Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Paul Morphy vs. Mephistopheles

Retzsch's Die Schachspieler (1831)

In Die Schachspieler and the Morphy Anecdote, Part I and Part II, Sarah Beth Cohen reproduces multiple interpretations of a fascinating painting by Friedrich Moritz August Retzsch depicting the familiar theme of a chess game with the devil. She then goes on to reproduce the interesting Paul Morphy anecdote that became attached to that painting by a series of articles in the Columbia Chess Chronicle (which can be found online at Google Books). According to the "Anecdote of Morphy" (August 18, 1888, p. 60), the American chess champion joined a dinner party at a home in Richmond, Virginia, where a copy of Retzch's painting hung on the wall. After studying the painting for some time, Morphy said that he could "take the young man's game and win," which he proceeded to prove several times to the other dinner guests in turn. The story provoked some controversy in the Chronicle, and Ms. Cohen reproduces the letter exchange that followed in its pages. She neglects to include, however, the letter of Charles Gilberg (see below, from September 22, 1888) which purports to reproduce the game position that Morphy defended.

Of course, a comparison of the position with the painting should prove to anyone that Gilberg's rendition is completely incorrect. Just for starters, he does not notice that all of the devil's remaining pieces stand on dark squares (since he represents the dark side, of course). In fact, the one thing he could get right about the position -- which is the situation of the pieces -- he gets completely wrong.

However, while it seems possible to reconstruct the situation of the pieces (see below), a close examination of the pieces themselves quickly reveals that no definitive statement can be made about the chess pieces they represent. After all, the pieces are intended to depict a battle between the seven (or eight) virtues and the seven deadly sins, and chess seems to function in the painting mostly as a metaphor. However, in my opinion, the fact that no definitive statement can be made about the chess pieces depicted only lends credence to the "Anecdote of Morphy," since it seems entirely possible to construct a chess position (and probably several) that would be quite competitive or even winning for White using the situation of the forces given in the painting.

Unfortunately, the only view of the painting I have available is the one online at ArtFact that Ms. Cohen references and reproduces with her article. But even from this rather limited view I think I can reconstruct the situation:

The situation of the pieces

We can say only a few things definitively, however, about the pieces depicted:
  • the board is set up correctly, with a light square on the right;
  • the small pieces are clearly intended to represent pawns;
  • since all of the Black pieces remaining stand on dark squares, the piece that the young man has captured must be the light-squared Bishop;
  • and the painting does not depict a full set of pieces and pawns for both sides.
Here is one possible way of rendering the position on a chessboard:

Morphy vs. Mephistopheles?

I think from that position, Morphy would have offered his challengers a sporting chance (Fritz thinks Black still has a slight edge after 1.Qxd4+). And he might even have held that "Modern Mephistopheles," the chess computer, to a draw. Below is one possible continuation (or see PGN) with best play for Black--something Morphy would certainly not have encountered in Richmond.


Sarah Beth said...

For some reason, I couldn't seem to locate the Gilberg position. I'm glad to see someone found the material as ascinating as I did and followed through so admirably.
Thanks for the article!

celestial elf said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
celestial elf said...

Whilst i am No Chess officionado, largely due to being beaten remorselessy by my brother as a child, i was fascinated to read this blog post about mephistopheles playing chess & thought that you might enjoy my machinima film on 'Copyrights' (a traditionally diabolical realm) in which mephistopheles makes a number of short appearances in the background :)


best wishes *

Anonymous said...

i see there is something black behind the position of the king on the picture. Is it the pawn in the black square?

Michael Goeller said...

You might be right. Gilberg thought there was a pawn there -- but he also put the pieces on white rather than black (which could have been a change from the editor to make the diagram clearer). Any suggestion for how that might alter the position or the win?