During the first quarter of the 18th century when Deschapelles and Labourdonnais reigned supreme at the highest level of French chess, it's said that the next level was occupied by Pierre Charles Fournier de Saint-Amant, Hyacinthe Henri Boncourt and Jacques François Mouret. I touched on Saint-Amant in a previous article. Boncourt with his little dog and dour countenance, almost the direct opposite to Saint-Amant, seems too dreary to contemplate. But Mouret... now, there is a man worthy of some scrutiny.
Almost singlehandedly, and mostly unintentionally, the Turk exposed the general public in many nations to the joys of chess. It's only rivalry was that with Philidor who, with his blindfold exhibitions, vied with the Turk for the same paying audience for about a year in London (Philidor had beaten the Turk in a game in Paris years before). But that was back when the Turk was displayed by its inventor, Von Kempeln. After the turn of the 18th century, the Turk was bought by Johann Maelzel and, displayed in mainland Europe, then England and finally America, continued to wow the masses . But it's the English tour that concerns us now .
The Turk was in England from 1819 to 1825. During that time it had three operators, or Directors, as they were called. Two of them, Peter Unger Williams and William Lewis had been students of the recently departed J.H. Sarratt, while the third, Jacques-Francis Mouret was a house master at the Café de la Régence in Paris. (William J. Hunneman, who wrote the book, "Fifty Games Played by the Automaton Chess Player," was also an occasional stand-in Director but almost nothing else is known about him.)
The Turk practically clouds our entire picture of Mouret. We learn of Mouret's facility in offering Pawn and Move (of the 300 games played as the Turk with these odds, Mouret only lost 6). We also know that towards the end of his life, Mouret (sort of) revealed the Turks secret, although anonymously and in no way that hadn't aleady been suggested.
Mouret, who learned chess from Philidor's sucessors Carlier and Bernard, was a denizen of the Café de la Régence, eking out a meager living playing for stakes, usually giving odds even to the better players. While usually successful, the sly Mouret occasionally met his match and more as the below comical anecdote provided by Alphonse Delannoy in 1881 shows:
Mouret, the ingenious conductor of Baron von Kempellens' automaton,who gave pawn and move to all comers, came back from a tour with the Baron and his wooden figure. [Von Kempelen had been dead for over 15 years when Mouret took over the Turk. Mouret worked for Maelzel. Alphnse Delannoy, at this time was only about 14 years old.] Mouret was a clever fellow, sharp, gay, lively, amusing, and had studied seriously the theory of Chess, by which he made a living. His talent redeemed a little the rudeness of his manners and a certain licentiousness which he indulged in. He used to be in a continual state of semi-intoxication - tipsy, as the English have it - in consequence of a habit of his on to take a 'petit verre- of anisette after each game. He did not lose many, and played a great deal. People laughed and overlooked these little eccentricities. Labourdonnais wished already for a long time to challenge his. As soon as he noticed him, he made haste to ask him to play before anybody else might engage him.
"On even terms?"
"Ho, ho, young leopard, you are very plucky. You wish to be strangled? I have never eaten leopard yet, I should like to taste it."
"I shall try to defend myself"
"Very well. What would you like to play for?"
"Whatever you like."
"A little crown?"
"All right. Stake your money."
Mouret, who forgot sometimes to pay his little defeats -he had so very few- turned his pockets inside out, and succeeded in scraping together a few pieces, but not enough.
"Very strange," he said, "I have forgotten my purse. Who will back me?"
Next to Mouret sat Mr. De C., a poor man afflicted with three of four millions, but who would rater have lost one of his best teeth than a sixpense. Confiding in Mouret's superiority, whose play he used to watch, he put down the stakes, enjoining him to be careful as he was betting for him.
"You need not be afraid ; you know very well that the money is safe. Well, sir, are you ready?"
"Yes, sir. We will draw for the move."
"Nevermind that, I make sometimes these little presents."
And the game commenced. Mouret could not resist the violent attack of his opponent ; he struggled like the Devil in a 'benitier' (holy-water basin) but lost the game. The face of the backer got twenty-five centimeters longer.
"My revenge," cried Mouret, "How stupid it is to have forgotten my purse!"
