This is the one of the most exciting books I have ever read! Paul Morphy, chess champion extroidinaire, the pride of New Orleans, was the most profound chess player in the history of the world...Robert J. Fischer not withstanding. Among the best biographies ever written. A must read for every chess enthusiast and lovers of American heroes.
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19 of 22 people found the following review helpful
Probably the best biography on Morphy ... however ...April 18 2011
- Published on Amazon.com
Paul Morphy is one of the most intriguing characters in the history of chess for several reasons. First, he is amongst the very few chess players that showed complete dominance in the chess world with almost no training (or in Morphy's case, any substantial playing experience against the top chess players in the world). Second, Morphy disappeared from active chess competition at a very young age after conquering the chess world in the mid-19th century.
Lawson, now deceased, was an academic from Louisana that undertook the job to write the biography of Paul Morphy. Lawson didn't attempt to comment on the chess and the new edition purposely has ommitted unannotated games with the claim that these games are readily available on the internet. This is certainly true. The biography itself is roughly 500 pages long with almost all the material dealing with Morphy's life up until his mid-to late 20s. The author is extremely academic in his approach to the biography preferring facts over undocumented "stories" and antectodes. At the time this biography was written, Frances Parkinson Keyes had already written her "fiction-based-on-fact" work The Chess Players. This is particularly important because Lawson addresses certain points of her novel in the chronology of Morphy's life and experiences. For the most part, Lawson objects to Parkinson's creation of Morphy's love interest and simply dismisses it as unsubstantiated. Parkinson Keyes admits in her book that she "made up" the character, but collected the necessary facts to know that Morphy did in fact have some kind of love interest. She states in the book that she changed the name because it was unnecessary to unnecessarily create a cloud around one of the established New Orleans family of Morphy's love interest (that by Keyes' account, turned Morphy down).
So, why is this significant? Well, Lawson does an excellent job of collecting information from already established sources on his activities leading to and during his chess excursions in Europe. All of this was well written and easy and compelling read. All in all, one gets a very good feeling for Morphy's life up until the age of 25. Given that he lived another 20 years, this certainly only told part of the story. I understand that you can only present and analyze the available historical evidence, but given that this 20 years collapses into some 30 pages in a near 500 page book, I really think this leaves something lacking. Although, I learned some new things about Morphy from this biography, I really don't think that the biographer did enough to really understand what happened to Morphy during the last 20 years of his life. For me, this was worth at least a one star reduction because it involved so much of his life. But even more so, there really wasn't any real idea on what caused Morphy's mental instability. Parkinson Keyes suggests that it was related to a failed courtship, but Lawson couldn't find any evidence of this. But still, a gap still existed on what the main source of the mental breakdown. Perhaps no one really knows because there is no real evidence that was left behind, but Lawson doesn't even exert any effort at all to talk about possible sources of information including doctor's records, personal accounts etc.. No proof in the book that an effort was made to address this gap. Only a few accounts of his odd behavior and his failure as a lawyer. Finally, I tend to believe that Morphy must have had some kind of love interest. It seems unlikely and inconsistent with Lawson's accounts of Morphy in his mid-20s that he wouldn't take an active interest in some woman. So I tend to favor Keyes' statements that one was found by her but she preferred not to use real names. Keyes did do a great deal of research on her novels and lived in the house next to where Morphy was born (and built by his maternal grandfather). So, she clearly had the "inside" track to some info that might have been informally passed on through one or two generations in the New Orleans area.
Why only 3 stars? As mentioned previously, one star was for the large gap in the latter part of Morphy's life. The reduction of one additional star was due to Lawson's dismissal of certain information without any real proof or reason. For example, he stated that the "phamplet" written by Morphy's neice was of little value because his neice did not really know Morphy. This really wasn't convincing to me because no clear reasons were given for this unvalidated assertion. I understand that Lawson was a scholar and from Louisana, but it's not at all clear why he would just dismiss certain pieces of information.
Who would enjoy this book the most? I really believe that most chess players that have a more academic interest in the lives of the great chess players would enjoy this book. The book itself cannot compare to well-written books by professional biographers such David McCullough. Lawson is much more academic in his style and doesn't attempt to romanticize his characters at all. So you get a feeling for behavior without a hint of motivation for that behavior. The biography is clearly for anyone that knows little about Morphy's life but has interest. It is arguably the most complete and comprehensive despite the already mentioned gaps in Morphy's life.
Other books on Morphy ...
As a follow-up to the biography, I went through Valerie Beim's book on Morphy (A modern Perspective). For the chess player who wants to understand Morphy's play, this is the book. The new release of Lawson doesn't have games or positions in it and certainly doesn't have any analses either. Beim is an excellent writer and analyst and does a first rate job of going through Morphy's games. I believe that Beim is a bit overly hard on Morphy for his games that weren't up to the typical Morphy standard, but it didn't detract from my enjoyment of that book. Beim really emphasizes Morphy's strengths, weaknesses, and most importantly shows Morphy's adaptability to higher levels of competition. The analysis is of very good quality yet very approachable by almost any chess player (Beim is particularly good at reaching audiences of different skill levels).
