Mobile’s King of Chess

Dig into Mobile’s connection to “The Queen’s Gambit” through the story of legendary player Paul Morphy.

Paul Morphy

Fortunately, viewers of the Netflix series “The Queen’s Gambit,” the story of a young, troubled orphan girl who becomes a chess master, don’t need to know much about the game to enjoy the show. But aficionados have noticed the high accuracy of the chess portrayed — and of chess history. Little noticed and unmentioned is the show’s glancing involvement of Mobile’s history from the late 1850s.

The dead hand of Paul Morphy is surprisingly hidden in the series. Who was Paul Morphy? He was maybe the best chess player ever. Born in New Orleans in 1837, Morphy entered Mobile’s Jesuit Spring Hill College in 1850 at age 13, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1854. He was considered enough of a Mobilian that local historian Erwin Craighead included a whole chapter about him in his well-regarded histories of Mobile.

Craighead notes that, at Spring Hill, Morphy not only played chess but also placed first in Latin, Greek, and English, and second in Christian doctrine, French and math. He was president of the Thespian Society and prefect of the Sodality of the Blessed Virgin Mary. He was in the military cadet company, drilled by Robert Martin Sands (the first white man born in Tampa) who later commanded the Mobile Cadets in the Civil War and whose portrait — now in a local museum — was slashed by the saber of a Union officer when Mobile was captured.

After graduating from Spring Hill, Morphy became a lawyer but, too young to practice law, he played chess and went on to become the second unofficial world chess champion in 1858 – 1860. Over those years, in London and Paris, he played and defeated the best chess masters.

- Sponsors -

In Paris in 1858, Morphy twice played French chess master Jules Arnous de Riviere, each winning a game. Riviere, oddly enough, also had a Mobile connection. His brother Henri Guillaume Marie Arnous de Riviere is famous in Mobile history as “the Baron” in the 1951 book by Harnett T. Kane, “Gentlemen, Swords and Pistols.” Riviere, the brother, was a French Legion of Honor veteran in the Crimean War. While in Mobile, he ran afoul of Harry Maury, no doubt the most swashbuckling soldier, sailor and adventurer in Mobile’s history. It was said that Mobile was not big enough for the egos of both men, and they fought a famous 1858 duel, allegedly over a young Emily James Blount, daughter of a Mobile lawyer. 

Harry’s cousin Gen. Dabney Maury said that all of Mobile wanted “to go see Harry shoot the Frenchman.” Harry shot Riviere, who was wounded and cared for by the Blount family until he eloped with both young Emily and her mother to New York, where, for the summer of 1858, the lawyerly efforts of Emily’s father to sue to get them both back was the biggest news in The New York Times. Whether Morphy and Jules de Riviere knew of their odd Mobile connection is not known.

In a Paris banquet in Morphy’s honor in 1859, he was given a bust of himself with a laurel wreath and declared “the best chess player who ever lived.” That year in London, he was named “the champion of the world” and was invited to an audience with Queen Victoria. At a banquet in Boston, Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes toasted “Paul Morphy, the World Chess Champion.”

With the coming of the Civil War, Morphy turned his back on chess. His Civil War career was checkered, spending a little of it in uniform but part of it in Havana and Paris. After the War, he went home to New Orleans to practice law but found that most of his clients really wanted to talk chess instead of legal problems. He gave up law and lived on his family money, avoiding chess, and sadly died in 1884 at age 47.

Morphy is still a chess legend. The “Oxford Companion to Chess” lists 1,327 named chess moves, and two are named after Morphy: “The Morphy Defense to the Ruy Lopez” and “The Morphy Gambit of the French Defence,” but please forgive me if I cannot explain them.

Not just moves, but whole chess games are named for Morphy. In Paris at the Italian Opera House, he played both The Duke of Brunswick and Count Isouard in a game so famous that today it is known by chess experts as “The Morphy Opera Game,” and its moves are studied and copied. The website has an entry called “The Opera Game,” saying it might be the most famous chess game of all time, though the site’s staff voted it number two. The website says that the The Morphy Opera Game “is important because it is one of the best illustrations of attacking chess” and “shows how important the roles of development, time, sacrifices and combinations are in this game.” It’s considered to be Morphy’s best game. For all you nerds of the sport, has published the moves of the game with annotations by U.S. chess Master Bobby Fischer.

Chess authorities hail “The Queen’s Gambit” for its accuracy, and Morphy’s ghost is in it. Beth tells her mother, after losing the first time to the Russian Borgov, that he was making a Morphy play and that she could see it coming but could not stop it. In episode six, Beth travels to a tournament in Paris where she will again face Borgov. While waiting, she plays a simultaneous game against her friend Benny Watz, U.S. champion, and two of his friends, beating them soundly using The Morphy Opera Game.

Morphy and Mobile might have had a limited connection, but it — and he — are well worth remembering.

David Bagwell is a retired attorney and amateur historian living on the Eastern Shore.

Get the best of Mobile delivered to your inbox

Be the first to know about local events, home tours, restaurant reviews and more!