Josephy Méry, as far as chess players are concerned, is remembered for three things:
-With Labourdonnais, he founded Le Palamède, the first chess magazine.
-He authored the poem Une Revanche de Waterloo (1836), celebrating Labourdonais' victory of M'Donnell.
-He wrote Une Soirée d'Ermites (1838, reprinted with changes as Les Échecs in 1847), in which describes poetically simultaneous games played blindfold by Labourdonnais against two writers, Antoine Jay and Victor Joseph Etienne de Jouy. The title means Evening of the Hermits. This refers to de Jouy's series of books beginning with "L'Hermite de ________" (such as L'Hermite de la Guyane or L'Hermite de la Chaussée d'Antin or L'Hermite en Province), as well as two he co-authored with Jay, Les Hermites en Prison and Les Hermites en Liberté.
by Joseph Méry
from Pictures of the French, as drawn by themselves.
edited by Jules Gabriel Janin, 1840
IKE an universal alphabet, the Chess-board is known to all nations. The Bonze (Japanese monk) plays at chess in the pagoda of Juggernaut; the palanquin-bearing slave reflects how he may best checkmate a pebble king, on a chessboard traced on the sands of the Ganges; the Icelandic bishop wiles away the tedious gloom of a polar night, with his long-calculated moves on the chess-board, commencing with that which has become identified with the name of Captain Evans: in short, from pole to pole, the sixty-four squares of the noble game have solaced the sorrows of the lords of the creation.
In the middle ages, the Chess-player travelled the world like a knight-errant, challenging emperors, kings, and mitred prelates, and acquiring wealth and honours by his victories. Boy, the Syracusan, was the most celebrated of these pacific warriors. He fought, rook in hand, with the Emperor Charles V., and conquered; hand to hand he fought with Don Juan of Austria; and that prince conceived so extraordinary a liking for both player and game, that he constructed in an apartment of his palace an immense chess-board with sixty-four squares of black and white marble, the men being of real flesh and blood, and moving at the command of the two chiefs. At the battle of Lepanto, Boy played a game of chess with Don Juan, and conquered the conqueror of the Ottomans.
At the present day, chess has lost none of its high merit, though he who sways the sceptre of the ivory kingdom may no longer enter the lists with sovereigns and popes. In Paris, in London, Vienna, Berlin, and St. Petersburg, the most ambitious Chess-players are content with the admiration of their friends, and are often unknown beyond the precincts of their clubs. Two great men alone have crossed the seas, and their names are known even to the Indian, thus conferring additional glory on the French chess-board. The clubs of England, and the circles of Germany, furnish no rival to M. Deschapelles and M. de Labourdonnais. It has been M. Deschapelles' good fortune, in his military life, to revive, in some sort, the exploits of Boy, the Syracusan. After the battle of Jena, he entered Berlin with the victorious army of France, repaired to the amateur Chess-players' circle, and challenged the most skilful member, offering his opponent the advantage of the pawn and two moves. At this supplementary battle of Jena, the circle of Berlin was beaten singly and collectively, and M. Deschapelles ended by offering the rook. The reflective gravity which the Germans ascribe to their exact and mathematical organization, was conquered by the prompt and spontaneous calculation of the Parisian amateur.
