Paul Morphy and Chess Politics

Edward Winter


In C.N. 1292 J.J. Barrett (Buffalo, NY, USA) presented a previously unpublished letter written by Daniel Willard Fiske (1831-1904) to Professor George Allen (1808-76). It was written nearly three weeks after the New York, 1857 tournament ended.

‘Sunday A.M. Nov 29 (1857)

My good Professor,

Your package of books and the letter preceding and following it came to hand safely – owing to Thanksgiving I did not get the package in time to forward it by yesterday’s steamer but, by Lichtenhein’s advice I shall take it to-morrow to the office of the European Express Company after adding a few things of my own. Your bindings are charming & will convince our great friend that if our chess books are not instructive to the mind we at least know how to make them pleasing to the eye. I suppose that by the “Southern Part of our Continent” you mean some Prussian Legation in Brazil or Chile. If so why does not the great man go or return via New York? Of course you will tell him that such would be the proper way. [A reference to von der Lasa (J.J. Barrett).]

You know how all chessplayers get themselves periodically into quarrelsome scrapes. I have been attempting to prove of late that I am no exception to such a long established rule. With the help of Colonel Mead I have admirably succeeded. Listen – upon Morphy’s arrival in New York and all through the congress he had no warmer or more enthusiastic friend than Colonel Mead. He thought Morphy the first player of the world and was loud in his desire to challenge Europe. Invitations to dine and [?] came from the New York Hotel to the young hero. The political notabilities of that hotel (the trysting-place of the leaders of the Democracy) were all introduced to the New Orleans Marvel. Col. Mead forgot his precarious state of health in drinking champagne at late hours in Mr Morphy’s company and to Mr Morphy’s long life and success against the masters of Europe. At length in consideration of Mr Thompson’s conduct and remarks while smarting under eight successive defeats P.M. felt himself obliged to challenge the foremost players of the New York club to a match at Pawn & Move. At once Col. Mead’s whole behaviour underwent an alteration as marked as it was unexpected and uncalled-for. He no longer called upon P.M. No more enthusiasm was displayed; no more champagne drunk. The challenge to Europe was no longer proper and at any rate it should not be published under the sanction of the American Association. Always disliking the political chicanery and diplomatic method of the man’s mind (though a good fellow in many respects) I was enraged at this conduct and straightaway wrote to the other members of the Committee of Management desiring their consent to the publication of the challenge in the name of the Association, Mr Morphy giving me a written guarantee that in the case of its acceptance the funds should at once be placed in the hands of the committee to meet the amount of the stakes.

Last night I received a tremendous “blowing up” for the last paragraph in the Dec. Monthly. Later in the evening Mead buttonholed me in a corner of the club room and made me a speech in which all the wire-pulling, caucus-loving part of his nature was doubly apparent. Putting his hand upon my shoulder he closed with a diplomatically-assumed frankness by saying “Now Fiske, don’t you see this is the best way to manage this business?” I boldly told him that as a member of the Committee of Management I should vote and use my influence that the challenge be issued in the name of the association at once. His anger was aroused at once and he considers me a d–d incorrigible fool.

My amour-propre is much interested in the action of the Committee in this respect – I really wish that you would see Lewis, tell him to show you my letter to him, and talk over the matter with him and Montgomery. The vitality that it would at once give the association, the character of nationality which the challenge would assume, and the greater claim to notice it would have, are so many arguments in favor of its publication in the proposed form. Consider, too, the claims which Mr Morphy, for adding greatly to the interest of the Congress, and in the character of the first player of America has upon the Committee – It is his wish that the challenge should come from the Association.

