Chess in the Vieux Carré
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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.
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.
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).
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:
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.
More about Ernest Morphy can be read here:
More about Charles de Maurian can be read here:
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:
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:
and the "New Orleans Sunday Star," Nov. 19., 1865 -
from March 14, 1866 "Gardner's New Orleans Directory"
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
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 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