Napoléon and Chess: Missing the Best Move of a Lifetime
Image created with Crello using public domain imagery. Used with permission.

Napoléon and Chess: Missing the Best Move of a Lifetime

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When you give orders, empires fall.

You've spent your entire life conquering nation after nation in Europe: Italy, Germany, Spain.  Great nations fall under the weight of your well-disciplined army and your strategic brilliance. The mere mention of your name, Napoléon Bonaparte, strikes fear in the heart of any who oppose you.  In England, so you've heard, school children call you "Boney" and tell tales of how you devour naughty children!  Nonsense, of course... but it gives you a chuckle.

All was going well for you until the year 1814 when a colation of your enemies force you into abdication and, ultimately, into exile on the island of Elba, 12 miles (20 km) off the Tuscan coast.

You shrug off your defeat and exile.  You could use a vacation, anyway.  Conquering Europe takes a toll on a man. 

While in Elba, you keep your mind active by playing chess and smirking as your opponents collapse on the 64-square battlefield, reminding you of days past when it was grand armies capitulating before your might and brilliance.

Ultimately, you grow bored.  Always a master tactician, you craft your escape and the following year, 1815, you escape with 700 men and make your way back to Paris, taking command of an army of 200,000 men. 

Europe hasn't thought much of you lately.  But like a rook waiting patiently and lying forgotten across the board, you and your army sweep in at just the right moment to wreak havoc upon your foes!

Seeing your opportunity, you decided to attack the English in the Dutch town of Waterloo.  The English, however, prove to be a formidable opponent.  To make matters worse, the Prussians join the English and smash your right flank to pieces.  Your entire army is routed.

Four days pass before you gather the strength to abdicate.  This, you fear, is the end of the French Empire.  Confirming your fears, the Allies marched into Paris the following month and your nation, which once called you emperor, has now turned on you.  You again find yourself thrown into exile. 

This time, however, your adversaries are taking no chances with your imprisonment.  You've been exiled to the island of St. Helena, which surrounded by thousands of miles of the Atlantic Ocean.  To make matter worse, the island is practically one giant cliff.  If someone did want to rescue you, where would they even land their ships?  Adding insult to injury, there are over 2,800 men guarding you and 500 cannons!

Napoléon on the cliffs of St. Helena. Public domain picture.

This might be it for you.  You suppose it could be worse, though.  You are comfortable at least.  But you were born to lead men and nations, not to rot away on an island. 

One day, a gift arrives.  At least someone is thinking of you!  It is a chess set and a beautiful one made of carved ivory.  You don't know much more about it, unfortunately, as the poor lad who was entrusted to deliver it to you perished on the long sea journey to St. Helena.  

Napoléon's residence at St. Helena.

No matter.  You will still enjoy having a beautiful new set.  And you do, winning many victories against the locals.

But you never did find the best move on the board: For contained within one of the pieces, was a rather intricate escape plan to return you to Europe and your former glory!  

. . .

When I first read this, I was amazed.   The soldier entrusted with the delivery of this chess set and the piece containing the plans died of a heart attack while en route to St. Helena!  So when Napoléon received the set, he knew nothing of the plan contained therein.  It is interesting to think that Napoléon spent the rest of his life staring at one of the greatest possible moves of his life on the chessboard, but unable to see it!

Like many prisoners before and after him, Napoléon enjoyed filling his free time with chess.  And this is the second piece I've written about escape plans being smuggled into a prison inside of a chess set.

From my reading, there were a number of different plans to break him free of exile.  Some were incredibly intricate involving a pulley system to get him down the cliff and deliver him into one of the finest submarines the 1820s had to offer (spoiler: they weren't fine at all; they usually just plunged straight to the bottom). 

But many historians have speculated that Napoléon would have declined many of these far-fetched escape plans.  If he couldn't escape in style, he would have none of it.  But who knows, it is still fun to contemplate how history might have changed if he had escaped.

And on the plus side, an old patzer like me will likely never miss a move as important as the one he missed!

. . .


Shenk, David (2006). The Immortal Game: A History of Chess. Doubleday. ISBN 0-385-51010-1.

I'm a 40-something, long-time lover of chess who has always been in awe of the complexity of this beautiful game.  I use this blog to share the incredible history of chess and offer some commentary on current chess happenings around the world.  Enjoy!