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Portrait of La Bourdonnais

Excerpt from The Café de la Régence, by a Chess-player

Fraser's Magazine, Vol. XXII, July to December, 1840.
Part 7/7


A change comes over the Régence, and the noise reaches its climax, as if the elements of confusion in the caldron had received their final stirabout. What portly form do we see making its way through the crowd, at this, the eleventh hour? Fifty persons accost him at once, all eager to wind up the evening with one more game; -- all shouting, and laughing, and screaming, with the peculiar and prodigious gesticulations of La belle France, rising many octaves above concert pitch. The crash is terrific. Not to know the potentate who enters with noise exceeding that of drum and trumpet, were indeed to prove yourself unknown. The new-comer is De la Bourdonnais, since the retirement of Deschapelles, the acknowledged first chess-player in the world.

M. De la Bourdonnais is of noble family, being grandson to that Governor of the Mauritius, immortalized by St. Pierre in Paul and Virginia. De la Bourdonnais is now about forty-five years of age. He was educated in the College of Henri IV., but has never followed any profession except chess, which he took up as a passion about five-and-twenty years back. La Bourdonnais inherited a small paternal estate; but, I regret to say, that this was devoured by some unfortunate building speculations at St. Maloe's. His frame is large and square, the head presenting a fine study for a phrenologist, bearing the organs of calculation enormously developed. Solid and massive, the head of La Bourdonnais is a true Napoleon front; carved out of marble, and placed upon shoulders of granite, like Ajax Telamon. That eye so piercing, looks through and through the board, so as to convey the feeling that La Bourdonnais could really see well in the dark, which hypothesis accounts for his playing so beautifully blindfold.

You have never seen La Bourdonnais at chess? Come, then; although late, this is a glorious opportunity. He is about to give the rook to Boissy d'Anglais, pair de France; let us hasten to get a favourable position for looking on. The spectators of this duel are no mean men: -- General Haxo, who commanded the artillery for the Son of Thunder at Waterloo; Méry the poet; Lacretelle, the naturalist; Calvi, Chamouillet, Robello, and others of the élite are in the press; while the venerable Chevalier de Barneville, nearly ninety years of age, who has played with Philidor and with Jean Jacques, serves as the connecting link of three generations, and reminds one of Philidor himself come back to witness the triumphs of his illustrious heir. I would rather play chess a day with De la Bourdonnais, than spend a week with Sardanaplus.

From the east and the west, from the north and the south, have players come to kneel at the footstool of the monarch. They present themselves under smiling pretences; but nerved, nevertheless, to have a pluck at his diadem. Hitherto, all have tried in vain; none having encountered La Bourdonnais, for fifteen years, to whom he could not give the pawn, with the single exception of the late Mr. McDonnell. At this moment, bowed down to earth with a cruel malady, De la Bourdonnais plays chess as well as ever. His great spirit rises above bodily suffering, and triumphs over pain. May health be shortly restored to him!

"Steady and ready," is the motto of De la Bourdonnais. If challenged to engage in an important match, no preparation is required beyond half an hour's notice. He will play you at any time, by night or by day, or both; rendering freely the most liberal odds, his stake being one franc to a hundred. If any one mode of training for the battle be more in favor with our chief than another, it is perhaps that of Gargantua; who, when he came to the Paris schools, to dispute with the sages of the Seine, "refreshed himself," says Rabelais, "two or three days; making very merry with his folks, and inquiring what men of learning there were in the city, and what wine they drank there."

The quickness with which La Bourdonnais calculates the coups is a beautiful part of his game. Since Philidor, he has never, in this respect, been equalled, Deschapelles having been a much slower player. When I first had the honour of measuring weapons with De la Bourdonnais over the chess-board, his rapidity was to me positively terrific. I was lost in the whirl. You raise your hand to play a move, and up go the Frenchmen's fingers in readiness to present his answer, before you have travelled half way towards the piece you mean to touch. You move, and your opponent replies ere your arm has regained its resting place. This bustle drives English nerves cruelly. We whip and spur, but cannot live the pace. If you are very slow, he does not hesitate to tap the table lustily. You labour out a ten minutes' calculation; and then, congratulating yourself on having done the deed, sink back in your chair to enjoy a heavenly interval of repose. Vain hope! -- mistaken mortal! In less than a single moment, La Bourdonnais plays his counter-stroke; and, wishing your adversary at tous les diables, you recommend, like him of Tartarus, the never-ending task of rolling the stone up the mountain. Custom reconciles you, however, to the railroad speed of La Bourdonnais; and comparing it with the broad-wheeled wagons we too often are compelled to travel by in this country, you say "This is, indeed, chess!" La Bourdonnais first introduced the piercing the sides of the chess-board, like a cribbage machine, in order to peg the number of games played at a sitting. He tells them off by the score!

