Paul Morphy: The Pride and Sorrow of Chess Paperback – Sep 28 2010
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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.
Babaloo on FICS
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.