Café de la Régence


I first published this 6 years ago.



The 18th century was self-styled as the The Age of Enlightenment.

Although this movement encompassed Art, Music and Literature, it was more evident in the philosophers, scientists and social engineers of the time.

For our purposes in discussing chess, the important factors are that the European intellectual center was now France and that chess, once simply considered a complex game, was embraced by the intellectuals who brought some of their powers for abstract thought to bear on chess. Chess was still considered a game, for sure, and as a game, only deserved a certain amount of one's time and energy, but, even so, they helped raise chess to a higher level, and essentially helped keep chess alive. In the previous half century, the popularity of chess had been waning and little was published and few new ideas had been advanced. Greco's book was the chess bible and people memorized his games without understanding them. The understanding of chess started to become more significant as people more capable, and with more leisure time, took up the game.

Much of the philosophic discussions and discourses took place in coffeehouses. In Paris, the most famous coffeehouse was the Café de la Régence.

The Café de la Régence attracted the greatest minds and personages of the era: Diderot, Voltaire, Rousseau, Ben Franklin, Robespierre, a young Napoleon.

They gathered to discuss ideas and to play chess. The greatest of the chess players was de Kermur, Sire de Légal who was soon to be supplanted by an even greater player: Francois-Andre Danican Philidor.

The Café de la Regénce, located on rue Saint-Honoré near the Louvre on la Place du Palais-Royal, first opened it's doors in 1670. It was owned by an American. Around 1740, it inherited the chess cliental from the Café Procope and for the next century and a half, it became the chess Mecca.
In 1840, George Walker described the Café:

"On Sunday all keep their hats on, to save space, and an empty chair is worth a ransom. The din of voices shakes the roof as we enter, like a beast-show at feeding time! Can this be chess, the recreation of solitude? We sigh for cotton to stuff our ears. Mocha is brought. We sip. Manners are to be noted and chessmen are to be sketched. The English are the best lookers-on in the world, the French the very worst. They do not hesitate to whisper their opinions freely, to point with their hands over the board, to foretell the probable future, to vituperate the past. I have all but vowed that when next I play chess in Paris, it shall be in a barricaded room."

Around 1760, Diderot remarked: "Paris is the place in the world, and the Café de la Regence the place in Paris where this game is played best."

There is an impressive list of professional house players who worked La Régence and players who visited there.  Included among the more notable:

Ignazio Calvi - an Italian player was the house professional there for 4 years. He was able to stash away 40,000 francs.
de Kermur, Sire de Légal
Voltaire played a correspondence game, via courier, with Fredrick the Great at La Régence.
Diderot  tells us that the chessboards were rented by the hour. At night, when a candle had to be fixed on either side, the rent was higher.

Ben Franklin - according to "Simpsons Contemporary Quotations", compiled by James B. Simpson. 1988:

"Dr. Franklin was U.S. Ambassador to France, and the center of the chess world was located at the Café de la Regence. None other than reputed world champion Francois Andre Philidor was a regular at the Café, and Franklin visited the Café in 1781 with the intention of having Philidor autograph his copy of one of Philidor's books on chess. Of course many visitors to the Cafe were making the same request to which Café proprietor Jacques Labar had a prepared denial to keep Philidor from constant interruptions. However upon recognizing the distinguished Franklin, Labar promptly presented him to Philidor, who graciously autographed Franklin's book. Once gone, Labar turned to Philidor saying, 'Francois, you just autographed your book for the American Ambassador!' Philidor looked up from his game for the first time and said, 'That's funny, I never knew that he was a chess player'."

Jacque-Francois Mouret, known for his drinking as well as his chess, was both the most renowned operator of the Turk and a house professional at La Regence.
William Schlumberger, America's best player between 1826-1837,earned 4 francs/day giving lessons there. He taught Saint-Amant the game. (Schlumberger was also the Turk's last operator)
Pierre Saint-Amant
Lionel Kieseritzky
Daniel Harrwitz, whom Lasker called, "a great player".
Paul Morphy - who played and won his match with Harrwitz there, as well as his famous 10 hour blindfold demonstration against 8 strong players (winning 6, drawing 2). But contrary to Bird's description of the Cafe de la Régence as "Morphy's old haunting grounds," Morphy, in a letter to Daniel Fiske in 1863 stated, "I have, for my own part, resolved not to be moved from my purpose of not engaging in chess hereafter. The few games that I have played here have been altogether private and sans facon. I never patronize the Cafe de la Régence; it is a low, and, to borrow a Gallicism, ill frequented establishment."
Samuel Rosenthal,  who won the championship of the Café de la Régence three years in a row.
 Jules Arnous de Rivière

In 1855 the Café de la Régence moved to a different location, but chess continued to be played there until 1916 when the chess room was closed down.


