Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Mighty Morphin' Morphy

A welcome addition* to the literature on Paul Morphy, the most gifted chessplayer of all time, is Paul Morphy and the Evolution of Chess Theory (Caissa Editions, 1993, 341 pages) by Macon Shibut, an advanced life master from Virginia.

The book is divided into three parts. In the first section, Shibut analyzes important games from Morphy's career, often giving fresh insights into positions that had been analyzed exhaustively by Steinitz, Lowenthal, and Maroczy. The second section consists of the scores of every recorded game played by Morphy. In the third and final section, essays by Steinitz and Alekhine on Morphy and his playing style are reproduced.

What I liked best about the book is the way in which Shibut debunks many of the myths about Morphy. As a former literature major, I have to say that Morphy reminds me of Edgar Allan Poe to the extent that the myths about both men have taken on such a life of their own that people today have a distorted view of what the men were really like. The myth of Morphy as being a mere creator of chess brilliancies is laid to rest here. In point of fact, according to Reti, Morphy was "the first positional player", as strange as that may sound to us today. I was somewhat amused by Shibut's taking Reti to task for his annotations of a game between Anderssen and Morphy. When Anderssen plays h3, Reti criticizes it as a non-developing move. But when Morphy plays ...h6 two moves later, Reti praises it as a developing move! It seems as if Reti (and others throughout the years) had a pre-conceived notion of Morphy as a rapid-development player and nothing, not even the facts, was going to interfere with this notion.

The villain, so to speak, of the book is Steinitz, concerning whom Alekhine wrote: "Steinitz was, undoubtably, a very great figure, to such an extent that he gave much to the theoretical side of our royal game in the prime of his life,...but it is impossible, to be sure, to agree with his views of Morphy, whom he definitively tried to take down from his pedestal." Indeed, Morphy was hardly in his grave when, in 1885, Steinitz penned a lengthy essay on Morphy in which, as Shibut describes it, "Steinitz...proceeds with his best Mark Anthony routine, chopping away at Morphy's reputation and all the while claiming to praise him." From a personal standpoint, I was intrigued to learn that it was here that Steinitz attacked the Philidor Counter Gambit 3...f5 "which has justly become obsolete as it has been proved analytically unsound." As I well know, the irony is that it is difficult nowadays to find a line of analysis by Steinitz on the Philidor Counter Gambit that has not itself been refuted by some chess analyst over the years. It is interesting that Steinitz prefaced his criticisms of this opening by saying: "In two of his most brilliant games, viz., against Barnes and Bird he adopts as second player a risky form of the Philidor Defense." Shades of Garry Kasparov criticizing Fischer's play in games 1 and 11 of the Spassky rematch, acknowledged by many as Fischer's best efforts at Sveti Stefan!

But the part of Steinitz's essay that left a bad taste in my mouth was the final paragraph in which he implies that Morphy, far from defeating his opponents with ease, used so much mental energy that it led to his ultimate breakdown. In Shibut's words, "Morphy's only direct counterblow" to Steinitz came in 1883 when Steinitz briefly visited Morphy in New Orleans. Morphy refused to discuss chess with Steinitz, saying to a friend: "His gambit is not good." Whether Morphy was referring to Steinitz's gambit in trying to arrange a chess match, or to the infamous Steinitz variation of the King's Gambit, is not entirely clear. It is probable that Morphy, who often had a witty way with words, intended both meanings.

*{This book review originally appeared in Atlantic Chess News in 1993}