Le Café de la Régence

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Something about the idea of coffeehouses appeals to me. When chess is added to the blend, the appeal becomes almost irresistible. No coffeehouse comes close to the Café de la Régence in Paris.  I've written about the Café several times * and I have the unscratchable itch to write some more. I came across this informative article in the 1886-7 issue of the Chess-monthly that recalls all the great players associated with the Café de la Régence.


The Chess Monthly
Volume VIII
September, 1886 - August, 1887
Edited by Leopold Hoffer & Johannes Hermann Zukertort

(from " The European Correspondant.")
By Theodor Tilton

     As a dabbler in Chess, I have often taken occasion, during my sojourn in Paris, to spend an idle hour at the Café de la Régence. This time-honoured temple of Caïssa is the Mecca of Chess-players. Pilgrims from the four quarters of the globe visit it with curiosity and respect. Though London is the centre of the Chess-world, yet the English Divan has no such long sweep of historical associations as the French Régence. Built on the spot where Henry IV. made his victorious entry into Paris, the Café de la Régence maintains the genius loci, and is a perpetual battle-ground of kings.
     As a monument of the past, its name is itself a history, and bears witness to a corner-stone laid in the early part of the eighteenth century— or more than 150 years ago. Indeed, the Régence is of such a goodly age that among its original frequenters were Rousseau, d'Alembert and Marmontel, who were all in their graves before the dawn of the present century.
     It was the trysting-place of Robespierre. It was the bivouac of Bonaparte. It does not boast, of any tangible relic or souvenir of Robespierre, but it preserves a small table of grey marble, on which the young Corsican lost many a game of Chess to his friend Captain Bertrand. Years afterwards, at St. Helena, where the great exile was allowed to do little else than to play Chess, he still played it badly. His memorial table at the Régence, bearing his almost illegible name on a worn-out silver plate, has been put to much service since his day, and has been the scene of many a more brilliant Chess-contest than he himself was ever able to wage. It is true tbat be won some vapid victories over Madame do Remusat, yet all his recorded games, without exception, are of inferior quality. But there is hardly more similarity or connection between the strategy of Chess and that of military manœuvres, than there is between the game of billiards and a bombardment. Moreover, to reach the rank of mastership in Chess requires from the aspirant his supreme and undivided attention to this one pursuit, making it a profession, as a man makes a profession of law or medicine. Hence the great masters of Chess can be great masters of nothing else. And they have always been " few and far between."  Even at the present time, when Chess is everywhere diffused and popularised throughout the civilised world, there are not more than twenty living players of prime force—not an average of one to a nation. But it has been the singular fortune of the Régence to have had, during the whole course of its long history, an uninterrupted succession of these "primates." The old homestead has never been without a resident player of the first rank. The galaxy of the Régence has always had a star of the first magnitude. This fact may seem phenomenal; and yet the explanation is not difficult; for where else in France than at the Régence could a first-class player, at any time during the last five generations, have found a fit public field "for his genius ?
           His canonicals were of a long-past fashion, a powdered wig and knee breeches. His portraits make him look like an American grandfather of Continental days. I fancy him pondering his "Pawns," which he called "the soul of Chess." He was the one Achilles of his age ; but among his later contemporaries and his immediate successors were several Agamemnons. These were Legal and Verdoni, Sasias and Calvi, Boncourt and Mouret—all giants in their day.
     And one of them was not only a giant but a dwarf. This was little Monsieur Mouret, who was such a pigmy that he was able to wriggle into the celebrated machine known as the Chess Automaton, where he hid his tiny self from all spectators, like a mouse in a wainscot, and where daily, for many months, from his place of concealment, he moved the fatal fingers of that grim wooden Turk who administered checkmate to lords and ladies, to princes and potentates, and to all other visitors who were willing to give good pay for being well drubbed. It was a long time before the cunning imp within was suspected by the curious world without.
     A very different type of man from Mouret was Deschapelles, whose form was tall and stately, whose face never wore a smile, and whose disposition was so jealous that "he bore, like the Turk, no brother near the throne."  He disdained to play with any opponent on even terms, but always gave odds. At length, when a few youngers players, whom he had trained, grew into an equality of force with their trainer, and he was no longer able to win from them at odds, ho suddenly ceased to play altogether, and proudly abdicated his sultanship.
     The sceptre passed to Labourdonnais, the greatest of all French Chessplayers, past or present. What a master ! There are elderly gentlemen still at the Régence who were the comrades, chums, cronies of Labourdonnais ; and they never tire of relating their reminiscences of this astonishing genius.

