Paul Morphy: how good was he really?

by Johannes Fischer
5/24/2017 – Did you ever wonder who was or is the best player of all time? Who would win if all 16 World Champions, Philidor, Labourdonnais, Anderssen and Morphy could play against each other in a tournament? How would Steinitz, Lasker or Capablanca cope against the best players from today? Such questions have no answer, of course, but are hotly debated.

It is difficult to separate skill and talent of a player from the chess knowledge of his time. If you let a computer check the games of the best players from past and present to find out who made the best and most precise moves, modern players will fare much better. Their theoretical knowledge is deeper and their general understanding of the game is better, not least because they had the chance to learn from their predecessors.

Fide adopted the Elo-system in 1970 but the statistician Jeff Sonas tried to quantify the strength of the best players from the past by calculating historical Elo-ratings for Steinitz, Lasker & Co. He published his findings on But Sonas, too, cannot answer the question who was or is the best player of all time. According to Chessmetrics Bobby Fischer has the highest rating of all time but it is Emanuel Lasker who spent more time as the number one in the world than any player before or after him. And some historical ratings simply surprise: for example, according to  Chessmetrics Tarrasch in June 1895 had an Elo-rating of 2824, more than players such as Smyslov, Tal, Petrosian, Spassky, Euwe, Bronstein or Keres ever had.

If you do not trust the numbers, you might want to rely on intuition. German chess coach and chess historian Gisbert Jacoby does. While he was updating and revising the historical part of the ChessBase Mega Database 2017 Jacoby came across a number of games Paul Morphy had played as a 12-year old. Impressive games which make Jacoby believe that the 12-year old Morphy was already the best player in America and one of the best players in the world.

In 1850 Morphy played a number of casual games against Johann Löwenthal from Hungary, according to Chessmetrics from October 1858 to April 1959 the world's number two and in 1850 definitely one of the world's best players. Morphy won this inofficial match. In 1858, when Morphy was in Europe to challenge the best European players, the two played again, this time an official match. Morphy won with 6 wins, 3 losses, and 2 draws. But the games from 1850 already show the prodigious talent of Morphy.


Paul Morphy (left) and Johann Löwenthal during their match in London 1858

Morphy was also 12 years old when he played his first published game. His opponent was Eugène Rousseau, a French player who lived in America. In 1845 Rousseau played a match for the American Championship against Charles Stanley from England. Rousseau lost the match with +8, -15 und =8 but was definitely one of the top players in America. But this did not stop him from losing quickly against young Morphy.


Having talent is good but it also must have a chance to unfold. Morphy's environment was almost ideal for the development of his chess talent. Morphy was born on 22nd June 1837 into a wealthy family in New Orleans. Ernest Morphy, the brother of Paul Morphy's father, Alonzo, was one of the best American players, and the Morphy-family often and enthusiastically played chess. Moreover, Alonzo Morphy also had a large library that gave his son Paul access to all important chess literature of his time. According to contemporary sources Morphy also had a photographic memory - he remembered everything he read.

On his 12th birthday Morphy played the following game against his uncle Ernest. Morphy was playing blindfold, without seeing the board.


Games like these indicate Morphy's enormous talent. But of course they cannot answer the question whether Morphy would have been able to hold his own against today's top-players.

Gisbert Jacoby and Karsten Müller about Paul Morphy

Johannes Fischer was born in 1963 in Hamburg and studied English and German literature in Frankfurt. He now lives as a writer and translator in Nürnberg. He is a FIDE-Master and regularly writes for KARL, a German chess magazine focusing on the links between culture and chess. On his own blog he regularly publishes notes on "Film, Literature and Chess".
Feedback and mail to our news service Please use this account if you want to contribute to or comment on our news page service