"I shall pay," exclaimed Mr. De C. ; great sensation in the gallery. Labourdonnais was again successful. Three, four, five games followed, and he pocketed the money.
"How much do you win?" asked Mr. C.
"Double or quits."
"Done ; and to make matters easy, I propose to give my opponent he same odds which he generally gives his, viz.: Pawn and two moves. "
"What! Pawn and two moves to me?" cried Mouret. "At that odds I would stake my last penny, my breeches, my night cap, even against Satan himslef. Nevermind, where is your money?"
"Here," sighed Mr. De C. The money was confided to the care of St. Amant, who approached the table wiht his friend Sasias.
"François, 'two petits verres,'" cried Mouret.
"Why," said Mr. D. C., "you have not won yet."
"All right: the health of Noa, Bacchus, Pantagruel, and Gregory."
But alas! those gentlemen of the bottle did not hear him. Mouret lost again.
"My revenge, and I double the stakes again, throwing down two louis. Same result.
"100 francs," cried Mr. De C.
"200 for Labourdonnais," said St. Amant.
"And I bet 300 more," called Sasias.
"Done," said Mr. C. His eyes staring, his face flushed, he staked 600 francs, saying, "Well, Mouret, be careful; if you win, we go halves."
600 france on a single game was something enormous- an extraordinary event. To reproduce the scene which follower is beyond my power. pen of gold or the pencil of Rubens only could give an idea of it. All the chess-boards were deserted, everybody tried to wget as near as possible, and a crowd soon gathered round the table to witness the heroic combat. 600 francs a game! and staked by Mr. De C., this was not only prodigious, but a real miracle. In spite of the entreaties of the waiters and the proprietor himself, people would stand on the sofas, jump on chairs, and climb even on the oven ; contrary to the habitual noise, a profound silence reigned, not a sound was heard. It was a spectacle impossible to describe. Mouret encouraged by Mr. De C.'s promise and seeing that his reputation was at stake this time, Mouret forsakes his 'petit verre,' collects himself, and they start. Mouret, understanding very well the nature of odss, manages cleverly his opening, and Labourdonnais' game is very bad: his pieces are imprisoned, paralyzed, his King having moved, cannot Castle and the great master seems anxious and preoccupied. Mouret, a great talker, but very clever, began alread to chaff ; he though the victory was secured.
"My dear St. Amant, this little game won't cost you more that 10 louis. That is not much considering the present price of butter. Ha! Ha! Sasias, old boy, you put yourself against me, you, my pupil, a comrade and an old friend. You will catch it, ungrateful."
And the orator looked around and smiled at the gallery, just as if he had the 300 francs in his pocket. Labourdonnais never spoke a word, he considered and combined. More impatient through the mutism [silence] of his opponent, Mouret said, "If you do not play, you cannot lose ; a system quite as good as any other, and not very stupid either. François, two 'petits verres,' it is an age since I have taken anything ; besides, it is St. Amant who pays. Go on, be quick."
"But --- " ventured Mr. De C. "Another word and I take four. Cannot you see my position? You must be a d-- uffer." The crowd expected quite a different exclamation after the pause between the 'd' and the rest. Ten more minutes passed. Mouret finishes his 'petit verres,' smacks his lips, folds his arms, makes faces at St. Amant and Sasias, and at last begins to yawn like a carp. At last Labourdonnais plays. He sacrifices a Knight for a pawn.
"Oh! oh! cried Mouret, "that is a desperate move, my dear sir. Que voulez vous qu'il fit contre trois - qu'il mourût. That is Conrneille [Pierre Corneille, the French dramatist]. Shall I anex it or shall I not? Well, I shall. But I ought not to let go such a gallant cavalier, without military honors."
Then he made himself something to do under the table, and immediately some strange noise was heard, and a [fire] cracker, such as the boys in the streets amuse themselves with was let off. You may imagine the hilarity of the gallery.
"Bravo! bravo! Mouret!"
"You must not play with impunity with papa. I am an old hand, dear sir."
"Oh, you have taken my Knight?"
"Yes, but I have taken it very delicately, only wiht the index and the thumb. You see, like that." And he balanced the Knight in the air and then dropped it into the box.
"Well sir, you have lost the game. You are mated in five moves." Labourdonnais' calm observation had the effect of a cannonball on the spectators, and especially on Mr. De C. It paralysed Mouret's tongue, and fixed him motionless to his chair.
Labourdonnais's supporters were agreeably surprised, and the gallery was so agitated that several persons tumbled down from their elevated positions. Mouret fought to the bitter end, but in vain ; in five moves he was mated, as announced by Labourdonais. Here Labourdonais showed his kind disposition and goodness of heart. He wispered a few words to St. Amant and Sasias, and inviter Mouret to drown his ill success in the pleasures of a good dinner at the 'Freres Provenceaux.' Before they sat down he made a sign to his adversary, and put half the stakes, 15 louis, in his hand. Labourdonnais was neither happy nor rich, but Mouret still less. It was at this dinner table that the plot was hatched against Deschapelles and Labourdonais induced to send him his challenge.
Mouret had several distinctions. He was the great nephew of Philidor (petit-neveu de Philidor) and served as a chess tutor to the children of King Louis-Philippe.
According to "The Living Age," 1856 :
Mouret, chess-teacher to the family of Louis-Philippe, was one of the most amusing of the later frequenters of the Regence. It was he who, shut up in a drawer barely sufficient to contain a good-sized cat, for many years conducted the moves of the celebrated, but improperly termed, automaton chess-player, in almost all of the principal towns of Europe. Many were the amusing anecdotes he used to relate, when subsequently revealing the secrets of his prison-house. Though the slightest noise, the least audible intimation of a living creature being concealed in the chest--apparently filled with wheels and other mechanism, upon which the automaton played--would have been fatal to the deception, Mouret never lost his presence of mind, save on one occasion. It happened thus: The automaton was exhibiting in the capital of one of the minor German principalities, and, as usual, drawing crowded audiences. A professor of legerdemain--everybody is a professor now-a-days--who was performing in the same place, finding his occupation gone through the superior attractions of the wooden chess-player, determined to discover, and expose the secret. Aided by his long professional experience of the deceptive art, he soon saw through the trick, which more learned persons had only distantly guessed at; and, assisted by an accomplice, raised a sudden outcry of fire, just as the automaton was in the midst of an interesting game. The noise of the alarmed spectators rushing from the room struck a momentary panic to the heart of Mouret, who, believing himself about to be burned alive, struggled so violently to release himself from his concealed bondage, that he rolled the automaton, turban, cushion, and all, over the floor. Maezel, the viable exhibitor, instantly flying to the rescue, dropped the curtain; but next day the automaton left the town, and the astute conjuror remained master of the field.
In justice to chess, it must be added of poor Mouret, the most amusing story-teller, that he was the only first-class chess-player I have ever met with who extinguished fine abilities, sacrificed character, and destroyed life, by over-indulgence in strong waters.
In 1850 George Walker wrote in his book "Chess and Chess-players" :
Leaving Bavaria with the Automaton, Maelzel was once more en route, as travelling showman of the wooden genius. Other automata were adopted into the family, and a handsome income was realized by their ingenious proprietor. Himself an inferior player, he called the assistance of first-rate talent to the field as his ally. Our limits compel us to skip over some interval of time here, during which M. Boncourt (we believe) was Maelzel's chef in Paris, where the machine was received with all its former favour ; and we take up the subject in 1819, when Maelzel again appeared with the Chess Automaton in London. Here the exhibition drew crowds of visitors, and excited universal admiration. The press teemed with compliments to the wooden player; and its success, as a curiosity, was considerably enhanced by the circumstance of its almost universally coming off victorious. Maelzel well knew that the effect produced by the exhibition would be incalculably greater in proportion to the skill displayed by the figure. He engaged the powerful assistance of a first-rate English player (Mr. Lewis), who conducted the Automaton for something like a twelvemonth; at the end of which time he was relieved from his laborious duty by the celebrated Mouret, one of the first players in France.
