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The Opera Game

The Opera Game

(311) Morphy,P. – Isouard & Brunswick

Paris, 1858

In this article, we will see one of the most famous games of the American legend Paul Morphy.

Born in New Orleans on 22dn of June 1837, Morphy learned chess at age of ten, in a family which all his men play chess:  his grandfather, father, elder brother and his Uncle Ernest. The later was one of the strongest players in the town. What distinguished his play was its calculation, imagination and the implementation of his plans. Becoming a lawyer at age of 19, he decided to devote his time to chess. His decision was influenced by the chess boom resulting from the first international tournament held in London, and as it wasn’t legal to work in USA as lawyer before reaching the age of 21.

After beating all the strong American players, even the foreign resident ones, e.g. the German Louis Paulsen, he moved to Paris, the then chess capital, where he won all the matches he played against famous and distinguished players, like Harrwitz, de Rivière and Saint-Amant. Being fluent in French, English, Spanish and German was an extra help for Morphy in devouring available chess literature.

While waiting for the great Adolf Anderssen to travel from Breslau to Paris for their forthcoming match, Paul astonished his hosts and the audience with his play in numerous simultaneous displays, including blindfold ones, as well as his lectures and analysis of his games.

It is not surprising that Fischer put Morphy in the top list of the best players in the history.

The following game was played in Opera Paris against his hosts, the Duke of Brunswick and Count Isouard – in their lodge during a performance at the Opera Theatre. While The Duke and the Count were consulting each other and concentrating on the game, Morphy was enjoying the opera play and dictating his moves to his opponents without looking at the board.

1.e4 e5

2.Nf3 d6

Black adopts the Philodor defense, which relies basically on the solidity of the black pawn chain in the center.

3.d4 Bg4?

When this game was played, Steitnitz was a 22 years old poor student, and playing chess at the Vienna café to make a living by playing for stakes. It was much later that he announced that the knights should be developed before the bishops do. Of course each rule has its exception, but not here in the present game.

3…Nf6 is now the main line. 3…Nd7 is also fully playable, as well as 3…exd4.

4.dxe5 Bxf3

To avoid losing a pawn, Black is forced to exchange his bishop for the knight. This leaves him tempi down in development as he moved the bishop twice while the white knight moved just once. Also the exchange of an attacking long rang piece for a knight reduces Black’s prospects for active play and put him on the defensing side.


It was possible to take back with the pawn, relying on the variation: 5…dxe5 6.Qxd8+ Kxd8 7.f4 with a better endgame for white. But Morphy preferred to take with the queen, relying on the dynamic factor of the position. The technique of switching the queen from one side of the board to the other side is one among several characteristics of play in  Morphy’s games. (This will be more clarified in my next article).



Developing the bishop with tempo as the mat in one is now a threat.


Most probably a decisive mistake, as Black missed White’s next move.

It was better to defend the f7 pawn with the queen, by 6…Qf6 or 6…Qd7, although in either case white will obtain in clear advantage.

6…Qf6 7.Qb3 Bc5

(the variation 7…b6?! 8.Nc3 Ne7? 9.Nb5 Na6 10.Qa4 Nc5 11.Nd6+! Kd8 12.Qe8# illustrates why the virus named Chess has no cure!)

8.0–0 Bb6 9.a4 a5 10.Nc3 Ne7 11.Be3 Nd7 12.Rad1


6…Qd7 7.Qb3 followed by Nc3, 0–0 and Rd1

Here are two (!) of the simultaneous games that Fischer played in 1970 in Sarajevo: 6…Qf6 7.Qb3 b6 8.Nc3 c6 ( controlling d5) 9.Bg5! His opponents both replied with 9…Qg6 (if 9…Qxg5 then 10.Bxf7+followed by 11 Bxg8, with winning position) 10.Rd1 (10.0–0–0 now is a mistake because the bishop can then be captured with check) 10…Be7 (if 10…Nd7 then 11.Nb5! cxb5 12.Bxb5) 11.Bxe7 Nxe7 and now White’s dynamic advantage can be transformed into something more concrete by the combination 12.Bxf7+! Qxf7 13.Rd8+ Kxd8 14.Qxf7 and wins.]


With a classic double attack on f7 and b7.


In a game played a month earlier between Morphy and Harrwitz, Black preferred to suffer a pawn down after 7…Bd6 8.Bxf7+ and he resigned on the 59th move.; 7…Qd7? 8.Qxb7 .

With his last move, Black is planning to exchange the queens with …Qb4+, because if 7…Qd7 then White wins with 8.Qxb7.


In avoiding the queens exchange, Morphy accelerates his development.

Possible is 8.Bxf7+! Kd8 (or 8…Qxf7 9.Qxb7) 9.Qxb7 Qb4+ (Better is to play 9…Bc5 10.Qc8+ Ke7 11.Qxh8 Bxf2!+   although White is still winning, Black succeeded in complicating the position for a while ) 10.Qxb4 Bxb4+ 11.c3 Black is lost, while 8.Qxb7 Qb4+ 9.Qxb4 Bxb4+ 10.Bd2 White has just a small advantage.


The black queen now is overloaded, as it has an extra duty of defending the b7-pawn.