Rules for reader comments


Not registered yet? Register

treetown treetown 5/24/2017 02:20
Who is the best can never be resolved to everyone's satisfaction because of changing levels of competition and circumstances. There is no doubt however that Morphy was very strong. His games and style of play (clear open development) impressed and inspired generations of players. Nearly 200 years after his time, that his games are still fun to replay, useful for training and learning is notable.
vincero vincero 5/24/2017 04:18
FISCHER considered morphy the best ever. that is good enough for me
drcloak drcloak 5/24/2017 05:31
Yes; Fischer studied Morphy and adopted many aspects from his style. Morphy was so strong, he regularly gave pawn and/or piece odds to his opponents to make the game more fair.
fravatel fravatel 5/24/2017 06:47
Tal is the greatest talent of all time. Kasparov probably the best player.
Cocolisso Cocolisso 5/24/2017 07:35
Tal was an ignorant !
Cocolisso Cocolisso 5/24/2017 07:39
The best player ever are Morphy Fischer Carlsen Bronstein and Capablanca !!
drcloak drcloak 5/24/2017 07:44

Funny that you mention that. I think that is why Fischer liked Tal, besides his playing strength, he admired his arrogance. Although one could argue that it was more sparkling confidence than simple arrogance. All world champions possess this trait.
RayLopez RayLopez 5/24/2017 10:22
Morphy was good, probably IM / GM level strength by today's standards, but objectively, using scientific analysis, he rarely shows up in the top 10 list as an IGM. I would imagine he's rated about 2500 to 2600 Elo by today's standard. Let the flames begin! I am serious, but I understand it if somebody disagrees based on their 'gut feeling' (intuition) as does German chess coach and chess historian Gisbert Jacoby. As for Sonas' site, he's normalizing Elos across different time spans which is technically improper, since an Elo back in 1900 is not the same as an Elo of today (though Lasker, Capa, Alekhine were indeed IGMs in strength, probably in the top 30 by today's standards).
drcloak drcloak 5/25/2017 01:04

I think if chess were mainstream during Morphy's time, where there was ample competition, frequent tournaments, greater number of equal peers etc. he would have been even stronger. Morphy was world #1 at age 21 during a time when computers did not exist. Comparing Morphy to today's modern players is like comparing the rate of fire of a machine gun to a musket.
Petrarlsen Petrarlsen 5/25/2017 01:26
@ drcloak : "Comparing Morphy to today's modern players is like comparing the rate of fire of a machine gun to a musket." Quite. Or comparing, for example, a modern days scientist Nobel prize laureate to Archimedes. The Nobel prize laureate will - quite obviously - know more than Archimedes, but this doesn't mean at all that he is necessarily a better scientist...
RayLopez RayLopez 5/25/2017 01:37
@drcloak - "I think if chess were mainstream during Morphy's time, where there was ample competition, frequent tournaments, greater number of equal peers etc. he would have been even stronger" - that's probably true, since competition brings out the best. But, strictly speaking, from a historical or scientific fact viewpoint, it's 'myth' or 'metaphysics' or 'hypothesis'. Not that it's not true, but you can't prove that except indirectly (by noticing competition brings out the best, that's why for example in track & field / cycling they have 'rabbits' or 'pace setters' who set a fast pace for the rest of the runners or peloton. From the evidence, as argued years ago on Usenet forums, Morphy often comes out as an IM in strength (that's why I originally said he's an IM / GM). Then again, as you say, back then you didn't need to be any better to beat the competition. For instance, I just played a game now at Playchess vs a Class D player and it was embarrassing how badly I played (but still won) as I was not paying attention after the patzer sacrificed two pawns for little compensation.
JimNvegas JimNvegas 5/25/2017 01:55
I have to say Magnus and probably Kasparov are tied for the greatest ever. Don't think Fischer or Morphy could stand up to them in a match.
blueflare blueflare 5/25/2017 03:52
Openings lead to the middlegame so experience with the help of database give players a guide to which path to take to arrive at a fairly balanced middlegame scenario. It may be unfair for the old masters to be assessed by computers from the strength they played in the openings as part of their overall playing strength. Chessplayers should be measured by their calculative strength usually found in the middlegame. The endgame is mostly academic, following certain themes, while the middlegame demands tactical and strategic executions. For example, what made the game between Fischer and Byrne as the 'game of the century' in 1956 was Fischer's deep calculation in finding the queen sacrifice. Paul Morphy was able to find tactical brilliancies due to the nature of the game of the time which was usually 'open'. So if we just look at them all in the database containing open games, computers may be able to tell which of these champs has the strongest moves in the middlegame.
Petrarlsen Petrarlsen 5/25/2017 04:32
@ blueflare : I find it much to restrictive to keep only the middlegame, and, furthermore, only its tactical dimension.

For example, Capablanca's and Carlsen's extraordinary talent in the endgame would count for nothing. And Kramnik's deep positional play and opening preparation wouldn't weight anything.

I think that this wouldn't be at all a fair assessment of the playing strenght of these players. Yes, the tactical dimension of the middlegame is the side of chess where knowledge has less evolved, but it is not for this reason that the other aspects of chess aren't important in the evaluation of a great chess champion.

The problem is, obviously, that we can't directly compare, for example, Morphy and Carlsen positionaly, because chess knowledge has evolved between them. But, as I said before on this page, it is the same problem if you want to compare for example Archimedes with a modern Nobel prize laureate ; scientific knowledge has (very obviously) evolved, too, between them, and you can't compare them directly either. The truth is, in my opinion, that, in fact, it isn't possible to compare directly two champions from two completely different periods...
Ty Riprock Ty Riprock 5/25/2017 04:49
One problem with speculation on a "tournament of world champs" is that each should have equal knowledge. Imagine Lasker with a database! Each succeeding champion built on the knowledge & innovations of those who came before.

Chessmetrics is a joke. The system is obviously flawed - they show many of the late 19th Century players with 2700+ peaks. Go look, then check those players' game in the database. You don't have to be a master to see they aren't close to Botvinnik or Tal. Tarrasch as good as Kramnik? Give me a break!
Simplifier20 Simplifier20 5/25/2017 04:54
Paul Morphy has a "Photographic Memory", and as a lawyer, believed to have memorized the complete Louisiana book of codes and laws. When he traveled to Europe, he became ill (too weak to stand up unaided) but still managed to play the best Europe's player Adolf Anderssen and beat him badly. IMO, I think Paul Morphy is the greatest Chess Player of all time.

With Bobby Fischer, he almost spent his entire life (time and energy) studying chess to become great, but with Paul Morphy, perhaps only 50% (or even less) was spent to become great.
Petrarlsen Petrarlsen 5/25/2017 05:13
@ Simplifier20 :

"With Bobby Fischer, he almost spent his entire life (time and energy) studying chess to become great, but with Paul Morphy, perhaps only 50% (or even less) was spent to become great."

The problem is that Morphy's period and ours are too different in chess : nowadays, opening preparation is extremely important, and is particularly time-consuming, for top GMs. In Morphy's time, it was still possible to play the opening phase nearly in the same fashion as the middlegame : by over the board thinking... So it isn't possible, in my opinion, to compare the time top players of different periods used for their chess work...
Simplifier20 Simplifier20 5/25/2017 06:07
@ Petrarlsen:

Yes true. I should've said it in a diff way.

I was trying to imply that if Paul Morphy and Bobby Fischer came at the same time, with Morphy's gift (that Photographic Memory if believed to be true), he would only spend less time and effort to study one Variation for example, whereas with Bobby, he would need more time and repeated practice to really memorize a single Variation. That ability (Photographic Memory) would really help Morphy study and memorize all these new Openings and Variations in no time, and this will really make him deadly against other Chess players "of this time", and if he plays a "Championship Match" of this time for example, with his Talent, I think he would not need any Coach nor Seconds to beat any opponent he will be facing.
genem genem 5/25/2017 07:07
How can we enter the Null move into the webpage game player? The Android app named "Analyze This" enables entering the Null move in a smart way, by moving the king onto the other king.
Petrarlsen Petrarlsen 5/25/2017 10:31
@ Simplifier20 : Yes, this kind of memory is quite extraordinary, but, personally, I've already heard of quite a lot of people, historically, that have (or had) this type (more or less) of memory (for example, a French writer - I don't remember who - who read one time the 4.000 pages French taxes code in 2 or 3 days ; it was sufficient for him to know it by heart, article by article, sentence by sentence, and word for word !...). And, for example, I remember having read (on ChessBase) a quite incredible example of Carlsen knowing by heart a completely obscur game between two 2400 (or something like that) players, this game having been played when he was approximately five years old (if I remember well, but, anyway, not much more), without any understandable reason why he would have known this game (I think that it was IM Malcolm Pein who related this).