Mouret was a chess-player of the Deschapelles' school, and stood deservedly high on the list of great players. His game was, perhaps, less brilliant than sound and sure. To make the play of the Automaton still more striking, it was now resolved that it should give the odds of pawn and move to all comers. Under the inspiration of Mouret, it accomplished this, hardly losing one game in a hundred. Fifty of the games played during the Siamese-twin-like connection of Mouret and the Automaton (body and board), were taken down, in 1820, by Mr. Hunneman, and published in a small volume. These games contain a fair specimen of Mouret's great skill, and embody some beautiful emanations of genius.
Throughout the whole, he gives the pawn and move, numbering among his opponents Messrs. Brand, Cochrane, Keen, and Mercier,—some of the first chess-players of the time. Mouret, be it stated, en passant, had the honour of being chess-teacher to the family of Louis Philippe, king of the French. Every encouragement was given by the chess circle to Mouret's talent; but he unhappily formed habits of dissipation fatal to his respectability and standing in society. He burnt out his brain with brandy, and died recently in Paris, reduced to the extremest stage of misery and degradation.
He was also involved in this book though it's unclear to what extent:
Wikipedia asserts that Mouret only helped make corrections and lent his name to the book. I'm not quite convinced since no other author is mentioned and various resources have credited Mouret as the author. There is a diference between the 1836 and 1838 editions, wherein the 1838 edition Mouret is said to have reviewed and corrected the book.
The September 18, 1841 issue of "The Saturday Magazine" presented another amusing anecdote involving Mouret :
M. Maelzel having entered into an agreement with M. Mouret, a very eminent chess-player, to conduct the internal arrangements of the automaton, the two confederates set out on a tour for the purpose of spreading the fame of the automaton, and reaping the benefit of the deception in many towns of England, Scotland, and Holland, where it was yet only known by report. The most complete success attended this journey. Wherever they went, spectators crowded to the exhibition to witness the triumphs of the automaton, who always kept his ground against his antagonists, and came off victorious, in spite of the advantage which he permitted to his opponent in giving him the pawn and move.
The exhibitor and his assistant went on for some time in perfect harmony: accounts were settled between them at every halting-place, and each was perfectly satisfied. It happened, however, on one of these occasions that M. Maelzel remained debtor to his assistant for a considerable sum, and as weeks and months passed by he still had some pretext for omitting its payment. At length a year had passed, without producing the desired settlement, and M. Mouret, weary of this delay, found the means of frightening his companion into his proper duty.
The automaton was then at Amsterdam: the king of Holland sent one morning to engage the exhibition-room, at the same time ordering a sum equal to three thousand francs, to be paid to M. Maelzel. The latter went joyfully to announce the good news to his associate, they breakfasted together, and were delighted at the thought of entering the lists with a crowned head. M. Maelzel then hastened to make such preparations as should make the exhibition as brilliant as possible. The performance was to commence at half-past twelve at noon. Twelve o'clock arrives, and it is time for M. Mouret to take his station in the chest. But he has not yet arrived, and M. Maelzel hastens to find out the cause of the delay.
What is his surprise to find Mouret in bed, and seized with a convulsive trembling. "What do I see? what is the matter?" exclaimed Maelzel.
"I have a fever," said his artful assistant.
"Why, you were very well just now !"
"Yes, but this is a sudden attack."
"The king will be here presently."
"He must go back again."
"But what can I say to him ?" "
"Tell him the automaton has got the fever."
"No more of this folly."
"I don't wish to joke with you."
"Then pray get up."
"Let me call a physician."
"It is of no use."
"Is there no means of subduing this fever?"
"Yes, one only."
"What is it ?"
"To pay me the 1500 francs you owe me."
"You shall have them . . . this evening ?"
"No, no, this moment."
M. Maelzel saw too plainly that there was no alternative, and went to fetch the money. The cure was wonderful; the automaton was never so attractive before. The King did not actually play, but he advised his Minister of War, who played for him. The pair were completely beaten by the automaton, but all the blame of the defeat was, of course, thrown upon the Minister.
and from the same source:
It is proper to state that M. Mouret himself, so long the secret colleague of M. Maelzel, furnished an account of the mysteries of the automaton, from which M. de Tournay, a member of the Paris Chess Club, has published his account in the first volume of "Le Palaméde," a French periodical, devoted chiefly to Chess. It is from this source that we have derived the following information, which may, therefore, in every respect, be considered authentic.
