Paul Morphy[ edit ]

Paul Charles Morphy (June 22, 1837 - July 10, 1884), "The Pride and Sorrow of Chess," is considered to have been the greatest chess master of his time, an unofficial World Champion and, is considered by many, including some grandmasters (see below) the greatest chessplayer who has ever lived. He was also the first American superstar, acknowledged by the entire world as the preeminent figure in a cultural or intellectual field. He was the first American to supersede the achievements of the Old World, whose culture, up until that point, was considered superior to anything produced by the New World. He is also considered the first, modern chess prodigy of Western Chess since the creation of the modern rules of chess in Italy in 1475.

Early life

Morphy was born in New Orleans, Louisiana to a wealthy and distinguished family. His father, Alonzo Michael Morphy, was a lawyer, state congressman, state attorney general, and state Supreme Court Justice of Louisiana. Morphy┤s mother, Louis Therese Felicite Thelcide Le Carpentier, was the musically talented daughter of a prominent French Creole family. Morphy grew up in an atmosphere of genteel civility and culture where chess and music were the typical highlights of a Sunday home gathering.

According to his uncle, Ernest Morphy, no one formally taught Morphy how to play chess. Ernest wrote that as a young child, Morphy learned on his own from simply watching the game played. His uncle recounted how Morphy, after watching one game for several hours between his father and him, told him afterwards that he should have won the game. They both were surprised, as they didn┤t think that young Morphy knew the moves, let alone any chess strategy. They were even more surprised when Morphy proved his claim by resetting the pieces and demonstrating the win his uncle had missed. Later, a similar story was told about the Cuban chess prodigy JosÚ Ra˙l Capablanca.

Childhood victories

After that Morphy was recognized by his family as a precocious talent. Taken to local chess activities and allowed to play once a week at family gatherings on Sundays, Morphy demonstrated his ability in contests with relatives and local players. By the age of nine, he was already considered one of the best players in New Orleans. In 1846, General Winfield Scott visited the city, and let his hosts know that he desired an evening of chess with a strong local player. Chess was an infrequent pastime of Scott┤s, but he enjoyed the game and considered himself a formidable chess player. After dinner, the chess pieces were set up and Scott┤s opponent was brought in: diminutive, nine-year-old Morphy, dressed in a lace shirt and velvet knickerbockers and looking like anything but a ferocious opponent. Seeing the small boy, Scott was at first offended, thinking he was being made fun of; but when assured that his wishes had been scrupulously obeyed, and that the boy was a "chess prodigy" who would tax his skill, Scott consented to play. To General Scott┤s surprise, Morphy beat him easily not once, but twice. The second time the boy announced a forced checkmate after only six moves. Two losses against a small boy was all General Scott┤s ego could stand, and he declined further games and retired for the night, never to play Morphy again.

In 1850, the strong professional Hungarian chess master Johann L÷wenthal visited New Orleans, and could do no better than the amateur General Scott could. Morphy was 12 when he encountered L÷wenthal.
L÷wenthal had played young talented players before, and expected to easily overcome Morphy, and considered the informal match as a waste of time but accepted the offer as a courtesy to the well-to-do Judge.
When L÷wenthal met him, he patted him on the head in a patronizing manner. He expected no more from Morphy than the usual talented young players he had played before.

When the first game began, L÷wenthal got to about move 12 and realized he was up against something formidable. He slowed way down on his moves, and made funny eye brow movements after Morphy completed each move. He was shocked at the power he was up against. L÷wenthal played three games with Morphy during his New Orleans stay, losing all three. (Note: One of the games was incorrectly given as a draw in L÷wenthal┤s book Morphy┤s Games of Chess and subsequently copied by sources since then. David Lawson, in his biography of Paul Morphy, listed in "Further Reading" at the bottom of this page, corrected this error, provided the moves that were actually played, and urged that game records be corrected.)

Schooling and the First American Chess Congress

After 1850, Morphy did not play much chess for a long time. Studying diligently, he graduated from Spring Hill College in Mobile, Alabama in the spring of 1855.

He then was accepted to the University of Louisiana to study law. He received a L.L.B. degree on April 7, 1857. Although Morphy was able to recite the entire Civil Code of Louisiana by heart, he was too young to be officially admitted to the bar.

