Paul Morphy (1837-1884) was the first American chess prodigy and was the most dominating player of his time, although his career was short and tragic. He grew up in an affluent Louisiana family, and began playing chess as a child, dominating a match against the Hungarian master Johann Lowenthal when he was 12. He graduated from law school, but could not practice until he turned 21, so he turned to chess again.
Morphy traveled to and dominated Europe, beating all of Europe's strongest players with the exception of the English master Howard Staunton, who refused to play Morphy out of fear. Morphy played a famous and beautiful game at the Paris opera against two French noblemen which has gone down as one of the most famous games of all time, which can be seen here , although Morphy was upset at having to sit with the opera at his back, and the noblemen were criticized for playing chess at the opera house!
Morphy gave up chess after returning to America, having proved all he could in chess. He never ended up practicing law, and became a recluse. At the age of 47, he was found dead in his bathtub. The tragic circumstances of chess players who have found success early but suffered failure later in life have reappeared many times in chess history, such as in the life of Carlos Torre, a young Mexican player who was one of the best in the world in the 1920s, but suffered a mental breakdown soon after and never played again.