He was not only their player of players, but their man of men. It is strange that there is no likeness of him at the Régence. I hunted up a contemporary portrait of this celebrated Frenchman, engraved for an early number of the Palamíde, an old magazine that no longer exists, and I was not surprised to find that his head was noble enough to be called classic. I  think that Chess owes to Labourdonnais more than it does to any other master, dead or living ; for it was he who set free and gave to the "pieces" the soul which Philidor had restricted too narrowly to the "pawns."  Moreover, I am sure that it was Labourdonnais who kindled and moulded the mind of Paul Morphy, just as Morphy was in turn the inspiration of Steinitz, and just as Anderssen was the foster-father of Zukertort.
     The untimely death of Labourdonnais bequeathed to St. Amant the leadership of the Régence. There was a disparity of force between the two masters. Labourdonnais had beaten the best English player, Macdonnell ; but St. Amant was beaten by Macdonnell's successor, Staunton. The elegant St. Amant was a dandy, almost a "dude." He was quite too awfully exquisite. There is an amusing tradition in the Cafe, that his customary seat was near a front window, where his handsome features might be seen in the best light. He played every afternoon until he heard the sharp rat-a-tat of his wife's parasol on the outside of the window-pane, summoning him home to dinner. Always, as soon as he heard the signal, he jauntily rose, genteelly abandoned the Chess-board, airily bowed to his opponent, and skipped away on tiptoe after the imperious parasol, as it flitted around the corner.
     A Russian, bearing the prickly name of Kiezeritsky, was St. Amant's successor, and conducted the French periodical which, in honour of the Café, was called La Régence. He invented a gambit that still bears his name, though the gambit itself may now almost be said to exist no more. He was a frail and sickly man, with too much brain for his body ; and he wasted early away.
     After the Russian came a Prussian. This was Neumann. He, too, found an early grave. He has not left behind him a due measure of reputation with the public at large ; and yet all studious readers of the masterpieces of Chess know that Neumann's style was uncommonly clear and pure —like that, for instance, of Captain Mackenzie, of New York.
     Harrwitz had the leadership at the time when he had such competitors as Laroche, Journaud, and Devinck, but when Morphy came to Europe to cross swords with the champions of England, Germany and France, Harrwitz was defeated by the young American, and soon afterwards quitted Paris, France, and Chess.
      Rosenthal, a Pole, grew up at the Régence, and became, in his turn, its leading player ; but he is now seldom seen at his old haunt in the Rue St. Honoré. There have been personal feuds, and he stays away ; but his time is profitably devoted elsewhere to a private club of wealthy gentlemen, with whom he has a lucrative and unique position, such as Philidor and Labourdonnais would have deemed "an earthly paradise."
     The present representative-in-chief of the Régence is Arnous Rivière. He received his first Chess training from Kiezeritsky, and became the intimate friend of Anderssen, Staunton, and Morphy. He may now justly be called the doye, or veteran of living Chess players in France. But a rumour has just been set afloat that this accomplished man is shortly to be appointed to a position in the Governmental commission for the coming Centennial of the French Republic. In case of his retirement from the Café, which seems presumable, his successor in the chieftainship will be his young and amiable rival, Johann Taubenhaus, who last summer came within a hair's breadth of winning the first prize at the International Tournament in London. So the long and unbroken chain of master-players at the Régence, extending over a period of 150 years, shows no prospective sign of missing a link.
    The game of Chess, however, is the public property, not of its few masters, but of its many amateurs. It is the amateurs who support the professors, the Tournaments, the Divan, and the Régence. I may say that the amateurs, even more than the "Pawns" or the "pieces," are "the soul of Chess."  The present amateurs who flock to the Régence are a busy bevy. The cool weather of autumn having set in, the dingy old rendezvous is now so crowded that a belated comer sometimes finds no vacant Chess-table. I will not undertake to catalogue the company, for its name is legion. I will merely mention ten or a dozen prominent names, not in the order of merit, but at the haphazard of memory:—Chamier, of the Westminster Renew; Clerc, the well-known French jurist ; Ladislas, a young Servian student of science ; Macaulay, a nephew of the historian ; Del Dosso, an Italian artist ; Pagonkine, a Russian count ; O'Gallighan, formerly professor of English at the University of France ; Boiron, a French professor of billiards ; May, the American coadjutor of Gambetta in some celebrated balloon travels ; Duff, a Fleming ; Weissman, a Prussian ; Fliegel, an Austrian ; Makowsky, the well-known problemist ; David, a French musician ; Joliet, of the Comédie-Française ; Barteling, the strongest Parisian player of draughts ; Pasquier, a lawyer ; Tauber, one of the most promising of the younger aspirants ; Selouchine, from Russia ; George Vail, a former secretary of Ferdinand de Lesseps ; and last but not least, the venerable William Young, a "fine old English gentleman," now on the verge of his eighties, and who, for many years, was the editor of the Albion, in New York.
     I have mentioned these gentlemen as "amateurs ;" but some among them, especially Charnier and Macaulay, belong to the small class of players of the first order.