Consequently, this left Morphy with a lot of free time. He received an invitation to participate in the First American Chess Congress, to be held in New York in the fall. At first he declined, but at the urging of his uncle, who was quite proud of Morphy┤s chess skill, he eventually decided to play. After securing parental permission, Morphy made the long trip to New York via steamboat up the Mississippi River and overland by railroad to New York. There, he defeated each of his rivals, defeating the strong German master Louis Paulsen in the final round. Morphy was now hailed as the chess champion of the United States, and such was his strength of play that many urged him to test his skill abroad.

Morphy conquers Europe

Still too young to start his law career, he was invited to attend an international chess tournament soon after returning to New Orleans, to be held in Birmingham, England in the summer of 1858. He accepted the challenge and traveled to England but ended up not playing in the tournament, playing a series of chess matches against the leading English masters instead and defeating them all except English chess master Howard Staunton who promised to play but eventually declined. At times, Staunton was physically present in the same room where Morphy easily beat the English masters. He had every opportunity to measure Morphy┤s talent, and he decided not to play a single game against Morphy.

Staunton later was criticised for failing to meet Morphy. Staunton was flattered and at first intended to prepare for a contest in which he had little chance of success. There is no doubt that he was a very busy man in 1858, as he was under pressure to produce his edition of the complete works of Shakespeare.

Staunton later, out of Morphy┤s sight, conducted a newspaper campaign to make it seem that it was Morphy┤s fault they did not play, suggesting among other things that Morphy did not have the funds to serve as match stakes when in fact he was so popular that numerous wealthy people and groups were willing to stake him for any amount of money.

Seeking new opponents and now aware that Staunton had no real desire to play, Morphy then crossed the English Channel and visited France. There he went to the CafÚ de la Regence in Paris, which was the center of chess in France. He played a match against Daniel Harrwitz, the resident chess professional, and soundly defeated him.

In Paris he suffered from a bout of intestinal influenza and came down with a high fever. In accordance with the medical wisdom of the time, he was treated with leeches, resulting in his losing a significant amount of blood. Despite the fact that he was now too weak to stand up unaided, Morphy insisted on going ahead with a match against the visiting German champion Adolf Anderssen, who was considered by many to be Europe┤s leading player, and who had come to Paris all the way from his native Breslau, Germany, solely to play against the now famous American chess wonder. Despite his illness Morphy triumphed easily, winning seven while losing two, with two draws. When asked about his defeat, Anderssen claimed to be out of practice, but also admitted that Morphy was in any event the stronger player and that he was fairly beaten. Anderssen also attested that in his opinion, Morphy was the strongest player ever to play the game, even stronger than the famous French champion Bourdonnais.

In France, as he had before in England and America, Morphy played many exhibition matches against the public. He would take on eight players at once while playing without sight of the board, a feat known as blindfold chess, the moves of his opponents and his replies being communicated verbally. It was while he was in Paris in 1858 that Morphy played a well-known game at the Italian Opera House in Paris, against the Duke of Brunswick and Count Isouard.

The world hails its champion

During his chess travels, Morphy was very popular. He was extremely polite, cultured, quiet, and reserved. In appearance he was small in stature, slim, and always impeccably dressed. His sense of sportsmanship was of the highest caliber, and his combination of brilliant play and personal modesty made him a welcome guest everywhere.

Still only twenty-one, he was now a celebrity. While in Paris, he was sitting in his hotel room one evening, chatting with his companion Frederick Edge, when they had an unexpected visitor. "I am Prince Galitzine; I wish to see Mr. Morphy," the visitor said, according to Edge. Morphy then stated that he was Mr. Morphy. "No, it is not possible!" the prince exclaimed, "You are too young!" Prince Galitzine then explained that he was in the frontiers of Siberia when he had first heard of his "wonderful deeds." He explained, "One of my suite had a copy of the chess paper published in Berlin, the Schachzeitung, and ever since that time I have been wanting to see you." He then told Morphy that he must go to St. Petersburg, Russia, because the chess club in the Imperial Palace would receive him with enthusiasm.

However, Morphy was more interested in going home, possibly because he had already been gone longer than he had gotten permission for from his family. Morphy was very secretive about his personal life, so the facts are not known, except that his brother-in-law actually came to Paris about this time, most likely for the purpose of escorting Morphy home. Since Morphy was twenty-one, his dependence was possibly not only one of habit, but also financial, as he had no money of his own and was most likely traveling on money given to him by his family.

