Paul Morphy Plays The Duke of Brunswick At The Opera

Paul Morphy
The Duke of Brunswick

I mentioned in a previous post that I “plucked Gerald Abrahams’ Teach Yourself Chess from the bookshelf and turned to Chapter VII ‘Illustrative Games’ at the back of the book” with the intention of learning one game at a time, at the rate of one game a month.

I promised to expatiate upon the first of the illustrative games, Paul Morphy’s victory over the Duke of Brunswick.

Morphy, by the way, was an American chess prodigy who was born in New Oreleans 1837 and died in his bath in 1884. He was only 21 when he visited France and defeated the Duke of Brunswick.

The Duke of Brunswick was living in exile in Paris after having been deposed from the dukedom in 1830.

Actually, it turns out that it wasn’t only the noble Duke who Morphy defeated, because the Duke was consulting Count Isouard de Vauvenargue during the game. (His Château, by the way, was bought by Picasso in 1958, and that is where Picasso is buried.)

Moreover, what makes Morphy’s beautiful victory all the more remarkable is that the game was played at the Italian Opera House in Paris, where the Duke had a private box close to the stage, during a performance of Bellini‘s druidic opera Norma, which Morphy was keen to go and see.

Madame Penco was not amused.

The Duke invited Morphy to accompany him to the opera, but once in the Duke’s box, Morphy was challenged by the Duke to a game of chess and found himself seated opposite the Duke, with his back to the stage.

Morphy was a fast player so I imagine he was able to play a move and then do a bit of rubbernecking to see what the druids were up to on stage.

Meanwhile, the Duke and the Count were discussing how to get out of the pickle they were in on the board and their voices carried across the stage and attracted the disparaging attention of the prima donna, the Italian soprano, Madame Rosina Penco, who was probably unaware that she was looking into the face of the unofficial world chess champion of those times.

The Game

Morphy played White and opened with 1. P-K4 and the Duke replied in similar fashion. Morphy then developed the king’s knight to KB3 and the Duke responded with the Philidor defence, P-Q3, which Gerald Abrahams notes is,

A good move, but one that involves the need for very careful play very early.

Morphy then attacked the KP with P-Q4 and the Duke, savvy enough to know not to take the pawn, opted for B-Kt5 and in so doing made, in the words of Gerald Abrahams,

a mistake, of which the worst consequences are hard to see.

Here, then, to help you see better the dire consequences of the Duke’s mistake, is a demonstration of Morphy’s victory presented by Serguei Vorojtsov…


And here, to give you some idea of what poor old Morphy was up against – beauty conspiring against beauty – is Maria Callas singing Casta Diva, one of the arias from Bellini’s Norma.



Morphy was not playing the game under circumstances entirely of his own choosing, BUT did not let the circumstances he found himself in distract him from winning the game he was playing.

David Hurley