Chess History on the Web

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

Fraser's Magazine, Vol. XXII, July to December, 1840.
Part 2/7


Jean Jacques Rousseau was wont to play daily in the Régence, attired (poor creature!) in a fur-cap and flowing Armenian robe; and we read in Grimm's Letters, that the crowd at last so eagerly pressed around to get a peep at the author of Emile, that is was feared the glass of the front would be driven in; the nuisance being only averted by a guard of the city police mounted on the spot matitudinally. During the next generation, the café was for a time nearly deserted, in consequence of its having become a favoured resort of Robespierre. The lair of the tiger is dangerous, even when he sleeps. Robespierre was passionately fond of chess; and once, it is reported, granted the life of a young French officer, to a beautiful girl who came to the Régence attired in man's clothes, to gain an opportunity of presenting her petition to the tyrant. She checkmated Robespierre, and then frankly revealed her sex, and demanded the life of her lover. She left her chair with a written order for his immediate enlargement, and with a passport, by virtue of which the joyful pair passed the French frontier in safety.

What names, what reputations, are identified with chess! And can we blame the enthusiast who loves that which embodies so many historical groupings of the great, emblazoned panoramically upon the mind's perception? Why, as I sit this very evening in the old café, I can picture to myself the shades of the departed called from their rest, and joyfully once more doing battle in chess around me. I can fancy that grand pioneer of the French revolution, the brilliant but infidel Voltaire, sparkling with fancy-flights and ready repartee; pouring forth exultingly the most exuberant conceits, and unbending, over the chess-board, that intellect at which kings and cloisters quailed and trembled. Voltaire's was the good, old, coffee-house day of life; when scented perukes, amber vinaigrettes, silver-hilted swords, and clouded canes, made up part of the stock in trade of professional and literary beaux. Voltaire played a match at chess with Frederic of Prussia, and calculated many of his moves in the room where I now ponder. Is that nothing? I can believe I hear the ringing of the courier's spurs as he receives his despatch, and mounts yonder at the door, to ride post to Berlin. Voltaire was strong in chess, since we know a first-rate could give him but the knight; whilst Rousseau was decidedly inferior in skill. Fancy the two playing together! the witty lord of Ferney confounding his brother sophist with the ingenuity of his "coups," and sending forth St. Preux, sulky and checkmated, to write a fresh chapter on the persecutions of the strong. Around, are Holbach, Diderot, Grimm, and D'Alembert, taking a rise out of the unsophisticated Swiss; while old Legalle, Philidor's chess-master, looks down upon the group with the supreme indifference of a mere one-idead, first-rate chess-professor. What cares Legalle for the Encyclopedists? -- for Julia or Montmorency? -- his soul is in the heaven of MATE, and all besides to him is vanity. "Philosophers as you are," mutters Legalle, "I should like you to play altogether, -- a crown the game!"

And giving the camera lucida another screw, lo! we are presented in a twinkling with a fresh group, -- the children of the first generation. Citizen Robespierre, in the powder and ruffles he so closely clung to, is playing chess with Fouché, now poor and of mean repute. Fouché was so wedded to chess, that he is said to have bestowed a place in the customs upon Deschapelles, in return for teaching and practice. In the tableau before me, citizen Fouché is all smiles and compliments before the great dictator; while the sly, cat-like eye of Robespierre sweeps at each glance both board and hall, to see if the latter hold any of the denounced, -- any heads which are due to Madame la Republique -- any job of work for neighbour Samson. "Friends depart;" while the lingerers around subdue their voices, and strain for a smile. Fouché himself shivers in his shoes, and his fingers shake as they move the pieces. One youth alone meets Robespierre's glance, and quails not. Napoleon, the young lieutenant, is there among the spectators, and like carvings of bronze are his impassible features. Buonaparte at one time played chess in the Régence daily; while waiting, like the sailor whistling for a wind, to get employment of the Directory. The sun of Montebello was yet to rise. I can believe I see Napoleon before me now; here, seated at the adjoining table, calling, like a soldier of fortune, for his "demitasse," but yet giving the order as one having authority, in a tone of voice like trumpets sounding.

