Louis-Charles Mahé de La Bourdonnais



La Bourdonnais' death-mask

Instead of a portrait, we only have a sad caricature drawn from a dreadful mask moulded after death.  -Gabriel-Éloy Doazan writing to Prof. Geo. Allen


     Louis-Charles Mah
é de La Bourdonnais followed Deschapelles as the chess champion of France and likely the world.     A complete, yet concise, biography can be found here on Bill Wall's Bourdonnais Bio Page.
     Mark Weeks transcribed this article from "Frazer's Magazine" concerning the Café de la Régence, this part called, Portrait of La Bourdonnais, was published just a month before Bourdonnais died.
     All the Bourdonnais-McDonnell games can be played through here ---> Chessgames.com.
     There are many games with annotations by Paul Morphy here --> Chessgames.com

     With all these wonderful resources, I won't go into great detail on Bourdonnais'  life.

     When Deschapelles gave up playng chess in 1821, Bourdonnais (sometimes "La Bourdonnais,"  "dela Bourdonnais" or "Labourdonnais") supplanted him as the strongest player in France and probably the world. Unlike Deschapelles, who lorded over the Café de la Régence and played all comers at odds, Bourdonnais actively sought out the strongest opponents. Having beaten the brilliant John Miles Cochrane quite conclusively in 1821 in Paris (see Rod Edward's "Le temps des combats de géants"), he traveled to London in 1823 and played William Lewis, the "Teacher of Chess" (winning 5-2-0) who himself had supplanted Jacob Henry Sarratt, the "Professor of Chess," as the strongest player in England. Then two years later he returned to London, beat all comers, including Lewis again, and and, while there, married an English girl, Eliza Waller Gordon in July, 1825. She was the daughter of Lewis Gordon, Purser in the Royal Navy. In January 1842, 13 month's after Bourdonnais's death, she married James Budge of Camborne, Cornwall at Bethnal Green, London.

The above image comes from Mark Weeks page showing some of this book.
(copy and paste the url. For some reason chess.com alters the link)

     In 1833 Bourdonnais wrote a book, "Nouveau Traite du Jeux des Echecs,"  trying to recoup from his disaterous financial reverses caused by bad land investments. But it was 1834 where he finally reached the apex of his chess career.

     Bourdonnais accepted the challenge from the Irish born Londoner, Alexander McDonnell (or M'Donnell), who had surpassed Lewis in people's minds as the best player in England.  Unlike other matches of those days which were usually short and quick, this match, arranged by George Walker, was really a series of six matches. They played a total of 85 games. The moves were recorded by William Greenwood Walker, the secretary of the Westminster Chess Club where the matches were held  ["I recorded minutely the whole of their matches, being occasionally relieved at my post by Mr. Lewis, and Mr. George Walker, the well known writers on Chess."].  Bourdonnais won 45, over half. MacDonnell won 27, about a third. There were only 13 draws - so it was a fighting match.
    The final match was suspended when Bourdonnais had to take care of some business in Paris and McDonnell took sick. McDonnell died before the match could be resumed. He was buried at Kensal Green in London where Bourdonnais would join him in five short years. William Greenwood Walker, the recorder, died in 1839 in between McDonnell and Bourdonnais, but was able to publish the entire match, minus one game, in 1836 within the context of his book, "A Selection of Games at Chess Acutally Played in London by the Late Alexande M'Donnell, Esq."

     Since very little is said, or probably even known, about the recorder of these games, here is some peripheral information on William Greenwood Walker:
Walker is often portrayed as an old man (including by G.H. Diggle who called him "aged" and impressionally by George Walker who called him "full of years") , but in fact he was born in Leeds in Dec. 1785,  putting him at 48 at the time of the match.  He succeeded George Walker as secretary of the Westminster Chess Club (opened on the first floor of Huttman's coffee house on Bedford street, Covent Garden in 1832) which hosted the event and worked as a silk broker and manufacturer.  Contrary to what is sometimes written, he wasn't the founder of the Westminster Club, but among its first members. He was also an ardent admirer of fellow chess club member Alexander M'Donnell and after M'Donnell's death, published, "A selection of games at chess actually played in London by the late Alexander M'Donnell, Esq.," which contained many games M'Donnell played even and at various odds, mostly during the late 2 years of his life,  as well as 84 of the 85 games from the famous match (William Lewis probably recorded game 14).  
     He wife, Mary Ann (Dodd), was 5 years younger and lived until 1870.  The lived mostly in Middlesex where she was born. They had 6 children- 2 boys: William and Alfred); and 4 girls, Mary
, Emma, Amelia and Isabella.  Isabella was only 9 years old when her father died on June 24,1839  (Mary, the oldest, was 23) so his widow certainly had her hands full. 
            George Walker wrote in "The Chess-player's Chronicle" in 1843:
                Mr. William Greenwood Walker, himself but a very moderate
                Chessplayer, (related to me only in name,) was the most
                enthusiastic Chess recorder I have ever had the honour to know.
                He cared little to play himself, but delighted to be always at
                M'Donnell's elbow, to record his victory; like one of the bards of
                old, ever by the side of his Chief to hymn the song of triumph in
                his praise. Mr. Walker took down the whole of the games played
                by M'Donnell and La Bourdonnais, and printed them, with many
                others played by the former, in a well known octavo volume.
                Without him, these fine games would have been lost for ever.
                Great, then, is the obligation we are all under to his name, for
                thus constantly attending at his post—the scribe, the herald of the
                war. It is no light thing to sit daily five or six hours, during a period
                of months, to watch games playing, and write them down. Mr.
                William Greenwood Walker has been taken from us long since. He
                died full of years. We could "well have spared a better—aye,
                many a better—man."