In 1852 Emperor Napoléon III (Emperor from 1852 to 1870) put into motion his long term plan to renovate Paris. He appointed Georges-Eugène Haussmann (1809-1891) prefect of the département of the Seine and commissioned him to oversee the renovation. He transformed the dark medieval Paris into a true City of Lights, changing over half of the city's buildings in the process. Narrow streets became boulevards; bridges were built; both the water supply and  the sewer systems greatly improved. The process consumed the entire reign of Napoléon III.

The Café de la Régence where Morphy gave his famous blindfold exhibition in 1858 was not the same Régence of Philidor and Bourdonnais. It too had been renovated and relocated.

                In 1852 the Café de la Régence lost its original home on Place du Palais-Royal,
                where it opened in 1681 as one of the first coffee houses in Paris. It found temporary
                quarters on Rue de Richelieu for two years, then moved permanently to the Rue
                Saint-Honoré, where it remains to this day, though under a different name. The
                removal of the Café from its time honored location symbolized its removal from the
                history of chess. When the immortal American master Morphy gave a fantastic
                exhibition in the Café's new home in the late 1850's, playing eight blindfold games
                simultaneously, it was the visit of Morpheus, and the Café de la Régence has slept
                peacefully ever since.
                     -Paul Metzner, Crescendo of the Virtuoso,  p.53

La France Pittoresque published an article in 1882 entitled Les cafés artistiques et littéraires de Paris. In this article is mentioned not only the renovation, but a number of the frequenters of the Café. 

from a cleaned-up machine translation:

                Located formerly at the corner of the street Saint-Honoré and the place of the Palais
                Royal, this establishment had famous customers and chess players of a remarkable
                strength. These included Deschapelles, Bourdonnais, Philidor, Saint-Amant,  General
                Bonaparte (this last was not a particularly great chess player). Alfred de Musset was,
                until incapacitated by his disease [Musset's Disease - an ailment of the heart brought
                on by heavy drinking], one of faithful of la Régence. He was a strong player. Knowing
                the habits of this famous author of the tales of Spain and Italy [more famous as a
                French poet], people from  foreign lands, as well as from the provinces, ones came to
                the Cafés just to watch him play.


                On the long terrace in edge on the place of the Théâtre Français , one sees only
                foreigners, English, Americans. Scandinavians, Germans. The Norwegians, the
                Swedes, the Danes are there as on their own premises. The newspapers are
                received: from Stockholm, Copenhagen and Christiana, and the compatriots of
                Mrs. Nilsson devote themselves to literary or political discussions in this language
                that very little of French include/understand.

                Having crossed  so noisy a terrace, one can enter a small room where the chess
                players sit at their tables. There, no sharp discussions, not even a movement. One
                only hears the small sharp snap of a chess piece as someone makes a manœuvrer.
                Formerly one did not smoke in this room; but the love of the tobacco grew popular
                even with the chess amateurs; the cigarettes, cigars and even pipes form clouds of
                smoke there at times. The chess players are so absorbed, that very often forget to
                eat that which they paid for; sometimes forget to drink the grog that they ordered or,
                as they never look at anything other than the battle field, – i.e. the board where they
                deploy their skill – if they drink, they sometimes accidentally drink their opponent's
                order, swallowing a coffee or beer mouthful to the cream, mixing the wormwood with
                the American grog. These blunders amuse the gallery who laugh at the grimaces of the
                inattentive players. On the walls of the small room about which we speak hang
                medallions bearing the names of: Bourdonnais, Philidor, Deschapelles, PH Lopez [?],
                Greco, P. Stamma, Macdonald, G Lolli, G Selenus; then the date of the foundation
                of the Café , 1718, and that of its restoration, 1855.

                With the right end of the terrace is the entry to a much larger room where the most
                serious games are played. By around six  o'clock, all the tables are occupied. On
                one of them the name of Bonaparte is engraved ; it was brought from place of the
                Palais Royal to the new establishment. The future emperor himself had this marble
                chess-board made.

                M . Grévy, the president of the Republic, was a long time one of the enthusiasts of
                Régence.  He either played or followed the games. One often sees there Mr. Paul
                Bethmont or Mr. Audren de Kerdrel, senator. A deputy, Mr. Fernand Gatineau,
                remain on the terrace as chess doesn't seem to really interest him.