Napoleon was a great advocate for chess, which he practiced constantly. He was even wont to say, that he frequently struck out new features relatively to a campaign, first suggested by the occurrence of certain positions of the pieces on the chess-board. He played chess all his life. In his youth, at college, in manhood, on shipboard, in camp, en bivouac. He solaced himself with chess in Egypt, in Russia, in Elba; and, lastly, on that darksome rock which yet contains his bones. It was while captive in St. Helena that the magnificent chess equipage sent to Napoleon as a grateful offering for personal favours, by an English noble family, was refused free passage, because the pieces bore the imperial arms of France. History blushes as she records the disgusting details of this jack-ass kick at the dethroned lion. A chess-board on which Buonaparte constantly played at St. Helena is now in possession of the officers of the 91st regiment, there in garrison.

As might be anticipated, Napoleon, as a chess-player, was not really of great force. His soul demanded a larger field for the expansion of its faculties. His chess was that of Marengo, of Austerlitz, of Jenn, and of Eylau. Upon our mosaic of sixty-four squares I could have given him the rook; upon his own board he could afford odds to Julius Caesar. Buonaparte had no time to make chess a study. He played the openings badly, and was impatient if his adversary dwelt too long upon his move. Each minute of the clock was life to a mind so energetic. In the middle stage of the game, when the skirmish was really complicated of aspect, Napoleon frequently struck out a brilliant coup. Under defeat at chess, the great soldier was sore and irritable; although it is presumed that those favourites with whom he played were doubtless far too courtly to carry victory unpleasantly far. Had the scene of battle been the humble, forgotten Régence, and the time twenty years back, the chief might have won fewer games than he did in the Tuileries.

In the thousand-and-one tomes of memoirs printed, relatively to the modern Charlemagne, Bourrienne, Marchand, and others, have recorded several anecdotes connecting Napoleon with chess. I shall here introduce one, hitherto inedited, which comes to me direct from M. de la Bourdonnais; who received that, and other curious details upon the subject, verbally, from the Duc de Bassano, Count Merlin, and M. Amedèe Jaubert. It is well known, that in Buonaparte constantly played chess with M. Jaubert; his chief opponents, that way, during the Polish and Russian campaigns, as well as during the armistice of Vienna, previously in 1809, having been Murat, Berthier, Bourrienne, and the Duc de Bassano. It is a fact, that the majority of Napoleon's marshals were chess-players. Eugène de Beauharnois patronised the art; and Murat many times kept the Duc de Bassano planted at the chess-board the greater part of the night. But now for my Napoleon anecdote, in almost the very words of De la Bourdonnais.

While about to enter upon the famous Polish campaign, the emperor was one day playing chess in the Tuileries with Marshal Berthier, when the Persian ambassador was announced, as requesting an audience. The game was at an interesting crisis, and Napoleon would no more permit it to be suspended, than would Charles of Sweden leave his chess-board when the Turks commenced battering down his house in Bender. Buonaparte ordered the ambassador to be shewn in, and M. Amedèe Jaubert was commanded to the presence as interpreter. The emperor continued his game with Berthier, overwhelming the astounded Persian with questions all the while, in his usual rapid mode of asking to gain information. The Mussulman found it difficult to plant his replies suitably; the various topics being Turkey, Persia, Mohammed, and the Koran; eastern harems, wives in sacks, the vaccine, military discipline, and ten thousand other matters. The Persian, however, steered his way like the really skilful diplomatist he was. He exalted Persian institutes to the seventh heaven, or a little higher, and dwelt especially upon the horse-soldiers of Ispahan, as being the finest cavalry in the world. Napoleon good-humouredly disputed the assertion, and interrupted the son of Iraun more than once; but the ambassador constantly returned with his pet cavalry to the charge, and, getting warmer, by degrees, pronounced his judgment with even more and more decision. "There could be no doubt about it, -- the foot-soldiers of Europe were excellent -- but the Persian horse!" -- Napoleon laughed outright as the interpreter rendered the sentences in French; and carelessly addressing Jaubert in reply, said, "Tell him that to-morrow we'll shew him a little cavalry here." The Persian made his salaam, and quitted the palace. The long-contested chess-game was not even then finished. While pondering over the subsequent moves, the emperor found time to issue certain brief orders upon slips of paper, centralizing upon Paris the instant march of various bodies of horse-soldiers from their cantonments in the vicinity. Like the knights on the chess-board, he had them all in his hand. The subject was not again alluded to; the game was played out; but the next morning saw forty thousand French cavalry defile before Napoleon and the Persian envoy, in all the glittering pomp of military decoration. Paris beheld that cavalry almost for the last time. Moscow awaited them.