Fifteen years have now elapsed since M. Deschapelles, the most intricate player of his day, retired from the lists. At the time we write M. de Labourdonnais sways the sceptre, and reigns absolute monarch. He is about forty-five years of age; everything about him indicates superiority. The developement of his forehead is extraordinary; his eyes, overhung by immense protuberances, seem constantly closed to all outward things, and in incessant communion with the mind within. Grandson to the illustrious governor of India, immortalized by Bernardin de St. Pierre, endowed with superior intellect and incredible application, he has never been ambitious of higher title than that of the first Chess-player in the world; and this he has achieved. All Europe knows that M. de Labourdonnais resides in Paris, at No. 1, Rue de Menars, the splendid hotel of the Chess Club, and that he there receives challenges and gives lessons. Strangers every day arrive from all parts of France and of Europe; some, fired with the noble ambition of encountering De Labourdonnais with equal arms; others, with the humility of acknowledged inferiors, submitting to receive an advantage; all happy to make the acquaintance of, and to cross pawns with, the renowned master. The monarch refuses no duel, no proposition: he is ready at all times, and for all opponents. At noon, fierce encounters begin in the vast saloon of the Hotel de Menars, heated to twenty degrees in the winter, and cool as a grotto in the summer. There may be seen the staff of M. de Labourdonnais, composed of the elite of amateurs, who, unassisted by their master, can beat all the players of the Westminster Club. As soon as M. de Labourdonnais sits down to play a game with an unknown visitor from London, St. Petersburg, Vienna, or La Haye, every other game is suspended; all present flock to head-quarters; the monarch and his antagonist are hemmed in; and all eyes are fixed on the unerring finger and thumb that move the victorious pawn or man. The interest attached to the amusing scenes is intense and inexhaustible; and although the profane cannot well understand such emotion, it is enough, in order to justify this interest in the eyes of those who are not organized to comprehend it, to say, that the greatest of men have made it their favourite passion.
More successful than Napoleon, M. de Labourdonnais effected a descent in England, and conquered the Island. More fortunate in another respect, he had not to complain of his adversaries' harsh treatment, the English chess-board having no square of injustice. At the period of De Labourdonnais' visit, much was said in France of Mr. Macdonald, whose play was, by some, supposed to surpass that of the great French master. All the nabobs from Pondicherry and Calcutta, all the envoys of Lord William Bentinck, all the explorers of the Indian peninsula, all the English from the East and West Indies, protested that Macdonald, of Ediuburgh, was a more skilful player than the Bramin Fla-hi, of Juggernaut; and that he would easily beat M. Deschapelles, or M. de Labourdonnais. One day, the latter quietly crossed the Channel, and repaired to London; and no sooner was his arrival at Jaunay's hotel known at the Westminster Club, than a courteous invitation was despatched to his address, and it was not long ere a sharp contest commenced between the friendly adversaries. M. de Labourdonnais found, on this occasion, an antagonist worthy of him; the English had not boasted without reason of their champion's skill. The struggle that ensued was more warm and spirited than London will probably ever witness again. Victory, however, fell to the share of the Frenchman, being clearly established by a series of brilliant and decisive moves. To the honour of England be it said, that the members of the Westminster Club bore this memorable defeat with magnanimity. They gave M. de Labourdonnais a splendid dinner at Blackwall; the toasts, in compliment to the guest, being drunk exclusively in claret and champagne.
Macdonald's death, a few years since, left the British chess-board in a remarkable state of inferiority. The last national game, played by correspondence between the Clubs of London and Paris, was marked, on the English side, by deplorable errors. In 1838, an article in the Talamide, commented upon by Bell's Life, wounded the susceptibility of the nation that reckons a Chancellor of the Exchequer* among its high dignitaries. That paper noticed M. Deschapelles' supplement to the battle of Jena. The noise of the levy of bucklers raised in Westminster, induced M. Deschapelles to emerge from his retreat, and throw down his glove in defiance of all England. Protocols were issued previously to the actual outbreak of hostilities. Deputies from the Britannic club arrived at the Hotel de Menars, and were received with an urbanity quite chivalrous: it was agreed that diplomatic notes should be exchanged after a grand dinner at Grignon's. All the elite of Paris chess-playing society were invited to the restaurant's of the Passage Vivienne; the assemblage was composed of artists, bankers, peers, deputies, literary men, magistrates, generals, capitalists, physicians, lawyers, and the leading members of the Club Menars, M. de Jouy taking the chair. The entertainment was a perfectly convivial one; the English drank toasts to France, and the French, to England ; and when the dessert made its appearance, the guests began to grow serious, and the cartel was produced as a crowning dish. The discussion that ensued to determine the principles of the war between the two nations, was prolonged till two o'clock in the morning, the finesse of the cabinet of St. James's being conspicuous on the occasion. At daybreak, the question was not advanced a stage ; and it having been found impossible to come to an agreement, the treaty was broken off. M. Deschapelles, who was preparing to make his descent in England, returned to his tent; and the only result of the discussion was the reminiscence of an excellent dinner at Grignon's.