Returning to England in the spring of 1859, Morphy was lionized by the English. As had happened in France, he was now sought after by the best people. His fame was such he was even asked to a private audience with Queen Victoria. His chess supremacy was universally acknowledged and no longer did it seem fit to have him play even masters without giving him some sort of handicap. A match therefore was set up where he was pitted against five masters (Jules Arnous de Rivière, Samuel Boden, Thomas Barnes, Johann L÷wenthal, and Henry Bird) simultaneously. Morphy won two games, drew two games, and lost one. No other world champion has since duplicated his feat of playing five of his closest rivals at the same time.

Shortly after, Morphy started the long trip home, taking a ship back to New York. Word of his exploits in Europe had reached America, and he found himself the man of the hour. Popular acclaim was such that he had to travel home slowly, stopping in all the major cities, where the leading citizens in each competed to heap honors on him. Famous people such as Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes honored him at testimonial banquets, manufacturers sought his endorsements, newspapers asked him to write chess columns, and a baseball club was named after him. He was feted again and again, and in exchange, he thrilled the public with demonstrations of his skill, including more blindfold chess exhibitions.

Morphy abandons chess

Prior to his getting home, Morphy had issued an open challenge to anyone in the world to play a match where he would give odds of pawn and move (in a match between two evenly matched Masters, a pawn advantage is considered a winning advantage); and to play for any amount whatsoever. Finding no takers, he declared himself retired from the game, and with a few exceptions, he gave up the public playing of the game for good. He then began to think of beginning his law career. Unfortunately, he was unable to, as in 1861 the American Civil War broke out, disrupting life in New Orleans. Opposed to secession, Morphy did not serve in the Confederate Army but remained for a while in New Orleans, then left the city for Paris. He lived for a time in Paris to avoid the war, returning to New Orleans afterwards.

His principled stance against the war was unpopular in his native South, and he was unable to begin practice of the law after the war. Attempts to open a law office failed due to a lack of clients; if anyone came to his office, it was invariably in regards to chess. Financially secure thanks to his family fortune, Morphy had effectively no profession and he spent the rest of his life in idleness. Asked by admirers to play chess again, he refused, considering chess not worthy of being treated as a serious occupation. Chess in Morphy┤s day was not a respectable occupation for a gentleman, but was admired only as an amateur activity. Chess professionals in the 1860s were looked upon as akin to professional gamblers and other disreputable types. It was not until decades later that the age of the professional chess player arrived with the coming of Wilhelm Steinitz, who barely made a living and died broke, and Emanuel Lasker who, thanks to his demands for high fees, managed a good living and greatly advanced the reputation of chess as a professional endeavor.

Tragedy and twilight

Morphy┤s final years were tragic. Depressed, he spent his last years wandering around the French Quarter of New Orleans, talking to people no one else could see, and having irrational feelings of persecution.

Morphy was found dead in his bathtub on the afternoon of July 10, 1884. The doctor said he had suffered congestion of the brain (stroke), brought on by entering cold water after being very warm from his mid-day walk.
He died at the age of only forty-seven.

Despite the fact that Morphy had not played chess publicly for over twenty-five years, it was not until after his death that Steinitz proclaimed that his match with Zukertort would be for the "official" world chess championship. Steinitz┤s forbearance to claim the title while Morphy was still alive was a recognition of Morphy┤s superior chess strength.

Morphy┤s chess play

"Help your pieces so they can help you." - Paul Morphy

Today many amateurs think of Morphy as a dazzling combinative player, who excelled in sacrificing his Queen and checkmating his opponent a few brilliant moves later. One reason for this impression is that chess books like to reprint his flashy games. There are games where he did do this, but it wasn┤t the basis of his chess style. In fact, the masters of his day considered his style to be on the conservative side compared to some of the flashy older masters like La Bourdonnais and even Anderssen.

