02 September 2017

Thompson -- Morphy, New York 1857

Paul Morphy's first opponent at the First American Chess Congress was James Thompson. He had been born in England and emigrated to the United States as a child. After completing his education, he established himself in business in New York City, where he came to be known as a formidable chess player. In 1853, Thompson won the first tournament among members of the New York Chess Club. He represented New York in several correspondence matches with other cities.*

Morphy beat Thompson 3-0. The games offer useful lessons concerning opening principles, as Morphy easily gained better mobility and coordination of his pieces. Two of the games featured endgames where Morphy demonstrated how to convert a small advantage. In the third game, which I present here, a tactical error in the middlegame cost White a pawn. In the endgame Morphy's bishop proved far stronger than Thompson's knight. Having an extra pawn made the game easier.

Morphy won this game in the middlegame, but had to demonstrate proper endgame technique to complete the victory.

Thompson,James -- Morphy,Paul [C54]
USA–01.Kongress New York (1.3), 08.10.1857

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Bc5 4.c3 Nf6 5.d3

This move is superior to 5.d4. I tend to play the inferior move (see "Materialism").

5...d6 6.h3

I have my doubts about the merits of this move (see "Wasting Time" for Phillip Sergeant's criticism and Macon Shibut's rejoinder regarding the frequency that Morphy's opponents played this move).


6...a6 seems the top choice today. With Morphy's move, White has a problem: How should he resolve the tension between the bishops along the diagonal leading to f7?

White to move


I might prefer 7.Bxe6 fxe6. Black's control of the central squares with his pawns more than compensates for any apparent weakness on the kingside. However, White's prospects might be better than in the game. The combination of the unnecessary prophylactic 6.h3 and this retreat of the bishop puts White two tempi behind. Soon, Black seizes the initiative.

Here we have a position that is typical of Morphy's games against all but his strongest opponents, and even a few games against his strongest. A few moves into the game, Morphy has all of his minor pieces mobilized. Many of his opponents, on the other hand, have fallen behind.


Morphy seizes the opportunity to take the initiative.

8.exd5 Bxd5 9.0–0 0–0 10.Bg5

Black to move

Thompson is ever alert to tactical possibilities. He threatens to force a weakening of the pawns in front of Black's king.

10...Bxb3 11.axb3 h6 12.Bh4 g5 13.Bg3 e4

Thompson's tactical threats have forced Morphy to play this move. However, Black's position is superior due to White's difficulty bringing the b1 knight into the game. This positional weakness will prove decisive.

White to move

14.Ne5 Nxe5 15.Bxe5 exd3 16.Bxf6

16.Nd2 might be better than exchanging the only active piece in order to immediately regain the pawn.

16...Qxf6 17.Qxd3

Black to move

Now, Morphy mobilizes his rooks with further gain of tempi. Meanwhile, White's queenside knight and rook remain spectators to the action.

17...Rad8 18.Qc2 Rfe8 19.b4 Bb6 20.Na3

20.Nd2 is now impossible in the light of 20...Re2.


Morphy prevents Nc4, and also prepares a battery along the diagonal leading to h2.

21.Rad1 c6 22.Rd3?

White's position was slightly worse. Now, it is lost. However, Black must strike vigorously, or White's will equalize.

Black to move

Surprisingly few chess players have found the correct plan for Black when I have posted this position online.

22...Bxf2+ 23.Kh1

23.Rxf2 loses instantly. 23...Re1 24.Rf1 Rxf1#.

23.Qxf2 loses the exchange. 23...Qxf2+ 24.Rxf2 Re1+ 25.Kh2 Rxd3

23...Rxd3 24.Qxd3 Re3

White to move

Black's checkmate threat is quite serious.

25.Qd8+ Kg7 26.Qd4+

26.Qd7 Bg3!

26...Qxd4 27.cxd4 Re2 28.Nc4 Re1 29.Rxe1 Bxe1

White to move

White managed to fend off the checkmate threats and enter a minor piece ending down a mere pawn. However, Black's bishop will prove vastly superior to White's knight.

30.Na5 Bxb4 31.Nxb7

This moment in the game can be useful for provoking a discussion of schematic thinking.

31...Kf6 32.Nd8 c5 33.Nc6 Ke6 34.dxc5 Bxc5 35.g4

It is hard to criticize White's effort to hinder Black's pawn majority on the kingside in this manner, but the problems on the queenside prove fatal. The knight is helpless to manage workloads on both sides of the board and the king alone cannot battle Black's forces.

Black to move

35...Kd5 36.Nd8 f6

Reducing a vulnerability that could permit White back into the game.

37.Kg2 a5 38.Kf3 a4 39.Ke2 Bd4

Only now does Morphy attack the unprotected pawn after preventing its advance.

White to move

40.Kd3 Bxb2 41.Nf7 Be5 42.Kc2 Kc4 43.Nd8 a3 44.Nb7 a2 45.Na5+ Kb4 46.Nb3 Ka3 0–1

The final position offers a nice illustration of zugzwang.

*The biographical sketch of Thompson in Charles A. Gilberg, The Fifth American Chess Congress (1881), 77-80 provides these details. The Congress was held in 1880. The book contains a detailed history of the first four congresses, as well as the games of the fifth.