The evenings at the Club Menars have latterly been very animated, and have moreover created a prodigious sensation beyond the precincts of the club-house, on account of the marvellous games played by M. de Labourdonnais, with his back turned towards the chess-board. Philidor** , the renowned musician and chessplayer, was the originator of these incredible feats, and no one since his time thought of reviving them. M. de Labourdonnais had long pondered on the tradition, and this laurel of Philidor's frequently disturbed the monarch's sleep. One day, he attempted one of these intuitive combinations, and with complete success: the next day he played two more games on the same plan, playing out and winning both. The report of these games spread like lightning, and caused a great sensation in the chess-playing world. The doors of the Menars Club were thrown open to amateurs and the curious, and M. de Labourdonnais twice again repeated his experiment in public. The two games were played in the billiard-room. M. de Labourdonnais seated himself in a corner, with his back towards the two chessboards, his face turned to the wall and hidden by his hands. An amateur stood by to proclaim aloud the move made by the antagonist. M. de Labourdonnais then played in his turn, naming the piece he required to be moved, as if the chess-board had been before him. As the game drew to a close, and as the board became cleared of taken pieces, the increasing intricacy of the position brought about by anterior moves, so difficult to be remembered by the blindfold player, excited the imagination of the spectators to such a degree, that they deemed a happy termination of the game next to impossible. Let the reader, knowing the wonderful complication of the game, add to this the confused hum of voices from all parts of the saloon, the stifled murmurs of the by-standers making remarks and expressing their astonishment, the opening and shutting of doors, the dull tramp of feet, the reiterated noise of coughing, (it was in the depth of winter), the loud and joyful exclamations of parties newly entering in ignorance of what was going forward,—in a word, all the innumerable trifling incidents, any one of which is usually sufficient to distract attention, and imagination becomes almost inadequate to conceive an idea of the mental prodigy. Psychological analysis of such a labour is impossible: the mind turns from it bewildered. The fact can only be stated, without explanation or comment.
The Chess-player who devotes himself enthusiastically and con amore to his art, leads a life full of emotion and charm: he becomes a general, and fights five or six battles a day without shedding a drop of blood ; he enjoys all the self-gratulation of victory, supports defeat with philosophy, revels in the luxury of retaliation and vengeance, without sacrificing a single life: he adopts the language of the heroic profession; he says, "Yesterday I fought General Haxo," and smiles with reawakened honour; or, "General Duchaffaut obtained a victory over me this morning," and modestly casts his eyes on the ground. We frequently hear such phrases as the following at the chess-board :—" Yours was an exceedingly awkward position ;"—" Your attack on the right was feeble ;"—" How unskilfully you engaged your knights;"—" The General manoeuvred admirably to save his castle." It requires no great stretch of imagination to fancy one's self in a camp on the eve of a battle. And the best of this innocent passion is, that it never disgusts by satiety ; the intoxicating illusions of to-day recommence to-morrow: to the Chessplayer, all is vanity apart from the chess-board. No disenchanted Cincinnatus rushes back to his plough-tail after these battles ; no philosophical Charles V. turns his pensive steps towards the hermitage of St. Just; disgusted with glory and mankind, the conqueror does not depart from the battle-field; the conquered recalls his slain to life, and fights the battle o'er again; the bystanders cheer the loser, and congratulate the winner in turn. Six times a-day the Chess-player passes beneath triumphal arches, or bows to a conqueror, and the clock in the apartment striking the hour, always finds him at his post, to-day making a stand against the English; to-morrow against the Russian, and the day after against the Holy Alliance, or waging civil war against his own country, in actual contest with a relative or a dear friend. Glory, emotion, interest, sorrow, joy, every day, and at all seasons: even old age does not wrest him from the gentle fatigues of such campaigns. There are no pensioners, no Chelsea, no Greenwich, for the heroes of the chess-board. Behold, at the Club Menars, the noble and fresh-looking old Chevalier de Barneville, the contemporary of Philidor, and of Jean Jacques Rousseau; he has played in his time with Emile and St. Preux, at the Cafe Procope; he has received a pawn from the great Philidor. In the reign of Louis XV., he commenced his game by the classical shepherd move with an encyclopaedist of the Faubourg St. Germain, at two o'clock in the afternoon; he now opens his game at precisely the same hour by Captain Evans's gambit with M. de Jouy, De Lacretelle, or Jay for his antagonist: that calm and venerable countenance still preserves the same expression of joy after a victory, the same happy smile that animated it in the presence of Jean Jacques and D'Alembert. What a magnificent and irrefutable living argument in favour of chess! what a powerful stimulant, unknown to the Faculty! The beautiful serenity of mind called into operation at the same hour, and applied to the same object, admirably regulates all the functions of the body, and confers on the physical organs an easy routine of existence that nothing can interrupt. The Chess-player has no time to be ill, nor to die, to-day, because he must play the other game to-morrow.
When kings had nothing else to do but to reign, the chess-board was in high estimation at court; people now-a-days, in affecting a few of the powers of royalty, have included the game of chess in their conquests over thrones. Hence the noble game has made immense progress; and, from being purely aristocratic, has become universal. In England, particularly, where volumes on volumes are published, and, if scarcely ever read there, are translated and studied on the continent, hundreds of works on chess have been produced, to which the art is considerably indebted for its advancement. Formerly, Lolli and the Calabrian were the authorities on the game; these authors who, unfortunately, flourished too soon, like all writers who have not the good fortune to be born our contemporaries, have almost fallen into oblivion, though their works still tacitly preserve tin honourable place in the library, when in good condition. Since those venerable professors' time, immense numbers of openings of games have been invented, some of which have entirely altered the classical economy of the ancient game: every piece has its gambit, which is called by its name, so that Palamede, Tamerlane, Alexander the Great, Parmenio, Sesostris, Confucius, Mahomet, Selim II., Lusignan, Charlemagne, Renaud de Montauban, Lancelot, Francis I., Charles V., all the great men who claimed such high pretensions to the science of the chess-board, would die again of surprise, if they were resuscitated to witness Captain Evans's gambit. It is, in truth, somewhat singular that Palamede, who played ten consecutive years before the walls of Troy, with Agamemnon, Achilles, Diomede, the two Ajaxes, all in the flower of youth, and full of imagination and spirits, never hit upon the most insignificant gambit. It was Paris, a shepherd on Mount Ida, who originated the shepherd's move, and Sinon, who gave the check of the wooden horse to king Priam, did not invent even the knight's gambit. Yet what opportunities had not these heroes to advance the divine game! Achilles confined himself to his tent, and played night and day at chess with Patroclus; Agamemnon fought little, and played with Nestor. With careworn brow, and bowed down by the weight of his conjugal wrongs, Menelaus played with Ulysses. On board the thousand vessels at anchor at the mouth of the Simois, were two thousand Greek captains, who all cultivated the science of the chess-board. They fought once a quarter, and, on the morrow of the battle, the games recommenced on the lofty poops of the thousand vessels, celsit puppibus, or on the beach. It was a vast Chess Club, having for its limits the Scamander, the Scaean gates, Cape Sigeum, and Tenedos. It is easy to conceive that the kings and chiefs, who were dying of ennui at the siege of Ilium, had recourse to a game invented, or at least perfected, by their companion Palamede; and that, overcome by the inexhaustible charm and the endless variety of its combinations, they passed the heat of the day beneath the ample shade of some of the pines of Ida, under their tents or between decks, before a chess-board. The length of the siege, which puzzled Voltaire and the Venetian Poco Curante, is thus easily accounted for. In the hypothesis here hazarded, a