The Vieux Carré or French Quarter, cradled in the crescent of the Mississippi River, was the original site of La Nouvelle-Orléans. Although during the 19th century New Orleans expanded and become more Americanized eroding the influence of the French Quarter on the city, the game of chess which first flourished in the Old Square, remained entirely focused in that area all the way into the following century. While much of its history can only be seen only through a blurry portal in time, we can examine what has been preserved and gain a glimpse, however gauzy, into its development.
According to "Incidents in the Hisory of American Chess" by Prof. George Allen which was published in Willard Fiske's "The Book of the First American Chess Congress":
Tradition says that about a quarter of a century ago the Chess-players of that day used to assemble in a reading-room in St. Charles street, and that afterwards certain lovers of the game, mostly Germans, were accustomed to meet in an apartment hired for that purpose in the upper part of the city. But unfortunately none of the names of these early devotees have been preserved. A regularly organized Chess Club is first known to have existed in New Orleans in 1838, but it had a life of less than two years. While it did last its sessions were held in an apartment over the post-office, in a locality afterwards called the Exchange. After its disbandment the players began to frequent the Reading-Rooms of the Exchange, Royal street, which were established about 1844. In 1844 the Club was revived. The chief member was Mr. Eugene Rousseau, a native of France, who began his Chess career at the Cafe" de la Regence and the Cercle des Echecs. His contests with Kieseritzky, St . Amant, and other great players of Paris have given him a high place among the players of the age. He was well acquainted with the celebrated Labourdonnais.
The "locality afterwards called the Exchange" seems most likely to have been the City Exchange Café on the corner of St. Louis and Chartres streets upon which was built the elaborate City Exchange Hotel in 1838, which itself burned down in 1840 and rebuilt as the St. Louis Hotel.
Curiously, the City Exchange Hotel was build on the site formerly occupied by a variety of shops and businesses (including City Exchange Café), one of which was the Hewlett Exchange. James Hewlett, owner of the Hewlett Exchange became mangager of the St. Louis Hotel (the incarnation of the City Exchange Hotel which burnt 2 years after its opening). An "exchange" in New Orleans refers to places where business is conducted in a social atmosphere that allowed men to network, gamble, drink and often lodge. Coffee Houses and bars in the French Quarter were often called "exchanges." Hewlett's Exchange was the very place where Paul Morphy's Grandfather, Joseph Le Carpentier worked Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays as on of the city's seven slave auctioneers (the other six auctioneers were Toussaint Mossy, H. J. Domingon, George Boyd, Joseph Baudue, Isaac McCoy and Francois Dutillet). When the City Exchange/St. Louis Hotel was built, slave trade continued on its ground floor. The St.Louis Hotel was also referred to as the Rotunda due to its prominent feature.
The St. Lous Hotel - the Rotunda is in the center of the building and can't be seen in this depiction.
A slave auction block in the St. Louis Hotel
Following Prof. Allen's description, the club disbanded when the original City Exchange Hotel burned but was reformed in 1844 in the Reading-Rooms at the Exchange on Royal Street. This would have been in the Merchant's Exchange, 126 Royal Street.
Players started meeting in the in the Reading-Rooms on the second floor the Merchan't Exchange which housed a post office, bank and stores on the ground floor and the district court on the top floor. The buliding had entrances on both Royal Street and Exchange Alley (where the famous Sazerac Café also hosted chess games beneath the Rooms where the chess club met).
When Charles Stanley came to New Orleans in the Fall of 1845 for the purpose of challenging Eugène Rousseau for the title of best American player (although Stanley came from England and Rousseau from France), he wrote back home:
The great cause to which my mission most particularly relates, flourishes in this city to an extent for which I was altogether unprepared. A considerable portion of the magnificent reading room at the Merchants' Exchange is devoted to the convenience of Chess-players alone, and so far are they from neglecting the privilege, that, on a casual visit, I was last evening both surprised and delighted to observe that no less than eight separate games were progressing at the same time. This formidable array of Chess-players, it is necessary to observe, is altogether independent of the more constitutional and regularly organized body of amateurs, known as the 'New Orleans Chess Club,' and holding its more private meetings in an apartment adjoining the 'Commercial News and Reading-Rooms.'"
The "Commercial New and Reading-Rooms," also called the "New Orleans Reading-Rooms" were located on the corner of St. Charles and Common streets across from the Verandah Hotel. Stanley stayed at the St. Louis Hotel.
