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Prior to his stroke on July 10, 1884, New Orleanians were used to seeing Paul Morphy, a tidy little guy in a sack suit and monocle who mumbled to himself, smiled at his own conceits, and swung his cane at those who dared approach him on Canal Street. On occasion, he’d develop a crush on a random woman and stalk her for hours. He was certain that the barbers in the area were plotting to poison him and only ate meals that his mom or sister had made. His relatives attempted to have him institutionalised, but he convinced the authorities that he was mentally stable and they eventually let him go. It had been a quarter of a century since he became a world-famous chess champion, and in the latter decade of his life he avoided talking about the game at all costs.

Morphy’s slow deterioration was a mystery, but the 1846 discovery of his genius was remembered fondly. When Morphy was nine years old, he and his father, a justice on the Louisiana State Supreme Court, were sitting on the porch of their home and watching their uncle and father play chess. The men called it a draw after many hours and began to pick up the pieces. They were halted by Morphy. His words to his uncle were, “Uncle, you should have won that game.” Here it is: check with the rook, now the king has to take it, and the rest is easy,” he said as he handled the pieces. This time he was correct.

Not long after that, the famously talented Major General Winfield Scott stopped in New Orleans for five days en route to the Mexican War. At eight o’clock that night, Scott found himself sitting across from Morphy, who wore a lace blouse and velvet knickers, after asking a friend at the chess club on Royal Street to find him a worthy opponent. Scott got up in a huff because he thought he was being pranked, but his pals reassured him that Morphy was serious. Inside of ten moves, he had Scott checkmated.

Lasi arī: Šaha padomi un triki

Morphy not only had an incredible memory and could remember every opening, defence, and strategy for every game, but he also had an innate understanding of what was possible. He had the ability to see the board several moves ahead of time, allowing him to capitalise on even the smallest of mistakes. Morphy’s uncle, Ernest Morphy, wrote to the editor of the chess magazine La Régence, who published one of Morphy’s earliest games, saying, “The child had never opened a work on chess.” For example, “In the openings he makes the proper moves as if by inspiration, and it is astounding to see the precision of his calculations in the middle and final game. Even in the most perilous positions, his countenance never shows signs of nervousness as he sits before the chessboard and methodically finds the combination that will get him out of difficulty by whistling an air between his teeth. The young genius then challenged the renowned European chess player Johann J. Lowenthal, a Hungarian political refugee. Morphy used the French word “comique” to characterise Lowenthal’s expression of disappointment after losing against him.

While living in Mobile, Alabama, Morphy enrolled in Spring Hill College in 1850. After playing Portia in The Merchant of Venice as a freshman, he was voted president of the school’s Thespian Society. He hated athletics but dabbled in fencing to make up for his short stature (5 feet 4 inches). In fact, the only chess he played during his time at university was with friends in the summer of 1853. One of his friends said of his thesis topic, “he kept within very restricted bounds the conditions that make it justified,” and that was the reason he chose to write about war. Forcible secession was ruled out by his reasoning, and Morphy was always very rational, perhaps too logical. But taking that path had repercussions that troubled his psyche.

He moved back to New Orleans after high school and enrolled at the University of Louisiana. He graduated from law school in 1857, but couldn’t start practising until he turned 21. Meanwhile, he went back to chess, a choice motivated less by a genuine love for the game than by a burning desire to prove himself superior to the finest players in the United States and Europe. A childhood buddy named Charles Maurian remarked, “He felt his great strength, and never for a moment doubted the conclusion.”

Lasi arī: Šaha vēsture

On October 5, 1857, Morphy attended the New York Chess Club for the First American Chess Congress. In a time when there was no time limit and games could linger for days, he won his first game after just 21 moves, which is almost a matter of minutes. The German immigrant Louis Paulsen was his sole real rival, and he frustrated Morphy by going as long as 75 minutes on a move and eventually defeating him in a third game. Morphy had dinner with teammate William James Appleton Fuller before game six. According to Fuller’s recollection, “His patience was worn out by the vast length of time Paulsen took for each move.” He clenched his fist and vowed that “Paulsen shall never win another game from me while he lives,” revealing a marked change in his typically even temperament. Morphy won the challenge after beating him five times and then spent the next month being treated like royalty in New York.

He zeroed down on the Englishman Howard Staunton, widely considered Europe’s top player. The New Orleans Chess Club organised a $5,000 purse and invited Staunton to New Orleans for a match, offering to reimburse his travel costs of $1,000 should he lose. Morphy was the challenger. He said no since he thought it would be too difficult to get to New Orleans from his current location. Morphy was going to travel to England to challenge Staunton in a tournament on neutral ground (Birmingham, England) where Staunton would have no choice but to accept the challenge. After travelling to the city, he found out that the competition had been delayed for two months.

But he stayed, and soon afterward teamed up with Frederick Milnes Edge, a flashy newspaperman who became Morphy’s publicist. Edge caused a ruckus by accusing Staunton of cowardice in the press. In response, Staunton, the chess editor for the Illustrated London News, said that Morphy was a professional rather than a gentleman and an adventurer without the financial backing he claimed. Morphy spent three months trying to set up a fight between himself and Staunton before finally giving up in October 1858. In his final letter to Morphy, Morphy emphasised that he was not a professional player and had no intention of using his chess abilities to acquire money. He said, “My sincere wish is never to play for any cause but honour.”

Morphy boarded a ship for Paris, where he triumphed in a “blindfold” tournament. He and his eight opponents sat in separate rooms at the Café de la Regence. Morphy merely faced a blank wall and called out his moves in loud, clear, faultless French while his opponents used chess boards and consulted with several other players. Without stopping for food or water, he played for 10 hours and won. The New York Times said, “He was shaken by the hand and complimented until he hung down his head in perplexity.” “There has never been, and probably never will be again, a mind like that.”