Episode Seven: A Night at the Opera

Greetings and welcome to Master Chess Theatre. In today’s episode we will travel back in time to November 2, 1858. It was on this date that the great Paul Morphy defeated the Duke of Brunswick and Count Isouard while enjoying a night at the Opera in what would become the most famous game of chess ever played.

Let us now watch his masterpiece play out. 

Paul Charles Morphy was born on June 22, 1837 into an affluent New Orleans family. His father, Alonzo Morphy was a chess enthusiast and would become a Louisiana Supreme Court Justice while his mother Louise Thérèse Félicité Thelcide Le Carpentier was a superbly talented musician from a prominent French Creole family. In Paul’s earliest years, he would often watch his father playing chess against guests while listening to his mother on the piano. 

As indicated by his uncle, Ernest Morphy, nobody formally taught Paul Morphy how to play chess; rather, Morphy learned as a little youngster essentially from watching his father play. It was during one of these occasions that Paul, quietly watching an extensive game between his father and uncle, in which they agreed to a draw, that  Paul amazed them by expressing from his playpen that Ernest ought to have won. His father and uncle had not understood that Paul knew the moves and brought him closer to their board. They were shocked when Paul demonstrated his case by resetting the pieces and showing the winning combination his uncle had missed.

Such prodigious talent did not disappoint. By the age of 9 Paul Morphy was already considered the strongest chess player in New Orleans, which at the time was a hub of chess activity. News spread about the young chess genius so that when he was 12 years of age, the famous Hungarian chess master Johann Lowenthal visited the Morphy’s and was easily defeated in a three game match by the preteen Morphy.

By 1857, Paul Morphy had already earned his law degree but, because of the laws in Louisiana at the time, couldn’t yet practice until after his twenty first birthday. With more than a year to wait before attempting to follow in his father’s footsteps, Paul was convinced to travel to New York to play in the first United States Chess Congress, a national championship chess tournament.

The first American Chess Congress was held in New York City from October 6th to November 10th, 1857. The sixteen best American masters were invited to participate in the event by the President of the American Chess Congress, legal scholar and friend of Paul Morphy, Alexander Beaufort Meek. Morphy dominated the event, sweeping each of his opponents until facing Louis Paulsen in the final. Losing just one game in the final match, Paul Morphy finished the first American Chess Congress with a incredibly dominant record of 14 wins, 3 draws, and just 1 loss and was now proclaimed to be the National Chess Champion of the United States of America. Now recognized as a national chess champion, Paul Morphy enjoyed life in New York City for the rest of 1857 dominating the local chess scene and earning handsome sums of money playing chess against wealthy patrons. 

By 1858, news of Paul Morphy’s incredible chess exploits were well known in European chess circles and a plans were made to have the great American chess player travel across the Atlantic Ocean to challenge the European Champion Howard Staunton. 

Upon arriving in Europe, it quickly became apparent that Howard Staunton had no intention of playing a match against Paul Morphy for Staunton knew, based on Morphy’s published games, that he would lose. So while Staunton was busy ducking out of the way, Paul Morphy stole the spotlight. Every strong chess player and plenty of wealthy chess enthusiasts were eager to play Morphy even if Staunton was not.

The exceptionally wealthy Duke of Brunswick, with whom Morphy originally dined on 19 September, was a chess enthusiast, scarcely to be seen without a chessboard. During that dinner, the Duke made arrangements with Morphy to attend an Opera in the Duke’s box at the Paris Opera House.

So now that we know more about , we return to the Duke’s box seats at the Paris opera house on the night of November 2, 1858. Their seats were directly overlooking the stage just feet away from the performers. Upon arriving to the box, Morphy was obliged to sit with his back to the stage. The Duke of Brunswick and Count Isouard were seated across a dimly lit chessboard from Morphy and would be teaming up with the black pieces against the American. Morphy began the game with the overture and despite being in attendance at an opera he played a symphony of chess artistry. 

The aristocratic duo were so shocked by their defeat that their outburst disrupted the performance they were supposed to be enjoying. But chess history had been made. By the time Morphy awoke the next morning, his Night at the Opera was the talk of Paris. Now, widely recognized as the world’s greatest chess player, he accomplished everything he could in chess. By 1860, he walked away from the game to begin his law career. Shortly thereafter, the American Civil War occurred. Depressed from his failure to attain success in law and the Civil War, Paul Morphy fell into a state of paranoia and died alone, from a stroke, at the age of 47. Because of his brilliant yet tragically short career, Paul Morphy is known as The Pride and Sorrow of Chess.

To see the notes & notation for this game go to the blog post for:

My Favorite #Chess Games: The Opera House Game

%d bloggers like this: