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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 4/7


And that young man, Boncourt's present antagonist, who is he? Did you ever see a more pleasant smile, a more intellectual countenance? How smart his dress! How becoming that budding moustache! He is engaged in a match of long standing with Boncourt, and they are to play a game this evening. Rivals in reputation, their respective partisans press around, like Homer's myriad warriors to view the encounter of Hector and Achilles. Youth has the call, and Boncourt by the mob is set down as passé; but the elect deem otherwise. The free, gallant bearing of the young combatant is much in his favour. He has a bon-mot for each; a smile for all. His eagle eye darts at once over the position of the men, and grasps fully the difficulties and capabilities of the array. He delights in danger; and the excitement of peril lights up his brow with increased expression, and tinges his cheek with a deeper hue. At one time spoken of confidently as the successor to Deschapelles and De la Bourdonnais, ST. AMANT may still be styled the favourite of the Café de la Régence. Certainly, no other player in the world is more agreeable to look over. It is matter of universal regret that St. Amant has in a measure fallen away from his allegiance to the chequered flag he once followed, by night and day, through France and England, and now confines his chess to Sunday evenings.

St. Amant's game unites the dashing style of Greco, with the ingenuity and steadiness of a veteran chief. Young in years, he is aged in chess. Quick as lightning in commonplace situations, St. Amant takes a full measure of contemplation in positions of difficulty. In play with me, I once timed him three quarters of an hour on a single move! None of the French players approach St. Amant for courteousness of demeanour and readiness to oblige. He never sneers at a bad player; never taunts the unfortunate, nor insults the conquered. St. Amant visited England upon the occasion of bearing Deschapelles' proud challenge, a few years back, and had a decided advantage in chess over our best practitioners. He has beaten, in fact, every player but Deschapelles, De la Bourdonnais, and Boncourt. Rather a stickler for reputation, St. Amant declined risking his laurels upon the occasion of Szen, the Hungarian, visiting Paris in 1835, and refused to accept the challenge. This fact excited some surprise; but the feeling is unfortunately but too common among fine players. St. Amant and Boncourt have played in all about thirty-five games; and Boncourt stands at present, I believe, with a majority of three. Signor Calvi is spoken of latterly as the equal of these two heroes, but does not play at the Régence.

The Régence represents the sun, round which the lesser spheres of light revolve. It is the centre of civilised Europe, considered with regard to chess. As Flanders in days of yore was the great battle-ground -- the Bois de Boulogne -- the Chalk Farm -- on or at which nations engaged in the duello, so for above a hundred years has this café served as the grand gladiatorial arena for chess-players of every country and colour. Stamma the Moor came hither from Aleppo; and more than one bearded Turk and copper-skinned Hindoo have worshipped chess within these walls. The Régence is the "central flowery land," receiving courteously, but with dignity, such "outside barbarians" as approach the celestial kingdom, "looking upwards with reverential awe." The Rialto of Venice, in its most palmy hour, presented not a greater mixture of garbs and tongues than does the Régence at the present time. Szen, from Pesth, came down here one day like a meteor; traversing Calais Straits to London, and back to Poland, in his flying visit of three months. De la Bourdonnais himself could hardly yield Szen the pawn; and the second advent of the Pole, it is presumed, will be to aim at taking the proudest ground. It is the Régence which places French players so high; giving them opportunities of encountering every great artist on earth by turns, and thus obtaining a varied and beautiful style of game. To find a chess amateur of a certain force who has not visited this locale, no matter in what clime his residence, were as great a wonder as to fall in with a London Cockney in Rome who had nor scratched his name, whether Noakes or Hoakes, upon the crumbling Coliseum, or the pillars of St. Peter. Be it recorded, however, that, despite the fact of ten thousand Englishmen playing chess constantly in the Régence, the frames of its mirrors are guiltless of their initials -- the glasses themselves are pure of the diamond-carved "Jack" and "Tom," which like the S.P.Q.R. of the Roman nation, serve as a line of beacons, traced upon the face of the whole earth, to assure travellers that a Briton has passed that way.

It cannot be supposed that the Régence could so long have held sway, without attempts having been made from time to time to throw off its authority. Man is a restless being, and not too prone to let well alone. At one time the Café de Foi drew many of the elect aside from the right path. At another period Alexandre, with his Paris Chess Club, at the Café de l'Echiquier, presented himself in open rebellion, and warred against legitimacy. Knocked down, as the Titans were by Jupiter, the club-men have tried again and again to establish themselves, but ever without success. No Paris club, exclusively devoted to chess-players, exists at the moment of my writing; and such aristocratical amateurs as turn up their noses at the Régence are wandering about the metropolis, like the condemned in Vathek's Hall of Eblis, without refuge or resting-place. For a variety of reasons, I do not believe an exclusive chess-club will ever establish itself on a large scale in either Paris or London. Chess was once the game of the aristocracy. It has been wrested from them, with other feudal rights, and is now the recreation of the million. A chess-room, to prosper, must be open to all classes of comers -- free as the air of heaven -- accessible, at small cost, to every man who can afford the luxuries of hat and coat. Chess, like the tomb, levels all grades of conventional rank and distinction, and reserves its high players for -- the best players.