Morphy can be and generally is considered the first modern player. If his games do not look modern, it is because he didn┤t need the sort of slow positional systems that modern grandmasters use, or that Staunton, Paulsen, and later Steinitz developed. His opponents hadn┤t yet mastered the open game, so he played it against them and he preferred open positions because they brought quick success. He played open games almost to perfection, but he also could handle any sort of position, having a complete grasp of chess that was years ahead of his time. Morphy was such a player who intuitively knew what was best, and in this regard he was much like Capablanca. He was, like Capablanca, a child prodigy; he played fast and he was hard to beat. L÷wenthal and Anderssen both later remarked that he was indeed hard to beat since he knew how to defend and would draw or even win games despite getting into bad positions. At the same time, he was deadly when given a promising position. Anderssen especially complained of this, saying that one false move against Morphy and one may as well resign. Morphy would win his won games, but if he made an error, it was still a long, hard process trying to beat him, and more likely than not the game would still go to him in the end. "I win my games in seventy moves but Mr. Morphy wins his in twenty, but that is only natural..." Anderssen moaned, explaining his poor results against Morphy. Anderssen was perhaps grateful that he did get a 70 move win, as he didn┤t get many wins of any kind against Morphy.

According to the online database, Morphy suffered only twenty losses out of about two hundred games in the database, giving him a far higher scoring percentage than any other great master in the database.

Quotes about Morphy

  • "Morphy┤s principal strength does not rest upon his power of combination but in his position play and his general style....Beginning with la Bourdonnais to the present, and including Lasker, we find that the greatest stylist has been Morphy. Whence the reason, although it might not be the only one, why he is generally considered the greatest of all." - former world chess champion JosÚ Ra˙l Capablanca, in Pablo Morphy by V. F. Coria and L. Palau.

  • "...Morphy, the master of all phases of the game, stronger than any of his opponents, even the strongest of them..." - former world chess champion Alexander Alekhine, in Shakmatny Vestnik, January 15, 1914

  • "Paul Morphy was the greatest chess player that ever one ever was so far superior to the players of his time" - former world chess champion Dr. Emmanuel Lasker.

  • "...Morphy was stronger than anyone he played with, including Anderssen" - former world champion Wilhelm Steinitz, International Chess Magazine 1885.

  • "Genius is a starry word; but if there ever was a chess player to whom that attribute applied, it was Paul Morphy." - Andrew Soltis (in Golombek┤s Encyclopedia of Chess, New York, 1977)

  • "It has been truly said that Morphy was at once the Caesar and the Napoleon of chess. He revolutionized chess. He brought life and dash and beauty into the game at a time when an age of dullness was about to set in and he did this at a stroke. Then he quit forever. Only two years from the beginning to the end. The negotiations for some modern matches have taken that long!" - J. A. Galbreath (American Chess Bulletin, October, 1909)

  • "After the passage of a century, Morphy still remains the most glamorous figure that has ever appeared in the chess world." - Edward Lasker (in The Adventure of Chess, 2nd Edition, New York, 1959)

  • "Morphy, I think everyone agrees, was probably the greatest genius of them all." - former world chess champion Bobby Fischer, 1992

  • "In Paul Morphy the spirit of La Bourdonnais had arisen anew, only more vigorous, firmer, prouder... Morphy discovered that the brilliant move of the master is essentially conditional not on a sudden and inexplicable realisation, but on the placing of the pieces on the board. He introduced the rule: brilliant moves and deep winning manoeuvres are possible only in those positions where the opponent can be opposed with an abundance of active energy... From the very first moves Morphy aimed to disclose the internal energy located in his pieces. It was suddenly revealed that they possess far greater dynamism than the opponent┤s forces." - Emanuel Lasker

  • "Reviewing the history of chess from La Bourdonnais to the masters of our day right up to Lasker, we discover that the greatest stylist was Morphy. He did not look for complicated combinations, but he also did not avoid them, which really is the correct way of playing... His main strength lay not in his combinative gift, but in his positional play and general style. Morphy gained most of his wins by playing directly and simply, and it is this simple and logical method that constitutes the true brilliance of his play, if it is considered from the viewpoint of the great masters." - former world chess champion Jose Raul Capablanca

  • "[I play in] the style of Morphy, they say, and if it is true that the goddess of fortune has endowed me with his talent, the result [of the match with Emanuel Lasker] will not be in doubt. The magnificent American master had the most extraordinary brain that anybody has ever had for chess. Technique, strategy, tactics, knowledge which is inconceivable for us; all that was possessed by Morphy fifty-four years ago." - former world chess champion Jose Raul Capablanca

  • "How much more vivid, more rich does the figure of Morphy appear before us, how much clearer does the secret of his success and charm become, if we transfer ourselves in our thoughts to that era when he lived and created, if we take the trouble to study, only a little, his contemporaries! London and in particular in Paris, where the traditions of Philidor were still alive, where the immortal creations of La Bourdonnais and McDonnell were still in the memory, at that time, finally, when Anderssen was alive, and with brilliance alone it was hardly possible to surprise anyone. The strength, the invincible strength of Morphy- this was the reason for his success and the guarantee of his immortality!" - - former world chess champion Alexander Alekhine

  • "To this day Morphy is an unsurpassed master of the open games. Just how great was his significance is evident from the fact that after Morphy nothing substantially new has been created in this field. Every player- from beginner to master- should in this praxis return again and again to the games of the American genius." - - former world chess champion Mikhail Botvinnik

  • "A popularly held theory about Paul Morphy is that if he returned to the chess world today and played our best contemporary players, he would come out the loser. Nothing is further from the truth. In a set match, Morphy would beat anybody alive today... Morphy was perhaps the most accurate chess player who ever lived. He had complete sight of the board and never blundered, in spite of the fact that he played quite rapidly, rarely taking more than five minutes to decide a move. Perhaps his only weakness was in closed games like the Dutch Defense. But even then, he was usually victorious because of his resourcefulness." - - former world chess champion Bobby Fischer

  • "There is no doubt that for Morphy chess was an art, and for chess Morphy was a great artist. His play was captivated by freshness of thought and inexhaustible energy. He played with inspiration, without striving to penetrate into the psychology of the opponent; he played, if one can express it so, "pure chess". His harmonious positional understanding; the pure intuition, would have made Morphy a highly dangerous opponent even for any player of our times." - former world chess champion Vassily Smyslov

  • "If the distinguishing feature of a genius is that he is far ahead compared with his epoch, then Morphy was a chess genius in the complete sense of the word." - former world chess champion Max Euwe

  • "What was the secret of Morphy┤s invincibility? I think it was a combination of a unique natural talent and brilliant erudition. His play was the next, more mature stage in the development of chess. Morphy had a well-developed feel for position, and therefore he can be confidently regarded as the first swallow - the prototype of the strong 20th century grandmaster." - former world chess champion Garry Kasparov

  • "Morphy was the first positional player who, unlike his Romantic rivals, understood the strategic basis for attack. He wrote nothing more than a few game notes and played fewer than seventy-five serious games. But his exploitation of open lines prepared the way for Steinitz┤s scientific treatment of closed positions and the era of modern chess." - Richard RÚti

  • "Morphy will not let me." - former unofficial world champion Adolf Anderssen, when asked why he did not play as brilliantly as usual against Paul Morphy

  • "La Bourdonnais [a great player, b. 1795 - d. 1840] died young in London, and the goddess of Chess, Caissa, very much grieved, mourned for him and forgot to inspire the masters with her sunny look. A dreary time then came over the Chess world. The masters played a dry style, without enthusiasm, without imagination, without force, and the Chess fraternity was full of the wrangles of the mediocrities. It is true, the goddess soon repaired her omission. She flirted – Goddess! pardon me this vulgar expression, but the coarse human language does not know the shades of meaning such as undoubtedly you would be able to express by means of Chess pieces – she flirted, I beg to say, with the English historian [and renowned authority on Shakespeare, whose name has been given to the style of Chess pieces we now use] Staunton and prevailed upon him to organize in 1851 an international chess tournament in London, during the great International Exposition of that year. And then – fickle Goddess – she gave her love to a young mathematician, the German Anderssen, and inspired him to superb combinations. And then -- oh the weakness of her – she spied with her great sunny eye in far distant Louisiana a boy, highly talented; she forgot all about Anderssen, guided the steps of the young American, fell in love with him, introduced him to the world and said triumphantly: “Here is the young Paul Morphy, stronger and greater than master ever was.” And the world listened and applauded and cried “Hurrah for Paul Morphy, the King of Chess!”

