Alexandre Louis Honoré Lebreton Deschapelles
(portrait - HERE)
After the death of Philidor in 1795 there was a period of silence in the chess world. In 1775 four men had gotten together and wrote a book called "Traité Théorique et Pratique du Jeu des échecs par une Societé d' Amateurs" or simply "Traité des Amateurs." (La Societé d' Amateurs was really a larger group of players, but it was the 4 leading players who game impetus and validity to that group) The book earned a certain amount of popularity, enough to have been reprinted several times and translated into German. These four men were Verdoni, Bernard, Carlier and Leger. Although they didn't even approach Philidor's level, they were considered the best in the world in the years following his death. Verdoni, in fact, replaced Philidor at Parsloe's in London until he also died in 1804 (when he was supplanted by Jabob Henry Sarratt). Bernard, Leger and Carlier led the crowd at the Café de la Régence in Paris.
English chess was weak but organized, French chess was strong but chaotic. Eventually strength grew from organization and weakness from chaos, but at the turn of the century, France was still the place to play chess.
Around 1798 a French player worthy of Philidor's crown appeared almost out of nowhere. His sudden emergence was compounded by his nearly mythical claims and deeds. He was Alexandre Louis Honoré Lebreton Deschapelles who claimed to have learned all he needed to know about chess in just four days.
According to George Walker, Deschapelles noted:
"I acquired chess, in four days! I learned the moves, played
with Bernard, who had succeeded Philidor as the sovereign of
the board; lost the first day, the second, the third, and beat
him even-handed on the fourth; since which time I have never
advanced or receded. Chess to me has been, and is, a single
idea, which, once acquired, cannot be displaced from its throne,
while the intellect remains unimpaired by sickness or age."
It's true that Deschapelles had a facility for games and excelled, not only at chess, but at billiards, Polish draughts, trictrac, and whist despite the fact that he had lost his right hand in a battle during his youth. In that same battle he received a sabre cut that opened his skull diagonally from his forehead to his chin, disfiguring him and inspiring the belief that such a wound actually freed his brain, empowering his mind.
His father and brothers had been in the service of Louis XVI. During the French Revolution, they fled France. Deschapelles, himself, was a revolutionary and received his wounds fighting for Napoleon - but when Napoleon crowned himself Emperor, he turned against him and tore off the Cross of Honor which had been conferred on him June 1, 1804, one of the first ever issued.
Taking up chess in 1798, Deschapelles quickly took up residence at, and figuratively ruled, the Café de la Régence. In 1806, after the battle of Jenna, the army to which Descapelles was attached entered Berlin. There Descapelles challenged the best chess players of Germany and won, giving them rook's odds. (something later disputed by the English press - instigating a hasty, ill-fated challenge from Deschapelle to the British chess players.)
In 1812, Deschapelles was making a good living as a superintendant of the tobacco monopoly, a post granted to him by Napoleon's aide, Marshall Ney (through the insistance of Ney's wife, Duchess of Elchingen).
In 1815, after Waterloo, Deschapelles formed a band of partisans which named him their general. It didn't last long. In 1820, Deschapelles took on Bourdonnais as a student.
In April 1821, John Cochrane, then 23, visited France. He, Deschapelles and Bourdonnais played a triangular contest - each one playing the others. First, Deschapelles played Bourdonnais and Cochrane giving them each the odds of a pawn and 2. He beat Cochrane 6-1 but lost all 7 of his games to Bourdonnais. Deschapelles then played Cochrane even but requiring himself to win 2/3 of the games as a form of odds. Cochrane won that match. That's the only recorded instance of anyone beating Deschapelles even, but then, again, Deschapelles almost never played even.
Also in 1821, Willian Lewis came to Paris expressly to play Deschapelles. Lewis won the 3 game match receiving odds of pawn and the move by drawing two and winning one. Deschapelles then challenged Lewis to an extended match of 21 games at odds of pawn and 2 at much greater stakes but Lewis declined.
[edit: The 1821 contest is very confusing and cloudy. The results are probably not as indicated above. Rod Edwards of Edo Historical Chess Ratings took an in-depth look into it and came up with different findings. Far too complex to relate here, one can read them in his article, "Le temps des combats de géants." ]
One anecdote tells us that a stranger came into la Régence one day and inquired from the manager, Masson, whether Deschapelles would play him a game. Deschapelles had the manager find out what the stakes would be and the stranger said that his religion prohibited him to play for money. Deschapelles sent word that his religion prohibited from being absurd ("La mienne me défend d’être absurde").
In 1822, Deschapelles gave up chess, most likely because Bourdonnais by now was the better player. He took up whist and quickly mastered the game winning more money at this game than he ever had at chess. With his new found wealth, he and his bride rented a villa near Paris where he raised orchards, pheasants, pumpkins, melons as well as pineapples and orchids in his greenhouses. His melons and pumpkins even won prizes and were so highly valued, they were served to King Louis-Philippe. George Perigal was an English player who, incidentally, took part in the first telegraph game in England in 1845 as well as being on the London team in the correspondence matches against Edinburgh in 1824 and Paris in 1834. Perigal, secretary of the London Chess Club, was in charge of handling the English negotiations with Deschappelles who had challenged to play any English player at Pawn&2. After the English raised the necessary 500£ stakes, Deschappelles withdrew his challenge, inspiring Perigal to write:
"M. Deschapelles is the greatest chess player in France;
M. Deschapelles is the greatest whist player in France;
M. Deschapelles is the greatest billiards player in France;
M. Deschapelles is the greatest pumpkin-grower in France;
M. Deschapelles is the greatest liar in France."
Deschapelles resumed playing chess in 1836 when, after 14 years of non-play, he drew a 3 game match (+1 =1 -1) against Saint-Amant giving Saint-Amant odds of Pawn&2. He won a 5 game match (+2 =2 -1) against Wilhelm Schulten of Germany in 1842 also at odds of Pawn&2. He then played Saint-Amant a 5 game match winning +3 -2.
In 1839, Deschapelles published his "Traité du Whiste" ("Treatise on Whiste"), even though he had only completed 2 of the expected 15 chapters. But in 1842, he sent Saint-Amant another chapter to be published in "Le Palamède."
For the last year and a half of his life, Deschapelles was confined to bed. He suffered delusions which he expressed by composing rambling constitutions for various countries. His final wishes were that he should die unannounced and unheralded, buried in a pauper's grave.
-Read George Walker's account of Deschapelles: The Chess King from CHESS & CHESS-PLAYERS, kindly transcribed and generously made available by Mark Weeks.
-Read Dr. Spinrad's unique and insightful take on Deschappelles at Egomaniacal Prototype.
-Read my own transcription of The Memoir of M. Deschapelles
Two games by Deschappelles: