Rediscovering Morphy

by Davide Nastasio
1/29/2018 – Review: Certain legendary champions form the foundation on which every player should learn and improve one's chess. Morphy is definitely among the first players one must learn from, as his games can be used for teaching, for learning on one's own, or simply for enjoying the beauty of human creativity. Thanks to a team of ChessBase titled players we have a selection of the most beautiful combinations, endgames, and openings played by Morphy.

Master Class Vol.9: Paul Morphy Master Class Vol.9: Paul Morphy

Learn about one of the greatest geniuses in the history of chess! Paul Morphy's career (1837-1884) lasted only a few years and yet he managed to defeat the best chess players of his time.


Master Class Vol. 9 — Morphy

A review

I have all the Master Class DVDs. The first one I bought was on Tal, and the second on Fischer. But I think if an amateur, or a beginner, would really like to improve as player, one should start from Morphy, and then progress to Master Class vol. 5 — Lasker.

Why such order is needed? Because that is the progress we had in the chess world, and the evolution we should hope to achieve as chess players. Morphy is the first one to study and learn from. His games are clearly indicating the way one should think: quick development, even the sacrifice of a pawn or two, to keep the initiative, and then finish the opponent with an attack on the enemy king. Now, today's chess world has changed a lot. We are definitely more technical, we have more tools at our disposal for becoming better players, and in general our opposition at tournaments is definitely harder than the players Morphy faced in his own time, thanks to chess books, videos and coaches available everywhere. However, once again, the process we must go through as players on the road to mastery is always the same, and Morphy is stepping stone numero uno of our journey.

Allow me to spend few more words on the right order, because I honestly think the ChessBase DVDs are the best form of training, and can really bring the serious student to Master level. After studying Morphy and Lasker one should definitely acquire the volume on Capablanca.

One question could be: do we need to study all their games? No. But we do need to know the most important ones, which can give us clear insight into the many different phases of the game.

For example in this DVD on Morphy, Mihail Marin one of the best chess authors and GMs from Romania, has created six video clips on strategy. In the first video Marin shares his thoughts on Morphy and his biases, superficially we all express the same bias: that Morphy wasn't a positional player.

In fact Marin's knowledge of history brings him to quote the trip to the USA by the first World Champion: Steinitz, and a conversation with the famous composer Lloyd. Steinitz also had a similar bias against Morphy, practically that he wasn't a positional player. Already this conversation is quite enlightening, because obviously it is not true that Morphy wasn't a positional player, but it will be quite valuable for the reader to first study Morphy, and then pass to study someone who clearly outranked the first world champion positionally, and I'm talking about Lasker. Practically we have the chance to see under our eyes the evolution of the game, and how different school of thoughts applied their understanding of the game just 50 years distance from each other! Marin also points out that the overwhelming win of the match Morphy vs Anderssen, wasn't due to luck, but clear game superiority (Morphy won 7, lost 2, and drew 2 games).

Max Euwe, the fifth World Champion, well synthesized Morphy's style of play on three elements, which I believe are central for every player at every level:

  1. Rapid development of the pieces
  2. Control of the center
  3. Open lines

I don't know if Marin was aware of Euwe's understanding of Morphy, but notice how all GMs reach the same conclusion after watching Morphy's games!

A small digression

Allow me to digress for one minute or two...often we think Master level players — like those rated 2100-2200 — should have learned about rapid development of the pieces. To reach 2100 one must have played a lot of tournaments, and undoubtedly studied a lot. I was studying the Chigorin Defense, thanks to a new DVD made for Chessbase by GM Williams, and one of the main exponents of the Chigorin defense is GM Ben Finegold, one of the top 50 players in the USA, who recently opened his own Chess Center in Atlanta, Georgia, and is quite active teaching.

In the next game GM Finegold wins against a strong player from Kansas, rated a little above 2100, White's loss looks like the one of an amateur in Morphy's time!

Please notice in the final position of the game, after 15 moves, how White, a 2100+ rated player, still had four pieces in the first rank, totally undeveloped!!

A few too many pieces left at home!

Here is the game for those who are curious:


Back to Morphy

With that digression out of the way, let's return to the review! In his video clips, Marin asks us to find the right move in some critical moments, explaining the strategical concepts behind, like when we have an advantage in development how we want to open the position.

Speaking of open positions by association, let's say one wants to learn the open games, here is the opinion of Botvinnik on Morphy: 

"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."

But did other World Champions learn from Morphy's games? For example Tal was famous for his attacks on f7. Notice how, in this blindfold game, Morphy is relentless in his idea of opening the f-file, and going after f7.