One of the most important matches recorded m the annals of American Chess was contested at New Orleans in the year 1845, between Mr. Charles Henry Stanley, of New York, and Mr. Eugene Rousseau, of New Orleans. The entire amount of the stakes was one thousand dollars.... There was only one thing that somewhat detracted from its interest. Mr. Rousseau is said to have been seriously ill for some little time previous to the match, and when the time came to meet his adversary he was far from convalescent. His friends urged him to demand a postponement, but fearing lest such a request might be wrongly interpreted, he expressed his determination to play at all hazards. He was so weak that every morning he was forced to ride some miles in order to gain, if possible, sufficient physical strength to endure a sitting of three or four hours. Mr. Stanley left New York for New Orleans on the 10th of November, 1845, and arrived at his destination on the 23d of the same month. The match was commenced on the first of December and finished on the twenty-seventh. It was played at the rooms of the Club, on the corner of St. Charles and Common streets, in the building occupied by the Commercial Reading Rooms... It is difficult to commend too highly the play of the New Yorker in the former game, and of the New Orleans combatant in the latter. They are assuredly among the finest examples of American skill previous to the times of Paul Morphy. All the contests were regularly reported for the New Orleans Commercial Times, and for the Spirit of the Times in New York. The score at the termination of the match stood:
Stanley, 15 Rousseau, 8 Drawn, 8
During the Rousseau-Stanley match Ernest Morphy acted as Rouseau's second and brought with him his 8 year old nephew, Paul, to watch the historical event.
Prof. Allen also tells us:
Next to Mr. Rousseau, the strongest players of New Orleans in the last decade were Mr. Ernest Morphy, the uncle of Paul Morphy, and one of the most thorough and careful analysts in the Union, afterwards a resident of Ohio, and now of Quincy, Illinois; Mr. Arthur Ford, who removed some years ago to Texas; and Mr. Edward Jones, now living in California, who left behind him in Louisiana the reputation of being a brilliant and ingenious player; Mr. Bernier and Mr. Zerega, both of whom were at different periods members of the New York Club, came next in strength; while Mr. W. A. Gasquet, Mr. Charles Le Carpentier [Paul Morphy's uncle], Mr. J. P. Benjamin [Judah Benjamin, Jewish lawyer, Louisiana Senator and finally Sec. of War for the Confederacy], Mr. C. W. Horner, and Mr. Hurtel, were esteemed as amateurs somewhat inferior to the first-rates.
More about Ernest Morphy can be read here:
Ernest Morphy: Chess King of New Orleans
In the year following the great match the Club was again disorganized, and the amateurs of the city had no other place of Assembly than the Exchange Reading-Rooms. Here in 1850 and 1851, might sometimes have been seen a young boy, opposing with the courage, the caution, and the success of manhood the best players of the city. Around his board the elite, of the Chess world of New Orleans were collected. This child was the future hero of the Congress—the future conqueror of the Chess kings of Europe. His story and the account of the visit of Lowenthal to New Orleans in 1850 are elsewhere given. Among Paul Morphy's chief opponents at home were Mr. Rousseau, Mr. Ernest Morphy, and Mr. James McConnell.
The present efficient Chess Club of New Orleans was founded in 1857, under the presidency of Mr. Paul Morphy. Mr. Rousseau has altogether abandoned Chess, and Mr. Ernest Morphy resides in a distant State. But, besides its President, the Club nevertheless numbers many players of marked ability, among whom the first, perhaps, is the Secretary, Mr. Charles Amédée Maurian. Beyond his reputation as a very strong and brilliant player, Mr. Maurian has acquired a deserved fame as a Chess writer through his editorship of a Chess column in the Sunday Delta. The Club, for two months after its formation, met in Victory street, between Frenchmen and Elysian Fields, in the third district; it afterwards moved to its present quarters, corner of Canal and Exchange alley, in the second district, exactly opposite the rooms occupied by the Club in 1844 and 1845.
More about Charles de Maurian can be read here:
Charles de Maurian
Not much is known about the New Orleans Chess Club founded in 1857 with Paul Morphy as its president. We know that after the Chess Congress Morphy returned to New Orleans and practiced his blindfold ability against the club members (see: Blind Simul). We also know that the members of that club framed a letter to Howard Staunton offering to pay his expenses to come to Nw Orleans and to stake Morphy $5000 (see: Letter to Staunton). Thanks to that letter, we are left with the signers' names and so we know some of the club's members:
Major Edmund W. Halsey (a journalist who worked as the mayor's, then the governor's private secretary; in 1858 played Maurian in three 7-game matches, losing the first, winning the second, the third abandonned with Halsey in the lead)
Chas. A. Maurian
E. Pandely (Pandely and Michinard seemed related somehow through marriage)
Pierre Emile Bonford ( Louisiana Associate Supreme Court Justice, b. 1820; d. 1864).