So I think it is difficult to be really sure, because, quite probably, there are quite a lot of World Champions or great players that are or were quite incredibly gifted : it is thus, in my opinion, quite complicated to compare them together.
planner99 planner99 5/25/2017 11:10
Kasparov had 17 2820+ tournament performances.

Almost 3 times Lasker...the next on the list.
planner99 planner99 5/25/2017 11:14
"FISCHER considered morphy the best ever. that is good enough for me"

And Morphy happened to be American surprise surprise. Fischer who thought that all of the Kasparov-Karpov matches were fixed. Nothing nice to say about the real greatest ever.....Kasparov.
drcloak drcloak 5/25/2017 11:27

Kasparov was definitely stronger than Fischer. And Fischer was partially correct, in stating that some of those K vs. K games were pre-arranged. You know what I find interesting? That after all the slander Fischer exalted upon Kasparov, that Kasparov still admired Fischer and painted him in a good light in his book 'My Great Predecessors: Fischer'. To have the decency and objective morality to write an entire book and annotate the games of someone that insulted you is quite mind boggling.
Pieces in Motion Pieces in Motion 5/25/2017 11:55
The fact that the article has compelled numerous comments proves how much of an effect and influence the man has on the game to this day. Morphy's one of the greatest, arguably the best. He dominated his time the way Philidor, Lasker, Capablanca, Alekhine, Fischer, Kasparov and the other champs did. There can be no final consensus on who was the greatest, the nature of time and the progress it brings renders such matters relative.
Roth2016 Roth2016 5/25/2017 12:09
It's always an intriguing discussion as to who the best player of all time was although of course it's impossible to judge objectively as we're comparing players of different eras, different career lengths with different training resources plus many other factors. My personal opinion is that Alekhine is the greatest player of all time when making an allowance for the era in which they played however Morphy made the greatest leap in the understanding and development of chess from what went before and for that all players since the 1850s owe a lot to Morphy!
KevinC KevinC 5/25/2017 02:12
While I think that Morphy would do very well in today's day with modern tools and knowledge, there is no way he is even close to the greatest player ever, and I don't care what Fischer said about that (hyperbole?). As some have suggested, they would like to analyze the strength of each player's moves, but that is not enough since they were also playing MUCH weaker competition. Some of the guys that Morphy killed look like 2000 players to me.

I also agree with Ty Riprock: "You don't have to be a master to see they aren't close to Botvinnik or Tal. Tarrasch as good as Kramnik? Give me a break!"

Well, I have been a master for decades, and I just don't see the older players being as good as the next generations. Before I took up chess in the 1970's, I used to be a ranked tennis player in my small northern state, and I thought I was going to become a professional, but naiveté, and a rotator cuff injury (serious surgery back then) put an end to my dreams. When I left my state one summer and travelled south, I realized that you could be among the best in my small northern state, but compared to players from Florida and California, who had access to year-round tennis, you were NOTHING. I got CRUSHED, and it was a harsh reality, but I realized that how good your competition is THE key to how good you can become, and Morphy had none. He was easily the best of his time, but figuratively, he lived in a small northern state too.
Rational Rational 5/25/2017 03:00
Morphy did not have to compete against players from China and India and other similar countries. While chess even in the West was restricted to those of the middle and upper class. So he was more dominant than Carlsen is now but versus a much smaller pool
Bright Knight Bright Knight 5/25/2017 04:23
The second paragraph says it all. Chess strength, which Elo rating measures, is a combination of skill, talent, and chess knowledge. Today's top players have an enormous advantage in knowledge, hence are clearly stronger than those of previous generations. If you have a time machine which can transport the current top 5 players to 1972 and hold a classical event with Fischer, Spassky, Karpov, Petrosian, and Larsen, those legends will hog the bottom of the standings. If you can bring them even earlier to 1920, they can give away 1 hour in clock time and still easily defeat Lasker, Capablanca, Marshall, Alekhine, and Tarrasch. Carlsen will likely beat Morphy in a classical game with only 30 minutes in his clock.
SambalOelek SambalOelek 5/25/2017 10:02
I wonder if Mir Sultan Kahn would not qualify as the most natural player ever? He never had books, never had studied openings and played another version of chess, but yet he draw against the world champion of classical chess and beat several other top 10 players in Europe. He even beat Capablanca..
KOTLD KOTLD 5/26/2017 06:08
I am a huge fan of Morphy !
KWRegan KWRegan 5/26/2017 07:12
To note what Ray Lopez is referring to, see section 3 of this: But the note beside it on my publications page, "still awaiting major update" is alas still true, partly for reasons I've just expounded at
drcloak drcloak 5/26/2017 08:42