The rapidity of De la Bourdonnais can only, in fact, be equalled by his gluttony for the game. Nothing satiates him, or causes him to cry, "Hold! -- enough!" His chess hours are from noon till midnight, seven times a week. He seems to be a species of chess-automaton, wound up to meet all conceivable cases with mathematical accuracy. When he played his famed match here of nearly one hundred games with our McDonnell, the hour of meeting being between eleven and twelve A.M., the encounter has frequently continued until six or seven P.M.; after which Mr. McDonnell would cease playing, exhausted frequently even to weariness. Not so De la Bourdonnais. He would snatch a hasty dinner by the side of the chessboard, and in ten minutes be again enthroned in his chair, the hero of the hundred fights, giving rook, or knight, or pawn, as the case might be, to any opponents who presented; fresh as the dewy morn, and vigorous as though 'twere breakfast time. He would play thus till long past midnight; smoking cigars, drinking punch, and pouring forth his full soul in even boisterous merriment; dismissing at times his punch, in favour of what he termed, "Burton ale-beer," the only fault of which, he was wont to say, was, that after three or four bottles, he became additionally impatient, if he found his adversary slow. I recollect that upon one occasion he played above forty games of chess at a sitting, with amateurs of every grade of skill; and with all this, he had to be at his post to encounter McDonnell in the morning!

The habits of De la Bourdonnais over the board are, indeed, the very reverse of what would be expected from so profound a thinker; but he appears to be divided into two existences, -- the one of which does the chess, the other the fun. Jokes, songs, and epigrams, burst in a flood from his lips, in tones like those of Lablache. This is, of course, chiefly after dinner, when giving large odds, when winning; for, should the tables turn in the latter respect, the brows of our friend lour like the storm-clouds of Mont Blanc. De la Bourdonnais expressed himself to me, as being altogether confounded at the imperturbability of McDonnell under defeat. Our countryman, at one sitting, lost three games running; "And yet," quoth La Bourdonnais, "he could smile! Had it been me," added the Frenchman emphatically, "I should have torn the hair from my head!" -- and so he would.

No passing events can shake the attention of La Bourdonnais when at chess. He concocts jests and mates in the same crucible. Une petite position is what he aims at from the beginning. Let him once attain that, and be sure he'll hold his own. When the joke and the laugh rise highest, then look out for your squalls, and reef your topsails. To you it is a dark night, but to his leopard eye the first rays of the sun are gilding the mountain top. His advantage improves, and he absolutely smothers you in mystification and nonsense. Taruffi once met Ercole del Rio in a chess café; and when beaten soundly, exclaimed, "You must be either the devil or Del Rio!" The mortality of our hero is certainly at times to be suspected. The clearness with which he foresees consequences, through a long vista of checks and changes, is truly admirable. No man sacrifices a piece so well; none knows so fully the art of playing the proper move at the proper time. When hard pushed, his coups de resource are electrifying. Win a piece, it is a trifle; nothing short of killing him outright will avail you. Strike him merely to the earth, and Antaeus-like, he rises stronger from the fall. "I should never have given up chess," said Deschapelles once to me, "except in favor of La Bourdonnais. He is worthy to sustain the honour of my school, and in his hands the reputation of France is safe."

