“A popularly held theory about Paul Morphy is that if he returned to the chess world today and played our best contemporary players, he would come out a loser. No. In such a match, Morphy would best anybody alive today… Morphy was probably the greatest genius of them all” –Bobby Fischer, World Chess Champion, 1971-1975.
Frances Parkinson Keyes’s The Chess Players - A Novel of New Orleans and Paris sold in the tens of thousands of copies following its publication in 1960. The story of the rise and curious fall of New Orleans born chess master Paul Morphy, the book is regarded as one of the most exhaustively researched and interesting books ever written about championship chess. The narrative is interspersed throughout with true newspaper accounts from the tournament halls. The descriptions of the players and tournaments may be the most accurate and readable in the chess canon.
The Chess Players is partly espionage novel, its settings domestic and abroad during the American Civil War. This pure invention from the best selling Mrs. Keyes finds Paul Morphy serving as an undercover agent for the Confederate States of America, seeking to sway Europe to the Rebel cause, taking his orders from Richmond while winning challenge matches against the most powerful chess players in Paris.
Residing in and restoring the French Quarter house where by most accounts Morphy was born and learned to play chess, Mrs. Keyes became intrigued with him, acquiring and studying an enormous number of books, old newspaper accounts, and documents concerning his life. The original idea was to write a straightforward biography of Morphy, which had only been accomplished in little read local pamphlets and unsold manuscripts. The limited audience for a straightforward chess biography did not tantalize any New York publishers.
Fortunately, Mrs. Keyes was a clandestine fan of spy and detective fiction. During a recent appraisal of her personal library housed in Beauregard-Keyes House, James Bond novels and Italian thrillers were found tucked here and there on the bookshelves behind historic, literary, and religious classics. Her conception of Paul Morphy as a spy with a photographic mind in league with the American traitor John Slidell, Confederate Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin, and General P.G.T. Beauregard, pleased New York. The Chess Players went into print with a massive publicity push.
“The fame of Paul Morphy should not be allowed to die,” wrote Mrs. Keyes in an appendix to The Chess Players. “The logical answer to the question, ’How can this be prevented, in the absence of a definitive biography?’ seems to be, ‘Through a thoughtful and comprehensive novel, the work of a writer who will make use of all the known facts of the protagonist, and who, when straying into the field of fiction, will try to correlate the real with the imaginary in such a way that the connection between the two will seem not only possible but plausible.’ We know that Morphy went abroad from 1862 and that he did not return until 1865…. We do not know what he actually did while he was there… The occupation assigned to him… an in-law of Judah Benjamin… during this period seemed not only logical but inescapable to me.”
The Beauregard-Keyes House Paul Morphy Archive retains most of the research materials Mrs. Keyes used for The Chess Players, and they may be viewed by appointment. First edition copies of The Chess Players are sold in the gift shop.
