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Opera game

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Title: Opera game  
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Subject: Chess, Paul Morphy, Glossary of chess, Chess tactic, History of chess, Charles II, Duke of Brunswick, Gambit (novel)
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Opera game

The chess game played in 1858 at an opera house in Paris between the American chess master Paul Morphy and two strong amateurs, the German noble Duke Karl of Brunswick and the French aristocrat Count Isouard, is among the most famous chess games. Duke Karl and Count Isouard consulted together, playing as partners against Morphy. The game is often used by chess instructors to teach the importance of rapid development of one's pieces, the value of sacrifices in mating combinations, and other chess concepts. The game is sometimes called "The Opera Game".[1]


On several occasions, the Duke invited Morphy to the Italian Opera House in Paris, Salle Le Peletier, where the former kept a private box which was, according to Morphy's associate Frederick Edge, so close to the stage that one "might kiss the prima donna without any trouble", and which always contained a chess set, the Duke being a keen player as well as an opera lover.

Morphy was extremely fond of music and opera and was eager to see Norma, which played on his first visit. Unfortunately, his host had seen Norma countless times, and Morphy found himself forced to play chess, even seated with his back to the stage.

As the game progressed, the two allies conferred loudly enough with each other, debating their moves against the American genius, that it attracted the attention of the opera performers. Madame Penco, who had the role of the Druidic priestess in Norma, kept looking into the Duke's box, to see what all the fuss was about, even as she was performing the opera. Then the performers who were the Druids, marched about, "chanting fire and bloodshed against the Roman host, who, they appeared to think, were in the Duke's box", Edge recounted.

It is doubtful if the distracted opera singers had a good enough view of what was going on. Comically, Morphy created this brilliant game while spending his time trying to overcome his blocked view of the opera, while the performers tried to catch glimpses of what was going on in the Duke's box.

Norma was performed at the Italiens de Paris on 21 October 1858, with Rosina Penco in the title role, L. Graziani as Pollione and Cambardi as Adalgise.[2] Some commentators would rather have the chess game taking place with The Barber of Seville, La Cenerentola, or else The Marriage of Figaro on stage.[3]

The game

White: Paul Morphy   Black: Duke of Brunswick and Count Isouard   Opening: Philidor Defence (ECO C41)
Paris 1858

1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 d6

This is the Philidor Defence. It is a solid opening, but slightly passive, and it ignores the important d4-square.

3. d4 Bg4?

Though 3...Bg4 is considered an inferior move today, this was standard theory at the time. Today 3...exd4 or 3...Nf6 are usual. 3...f5 is a more aggressive alternative.

4. dxe5 Bxf3

If 4...dxe5, then 5.Qxd8+ Kxd8 6.Nxe5 and White wins a pawn and Black has lost the ability to castle. Black, however, did have the option of 4...Nd7 5.exd6 Bxd6, when he's down a pawn but has some compensation in the form of better development.

5. Qxf3 dxe5 6. Bc4 Nf6

This seemingly sound developing move runs into a surprising refutation. After White's next move, both f7 and b7 will be under attack. Better would have been to directly protect the f7-pawn with the queen, making White's next move less potent.

7. Qb3 Qe7 (see diagram)

Black's only good move. White was threatening mate in two moves, for example 7...Nc6 8.Bxf7+ Ke7 9.Qe6#. 7...Qd7 loses the rook to 8.Qxb7 followed by 9.Qxa8 (since 8...Qc6? would lose the queen to 9.Bb5). Notice that Qe7 saves the rook with this combination: 8.Qxb7 Qb4+ forcing a queen exchange.
Although this move prevents immediate disaster, Black is forced to block the f8-bishop, impeding development and kingside castling.

8. Nc3

White prefers fast development to material. He declines to win a pawn with 8.Qxb7 Qb4+ 9.Qxb4, or to win two with 8.Bxf7+ Kd8 (or 8...Qxf7 9.Qxb7 and now Black cannot avoid loss of the rook) 9.Qxb7, preferring to mass his forces for a quick checkmate and get back to the opera.

8... c6

The best move, allowing black to defend his pawn without further weakening the light-squares, which have been weakened by black trading off his light-square bishop.

9. Bg5 b5?

Though ostensibly this drives the bishop away and steals the initiative, it allows Morphy a sensational sacrifice to keep the initiative.

10. Nxb5!

Morphy chooses not to retreat the bishop, which would allow Black to gain time for development. Black's move 9...b5 loses but it is difficult to find anything better; for example 9...Na6 10.Bxf6 gxf6 11.Bxa6 bxa6 12.Qa4 Qb7 and Black's position is in shambles.

10... cxb5?

Black could have played 10...Qb4+ forcing the exchange of queens (11.Qxb4 Bxb4+ 12.Nc3), although White would retain a clearly won game being a pawn up.

11. Bxb5+ Nbd7 12. 0-0-0

The combination of the pins on the knights and the open file for White's rook will lead to Black's defeat.

12... Rd8 (see diagram) 13. Rxd7 Rxd7

Removing another defender.

14. Rd1

Compare the activity of the white pieces with the idleness of the black pieces. At this point, Black's rook is not able to be saved, since it is pinned to the king and attacked by the rook, and though the knight defends it, the knight is pinned to the queen.

14... Qe6

Qe6 is a futile attempt to unpin the knight (allowing it to defend the rook) and offer a queen trade, to take some pressure out of the white attack. Even if Morphy did not play his next crushing move, he could have always traded his bishop for the knight, followed by winning the rook.

15. Bxd7+ Nxd7

If 15...Qxd7, then 16.Qb8+ Ke7 17.Qxe5+ Kd8 18.Bxf6+ gxf6 19.Qxf6+ Kc8 20.Rxd7 Kxd7 21.Qxh8 and White is clearly winning. Moving the king leads to mate: 15...Ke7 16.Qb4+ Qd6 (16...Kd8 17.Qb8+ Ke7 18.Qe8#) 17.Qxd6+ Kd8 18.Qb8+ Ke7 19.Qe8# or 15...Kd8 16.Qb8+ Ke7 17.Qe8#

16. Qb8+!

Morphy finishes with a queen sacrifice.

16... Nxb8 17. Rd8#




  • The Exploits & Triumphs in Europe of Paul Morphy the Chess Champion by Frederick Milne Edge, with a new introduction by David Lawson. Dover 1973; 203 pages. ISBN 0-486-22882-7
  • Learn Chess in a Weekend by Ken Whyld, (1994) p. 87. ISBN 0-7513-0292-9

Further reading

External links

  • The game on
  • Morphy v the Duke and Count
  • Le mat de l'opéra (in French), variations of the game's final in other chessproblems and games, 2 July 2008
  • Video annotation by CM Tryfon Gavriel aka Kingscrusher
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