29. Ra7 Nh3 30. gh3 Kc8 31. Kf2 1-0.

If instead 9 ... Na5, the game might continue 10. Bb2 Ne7 11. Bd3 0-0 12. Nc3 with mutual chances. In fact, this is theory's preference. But the text (9 ... Nce7) is equally playable. 10.e5?!

The "book" move, both today and in 1859 as well. But many of these old variations have hardly been reexamined since Morphy's time. 10. e5 risks overextending the White position. 10. Bb2 would better serve the purpose of building towards a long term initiative.


Excerpted from Paul Morphy and the Evolution of Chess Theory by Macon Shibut. Copyright © 2004 Macon Shibut. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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