plausible reason is found for the protracted retreat of Achilles in his tent during eight years, which, but for the powerful assistance of chess, would be utterly unaccountable in a young hero strongly inclined to the stirring excitement of war. Suppress the Homeric tradition of chess, and how shall we explain the conduct of Thetis' son, a recluse in a canvass tent six feet square? Thiij reasoning, we repeat, applies to the hitherto enigmatical slowness of the siege. All the besieging kings, passionately fond of chess, forgot Ilium and the wrongs of the injured Menelaus, insomuch that the bereaved husband of Helen, in order to turn the lukewarm kings from the fascinations of check-mate, was obliged to represent to them, in glowing terms, the injury that necessarily resulted to him from the prolonged siege, and the increasing years of the wife ravished from his bosom : and when, at the end of the memorable ten years, Menelaus beheld both Troy and his wife in ruins, the noble game had been the cause of the mischief. The chess-board was the true lance of Achilles. At the instigation of Menelaus, Epeus, the constructor (fabricator Epeus), cut out a piece as large as a mountain (instar montis) ; Sinon continued to move it by oblique passes, like a rocking-horse, and mated king Priam, (jnactat ad aras, according to the Virgilian expression). It is unfortunate that the Iliad and yEneid have not fifty verses consecrated to this tardy explanation, which, we trust, will satisfy savants and commentators.
The Caliphs and Sultans of the East have, from time immemorial, been in the constant habit of leading an indolent life, divided between the seraglio and the chessboard. History records a large number of sultanas and obscure odalisques, who played as well as Jean Jacques, who, by the way, whatever he might have thought, was not a very proficient player. In the unhappy days when England and Russia allowed the monarchs of Asia to live in peace and quietness, ere the Eastern Question saw the light, those brilliant foreigners, friends of the shade, and sons of the Sun, profoundly meditated on the science of chess, and waged a peaceable warfare with their neighbours, the object of strife being a beautiful slave, or a magnificent elephant. We find the following lines in an unknown poem :—
Le grand roi Kosroes perdit sur une case
La rose d'Ispahan, la perle du Caucase;
La belle Dilara, sérenité du coeur,
Qu'un Mat livra soumise au pouvoir du vainqueur.
Our roués of the Regency, who staked their mistresses at lansquenet, were only the revivers of the ancient customs of the East. It is related that one of Mahomet's grandsons, the venerable Orchan, chief of the Ottoman race, was, in 1359, within an ace of losing at chess his favourite Zalouë (sunbeam), in a game with his vizier. Just as the sacred hand of the descendant of Mahomet was about to make a fatal move, and lay himself open to a decisive check-mate, Zalouë, who was watching the game from behind a curtain, uttered a loud scream, which had the effect of arresting the ill-advised hand; Orchan, adds the tradition, avoided the move, and kept his favourite. History relates several anecdotes of the chess-board in which ladies figure. From the East to Venice is but a step. Flamine Barberigo, a rich Venetian senator, played with Erminia, his adored and lovely ward, his furious jealousy allowing her no other amusement. The Barberigo palace was Erminia's prison. About this time, Boy, the Syracusan, who was travelling the world in search of adventures, went to Venice. His renown there, as elsewhere, was great; and immediately on his arrival, he was summoned to the Grimani, Manfrini, and PisaniMoreta palaces, where the noble lords of the Republic had so frequently conversed about the great master of Don Juan of Austria and Charles V., the illustrious Boy, to whom pope Paul III. had offered a cardinal's hat, after sustaining at his hand a glorious defeat at chess in open Vatican. The senator Barberigo, the most ancient amateur in Venice, immediately threw open his palace to the Labourdonnais of Syracuse. Boy refused no invitation, and he was particularly enchanted with his reception by Barberigo, on account of the lovely Erminia, his captive ward, a young lady of brilliant talents, whose education embraced only a knowledge of the game of chess, and who sighed in secret for a brighter future. She improved under Boy's excellent tutelage, and finally disappeared with the Syracusan, just as he had made her perfect in the science. The house of Barberigo never recovered from this check.