                Those players of which one follows the games with the most attention are: Mr. de
                Rosenthal, a Pole; Mr. Festhamel who, in the Monde Illustré, the National Opinion,
                and in the Century,  poses the most difficult chess problems; M. le vicomte de
                Bornier; according to the hearsay of the experts, the author of  la Fille de Roland
                has in just a short time become of a remarkably strong; Mr. Chaseray, appraiser,
                who sits endlessly in front of a chess-board at  l'Hôtel des Ventes; the sculptor
                Lequesne ; Mr. Baucher, the son of an equestrian professor; Mr. Charles Jolliet,
                whose voice fills up the room; Mr. Auguste Jolliet, from France, Mr. Prudhon of the
                same theatre; Mr. Séguin; Mr. Charles Royer, a well-read man who wrote the very
                remarkable forewords for several volumes of Lemerre. Mr. Royer is the nephew of
                Mr. Garnier-Pagès, whom one saw sometimes at Régence with his long white hair
                falling down on his immense detachable collar; Mr. Maubant, of the
                Comédie-Française ; Mr. de la Noue, son-in-law of the former minister for the
                Empire, Mr. Billaut; a retired officer and Mr. Coulon, who pushes his pieces with
                military sang-froid.

Harper's New Monthly Magazine

Leaving the noisy brasseries of the Latin Quarter, we will re-cross the Seine, and direct our steps toward Montmartre, the Bohemia of modern Paris. On our way, however, we will pay a visit to the Café de la Régence, on the Place du Theatre Francais, the great rendezvous of the French chess-players. The present café is not the one where Bonaparte played, or even Alfred de Musset. The historic Café de la Régence was pulled down when the Place du Palais Royal was transformed, and the name and the habitués of the old café were transferred across the street to the present establishment, together with the table on which Napoleon used to play chess before he was Napoleon, or even First Consul. This café, thanks to its proximity, is naturally the resort of the actors of the Comedie Francaise; it has also its champion domino-player and its champion billiard-players; but its chief glory is chess, in which game the Régence has boasted a long line of champions, beginning a hundred and fifty years ago with Philidor, and continuing through Mouret, Deschapelles, Labourdonnaise, Saint Amant, Kiezeritsky, Neumann, Harrwitz, and Rosenthal, who has now abandoned the Régence, and left the chieftain-ship to Arnous
de Rivière.

Finally, a paraphrased article from

                In the early 1700's chess players met at the Café Procope in Rue des Fossés
                at the front of  the old center of the Comédie Français, owned by the Sicilian
                nobleman, Francois Procope. The Café Procope was a gathering place for chess
                players, men of letters, adventurers and spies of the police. Cafés were true
                cultural centers where, beyond playing and drinking, discussion about art,
                literature, philosophy and politics abounded. When the Café de the Régence,
                opened in 1718 in t the Palais Royal, it became the center of the cultural life of
                France. Additionally, the chess players moved there en mass.

                The Café opened at the eight in the morning and its first customers were the
                habitual players who crowded looking to play billiards, checkers, dominoes and,
                naturally, chess. By noon the premises was a dense cloud of smoke from mixed
                tobacco and smelled of  alcohol, with the waiters needing to force a passageway
                through the thick crowd to the small tables where, in the course of the years,
                alternated such personages like Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, Robespierre and

                With to the Café was born also a new personage: the professional player -  like
                Legal, he could be employed by the owner of the premises in order to play with
                anyone looking for a game, or he could be a customer himself,  playing for money.
                Such were the Italian Verdoni and Philidor, who divided his life between the twin
                professions of musician and chess-player. In the successive century, Deschapelles
                and the Bourdonnais were likewise. To attract the weaker players, professionals
                usually played at odds, giving Pawn & the move or two - even a Knight or a Rook.
                In the Café and the chess clubs this custom remained in vogue even into the first
                decades of the 1900's.

                Into the middle 1800's. Paris was the pace for chess and the Café de the Régence
                hosted some of the more important matches of the age such as the return match
                between Staunton and Saint-Amant . It was just this challenge, which ended in an
                English victory, that marked the beginning of the decline of French dominance. By
                royal decision,  the Café de the Régence moved to la Place du Théâtre Français
                and all hope of it's former glory faded. In 1858  Morphy visited the Café and
                defeated with ease all the strongest local players. The golden age of French chess
                was gone. Chess now spoke English and, before long, will have begun to
                speak German.