Morphy’s Opera Game

Introduction & Background

Paul Morphy, perhaps the first great American player and a child prodigy, lived in the 19th century and died at the young age of 47. Arguably, he was the greatest tactical and strategic player of all time. The debate rages on that point; however, &Quot; ‘A popularly held theory about Paul Morphy,’ wrote Fischer, ‘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.’ Debatable, yes. But the true measure of Morphy’s greatness is that this master, who was born the better part of two centuries ago, can still excite a chess mind of Fischer’s level – not to mention the chess mind of Mikhail Tal, who listed Morphy as one of his three favorite players along with Lasker and Alexander Alekhine.”

As “a 12-year-old boy, without experience against master competition, defeating a leading European grandmaster (Jacob Loewenthal, by +2 -0 =1); imagine this same boy entering his first and only tournament, which happens to be the 1857 U. S. Championship, winning it easily; imagine further that this boy…sails for Europe, effortlessly defeating the leading masters of England and France, offering odds of pawn and move in some cases; imagine that this boy, a mere year after playing his first formal games, defeats world champion Adolf Anderssen, scoring 75 percent in a series of match and training games; and imagine, finally, that a former world champion, Saint-Amant, states publicly that Morphy could successfully offer a group of great masters pawn and move and that a triumvirate of strong American players announces in 1886 that the late Morphy could have given Wilhelm Steinitz pawn and move.”

His official chess playing “career lasted a mere 16 months — from late 1857 to early 1859…Still worse for the prestige of Morphy’s successors, subsequent chess results conspired in favor of the Morphy legend. Anderssen slaughtered the field at London 1862, losing only to John Owen, who finished third well ahead of Steinitz, whom he also beat. The point here is that everyone knew that a few years earlier Morphy had dismantled Anderssen and discombobulated Owen, +5 -0 =2, while giving odds of pawn and move!! In 1914 Jose Capablanca luxuriated in a compliment from Amos Burn that he played like Morphy. ‘The style of Morphy, they say,’ wrote Capablanca, ‘and if it is true that the goddess of fortune has endowed me with his talent, the result [of a 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.’

Alexander Alekhine praised Morphy’s deep positional understanding, and Mikhail Botvinnik averred that Morphy’s mastery of open positions was so vast that little new has later been learned about such positions. Morphy’s technique in winning won positions and drawing lost positions has also been praised, but his defining edge over the competition was an understanding of the importance of time in chess. Morphy seldom wasted a tempo, developing his pieces amazingly quickly. As with Anderssen, Morphy’s most famous game was unofficial, a friendly affair played in a box at the Paris Opera that demonstrated the young American’s facility for quick development and slashing sacrificial attacks in open positions.”

[Source credit: “The Kings of Chess, 21-Player Salute” by Larry Paar]

After the Opera Game which Morphy played while awaiting the arrival of Anderssen to play in a match, he became ill with an intestinal flu, but as was typical of Morphy-he did not want to be “inconsiderate” and forego playing Anderssen despite being ill. After defeating Anderssen while playing from his bed in a French hotel room, Anderseen (who was in his own right one of the great chess players whose combative style earned him a storied place in chess history) graciously stated without equivocation that Morphy was superior to him. The Morphy legend had taken root in his own time, despite his own misgivings that he was but an amateur (Anderssen also considered himself to be an amateur and not a professional!).

“In 1858 the Duke of Brunswick and Count Isouard invited the American master Paul Morphy to the Paris Opera, then asked their guest to play chess with them. Morphy was more interested in watching the opera, but could not courteously refuse.” It was played in the Duke of Brunswick’s opera box.

“Morphy played white, while Brunswick and Isouard consulted on black. He took his opponents apart in 17 moves, enabling him to watch the rest of the show without distraction, and incidentally proving that teaming two mediocre players does not double their talents.”

“This game is one of the best known in chess, exemplifying as it does the advantages of quick development over the pursuit of minor advantages. The game features a queen sacrifice that leads directly to mate.”

The game was played as Phildor’s Defense, and Morphy’s superior tactical and strategic prowess simply overpowered the two royal opponents, who according to some texts argued repeatedly over Black’s moves. Perhaps this contributed to Morphy’s ability to annihilate them in 17 moves! The Count and Duke were not amateurs, and played fairly well. However, their combined play in the game giving considerably charity to them, is best described as amatuerish. Then again, almost everyone who played against Morphy succumbed to his masterful tactical and strategic vision and chess playing. Such was his enduring contribution to chess, and his fame. After the game board and notation below, there follows two analyses of the game. Being perhaps Morphy’s most “famous” game, but far from his best because of the inadequacies in playing by the Duke and Count, many have anaylzed the game. These two are just two in that long line, but are interesting in their different approaches.