     Here is a clippng from the "Leeds Intelligencer" of May 16, 1846 showing George Walker still honoring William G. Walker for his work preserving notes of games even beyond the match games:

                   The "Thousand Games" is Walker's remarkable 1844 "Chess Studies
                   comprising of one thousand games"  which starts off with the entire
                   85 games of the Bourdonnais-M'Donnell match plus many, many more
                   by those same players; games by Philidor and Philidor's contemporaries;
                   50 games by Mouret playing as the automaton; 60 correspondence
                   games; a few games by Deschapelles, Sarratt and Lewis.


     This match was important on several levels. First, no previous match had been this involved nor this revealing of the two opponents skills and weaknesses. No other match had ever been so well recorded, nor so promptly published. No other match up to this time had ever been so thoroughly studied and annotated.  No other match had ever been so praised and admired by adherents to both parties. Most importantly, no other match had ever generated the level of interest as did this one. It served as a catalyst to inspire an unheard of wave of popularity for the game.  Ironically, a very mediore player, Willaim Greenwood Walker, played perhaps an almost pivotal role, but certainly one for which no praise could suffice, in the history of the game.

     The opponents were equal in talent, the main and telling difference being Bourdonnais' knowledge of opening theory. McDonnell's mentor was William Lewis who disdained the study of openings. The games are surprisingly modern and often positional and they are typically numbered 1-85 in the order in which they were played.

     According to British chess historian, G.H. Diggle:
    "Of the 85 games, the following have been agreed by generations of critics to be "the greats:" Games 17, 47, 62 and 78 won by the Frenchman and 5, 21, 30, 50 and 54 won by McDonnell."

     Game 50 is usually singled out for it's brilliance.

Game 50

Joseph Méry

     Bourdonnais' win in game 39 inspired Joseph Méry (who would co-found and co-edit the periodical, "Le Palamède," with Bourdonnais in 1836) to write a poem honoring Bourdonnais called, "Une Revanche de Waterloo."
    According to the "British Chess Magazine" (BCM) review of "The Chess Player’s Chronicle" Volume 3 (1843):
     "Staunton’s magazine features a long poem in French celebrating Bourdonnais vs. McDonnell, entitled "Une Revanche de Waterloo,"  depicting McDonnell descending, like Rob Roy, from the mountains of Scotland to do battle with the French hero. It seems a shame to spoil this romantic vision by pointing out that McDonnell came from Belfast." -

Game 39



    In response to Méry's poem, the Rev. Alexander Charles Louis Poichard d'Arblay of the Westminster Club (who died in 1837) wrote "Caïssa Rediviva,"  a light-hearted, poetical retelling of one of M'Donnell's Muzio Gambits.

Game 54

     Bourdonnais suffered a stroke in 1838. In the last three weeks of his life, Bourdonnais and Eliza were supported financially through George Walker's efforts. Mons. Thiers, the Prime Minister of France was arranging a pension to be granted by the state for Bourdonnais and his wife.  Bourdonnais died before the king granted it, but Madame La Bourdonnais received it for the remainer of her life.

     45 year old Louis-Charles Mahé de La Bourdonnais died December 13, 1840.
[According to the "BCM," Jan. 1887: "
The date of his birth is not exactly known: a French tradition places it in 1795, the year of Philidor's death; but the epitaph which may still be read in Kensal Green Cemetery says 'died December 13, 1840, aged 43 years.' This inscription was put up by George Walker, who had known him intimately during the last six or seven years of his life, and doubtless gives Labourdonnais' own account of his age; according to this his birth-year would be 1797." ]