     Americans, on visiting the Régence, are proud to see the honour which it renders to the memory of Morphy ; it has put his bust en face with that of Philidor. My recollection is fresh and vivid of Morphy's pale, intellectual face and forehead ; and I regret that in this bust, though it was the work of no less a sculptor than Lequesne, I do not find a satisfactory image of the marvellous young man. It lacks what Shakespeare's description gives to Cicero, and what Nature gave to Morphy—"fiery and ferret eyes." But as the bust was moulded from life, it can never have a rival in authenticity, and must be accepted as historical. I happened to be at the Régence when the news came of Morphy's death. The immediate and unanimous verdict of the whole chamber of experts was that he had proved himself the unrivalled and supreme player of his time, and that his only predecessor of equal grade was Labourdonnais. Morphy had never been a daily comer and goer at the Régence, like Labourdonnais, and yet Morphy's connection with the famous Café was sufficient to give the house a unique addition to its historical celebrity ; for it was at the Régence that he made his most surprising exhibition of blindfold play ; it was at the Régence that he vanquished Harrwitz ; and it was under the shadow of the Régence, in a private apartment, a few steps distant, that he affixed the final seal to his patent of supremacy by conquering Anderssen.
     It is known that a gold watch and chain of great value was publicly presented to Morphy, at the New York University, on his return from these European victories. This souvenir, which ought to be in America, is at the Régence. Its present possessor is Amous de Rivière, who a few days ago, as a graceful courtesy to a newly-arrived Ainercian visitor, took it from its hiding-place, and showed it to William J. A. Fuller, of New York, one of the primer-movers of the first American Chess Congress. This now venerable Chess-player, on taking the relic into his hands, had the odd satisfaction of saying : "I have seen this before, for it was I who had the honour to make the speech on the occasion of the presentation of this watch and chain to Morphy, a quarter of a century ago."
     The Régence, like the Bourse, is a place where "many men have many minds ;" and yet often a common opinion pervades the one as it does the other. It is, at present, the common opinion at the Régence that the strongest living player is Steinitz. The consent is general that he is the champion, not only by title, but by right. And yet, how long can he expect to hold the baton ? Only a few years, for he has lost his youth. Sooner or later his name must be pricked into the retired list ; in view of which contingency the chit-chat of the Café is that the international championship will probably pass to Tchigorin, of St. Petersburg, who, like the whole Russian nation, seems now pushing invincibly to the front.
     Jules Grévy, the venerable President of the French Republic, was for a quarter of a century a frequenter of the Régence ; and though Mahomet now no longer goes to the mountain, yet the mountain goes to Mahomet : in other words, once a week (or thereabouts) Judge Clerc, one of the chief pillars of French Chess—a player of manly vigour—visits the aged President and gives him an hour's wholesome recreation at the most rational of games. As a Republican, I take pride in saying that the President of the French Republic is so good a Chess-player that he could have beaten a whole battalion of Little Corporals or First Consuls.
     The Régence has been a favourite haunt of literary men, from Voltaire to Alfred de Musset. Voltaire, who lived on the other side of the Seine, went oftener to the Café-Procope ; but De Musset, whose rooms were in the Rue du Mont-Thabor, made the Régence his convenient evening rendezvous, the Café being within a stone's throw of his lodgings. De Musset's most intimate friend was De Rivière. The two comrades, for a long period of years, made it a rule to dine together every Wednesday night. De Rivière was fond of poetry, and De Musset was fond of Chess. These two magnates of the Régence, one living and the other dead, will hereafter always be coupled together in the traditions of the place.
     One of the most striking personalities of the Café will henceforth be seen there no more. I refer to the venerable Felix Vialay, who has just been laid at rest in Pcre Lachaise. He looked an octogenarian, yet he had scarcely attained to nature's normal limit of "three score years and ten." He was an eccentric character, not to be forgotten by anybody who ever knew him. His figure, his face, his voice, his wit—all were peculiar. His private conversation was like public orator}. He wore a blue shirt, with a sailor's necktie, and he covered his massive and bald head with an American slouched hat. He was sometimes taken for a sea-captain, sometimes for a farmer—never for what he was—a learned professor of Latin, Greek, and mathematics. He bore with him into his grave the little red ribbon of the Legion of Honour, and he leaves behind him an honour superior to any represented by that badge—an affectionate remembrance in the hearts of all who knew him well.
     The old tavern has a young Boniface. The landlord (or, as the French say, the "patron") is Joseph Kieffer, whose sympathies are as Alsatian as his name. His face is strikingly like that of General Grant, when Grant was in his thirties. This innkeeper has a fortunate idiosyncracy. Though he presides over a synod of Chess-players, yet he has never learned the A B C of Chess. I have even heard it said that he cannot tell the King from the Queen! It is by this wise ignorance in the hospitable host that the Régence is able to offer to friend and stranger, not only the best Chess in France, but the best coffee in Paris.

           ** With the exception of the usual licentia poetica,
              the foregoing sketch fairly renders the historical
              aspect of the famous Cafe; but we wish to rectify
              a grave omission in the "long line of magnates."
              No less a personage than Baron Kolisch has not been
              mentioned at all. Surely those who gave the gifted 
              writer the necessary information should not have 
              been biased by personal consideration. The long
              line of the magnates of the Régence began of course
              with Philidor. He has proved to be the St. Peter of
              an unbroken apostolic succession.


* Café de la Régence 
  Café de la Régence II