On the other hand, I went through Chris Ward's book on Morphy and would not recommend it. For the most part, everything was watered down both in biogrpahical content and level of analysis of Morphy's chess games. It certainly wouldn't qualify as a critical analysis of Morphy's work as a chess player. A great deal of the book are unannotated games. This is hardly seen these days because most big databases have these games and much more viewable using a program that can step through the moves. With that said, Chris Ward is usually a good author and I think he's done some great work on other books, this just isn't one of them.
I've already mentioned Parkinson Keyes' fictional work The Chess Players. It's not the best fiction that I've read, but if you're interested in a fictionalized perspective, there is no other book. You might find it difficult at times to accept the personality that Keyes' assigns to Morphy, but just remember it's fiction and her artist's rendering. My recommendation for this book is with great reservation, but it does provide a good framework for the spirit of New Orleans that is completely absent from Lawson.
Other books that I haven't read (yet) is that of Seargent written in the early 20th century. The book/pamphlet written by his neice and the book written by his personal aid while traveling in Europe. You'll hear about all these books in the course of reading Lawson's book.
Overall ... I would recommend this book despite the three star rating. I just wish that it had included more material on the part of Morphy's life that I previously knew the least. Also, I wish that Lawson had the biographer's spark that McCullough has in personalizing the material. But on the other hand, I learned quite a few things about his travels in Europe and even the first American Chess Congress where Morphy dominated. The book is a very easy read and despite the author's style, kept me engaged until the end.
13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
Finally, a New Edition!Dec 24 2010
Steven J Fortune
- Published on Amazon.com
I have just bought this book after many years of searching for the original at book shops, on eBay and in thrift stores. I had even pleaded with the publisher to come up with a new edition. I was determined to get myself a copy without paying the $120 price that was the going rate at the rare book shops. When I read this book for the first time, I had to arrange an inter-library exchange, After reading it, I knew I must have a copy. If you are interested in Paul Morphy, this book is a must-have. I would also suggest reading about Daniel Willard Fiske, as it really was him and his efforts behind arranging the First American Chess Congress that brought Morphy to the public. Steve Fortune, Boise, Idaho Babaloo on FICS
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
The Best Biography of MorphyApril 3 2005
- Published on Amazon.com
As a game collection, this may not be the best book on Morphy, although it has its points. As a biography, it is unmatchable. Lawson has researched the primary sources thoroughly, and the result is the fullest and most accurate account available of Morphy's life. A number of myths and misconceptions, still being perpetuated in other works, are corrected here. Unlike many chess biographies, this reads like a serious work of scholarship, with meticulous documentation of the positions that the author takes.
The sixty unannotated games given here are no substitute for Sergeant's books on Morphy, but they do add some additional information. Take the games which Morphy played against Löwenthal when he, Morphy, was only twelve. We learn that Löwenthal changed the last few moves of one of these games to make it appear that it had been drawn, when it reality it was won by Morphy. In another famous game, the anonymous amateur who Morphy checkmated by castling, turns out to have been his father, and there are other revelations.
It's too bad that this book is out of print; it would be a great candidate for decent quality paperback reprint. If you can get a good copy of the original hardcover, snap it up.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
Paul Morphy First Dominant World ChampionNov. 24 2010
Johhny Depp Fan
- Published on Amazon.com
I have the original hardcover book. This is a great historical biography of Paul Morphy, our first great dominant World Champion who crushed all of his contemporary chess players. Even though not official World Champion everybody considers him such due to the way he outplayed and beat even Anderson. This is a must for any Morphy fan. A better book on Morphy the person has not been written. If you want to learn everything there is to know on Morphy this is the book.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
The Definitive Morphy BiographyJan. 8 2008
- Published on Amazon.com
This is a 424 page biography of the 19th century American chess genius, Paul Charles Morphy.It is complete and lavishly illustrated with rare photos of him and his contempories written by David Lawson, one of the foremost experts on Morphy.Morphy was born in New Orleans in 1837 of an upper middle class background.His father Alonzo was a judge of the Supreme Court of Louisiana and he had an elder brother, Edward and two sisters Malvina and Helena.He was exceptionally academic (though short of stature) and qualified at 20 for the American Legal Bar.As he could not practice until he was 21, he occupied his time winning the first American Congress of New York 1857.Following this success he went onto Europe and beat all the champions of the old world including Adolph Anderssen, winner of the first ever international chess tournament held in London in 1851.Due to Morphy's fame as a chess player no one would take him seriously as a qualified lawyer and he failed to establish a legal practice in America.He had increasing mental problems of paranoia, never married and died in New Orleans in 1884 aged just 47.He was "World Chess Champion" before this title was coined being easily the strongest player in the civilised world but curiously from the time of his return from Europe in 1859 and after issuing a challenge to the known chess world without response he dramatically scaled down his play to just games with friends and exhibitions of simultaneous play both viz a viz and blindfold.Had he lived today he would undountedly have been world chess champion, another Bobby Fischer who was at his peak in 1972.This book covers his whole life from the origin of the Morphy clan of mixed Irish/Spanish/French stock through to his education at Spring Hill Academy in Alabama and adult chess years in New York and Europe.One of the great might - have - been - stories was his inability to arrange a match with Englishman, Howard Staunton the organiser of the 1851 International Chess Tournament, who evaded Morphy's challenge.The book is packed with games and many photographs of Morphy's comtempories and illustrations.Definitely a must have for all Morphy chess enthusiasts.