Kahn with the most natural raw talent; for sure if the stories are true. There has been similar claims from other GMs of the past, like Samuel Reshevsky & Capablanca who both proclaimed they never studied openings. Many masters claim they never studied end games until hitting 2200 rating... I just find it hard to believe...
turok turok 5/27/2017 02:24
since todays ratings are inflated and the games are computer helped all you do is compare all players by their use of a computer at any time in history. If you do this you can easily see how players would be. Morphy would be a monster along with Fischer and I still be lieve Fischer would have been beyond anything wed ever see when it comes to a person with that gift of the chess game but also adding computers in wow-
PEB216 PEB216 5/27/2017 08:09
Who was the greatest chess player of all time? A question that all chess players have asked at one time or another, but a question that can never be answered with any certainty. Instead of asking this question, why not ask why Paul Morphy isn't listed among the World Champions? Of course, FIDE will point out that the title didn't exist until the Zukertort vs. Steinitz match. But, in my opinion, that is only a technicality. We certainly can consider the winner of the London Tournament of 1851, Adolf Anderssen, as the first World Champion (this was a tournament that included the world's best chess players). Morphy defeated Anderseen in 1858 (shortly after this, Morphy withdrew from tournament and match play). In 1866, Steinitz narrowly defeated Anderssen in a match. Wouldn't our chess heritage be even richer if we considered Anderssen as the 1st World Chess Champion, Morphy as the 2nd World Chess Champion, and Steinitz as the 3rd World Chess Champion? (Fred Reinfeld did this in his book "The Human Side of Chess" (published in 1952)). Of course, one can try to extend this list even further back in time, but the London Tournament of 1851 gave us, for the first time, a way of comparing the World's best chess players, so it is as legitimate a starting point as the Zukertort/Steinitz match of 1886. As it presently stands, Anderssen and Morphy are considered "unofficial" World Champions. I want to change that "unofficial" to "official"; after all, Mikhail Botvinnik won his title in a tournament of the World's best chess players in 1948.
drcloak drcloak 5/27/2017 10:10

In case nobody read your post the first time?
islaw islaw 5/28/2017 04:15
Both Fischer and Anand list Morphy in their top ten greatest.(; I also remember reading somewhere Morphy is one of Tal's favorites, along with Chigorin (not sure if there was another one). Unfortunately, I can give no citation but it's probably true given his playing style. Kasparov also seems to consider him brilliant. Now, Kasparov's teacher was Botvinnik and he played against Tal and Karpov and was surrounded by the likes of Spassky, Smyslov, etc. so I think it's quite reasonable to assume his standards are pretty high. no? So no, it would be a stretch to say Morphy was IM level only.
PEB216 PEB216 5/28/2017 06:21

ChessBase does NOT allow you to edit a comment once it has been posted. When I noticed that I had given the wrong year for the Steinitz/Zukertort World Championship match, I had three options: (1) leave my original comment as is, (2) add a second comment correcting my previous post, or (3) deleting my original comment and reposting it with the corrected year. I decided on the latter option.
drcloak drcloak 5/28/2017 08:28

No worries, it was a good post; despite the minor land mine.
RayLopez RayLopez 5/30/2017 04:08
@KWRegan - thanks professor, nice paper link. It seems Morphy, even when "competition brought out the best in him" was still only an IM in strength, about 2250 to 2450 Elo (the lower number is when Morphy played weaker opponents, the higher number when he played stronger opponents).
islaw islaw 5/30/2017 05:53
Can you explain the paper in English? How did you come to your conclusion?