A few words on the moral of the game. It is to be wished that the science of chess were cultivated in schools and colleges, where we are taught so many ridiculous and tormenting things as children, which are of no use to us when we become men. A wonderful mass of practical philosophy lies concealed in the game of chess. Human life is a perpetual struggle between will and fate; and the globe is a chess-board on which we move in turn every piece, sometimes at random, in fruitless strife with inexorable fortune, which checks us at every game. Hence so much mis-play, so many wretchedly ill-assorted alliances, so many impolitic moves! He who has early trained his mind to the material calculations of the chess-board, has unconsciously acquired habits of prudent forethought, which will avail him beyond the limited horizon of black and white squares. Compelled to guard constantly against innocuous snares, spread by the little ivory citizens, the Chess-player acquires experience in an imaginary world. His life become a long game of chess, fools*** abounding in all directions, contemplating moves against his safety. Every man who accosts him is either a rook or a pawn, and, before making a move, he pauses, and considerately weighs his own policy and that of his antagonist. Let it not be imagined that this continued tension of the mental faculties degenerates into mania, and absorbs the mind to such a degree as to disturb its tranquillity. Chessplayers are very amiable and pleasant people: M. de Labourdonnais, who is a most agreeable companion, plays his game in the midst of joyous sallies and sprightly witticisms, which never cause him to overlook an opportunity to checkmate his antagonist, nor to make an impolitic move. Thus, a man may by habit create for himself a second nature of perpetual variety. The Chess-player does not even feel this mechanism of mind, which is unceasingly at work within; once in motion by a first impulse, the springs, nolens volens, obey him unknown to himself. How many Chess-players have extricated themselves from a dangerous position in the world by skilful calculation, unconscious that their judicious conduct resulted from the cultivation of the noble science. May our observations augment the already numerous body of patrons of the Chess-board; at least, there would be less ennui in society, and fewer faults of conduct in the world.
* Exchequer (Echiquier) means in French a chess-board.—Ed.
** This classical sobriquet was given by Louis XV. to Andre- Danican, a native of Dreux, who was a member of the Paris Chess Club for thirty years; but, being a royalist, emigrated at the period of the French revolution, and died in London, on the 31st of August, 1795, at the age of sixtynine.—Ed.
*** The third piece, which we call a bishop, is in France called a fool (fou).
from Chess World. 1867
One of the most brilliant, fertile, ami popular French litterateurs, Joseph Méry, has recently passed away. This is not an appropriate medium for a disquisition on the services, literary or political, which such a man has performed; but as an enthusiastic admirer of Chess, and the author of the best versified description of a game ever published, line Revanche de Waterloo, a brief sketch of his career may not be out of place.
M. Méry was born at Aggalades, in 1798, accustomed in youth to a rigidly classical curriculum, and blessed with an infallible memory, he was enabled, to his latest day, to recite without error any canto of the Aeneid or the Odyssey suggested to him. His first essay in letters was a satire, which appeared in 1820, against the Abbé Elicagaray, an essay less fortunate than brilliant, since it cost him fifteen months of imprisonment. Upon his restoration to liberty he joined the staff of the Phocéen, a violent opposition Journal, conducted by Alphonse Rabbe, the friend of Victor Hugo. He then established the Mediterranée, which incorporated with the Phocéen, became subsequently the Sémaphore, a paper which still flourishes.
In 1824 he went to Paris, furnished materials for Rabbe, who was then writing his Histoire des Papes, and was engaged on the Nain Jaune under Soulé, who at that time waged furious war against power. Scarcely entered into active life, he became the friend of many men afterwards illustrious in their various walks of life, but his reputation only dates from his satire, Les Sidiennes, which be wrote conjointly with Barthelemy. In 1826, la Villéliade, la Corbivréide, Rome and Paris, and la Censure, charged with case-shot, acquired for his name an enormous popularity. When the Ministry against whom he fought was overthrown, he reposed in triumph for a time; but, tired of inaction, he soon entered the lists again, not to fight, however, but to chant of combats, and he then published the poem of Napoleon en Egypte.
