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

Fraser's Magazine, Vol. XXII, July to December, 1840.
Part 3/7


From Napoleon to Deputy Louvet, the fall is great; but I cannot resist giving a quotation from one of the latter's novels. Louvet was ardently attached to chess, and playfully hits at his brother amateurs in the following passage, put into the mouth of his chief hero:-

"I enter the Café de la Régence, crammed with men deeply engaged in cooking checkmates. Alas! even they had more life about them than I had. I seat myself at a table, and look on; but my irresponsible agitation causes me to walk the floor with hurried and unequal strides. Soon one of the players exclaims with eager tone, 'Check to the king!' 'Grands dieux!', cries his opponent; 'my queen is forced! the game is gone -- and such a game! une partie superbe! You sir, rub your hands, -- fancy yourself a Turenne as you will, do you know who you have to thank for the coup? This gentlemen -- this fool here. My curse upon lovers!' Astonished at the uncourteous manner in which I was apostrophised, I assure the losing player that I did not understand him, -- that I had nothing to do with the matter. 'You don't understand me?' replies he. 'Eh! bien; but see, a check by discovery!' 'Well, sir; and what have I to do with the check by discovery?' 'What have you to do with it? Why, sir, for the last hour you've been hovering around us like a vulture, ejaculating all manner of nonsense about your Sophia! your beautiful cousin! I listen to all this trash, and play like a schoolboy. When a man is in love, sir, he does not come to the Café de la Régence.' I was about to answer, to excuse; but he continued with violence, -- 'A check by discovery! The king must be covered and my queen is lost. A miserable coup de mazette, -- a child could have foreseen it; and a player like me (he turned again to me), sir, understand once again, that all the women in the world are not worth a queen won by discovery. She is lost! no resource remains. To the devil with the lover and his miss too!'

"Now, of all that has been said, the last reproach was infinitely the most cutting. Carried away by my zeal, I rushed towards him; but catching my coat-skirts unhappily in a neighbouring chess-table, down goes the whole concern -- the men flying over the floor. This awakens the wrath of a brace of fresh enemies, and confusion becomes confounded. 'Sir!' cries one of them, 'are you mad? do you ever look before you?' The other screams, 'Sir, you have cost me the game!' 'You had already lost it,' observes the antagonist. 'I had won it, sir; I would have played that game against Verdoni, or Philidor himself.' 'Well; but gentlemen,' mildly observe poor I, 'do not all talk together. I am ready to pay the stake, if the fault were mine.' 'Pay! pay! you are not rich enough, were you to coin your brains and bones.' 'For how much, then, were you playing?' 'For honour -- for honour, sir. I have come seven hundred miles, post, to accept the challenge of Monsieur here, who fancied himself invulnerable; and but for you I should have given him a lesson -- I should have taken down his pride!' 'A lesson! What do you mean? You ought to thank the young man for coming to your assistance as he did. I had your queen won by force in eighteen moves.' 'Absurd -- ridiculous! I should have mated you in eleven. I had looked through and through it.' 'Mated me? Can you dare to say so! You it is, sir, I am to thank for this gross insult. Learn, young man, that people don't run in the Café de la Régence.' Up jumps another player. 'And learn you yourself, sir, that people don't shout in the Café de la Régence, and that they have no right even to speak here.' The hubbub rises; but one source remains. I rush forth from the Café, and take refuge in the Palais Royal."

The Verdoni named by Louvet in this pleasant morceau was subsequently well known in England. He was one of the great players frequenting the Régence who composed the celebrated Traité des Amateurs, published within those very walls; his chief assistants being Bernard, Léger, and Carlier. The Traité des Amateurs is one of the best books on chess ever printed; and it is a thousand pities no kind soul has yet given it to us in an English dress. High science marks many of its games, and there exist nowhere finer examples of chess-combination.

Fashion varies, but man changes not; customs alter their complexion, but human nature runneth in a circle, like the squirrel on its roundabout. Louvet's description of the old café, fifty years back, would hold equally good this very evening; the individuals being a different set, and clothed in garments of other cut and pattern. Still, when we read the roll inscribed with the names of those who have been great in chess, can we forbear responding to the heartfelt exclamation of the limner, on viewing the works of Raffaelle, "I too am a painter?" Fruitless were it, however, to dwell over long on the past, to the neglect of that which moves, and breathes, and walks among us. Bootless is it to ponder exclusively on that which we know but in spirit; and not to appreciate and admire that which comes to us in the form of living excellence. As I sit this night in the Régence, shall I suffer my contemporaries all to pass away like a vision, without a faint attempt at least to catch and embody their leading features on the canvass -- or the page? No; "when I forget Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its cunning!" To your darksome caves, ye shadows of the departed great! -- to your hills of mist, ye ghosts, warriors of the days of old! -- my thoughts be concentrated momentarily on that which I witness. The greatest living chess-players are around me at this moment -- men linked to me in the strong bonds of our magic masonry; and I catch the inspiration imparted by their presence. That which man has done, man may do. Were Philidor to come again in his strength, like the Cid, who rose from death to smite the Moors for Spain, is it altogether certain we could not find a champion to meet him in the lists?

One, ancient of days, walks quietly across the floor, and hats are raised in token of respect at the coming in of M. Boncourt, the Nestor of the camp. Seventy years and more have passed over him; but their weight has not bowed down his light and even spirit. To the simplicity of the dove, as regards his dealings with the world, Boncourt unites, in chess, the veriest serpent guile. Inferior to none, save De la Bourdonnais, in skill, there breathes not the mortal more free from arrogance or vanity than our venerable professor. Attired in an old-fashioned frock-coat which sweeps the ground, with a vest of scarlet, or perchance grass-green, Boncourt placidly smoothes down his silver locks, as he drops mechanically into his seat before the chess-board. Eccentric in some of his habits, Boncourt in his old age keeps hours which render it difficult to secure him as an antagonist. He delights in dining at ten o'clock at night; and he'll then mate you till cock-crow. Having a comfortable pension as a retired government clerk, he takes the world as he finds it, and practices the true philosophy of resignation under every stroke of fate, whether in life or in chess. He receives beating better than any Frenchman of his day, shrugging up his shoulders and replacing the men, when defeated, with a nonchalance perfectly edifying. His favourite companion is a little dog; well known to the chess circle, and a frequent visitor at the Régence. Boncourt has never been in England, which, considering the present facilities of travelling, is remarkable; and evinces total disregard as to fame, whether present or posthumous.

Boncourt's style of play is the correct, rather than the brilliant. Comparatively weak in the mechanical openings and endings, from never having looked at a chess-book in his life, Boncourt has no superior in the capacity of piercing through the intricacies of positions of intense difficulty. "In the twenty-five years I have played chess," said La Bourdonnais to me, "never did I see Boncourt commit an error in a crowded situation." His favourite début is the Giuoco Piano; in the early stages of which he almost invariably drives up his queen's knights' and queen's rooks' pawn two squares. I must add that Boncourt has not the usual rapidity of the French school; but is to the full as slow in digesting his chess calculations as nous autres in the London Chess Club.