Additionally, P. N. Strong of New Orleans is on the subcription list for Fiske's Congress Book as well as other places. In fact, it was Strong who framed a letter to Morphy in Aug. 1858, when Moprhy's expected match with Staunton fizzled out, stating that the funds the club put up for the stakes needed to be returned.
During the American Civil War, with the occupancy of New Orleans by Union troops, the 1857 club was put temporarily out of business. After the war, they reorganized:
Howard's Staunton's chess column in "The Illustrated London News" from December 30,1865 -
NEW ORLEANS CHESS CLUB.----- Arrangements for the reorganization of the above society have been perfected. A formal inauguration of the club took place on Tuesday evening, Nov. 14, and was made the occasion of a pleasant reunion, at which wit and wine sparkled, and gaiety reigned supreme until a late hour of the night. At a special meeting it was agreed that the present club should be governed by the by-laws of the old association, and the following gentlemen were unanimously elected as officers: President, P. Morphy ; Vice-President, P. N. Strong; Secretary, C. Maurian; Treasurer, A. Blackmar. ---"New Orleans Sunday Star."
and the "New Orleans Sunday Star," Nov. 19., 1865 -
We announced in one of our last issue that arrangements were being made to reorganize the New-Orleans Chess Club; it is now our pleasant duty to chronicle the fact that these arrangements have been perfected, and that the glorious old institution is alive again. The rooms of the Club are contiguous to the Commercial News Rooms, east corner of St. Charles street and Commercial Place; and it is to be hoped that this locality being easily accessible to all, a numerous attendance will be secured every evening. A formal inauguration of the Club and News Rooms took place on Tuesday evening the 14th, and was made by Mr. Overall, the gentlemanly proprietor, the occasion of a pleasant reunion, the members being treated to a bountiful and delicate supply of edibles and potables provided by one of the best caterers in the city. Wit and wine sparkled, and gaiety reigned supreme until an advanced hour of the night. At a special meeting of the chess fraternity, it was agreed that the present club would be governed by the by-laws of the old association, and the following gentlemen were unanimously elected as officers :
President, Paul Morphyr; Vice Presedent, P. N. Strong;
Secretary, C. A. Maurian - Treasurer, A. E. Blackmar.
Now that something like this is offered, it is to be hoped that all chess amateurs will make it a point to join the club ; this can be done by applying to an of the officers or to the proprietor of the Commercial News Room.
from March 14, 1866 "Gardner's New Orleans Directory"
With the absence of Paul Morphy in the late 1860s, the club languished and little information about the club during the time between 1867 and 1880 can be found.
In 1880 members of this club reformed. Mr. Nicholas Browse Trist, a Notary Public and well-known writer on whist of that time ("Whist, American Leads and Their History"), popularized the game in New Olreans. Taking advantage of the trend, the organizers added whist to the mix and called the new club the New Orleans Chess, Checkers and Whist Club.
Among the founding members were: C. A. Maurian, Leon L. Labatt, Lucien E. Lyons, Louis Gallot, L. Claudel, Edgar H. Farrar, James D. Seguin, John Rocchi, Lucien .A. Ledoux, Frank E. Bernard, J. B. Tristam, Charles F. Buck, George A. Hero, L. Claudel, N. B. Trist, H. F. Warner, P. L. McCay, William Armstrong, D. J. Baldwin, A. E. Blackmar, Isidore Danziger, William H. Dwyer, Charles N. Edwards, Lewis L. Ellis, Fred. G. Freret, James A. Gresham, R. A. Harrison, W. S. Keplinger, Alexander Labry, Andre W. Seguin, Bernard C. Shields, Jules Targos, Jr., T. Toca, Edward F. Vix, Edward Vorster, and James Wibray.
Elections were held on July 24, 1880: President, Charles A. Maurian ; First Vice-President, Charles F. Buck ; Second Vice-President, E. F. Vix ; Secretary, James D. Seguin. Governing Committee—E. H. Farrar, A. E. Blackmar, James D. Seguin, A. E. Harrison, W. S. Keplinger and Isidore Danziger.
On On October 21, 1880, the club moved to more commodious rooms over the Frank Berkes' saloon at 168 Common street; then on On December 31 the Club moved yet again into rooms over Mrs. Droste's saloon at 166 Common street. Due to increased enrollment the Club move again on On February 10, 1881 to the rooms at 184 Common street on the corner of Varieties alley. That month the Club entertained the U.S. champion, Capt. George H. McKenzie. McKenzie visited again in Dec. 1881-Jan 1882. In January, 1883, Willhelm Steinitz also visited the Club while in April of 1884, Johannes Hermann Zukertort was their guest. Between Steinitz' and Zukertort's visits, the club had reached 500 members and again outgrew its venue. They moved into the former Perry House, at the corner of Canal and Baronne streets, remodeled it and moved in o Dec. 1, 1883.