The DVD has one section dedicated to the endgames covered by world-reknowned endgame expert GM Karsten Mueller. The endgame section is made up of eleven videoclips and one interactive test. We can improve our endgame knowledge also thanks to Morphy. For some players it may not be enough. In such case one can enter the database with all the games played by Morphy — there are a total of 471 games — and make a search for different kind of endgames he could be interested in.

ChessBase Search example

For example I made a search for endgames from four to eight pawns, with just one rook. Immediately I had as result 20 games, with each game set on the endgame position I was looking for. This gave me the chance to watch it, and see how Morphy won, but thanks to the ChessBase Account system I could also play them against an engine with one click.

Click Play out against Fritz

There is also a common section on openings — all DVDs of the Master Class series show the repertoire in Black and White of the player treated. In this case there are five video clips made by IM Jonas Lampert. Right away he tell us something interesting about Morphy's treatment of the opening: Morphy was trying to control the center, and he developed all his pieces as soon as possible.

This is practically the best example to follow for every player, but especially for beginners and amateurs who wants to reach the next stage of chess development.

By the way there is a very important consideration to make, as Black: Morphy never encountered (in the games available to us) 1.c4 or 1.Nf3. It may be interesting to know that Morphy against 1.d4 always used the Dutch 1...f5.

I'd like to reiterate Botvinnik's view, which can be important for those who would like to learn the open games, the one defined by 1.e4 e5. To paraphrase:

Mikhail Botvinnik

There are 20 video clips of tactics, where the ChessBase tactics guru, IMOliver Reeh, presents some of the most important moments from Morphy's games, and ask us questions on how to continue.

I found the first one particularly interesting, because Morphy was 12 years old, and playing Blindfold! Black has just played 13...d5 a blunder. Now watch the diagram, close your eyes, and see if you can calculate the next four moves which give the win to White.


If you are curious to see how it went, well, buy the DVD or check the game from a database, I will not spoil the surprise! (However it was an easy combination to find...if one wasn't playing blindfold — the game is from 1849!)

The DVD comes also with a biography on Morphy, divided in four different historical periods. The first from 1837 to 1857, the second only dedicated to the year 1857, then from 1858 to 1859, and the last one is from 1859 to 1884. This small biography comes with nice pictures, the link to some games, and some suggested readings for those who want to deepen the knowledge of the man.

Before closing this review I'd like to show an example of the learning we can achieve thanks to this product. I admit, I'm not the most diligent chess student, for a thousand reasons, one being an adult obliges me to dedicate time to family, work etc. But I want to learn having someone teaching me. One of the most important parts of the game: the endgame, is recognized by everyone as a part we need to learn in order to progress. Nevertheless I find books terribly boring. So I love to follow GM Mueller videos on the endgame, because I learn, without being bored. For example one of the videos of this DVD is on a fortress. Let's say I don't know what the concept of fortress is (the fortress is practically a way for the side with less material to try to draw, setting an area where the opponent cannot penetrate). After watching the first video of Paul Morphy's endgames I have learned the concept, and I have a mental image which will be useful in my future tournament games.

White to move and draw, checkout the DVD and the wise explanation by GM Mueller, for knowing how to setup a fortress and draw, then play it against an engine to see if it works!


Final thoughts

Morphy's games teach us continuously, key ideas that we must make our own in order to progress in chess. These ideas are simple to remember, but difficult to master: Develop your pieces, create open lines, operate on those open lines, and of course crush the enemy to a pulp! What else can we learn from Morphy? The importance of blindfold play. Thanks to seeing so many of his brilliant blindfold games, I began to play blindfold too, and I think it improved my visualization.


Master Class Vol.9: Paul Morphy

Learn about one of the greatest geniuses in the history of chess! Paul Morphy's career (1837-1884) lasted only a few years and yet he managed to defeat the best chess players of his time.

Davide is a novel chess aficionado who has made chess his spiritual tool of improvement and self-discovery. One of his favorite quotes is from the great Paul Keres: "Nobody is born a master. The way to mastery leads to the desired goal only after long years of learning, of struggle, of rejoicing, and of disappointment..."


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Resistance Resistance 2/11/2018 06:46
Morphy was a genius; a star. His grasp of what was going on in a position, and his intuition of the different potentialities available, especially in open play, is still unsurpassed. Many of today's 'regular', common GMs do not consider him that highly, because they have already memorized and rationalized many of his' (and plenty of others') ideas. Yet if taken out of their comfort zones, they would stand no chance in a game against him. His games alone are already a treasure to cherish and to enjoy for many, many years...
NJD NJD 1/30/2018 04:59
He was from New Orleans where the Frenchies mispronounced Murphy as Morphy....
Pieces in Motion Pieces in Motion 1/30/2018 12:22
Good and well-written review. It's nice a DVD of the great man was finally done.
hansj hansj 1/29/2018 08:33
We can learn from them all.
Personally I liked the games of Botvinnik and Spassky.