This is another development move that tides the movement of the black pieces.


A nervous move showing that Black is trying to solve all his problems in one go.

Black’s position is still too difficult after either:

9…Na6 10.Bxa6 bxa6 11.Qc4;


9…h6 10.Bxf6 gxf6 11.0–0–0


9…Qc7 10.0–0–0 Bc5 as White can strike with  11.Bxf7+! Qxf7 12.Rd8+!


Saving the bishop (10.Be2?) is not good due to of 10…Qb4!

What is the reasoning behind this knight sacrifice? Well, I remember reading in one of the middle game books that in order to convert your advantage in development into another more tangible one, if you can sacrifice a pawn for three useful moves, then go for it. In our case, the knight is sacrificed for 2 pawns, it means that 3 (the value of the knight) minus 2 (pawns) = 1. As a result, White obtains a fantastic pin on the a4-e8 diagonal, and more pieces will join the attack with high-way speed, as you will notice in the few coming moves.


11.Bxb5+ Nbd7

If 11…Kd8 then 12.0–0–0+, followed by Rd3 with a winning attack.


White is threatening 13 Bxf6, followed by taking on d7, or 13 Bxd7+ immediately. As is known, chess is a game of pins.


If Black tried to escape with 12…Qb4, then White wins with 13.Bxf6.

The same goes for 12…0–0–0, but more costly for Black: 13.Ba6+ and Qb7 mate.

Now, another critical moment for White: How to continue the attack?

One of the most important factors in forming a plan or in implementing an under-running one is to talk to your pieces. This valuable advice was communicated to me several decades ago by my friend the Hungarian famous trainer and author Tibor, and I put it on the top of my advices list (yes, I have a list, and I advise you to make your own one).

In this position, the only piece that screams loudly to enter the game is the h-rook. During several training sessions, when I asked my pupils about how to let the h-rook join the attack, they suggested to bring it to the d-file. When I asked them how to do it, some of them suggested Plan A and the remaining ones Plan B. Plan A consists of moving it to the e-file, then moving it to the e2 or e3, followed by installing it in front of its sister. But this is too slow as it costs 3 moves, giving a great relief for Black. Plan B improves the A one in making the transfer in a more economical way,  in a 2-move plan that save one move from Plan A, by shifting the d1-rook to the 2nd or 3rd rank, then sliding the h-rook to d1, as doubling of the open d-file will soon lead to the collapse of Black’s position. When I asked them if it is possible to save 2 tempos, improving over the mentioned plans, in putting the h-rook on the top of the d-one, by doing it like this (the h-rook is standing on the head of its d-sister):

They start laughing, as it is illegal to do it.

Then when they saw Morphy’s next move, they appreciated more the value of speed of development, the importance of the pin, and more importantly, the concept of evacuation a certain square using a sacrifice, being a piece or a pawn and never forget it.


Very beautiful and instructive


14.Rd1 Qe6

The only way to break the pin on the f6-knight, so that the later can protect the lousy pinned d7-rook, as trying to exchange the queens, profiting from the situation that the White player may not noticed it, as he may be distracted by the opera play!

In case of 14…Qb4? White will play 15.Bxf6 followed by 16 Bxd7 mate.


Of course 15.Qxe6+ fxe6 16.Bxf6 leads to a winning end game, but Morphy’s brain was still shining with brilliant moves to be reflected on the board.



A deflecting sacrifice



The h-rook is now living its happiest moment.


I remember, in the mid of the 80s, a local tournament was organized by the Soviet Cultural Club. The time control was 1 hour per player for the whole game, using the traditional white soviet analog clocks (there was no digital clocks then). I was watching the game of my friend, the x-champion of Lebanon Haitham Omar. He was playing the white side. To my astonishing, he didn’t spend more than 5 minutes for his game, while his opponent spent nearly all his time and struggling in order to save his game, which was impossible to do, because it was the same one as Morphy’s above that was on the board! Of course Haitham knew about it. When Black resigned, he was in a state of chock by the hammer blows of Haitham moves, or Morphy’s ones!

So, it is important for every chess player to know its classics, and to study them deeply.

The concept of the final matting pattern in the Morphy’s game analyzed above consists of the intersection of the laser beams of the d-rook and the g5-Bishop. I deliberately said (concept) as it occurred much later in a miniature game, that comes now to my mind, between Richard Réti and Xavier Tartakower, played in Vienna 1910. I will not analyze it in details. Just, dear reader, play through it, enjoy it, study it and add it to your list.

1.e4 c6

2.d4 d5

3.Nc3 dxe4

4.Nxe4 Nf6

5.Qd3 e5

6.dxe5 Qa5+

7.Bd2 Qxe5

8.O-O-O ! Nxe4 ?

9.Qd8+ !! Kxd8


Just look at the d1-rook and the g5-bishop. It is the same concept.


11.Bd8 #.

Now it is the bishop is living his happiest moment (the power of the Double Check).

If instead, the King moves to e8, we have the well know pattern.

Of course Tartakower knew Morphy’s Opera game. That’s why, most probably, in order to avoid putting his name alongside with the same type of matting pattern he avoided it by creating another concept mat of his king.