The Perry House Hotel (on the far left) was established in 1876. It was built in 1851 for use by the exclusive social and business network, the Pelican Club. Henry Clay and Gen. Winfield Scott frequented the club during their visits to New Orleans for interaction with the city's movers and shakers as well as for games of Whist at which both fancied themselves to be experts. The Pelican Club sold the building in 1876 when it became the luxurious Perry House Hotel and the New Orleans Chess, Checkers and Whist Club took over the building in 1883.
The Perry House became the Chess clubhouse
Chess, Checkers and Chess Club circa 1895
The New Orleans Chess, Checkers and Whist Club, Jan. 1883 (photo by Theo. Lilienthal)Standing : Leon L. Labatt, James. G. Blanchard, James. D. Seguin, Charles F. Buck, Fernand Claiborne, unknown Sitting: Charles A. Maurien -- Wilhelm Steinitz.
On January 22, 1890, the building housing the Chess Club was gutted by fire:
LARGE FIRE IN NEW-ORLEANS
THE VALUABLE LIBRARY OF THE CHESS CLUB DESTROYED
New-Orleans, Jan. 22 --- About 2 o'clock this morning a fire broke out in the rear of the oyster stand, 6 Baronne-street, and situated in the three-story brick building 6, 8, and 10 Baronne-street, formerly known as the Pelican, then the Perry House, which rapidly spread, the net work of electric, telephone and telegraph wires rinning parallel to the building delaying and obstructing the operations of the fire department.
The entire paraphernalia of the Chess, Checkers, and Whist Club, including the library on the upper floors, and valued at $15,000, was destroyed. The confectionary and restaurant at the corner of Canal and Baronne streets, owned by Grouchy & Demecq, and William Kelley's barroom in the rear, were also completely burned out. The adjoining house on Canal-street, formerly occupied by E. Offner as an annex, was badly damaged. The damage is estimated at $125,000.
The building at 160 and 162 Canal-street, owned by Mrs. Adele Beer and occupied by Grouchy & Demecq, was insured as follows: Lancashire, $2,500 ; North American, $5,000 ; Exchange of New-York, $2,500 ; Providence of Washington, $5,000.
The Sun Insurance Company has a risk for $10,000. Grouchy & Demecq's stock is insured for $2,250 each. No. 164 Canal,vacant, is owned by foreigners, for whom A. C. Denis is the agent. No. 166 is owned by foreigners and occupied by W. E. Seebold. The stock was slightly damaged by water and was insured for $25,000 in the Tentouia and other companies.
The Chess Club had one of the most valuable libraries in the world, including the relics, chess and game records of the late Paul Morphy, a fine collection of autographic data, portraits, and statuary, all of which were destroyed and most of which cannot be replaced.
The building was erected before the war, and is one of the most desirable sites in New-Orleans. It is in the clubnose neighborhood, and without doubt the most elegant and costly club edifices in the South will rise from its ashes.
-The New York Times, January 23, 1890
The 1905 edition of "Lasker's Magazine" claimed, "In 1890 a fire destroyed the Perry Building and all the property of the New Orleans Chess, Checkers and Whist Club, but it seemed to feel an impetus rather than a depression! From that disaster and it rose from the ashes a stronger organization than ever . . ."
The building was soon repaired and the club did flouirsh eventually reachig 1,100 members. Many masters visited the club when in New Orleans. Among them (besides Steinitz and McKenzie): Harry Nelson Pillsbury in February, 1899 towards the start of his long U.S. tour; Chigorin in March or 1899 after losing his world championship match with Steinitz; Emanuel Lasker in 1907; Frank Marshall in 1913; Capablanca in April, 1915 giving a 19 board simul; Carlos Torre Repetto in 1923.
In 1920 the club apparently started having problems. It moved yet again, this time just down the block to 120 Baronne St. It occupied four floors in that large building, which had many rooms for games, as well as dining rooms, a billiard hall, a library and bedrooms for men who lived at the club.
New Orleans Chess, Checker and Chess Club, 1920
It was just a couple of years after the death of Judge Leon L. Labatt (Jan. 28, 1928), one of the clubs strongest players and main supporters, and after a number of resignations with the accompanying dwindling membership as well as the gerneral finacial hardships the the Great Depression visited upon the enitre country, that the members decided to disband. They soonformed a new group called the Paul Morphy Chess Club. This new club was first established in the Baxter Building. It moved several times during its existance: to Commercial Place, then to Camp Street, then to the corner of Polydoras and St. Charles and finally to St. Charles Avenue proper. It existed at least up to 1948.