June 20, 2012

Your Morphy number is probably 7...no, wait, 5!

Tonight I learned of the Morphy number, which is similar to the Erdős number.  I have a (high) Erdős number, and I would guess Sum or the Laird might, too, if their research papers are not still classified (check here for co-authors).

But to get the Morphy number, instead of co-authoring a paper, you must play a game of chess. And you must be able to connect that game of chess back to the first American chess genius, Paul Morphy.  As Taylor Kingston points out, this has great potential for livening up social gatherings:
Imagine the excitement at your next party:  your guests all gathered around the board, you pull a card with, say, the name "Eugene Znosko-Borovsky," and you immediately announce "Three!  Starting with Schiffers at St. Petersburg in 1902, who played Paulsen at Frankfurt in 1887, who played Morphy at New York, 1857."  You receive universal applause and the admiring stares of beautiful women.
I think it must be harder to have a Morphy number - unlike Erdős, who was doing research right up until his death in 1996, the genius Morphy last touched a chess piece in 1861.

And yet, it turns out, I do have one:
  • Morphy played Bird in 1858
  • Bird played Janowski in 1895
  • Janowski played Reshevsky in 1922...this is the tough link - Reshevsky was one of the few who played top-flight players both before and after World War II.  He was a child prodigy, so his first game in the chessgames.com database (a loss against the estimable Rubinstein) was in 1917, his last in 1991.
  • Reshevsky played Fischer many times, the first in 1956
  • Fischer played my friend Larry's dad this one time in the 1950s (Hans Kmoch adjudicated a draw)
  • Larry's dad played me in 1983, annihilating me with his Diemer-Duhm gambit
  • And you have probably played me
So your Morphy number is probably 7...

Wait a minute!  I played Reshevsky!  I forgot that when I was in college you could send Reshevsky fifty bucks and he'd play you a game by mail.  I did, and got slaughtered in about 15 moves (a positional crush out of an Austrian attack in the Pirc as I recall...a total refutation of my preferred variation...not all that pleasant or educational, actually).  And, unfortunately, the scoresheet was lost around the time I broke up with my girlfriend back in '89.  

But still, that means my Morphy number is 4...!  And that means yours is probably 5.  Which makes you pretty special, not that you weren't already.  So, next time you play a game of chess, you can tell your opponent their Morphy number is 6.

You have my word on it.



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