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Morphy – Count Isouard & Duke of Brunswick, Opera House, Paris, 1858

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 Bg4 4.dxe5 Bxf3 5.Qxf3 dxe5 6.Bc4 Nf6 7.Qb3 Qe7 8.Nc3 c6 9.Bg5 b5 10.Nxb5 cxb5 11.Bxb5+ Nbd712.O-O-O Rd8 13.Rxd7 Rxd7 14.Rd1 Qe6 15.Bxd7+ Nxd7 16.Qb8+ Nxb8 17.Rd8# 




from Bryan’s Chess World! by Bryan Castro
In this game played as Philidor’s Defense, Black tries to create a strongpoint at e5.3.d4 attacking Black’s center – 3…Bg4 pinning the Knight. This prevents the Knight from taking on e5 after dxe5 dxe5 and now the Knight can’t take on e5 because of checkmate possibility on d1. 4.dxe5 Bxf3 [ prevents 4…dxe5?! 5.Qxd8+ Kxd8 preventing the King from castling. Often this is an advantage in this opening because now the King is stuck in the center, open to attack. 6.Nxe5]

5.Qxf3 dxe5 6.Bc4 threatening mate on f7.6…Nf6?! blocking the mate. However, it allows White to take advantage of weaknesses in Black’s structure. [ 6…Qd7 is necessary here; or 6…Qe7 ] 7.Qb3 with a double attack on both b7 and f7. This is a common maneuver in King-pawn openings. Always look for weak points in the enemy’s structure, and when there is more than one, try to attack both at the same time. Many times, the opponent won’t be able to defend both in time. 7…Qe7 8.Nc3 As Grandmaster Larry Evans said in his comments to this game, “Development before Material!”

While some would have considered taking the pawn on b7, Morphy, knowing he was much stronger than his opponent, wanted to demonstrate his attacking ability. 8…c6 allowing the Queen to protect the pawn at b7. However, Black is way behind in development. 9.Bg5 pinning the Knight. Notice that White’s back rank is empty besides the King and Rooks. Now White can castle either way. Black still needs to move a piece to get the King to safety. Unfortunately, Morphy probably won’t give him the chance. 9…b5 attacking the Bishop. 10.Nxb5! sacrificing the Knight. White doesn’t want to give up his superior development (by moving the Bishop off the strong diagonal, White would let Black use another move to get his pieces out).

When attacking, you must open lines, even if you must give up a little material. 10…cxb5 11.Bxb5+ Nbd7 12.0-0-0! attacking the Knight, which is protected only by Queen and King (note that the f6 Knight is pinned. 12…Rd8 adding another defender. 13.Rxd7!! Brilliant! For many beginners and even some noices, moves like this are hard to make, because they don’t see the end result. Studying games like this should give courage in playing your own games! 13…Rxd7 14.Rd1 attacking the pinned piece. 14…Qe6. A futile attempt to get some breathing room. Now the Knight is free to protect the Rook, because it is not pinned. 15.Bxd7+ Nxd7.

16.Qb8+!! Giving up yet another piece, however, it leads to immediate reward. 16…Nxb8 17.Rd8#. White mates Black’s King with his final two pieces. Note the helpless Queen standing by. Also remember this pattern of checkmating the King with Bishop and Rook, it is fairly common. The game illustrates the importance of development and how to attack someone who has neglected development.


by Duvvuri Ravishankar, Mumbai, India

1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 d6 3. d4 Bg4 4. dxe5 Bxf3 5. Qxf3 dxe5 6. Bc4 Nf6 7. Qb3 Qe7 8. Nc3

(8. Qxb7 Qb4+ 9. Qxb4 Bxb4+ 10. Bd2 Bxd2+ 11.Nxd2 Nbd7 12. f3 Rb8 13. O-O-O Ke7 is also clearly better for White)

8… c6 9. Bg5 b5 10. Nxb5 cxb5 11. Bxb5+ Nbd7 12. O-O-O Rd8 13. Rxd7 ! {Annihilates a defender: d7} 13… Rxd7 {A pinning theme}

(13… Nxd7 14. Bxe7 {Exploits the pin})

14. Rd1 Qe6

(14… Kd8 {a fruitless try to alter the course of the game} 15. Rxd7+ Qxd7 16. Bxd7 Kxd7 17. f4 is winning for White.)

15. Bxd7+ Nxd7

(15… Qxd7 16. Qb8+ Ke7 17. Qxe5+ Kd8 18. Bxf6+ gxf6 19. Qxf6+ Kc8 20. Rxd7 Kxd7 21. Qxh8 Bd6 with a winning position for white.)

16. Qb8+ !! {this sacrifice makes everything clear} 16… Nxb8 17. Rd8#