On the eve of Magnus Carlsen's becoming the official #1 on the FIDE rating list, it seems like a good moment to reflect on the first notable chess prodigy of the modern game, Paul Morphy (1837-1884).
Western Europe was the center of chess activity, but Morphy, who grew up in the relative chess wasteland of Louisiana, came to Europe as a 21-year-old and destroyed all opposition. Or at least he tried to. While most of Europe's best tried their hand, including the rusty but gallant Adolf Anderssen, another of Europe's chess heroes (pictured below) did not.
As my readers undoubtedly know, that's a rare color photograph of Howard Staunton (1810-1874), who repeatedly encouraged Morphy to expect a match, but delayed it over and over again and then had the chutzpah to claim that the fault was Morphy's. (On the other hand, he never accused Morphy of consulting with (Alexander) Fritz during restroom breaks, so he does get some credit.) As it turns out there were several good reasons for Staunton to avoid a match, and if he had forthrightly admitted them at the time and put an end to it that would have been a lot better. First of all, he was out of practice. Second, he had genuine health problems, and avoiding a strenuous and stressful match made sense. Finally, he really was busy with his work as a Shakespeare scholar, and that undoubtedly added to the stress. (For more details about the match that wasn't, Wikipedia has a good treatment, here.)
At any rate, while they never did play a match or even any one-on-one games in private (unlike Fischer and Karpov...just kidding!), they did play a couple of consultation games against each other. Morphy partnered with Thomas Barnes, while Staunton teamed with John Owen. (An interesting aside about Owen can be read at the link given in the last paragraph. Apparently when Morphy and Johann Löwenthal were playing a match, Owen - who was Morphy's second - disparaged Morphy and encouraged his opponent. This led Morphy to challenge Owen to a match, giving him the substantial handicap of pawn and move. Morphy destroyed him, winning it 5-0 with two draws. When it came to competitiveness, Michael Jordan had nothing on Morphy.)
Now where was I? (You can tell I'm enjoying this.) Oh yes, Morphy & Barnes vs. Staunton & Owen. Barnes was a very good player in his own right (he scored 2 out of 8 against Morphy in even-up games, and went 1.5/2 in games where Morphy played with under some sort of handicap [blindfold in one game, simuling in the other]), but it's likely that the games were pretty nearly Morphy vs. Staunton battles, with the added players there to allow Staunton a face-saving out. At any rate, Morphy's team won both games, which probably didn't motivate Staunton to get back into form any time soon.
As you can probably guess from my long and colorful intro, we're going to look at one of these games in this week's ChessBase show. The game where Morphy and Barnes had White was especially interesting, and did credit to both sides. While Morphy+ got an edge after Staunton+'s bad opening, the defense stiffened. Rather than pursuing the advantage by positional means, Morphy(+) went for a very deep but only intuitively calculated idea, and the game turned into a race between White's attack and the speed at which his center collapsed. Ultimately, White won, but there were some adventures along the way.
We'll explore those adventures tonight - Wednesday night - at 9 p.m. ET (= 3 a.m. CET) on the Playchess server. Just log on at the given time, go to the Broadcast Room, and look for Morphy-Staunton under the Games tab. Hope to see you there, even if you're a Staunton fan!