In Milan Vidmar's book Goldene Schachzeiten he writes that the brilliant Paul Morphy was known to be an extraordinarily slow player, who would probably have had a hard life if time control were part of the chess battle.

I was shocked to read this because earlier I had always read that Morphy was an exceptionally fast player. Can anyone explain this controversy with access to reliable sources?

  • 1
    My recollection is that Morphy is said (by Chernev) to have taken 12 minutes to play 17... Qxf3 in his famous game against Paulsen (1857 US Chess congress), and later writers have noted that "we" see that sac as "easy" due to the pattern now being clear, but Morphy had to work it all out. chessgames.com/perl/chessgame?gid=1242884 OTOH, Lawson's bio of Morphy (The Pride and Sorrow of Chess) spins it the other way, saying he "took only 12 minutes for his fantastic seventeenth move." Paulsen is said to have been so slow that it made Morphy nearly cry (they played in the final round). Jul 4, 2016 at 18:47

3 Answers 3


My item here does not "explain the controversy", but for a contemporary tournament comment concerning Morphy, see top of page 90 here: https://archive.org/details/bookoffirstameri00fisk

From the First American Chess Congress book, quoting an article in The Chess Monthly:

Mr. Morphy is rapid in his moves and quick in his combinations, his time on any move never having reached a quarter of an hour; Mr. Paulsen is exceedingly slow, some of his moves having occupied more than an hour and several in succession having exceeded thirty minutes.

On page 246 and 248, specific listings of moves longer than 5 minutes for two of the Morphy-Paulsen games are given, and a similar comment on page 255.

  • Page 148 lists 1 hour for Thompson-Murphy game 1, the next page has 2:50 is given for game 2, and on pg 151 a time of 2:30 for game 3. On page 201 a time of 1 hour for Meek-Morphy Game 1 is given, then on page 203 there is 1:45 for Game 2. On pg 223 is 45 mins, then 3 hours, and 4:30 (drawn) against Lichtenhein. Comparatively, on page 153 one finds 6:15 for Kennicott-Raphael, etc. I think Morphy was faster than average. See page 248 for a tabulation of time spent in a Morphy-Paulsen game. Jul 5, 2016 at 7:28
  • Also page 257, for another game where Morphy used no more than 5 minutes on any move. Jul 5, 2016 at 17:35

This 1860 book seems to have anecdotal evidence on the "fast" side of the argument:

"Mr Morphy is a most fascinating player for those looking on, and there is always a crowd around his board whenever he is en lutte with an opponent. His attention is not by any means riveted on the game and he makes his moves with a speed approaching rapidity."

"Thus says Lowenthal in the Era: We have great pleasure in announcing that Mr Morphy has arrived in London and has met with a most enthusiastic reception from the members of the St George's Club, where he paid a visit last Wednesday and played several excellent games. The prompt visit of this great player to England betokens his great anxiety to give the players of Europe an opportunity of encountering him. His powers as a Chess player have not in any degree been exaggerated. The quickness with which he forms and carries out his combinations is truly surprising. He possesses also another important quality, that of perfect coolness and self possession."

  • (It does sound as though at least the second of these refers to games against club players, which I guess might have been exhibitions to all intents and purposes - and so it's possible he might have played more slowly against a very strong opponent)
    – EastNine
    Jul 4, 2016 at 12:56
  • Very interesting quotes but not conclusive. Perhaps he was fast in simultaneous exhibitions. Perhaps his combinations were formed in a short number of moves from the initial position rather than physically fast. We need a quote that directly compares the time used up by Morphy compared by his strong opponents. Jul 4, 2016 at 17:17
  • Yes, agreed, it's not the most solid evidence. It's interesting though that as you said in your original question Vidmar still seems to be the only source coming down on the "slow" side, while it's quite easy to find references to his playing fast (whatever that means in the circumstances).
    – EastNine
    Jul 5, 2016 at 8:40
  • @bof I think you meant to respond to a different comment below. There are two different books being discussed here, this one is not the record of the American Chess Congress but Paul Morphy: A Sketch from the Chess World by Max Lange and Ernst Karl Falkbeer.
    – EastNine
    Jul 5, 2016 at 13:29
  • @EastNine Oops, I posted my comment in the wrong place. Sorry about that and thank you.
    – bof
    Jul 5, 2016 at 20:13

"fast" and "slow" are relative. In Emanuel Lasker's day they had more time per move (average) than Bobby Fischer and he, in turn, had more than today's players.

In Morphy's day the 12' for one critical move was noted because he generally played about 3' per move and 12' was his maximum. David Bronstein once took an hour on his first move. So, YES, Morphy played fast. So did, Fischer and Karpov and Anand.

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