De la Bourdonnais has not disdained to study books. He has played through all that has been written. The openings are familiar to him. He has the most dashing variations of attack at his fingers' end, and meets a new mode of assault intuitively with the strongest defence. He is not like one fine player who, perhaps, can only conduct the middles of games well; or another, who possesses bit the mechanical knowledge of openings and endings. De la Bourdonnais plays every part of chess well; the pieces in a complicated situation, above all, beautifully. His pawn play, towards the close of the game, is superb; as a judge of what we term "position", he stands alone. Many established axioms he appears to disregard, but this arises from the species of second sight he possesses over the board. Isolated pawns he thinks of "not over much," a piece in danger troubles him not. Set-openings he laughs to scorn, and breaks up what the tyro has been taught, and rightly taught, to think legitimate rules. The genius of La Bourdonnais or a Napoleon makes its own laws, and owns none other. De la Bourdonnais plays to check-mate, and he does it; what would you have more? He bowls at the adverse king with the force, and celerity, and deadly sweep of a Mynn, or a Congreve rocket.

The game we are looking over is done; De la Bourdonnais gives check-mate, and the noise becomes positively infernal. Not only do all chatter at once, but like the talking bird in the Eastern tale, each man appears endowed with twenty different voices. A rush is made towards the chess-board and a dozen hands snatch at the pieces to shew what the unfortunate loser could, would, should, or might have done. Thus was Job comforted of old, and thus do the tormentors attack a man already suffering sufficient disquiet in being beaten. The English are the best lookers-on in the world, the French the very worst. They do not hesitate, during the most interesting crisis, to whisper their opinions freely; to point with their hands over the board; to foretell the probable future; to vituperate the past. It is hard to play before such critics; and rather trying to the nerves to hear yourself styled, perhaps, "an ass," for what you thought a neat bit of play; or to see lips coiling, and sneering, and smiling contemptuously at your proceedings, knowing that the scorners in a similar case would play ten times worse than you have done. When your move is made, half a dozen voices are loudly raised to demand "Pourquoi diable, you didn't do this?" or, "Why you overlooked that?" I have lost many games in Paris through similar impertinences, and have all but vowed that when I next play chess there, it shall be in a barricadoed room. Talking of barricades, I may here remark that never was the Café de la Régence more thronged with chess players than during the three glorious days of July, 1830. Speak of parting lovers! why 'twere easier to sunder Romeo and Juliet, than two stanch chess-players over a good game. Ten revolutions worked at once around -- the sun and moon dancing the chahut, with the stars whirling by in joyous gallopade -- no wreck of worlds or systems could, I say, sever two real chess enthusiasts in the heat of battle.

To those who think I exaggerate the noise of the Régence at the close of the evening, I can only say, witness it before passing judgment. In singing and spitting, its inmates are particularly strong; would that they all sang the same tune, and spat only, as French lady vocalists do on the stage, between the verses. I know Frenchmen who, at chess, expectorate airs with variations, and are quite surprised we do not sanction the custom. Cigars are forbidden in the Régence. This is it should be. The same moral rule which permits one individual, in a public room, to blow second-hand tobacco smoke in your face, should be equally lenient to the smokers of opium, valerian, or assafoetida. Eat, drink, or suck what you will yourself, but do not force me to go shares against my will.

To whom is destined the marshal's baton when De la Bourdonnais throws it down, and what country will furnish his successor? The speculation is interesting. Will Gaul continue the dynasty by placing a fourth Frenchman on the throne of the world? -- the three last chess chiefs having been successively Philidor, Deschapelles, and De la Bourdonnais. I have my doubts. Boncourt is passing, St. Amant forsaking chess; and there is no third son of France worthy of being borne on the books, save as a petty officer. May we hope that the laurel is growing in England? No! Ten thousand reasons forbid the supposition. Germany, Holland, and Belgium, contain no likely man. At present De la Bourdonnais, like Alexander the Great, is without heir, and there is room to fear the empire may be divided eventually under a number of petty kings. M. Deschapelles considers that chess is an affair of the sun, and that the cold north can never produce a first-rate chess organisation. I cannot admit the truth of the hypothesis; since we find the north, in our time, bringing forth the hardest thinkers of the day in every department. Calvi of Italy will go far in chess; but so will Szen of Poland, and Kaesaritzki of Livonia. The imperial name of the latter is alone a pawn in his favour; but, I repeat, the future is yet wrapped in darkness.

G.W., November 1840.