Paul Morphy versus Johann Jacob Lowenthal, London, 1858, for a prize of 100 British pounds sterling. Morphy won this match against the Hungarian chess professional with nine wins against 3 losses and 2 draws. Refusing the winnings for himself, he used the money to purchase Lowenthal a suite of furniture. Years earlier, a twelve-year-old Morphy, the “Infant Phenomenon of New Orleans,” had defeated Lowenthal in a match played in the French Quarter. Lowenthal is a recurring character in The Chess Players. (Beauregard-Keyes House Paul Morphy Archive)
Scrapbook owned by Francis Parkinson Keyes containing dozens of clippings from the Chess Department, Paul Morphy’s regular column in the New York Ledger. He analyzed important international games, and offered up intriguing chess problems to his readers. (Beauregard-Keyes House Paul Morphy Archive)
Paul Morphy is buried in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1. “At five o’clock the coffin was carried down [from his residence] by Edward Morphy, Edmund Morphy, …and Charles de Maurian, his life-long companion and former adversary over the chessboard. The hearse, followed by a few carriages, drove to the old St. Louis cemetery” –The Daily Picayune, Saturday morning, July 12, 1884. Morphy’s gravesite is a pleasant walk from Beauregard-Keyes House through the residential streets of the French Quarter. Several homes along the way were designed by Francois Correjolles, the Beauregard-Keyes House architect. (Beauregard-Keyes House Paul Morphy Archive)
Twenty-year-old Paul Morphy dominated the field of 1857’s Grand Tournament at the First American Chess Congress. He won ninety-seven of one hundred games, including victories against the man he grew to detest for his extremely slow play and arrogance, the unnaturally tall chess king from the American Midwest, Louis Paulsen. In the center group portrait, Morphy makes a move in an endgame versus Paulsen. The tournament took place in the sumptuously decorated Descombes Rooms on Broadway, New York City. (Beauregard-Keyes House Paul Morphy Archive)
The First and Last Days of Paul Morphy, French and English manuscript drafts by Léona Queyrouze Barel, writing under the pseudonym Constant Beauvais. Mrs. Keyes read this biography by Morphy’s friend closely before writing The Chess Players. The biography went unpublished until 2008 when a Scandinavian publisher specializing in chess titles printed an edition limited to 50 copies. (Beauregard-Keyes House Paul Morphy Archive)
The original manuscript, in thirteen notebooks, for Frances Parkinson Keyes’s The Chess Players – A Novel of New Orleans and Paris, together with a first edition of the novel (1960), and a few of the books used in her extensive research of Paul Morphy. The bibliography for the novel lists seventy-eight sources, ranging from period New Orleans newspapers and documents from the Saint Louis Cathedral Archives to twentieth-century psychological studies of Morphy. (Beauregard-Keyes House Paul Morphy Archive)
Hand corrected galley sheets for The Chess Players next to Frances Parkinson Keyes’s typewriter. The center decoration is the Morphy family coat-of-arms. Mrs. Keyes noted that Morphy was of Irish descent, not Spanish as commonly thought: “Morphy, alias Murphy.” The top diagram shows the grounds of Spring Hill College (near Mobile, Alabama), Paul Morphy’s alma mater. At the bottom, the floor plan of Beauregard-Keyes House, circa 1826. (Beauregard-Keyes House Paul Morphy Archive)
“White to play and force Black to mate in Sixty-eight moves.” Chromolithograph frontispiece for The Book of the First American Chess Congress. Only the most powerful players in the world were invited to this 1857 New York City tournament, which Paul Morphy, admiringly called “The Only,” easily won. Mrs. Keyes made extensive use of this book to produce a faithful mis en scene for The Chess Players. (Beauregard-Keyes House Paul Morphy Archive)
“Problems & Enigmas,” an Australian chess match played over a telegraph, and a notable game between European masters Anderson and Neumann –all commented upon (“conducted”) by Paul Morphy in his New York Ledger “Chess Department.” (Beauregard-Keyes House Paul Morphy Archive)
Perhaps Paul Morphy’s closest friend, New Orleanian Charles de Maurian was one of the South’s strongest chess players. Morphy likely played his last chess game against him; and de Maurian was a pallbearer at his funeral. In the late 1880’s, a few years after Morphy’s death, de Maurian wrote these letters to the salonist Leona Queyerouze, answering questions about Morphy’s chess exploits and possible intrigues in Europe. In the author’s note ending The Chess Players, Mrs. Keyes cites how pleased she was to have the letters on hand during the writing of the novel. (Beauregard-Keyes House Paul Morphy Archive)
Frances Parkinson Keyes mined this bound of the volume of The Chess Monthly for insight into the over-the-board thinking of Paul Morphy and other personalities in The Chess Players. Her chess scenes are remarkably adept in depicting the strategies and tactics of nineteenth-century masters. The volume contains all twelve issues for the year 1859. Edited by Morphy and another paramount chess player, Daniel Fiske, The Chess Monthly was a leading chess publication in the world. (Beauregard-Keyes House Paul Morphy Archive)