You will readily infer from what I have said the whole position of the case. Unless I succeed I think that I shall feel bound to resign at once my post as Corresponding Secretary of the Association and perhaps withdraw from its list of members my name. So you see here is the prettiest chance in the world for a nice and enduring quarrel. The Chess Monthly would be arrayed against the American Chess Association. Communications would appear in the magazine from “Harvardiensis” , “Aristarchus” , “Justice” , “a Chessplayer” etc. etc., portraying the “outrageous conduct of the president of the A.C.A.” Mr Morphy might quietly refuse to permit copies of his side games (which will be the best part of the practical matter in the book) for the Book of the Congress. Mr Fiske might as quietly resign the task of supervising its publication. As no person but him can possibly read the notes made of the proceedings, this latter obstacle would be difficult to overcome. In fact I hold in my hand the germ of as interesting a little pen fight as ever Disraeli chronicled and who could withstand the temptation of planting it at once? Just think how I shall with loud mouth proclaim the infallibility of Staunton on chess legislation and how I shall decry the code to be published by the committee on the Laws appointed by the Association: In this case the fight might even extend to Europe and be expanded from a mere American feud into a universal chess war: Seriously I wish you to write me what you think of the affair. I shall do nothing without your advice & support. Tell Lewis and Montgomery as much of what I have written, as after reflection, you consider advisable.

I do not know Dr Raphael’s number in Houston Street. In a day or two I shall be able to learn it and forward it at once. If you wish to write to me before, you can enclose the letter to me.

Morphy began his match at P. & M. with Stanley last evening. With a forced mate in five moves he played too hastily and only drew the game. However, this first trial seems to augur that he will win the match with ease. Tonight Schulten is to encounter Morphy. He will be the strongest opponent the young hero has yet encountered and I am anxious to see the result. Schulten’s play is of the highest kind. I watched him last night as he played with Perrin and Stanley and I have never seen such games except when Morphy played.

Please extend your indulgence to me until after Morphy’s departure putting any amount of epistolary penance upon me after that period. I want to make the most of Morphy while he stays, for New Orleans is so far away from the probable path of my life that perhaps I shall never see his friendly smile or brilliant play again. You shall have the Syracuse letter, never fear, and occasional epistles while Morphy is here.

Many thanks for your kindness in sending me the initials. How about Mayet and Tilghman? – You have settled the matter of the dedication. If it had been proper I should like to have seen it dedicated either to you (first of all) von der Lasa, or Morphy. As it is I think it better not to dedicate it to anyone.

Agnel is at length interested in [sic] and has written me two letters within a week promising articles for next year and enclosing problems and subscribers’ names.

Remember me with continued kindly regard to your family and tell good Mrs A. not to forget P.M.’s present match with Stanley in her orisons. The saints will surely favor a good Catholic when fighting against such a pagan as Stanley. Morphy’s kindest regards to yourself.

Warmly yours


(P. S.) Of course you will take no part of this letter too seriously – I mean the Mead affair.’

J.J. Barrett added the following note:

‘The letter was sent to me in xerox by David Lawson. He quoted sentences beginning “Morphy began his match ...” on page 79 of his book; otherwise the letter is unpublished. There was one word I could not make out (second paragraph after “dine and ...” – it is definitely not “wine”). Mead was, of course, the President of the newly-formed American Chess Association. Lewis and Montgomery were fellow Philadelphians of AlIen. The last paragraph of the December Chess Monthly reads:

“It is expected that the American Chess Association will shortly publish a challenge to Europe which we shall probably lay before our readers next month ...”

The dedication of the tournament book ended up to Morphy (and there was even Cook’ s problem on the frontispiece). As for the politics, the letter shows that Morphy’s induction into this aspect of chess organization came early.’

John McCrary (West Columbia, SC, USA) raises the subject of the earliest example of a world-class player becoming involved in chess politics at the national level.

‘My suggestion is taken from The Book of the First American Chess Congress, page 83:

“Mr Paul Morphy submitted the name of Colonel Charles D. Mead, of New York, for the Presidency, a nomination which was seconded by Mr N. Marache. Judge Meek stated that he had also been requested by the players of Philadelphia to put Colonel Mead in nomination, and that he deemed it essential for the interests of the national organization that the presiding officer should reside at a central point. Colonel Mead was thereupon unanimously elected President.”

This refers to the formation of the National Chess Association, which was arguably among the first such organizations in the world. The political sensitivities are obvious, as Judge Meek was the President of the Congress and thus clearly a possible President of the new body. Mead and Meek were from the two sections of the US that would soon be at war with each other, and it is notable that Morphy, a southerner, nominated a northerner.’


See too Paul Morphy.

Latest update: 3 December 2022.

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