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Middle game - Open lines
Paul Morphy showed us that tactics and combinations have a positional basis.

Let's start this article on open lines by repeating a definition. Our introduction to Positional Play (see the link box at the bottom of this article) says,

    Open lines are ranks, files, and diagonals which are not obstructed by Pawns.
Now let's make a comparison.
    Open lines are the streets and roads used by the line pieces to move around a chessboard.

You might be wondering why we list both Positional Play and Tactical Play as 'Related Resources'. One of the objectives of Positional Play is to create open lines and then to occupy them with the appropriate pieces : Rooks on open ranks & files, Bishops on open diagonals, and the Queen on any open line. Tactical Play then uses those well-placed pieces to strike quickly and decisively at the opponent's weaknesses.

We could give many simple examples of open lines and their use. Instead we'll look at how one of the first great tacticians used open lines to dazzle and delight generations of chess fans with original combinative play.

Paul Morphy (1837-1884) was born and died in New Orleans. His competitive chess career was brief and covered only the years 1857 to 1859. He won the 1st American Chess Congress in 1857 by defeating Louis Paulsen (+5-1=2) in the final round of the knockout competition. Six months later he travelled to Europe for a match with Howard Staunton, now considered to have been an unofficial world champion in the 1840s.

Unable to play Staunton, for reasons which have tarnished the Englishman's reputation to this day, the American played a series of matches with other top-ranked European players, beating them all. His greatest victory was his match against Adolf Anderssen (+7-2=2), unofficial world champion before and after Morphy. For more about Morphy, see the link box.


Morphy's best known combination is the following.

Morphy, P.
1857 New York
American Congress rd. 4.6
Paulsen, L.

Black played the surprising 17...Qxf3, followed by 18.gxf3 Rg6+ 19.Kh1 Bh3 20.Rd1 (20.Qd3 is better) 20...Bg2+ 21.Kg1 Bxf3+ 22.Kf1 Bg2+ (22...Rg2 forces mate in 3). The Queen sacrifice is as beautiful as it is unexpected, and you might think that it was due solely to Morphy's imagination. In fact, the sacrifice arose from elements of the diagrammed position which Morphy planned many moves before.

Note the placing of the Black pieces in the diagram. The Rooks are doubled on the open e-file, while the Rook on e6 is free to operate on a good portion of the 6th-rank. The Bishops are posted on diagonals which strike squares close to the White King; the Bishop on d7 is blocked by the Re6, but this is temporary. The Queen sits at the intersection of two open diagonals and can operate on the d-file and on the 3rd-rank.

The placing of the White pieces is less impressive. One Rook and one Bishop are still undeveloped. The Queen and Rook on a2 are on the open a-file, but are far from the center; the Rook looks misplaced on a2. Only the Bishop on f3 is posted actively and that is exactly the piece which Morphy removed with 17...Qxf3.


Morphy's best known game is probably the following off-hand game. White's Queen & Bishops are actively placed and the d-file is ready for occupation by one of the Rooks. The Queen Rook can reach d1 in one move.

Black's only well-place piece is the Knight on f6, which is unfortunately pinned. The Queen blocks the development of the Bishop, and the rest of Black's pieces are also undeveloped.

Von Braunschweig/Isouard
1858 Paris
Morphy, P.

Morphy immediately opened more lines by sacrificing the Knight with 10.Nxb5 cxb5 11.Bxb5+ Nbd7. He then brought the Queen's Rook to the d-file with 12.O-O-O Rd8, sacrificed it with 13.Rxd7 Rxd7, and then brought the other Rook to the same file with 14.Rd1 Qe6. He prepared the final sacrifice with 15.Bxd7+ Nxd7, after which 16.Qb8+ Nxb8 17.Rd8 was checkmate. Black's huge material superiority was helpless against a single Rook and Bishop.


Pieces on open lines aimed at the opponent's King lead to tactics. The following position has almost no open lines, although most of White's pieces are aimed at the Black King.

Meek, A.
1857 New York
American Congress rd. 2.2
Morphy, P.