In the "Chess Player's Chronicle," Staunton affirmed the fact that the Turk, in 1819, started playing exclusively pawn and move odds. This possibly would have been William Lewis, though Mouret took over sometime in 1819.
Alcoholism destroyed Mouret as a chess player and as a man. In 1834 Mouret supposedly revealed the secret of the automaton supposedly for the price of a drink and this somewhat oblique revelation was published in an article in "Le Magasin Pittoresque" in 1834. According to his obituary in "Le Palaméde," Mouret had become paralyzed in all his limbs and was in constant pain towards the end of his life. He retained a small, insufficient pension from the post office where he had been formerly employed but this stipend was supplemented through a monthly donation by members of the Paris chess circle who also paid for his burial.
In 1837 Le Palamede wrote:
M. Mouret, qui pendant long-temps a conduit l'automate joueur d'échecs, et que tous les vrais amateurs connaissent au moins de réputation, se trouve en ce moment dans une position très-affligeante : il est paralysé de tous ses membres et sans fortune. Une souscription en sa faveur est ouverte au Cercle des échecs; nous invitons les personnes qui voudraient venir à son secours à s'adresser à M. Calvi, agent comptable du Cercle des échecs, rue Ménars, n° 1 ; ou au gérant du Palamède.
This was shortly followed by his obituary, presumably written by Labourdonnais:
C'est avec douleur que nous annonçons à nos lecteurs la mort de M. Mouret, l'un des plus forts joueurs d'échecs français. M. Mouret, depuis plusieurs années, était paralysé de tous les membres, et dans un grand état de souffrance. Ancien employé de l'administration des postes, il en recevait une petite pension qui était loin dé suffire à ses besoins.
Les membres du Cercle des échecs de Paris sont venus généreusement à son aide ;,ils lui ont accorde des secours mensuels; et, lorsque la mort est venue mettre un terme à sa douloureuse position, ce sont encore eux qui ont fait les frais de son inhumation. M. Mouret, quelques jours avant sa mort, nous avait chargé d'être l'interprète de sa reconnaissance envers les membres du Cercle des échecs : nous nous acquittons de ce devoir.
M. Mouret avait appris le jeu des échecs à l'école de Carlier et de Bernard , élèves et successeurs de Philidor. Son jeu était très-correct et d'une très-grande force, principalement sous le rapport de la défense. Il a perfectionné l'un des débuts de Philidor connu par nos amateurs sous le titre de la Partie du pion ilu roi un pas. C'est une excellente manière d'ouvrir son jeu, quand on n'a pas le trait, et que l'on ne désire pas aborder des débuts difficiles.
M. Mouret a dirigé, pendant plusieurs années, l'automate joueur d'échecs. En Angleterre, il a donné le pion et le trait à tous les amateurs qui se sont présentés. Cinquante des meilleures parties jouées par M. Mouret conduisant l'automate à Londres sont en notre possession ; nous les ferons connaître sous peu à nos lecteurs, qui seront ainsi à même de juger sa force aux échecs.
Here's the original "Magazin Pittoresque" article (in French, of course):
Below are the first ten games given by W. Hunneman. Curiously enough, the Turk/Mouret used an opening system that he tried to adopt in each game, a variation of the French Defense. Only at that time the name wasn't used. This opening, as one can see, was a favorite of Mouret and he had developed it over the years. For the price of a mirror, Mouret shared his secrets of this opening with Boncourt (a glazier). During the correspondence match between the French Panorama Chess Circle and the London Westminster Club between 1834-36, Boncourt convinced his teammates to adopt this defense in their game as Black. Since then it was referred to as the French Defense :
John Cochrane beats the Turk!
According to the wonderful French chess history site, Heritage des Échecs Français, Mouret was born in the St. Merry Parish of Paris on Aug. 22, 1780 (in contrast to most, and less reliable, sources that give the unsupported 1787) and died in the 1st Administative District of Paris on Sept. 5, 1837.