In Paul Morphy the spirit of La Bourdonnais had arisen anew, only more vigorous, firmer, prouder. He never formed columns of Pawns for the purpose of assaulting a firm position as Philidor had taught, he always fought in the centre, only a few Pawns in front, and if he needed the lines open, he sacrificed even these few advanced posts. Should the adversary make use of Philidor’s maxims, Morphy’s pieces occupied the gaps in the oncoming mass of Pawns and opened up an attack, so as to leave the enemy no time for slow, methodical maneuvering. Paul Morphy fought; on good days and on bad days, he loved the contest, the hard, sharp, just struggle, which despises petted favourites and breeds heroes.

But then the Civil War broke out in the United States and broke the heart and mind of Morphy.

...When Paul Morphy, despairing of Life, renounced Chess, Caissa fell into deep mourning and into dreary thoughts. To the masters who had come to ask her for a smile she listened absent-mindedly, as a mother would to her children after her favourite had died. Therefore, the games of the masters of that period are planless; the great models of the past are known, and the masters try to follow them and to equal them, but they do not succeed. The masters give themselves over to reflection. One of them reflects a long time and intensely on Paul Morphy, and gratefully Caissa encourages him; and the greatest landmark in the history of Chess is reached: William Steinitz announces the principles of strategy, the result of inspired thought and imagination...

...Principles, though dwelling in the realm of thought, are rooted in Life. There are so many thoughts which have no roots and these are more glittering and more seducive [sic] than the sound ones. Therefore, in order to distinguish between the true and the false principles, Steinitz had to dig deep to lay bare the roots of the art possessed by Morphy. And when Steinitz after hard work had bared these roots, he said to the world: Here is the idea of Chess which has given vitality to the game since its invention in the centuries long past. Listen to me and do not judge rashly, for it is something great, and it overpowers me...

... The world would have benefitted if it had given Steinitz a chance. He was a thinker worthy of a seat in the halls of a University...And I who vanquished him must see to it that his great achievement, his theories should find justice, and I must avenge the wrongs he suffered..." - former world chess champion Dr. Emmanuel Lasker


  • Paul Morphy, The Pride and Sorrow of Chess by David Lawson, 424 pages; Mckay,1976 - This is the only book-length biography of Paul Morphy in English. It is out of print but is an invaluable resource, and corrects numerous historical mistakes that have cropped up about Paul Morphy, including the one about Morphy┤s score as a child versus L÷wenthal.

  • The Exploits & Triumphs in Europe of Paul Morphy the Chess Champion by Frederick Milne Edge, with a new introduction by David Lawson. Dover 1973; 203 pages. ISBN 0-48622882-7 (out of print) - This is a great book for anyone interested in not only Paul Morphy, but information about the First American Chess Congress, and the history of chess clubs in England in and before Morphy┤s time. Edge was a newspaperman who attached himself to Morphy during his stay in England and France, accompanying Morphy everywhere, and even acting at times as his unofficial butler and servant. Thanks to Edge, much is known about Morphy that would be unknown otherwise, and many games Morphy played were recorded only thanks to Edge. Finally, it is quite likely that had it not been for the efforts of Edge, Morphy would never have played the match against Anderssen.

  • Paul Morphy and the Evolution of Chess Theory by Macon Shibut, Caissa Editions 1993 ISBN 0-939433-16-8 Over 415 games comprising almost all known Morphy games. Chapters on Morphy┤s place in the development of chess theory, and reprinted articles about Morphy by Steinitz, Alekhine, and others.

Further reading

  • Grandmasters of Chess by Harold Schonberg, Lippincott, 1973. ISBN 0397010044
  • World chess champions by Edward G. Winter, editor. 19981 ISBN 0080249041 - leading chess historians include Morphy as one of the world champions.
  • Morphy┤s Games of Chess by Philip W. Sergeant & Fred Reinfeld, Dover; June 1989. ISBN 0486203867 - Features annotations collected from previous commentators, as well as additions by Sergeant. Has all of Morphy┤s match, tournament, and exhibition games, and most of his casual and odds games. Short biography included.
  • The World┤s Great Chess Games by Reuben Fine; Dover; 1983. ISBN 0486245128
  • A First Book of Morphy by Frisco Del Rosario; Trafford; October 2004. ISBN 1412039061 - Illustrates the teachings of Cecil Purdy and Reuben Fine with 65 annotated games played by the American champion. Algebraic notation.

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