Morphy started opening lines with the Knight sacrifice 19.Nxg6 Kxg6 20.gxf5+ Kf7 21.fxe6+ Kxe6 22.f5+. Now the White line pieces were ready to penetrate Black's position in a single move. After 22...Ke7 23.Qh4+ Ke8 24.f6, Black was quickly overwhelmed.

In the following position you should be able to see that all but one Black piece is ready for action.

Morphy, P.
1857 New York
American Congress rd. 4.2
Paulsen, L.

Morphy played a Rook sacrifice 21...Rxg2+ 22.Kxg2, and brought the other, undeveloped Rook into play with 22...f5 23.f3. Now 23...fxe4 24.Rxe4 (24.fxe4 Qg6+ mates) 24...Qg6+ would have won quickly. Instead, Morphy stumbled with 23...Qg6+ 24.Ng5 h6, but eventually managed to draw the game.

In the following position, White certainly looks better.

Meek, A.
1857 New York
Morphy, P.

Who would guess that after 11.d6 Bxd6 12.O-O-O, Black would have nothing better than to resign?

1858 New Orleans
Blind simultaneous
Morphy, P.

Once again, we see the Bishops aimed at the King on open diagonals, one Rook on an open file with the other ready to follow, and the Queen ready to move in almost any direction. Morphy sacrificed a Rook with 21.Re8 Qxe8, then opened the a1-h8 diagonal with 22.Qxf6 Qe7 (if 22...Ne5 23.Qg5) 23.Qxg7+. After 23...Qxg7 24.f6 Black tried Qxg2+ 25.Kxg2 Bxh3+ 26.Kxh3 h5 27.Rg1 and resigned.

Lowenthal, J.
1859 London
Morphy, P.

A Pawn ahead, White can win with the unspectacular 25.Qa3, but Morphy sacrificed the Knight with 25.Nxb6+ axb6, then sacrificed a Rook with 26.Rc7+ Only 26...Kd8 avoids immediate mate, but 27.Qxb6 Qxf2+ 28.Qxf2 Nxf2 29.Ra7 is also hopeless.

Morphy, P.
1850 New Orleans
McConnell, J.

In this position Morphy sacrificed the undeveloped Bishop with 11...Bxb4+. After 12.axb4 Nxb4 the Knight attacked the Queen and supported the Rook's advance to c2. White tried 13.Qd2 Rc2 14.Qd1, but resigned after 14...Ne3.

The following position is from the match against Anderssen, the second best player in the world at the time of the game.

Anderssen, A.
1858 Paris
Match g.7
Morphy, P.

Most players would play 7.Bd2 without giving the position much thought, but Morphy sacrificed a Pawn with 7.Nf3. After 7...Bxc3+ 8.bxc3 Qxc3+ 9.Bd2 Qc5 10.Rb1, White's pieces were ready to strike on the many open lines. Anderssen was unable to cope with the complications and eventually lost.

It is just as important to prevent your opponent's use of open lines as it is to use them yourself. Our last position shows Morphy on the defensive.

Morphy, P.
1857 New York
American Congress rd. 4.3
Paulsen, L.

White has just offered a Pawn sacrifice with 16.b2-b4. If 16...Bxb4, White takes advantage of the open lines and wins with 17.Rxd7 Kxd7 18.Nd5 Qd6 19.Nxb4 Qxb4 20.Rd1+. Morphy kept the lines closed with 16...Bd6, but eventually succumbed to White's pressure on the open d-file.


You may not be able to conceive and calculate the brilliant combinations which characterized Morphy's chess. He was, after all, one of the greatest players of all time.

You should be able to incorporate into your own planning the principles which he discovered and by which he played. Try to recognize which lines are important, to place your pieces on those lines, and to take advantage of the active possibilities which arise. The tactics and combinations will be there!

 Related Resources
• Tactical Play
• Positional Play
• Part 1 - Patterns
• Part 2 - Combinations
• Part 3 - Plans
• Part 4 - Double Attacks
• Part 5 - Open Lines
• Part 6 - King Safety
• Part 7 - Pawn Structure
• Part 8 - Piece Placement and Chess Strategy
• Part 9 - Kasparov - X3D Fritz, New York, 2003
 Elsewhere on the Web
• Paul Morphy (Wikipedia)