Under the Polignac Ministry he once more threw himself into the melée: la Peyronneide and la Guerre d'Alger were his contributions to the Revolution of 1830.
After a year of observation and futile expectancy, an armistice, which he supported not very patiently, he recommenced hostilities in conjunction with his companion-in-arms, Barthelemy. All at once there burst, like thunder in a sky otherwise not very serene, that famous Nemésis, which is still the type of daring and vengeful satire. For this he was fined 100,000 francs, and not being rich enough to pay the mulet, he started for Italy and joined Queen Hortense and the exiles of the Imperial family.
From 1837 his political fever appears to have subsided. He required from letters tranquility and ease, and they happily gave him both. If he aspired to a great fortune, his desires were not gratified, but there are few writers who have been more liberally paid. For one of his satires, he received no less than 25,000 francs; for another, 60,000; later, his books brought him largely exceptional prices, and his contributions to various Journals were always handsomely remunerated. He died poor, but he had lived with a superfluity which is given to few authors to enjoy.
We have not space to enumerate his multifarious compositions, but we must name as particularly entitled to notice his Heva, la Guerre du Nizam and Florida, three chef d'oeuvres of admirable description. Apart also, but from other reasons, we should place the romances of his last style, Monsieur Auguste and Ursule.
The productions of Méry, more immediately interesting to the readers of this magazine, are Une Revanehe de Waterloo, which was written to illustrate a beautiful game won by La Bourdonnais against McDonnell in 1834, and Une Soirée d'Ermites, the subject of which is a game played by La Bourdonnais without sight of a Chess-board.
A Portrait of La Bourdonnais taken from the article: The Café de la Régence, by a Chess-player (Geo. Walker) from Fraser's Magazine, 1840.
(this text was originally transcribed by Mark Weeks)
A change comes over the Régence, and the noise reaches its climax, as if the elements of confusion in the caldron had received their final stirabout. What portly form do we see making its way through the crowd, at this, the eleventh hour? Fifty persons accost him at once, all eager to wind up the evening with one more game; -- all shouting, and laughing, and screaming, with the peculiar and prodigious gesticulations of La belle France, rising many octaves above concert pitch. The crash is terrific. Not to know the potentate who enters with noise exceeding that of drum and trumpet, were indeed to prove yourself unknown. The new-comer is De la Bourdonnais, since the retirement of Deschapelles, the acknowledged first chess-player in the world.
M. De la Bourdonnais is of noble family, being grandson to that Governor of the Mauritius, immortalized by St. Pierre in Paul and Virginia. De la Bourdonnais is now about forty-five years of age. He was educated in the College of Henri IV., but has never followed any profession except chess, which he took up as a passion about five-and-twenty years back. La Bourdonnais inherited a small paternal estate; but, I regret to say, that this was devoured by some unfortunate building speculations at St. Maloe's. His frame is large and square, the head presenting a fine study for a phrenologist, bearing the organs of calculation enormously developed. Solid and massive, the head of La Bourdonnais is a true Napoleon front; carved out of marble, and placed upon shoulders of granite, like Ajax Telamon. That eye so piercing, looks through and through the board, so as to convey the feeling that La Bourdonnais could really see well in the dark, which hypothesis accounts for his playing so beautifully blindfold.
You have never seen La Bourdonnais at chess? Come, then; although late, this is a glorious opportunity. He is about to give the rook to Boissy d'Anglais, pair de France; let us hasten to get a favourable position for looking on. The spectators of this duel are no mean men: -- General Haxo, who commanded the artillery for the Son of Thunder at Waterloo; Méry the poet; Lacretelle, the naturalist; Calvi, Chamouillet, Robello, and others of the élite are in the press; while the venerable Chevalier de Barneville, nearly ninety years of age, who has played with Philidor and with Jean Jacques, serves as the connecting link of three generations, and reminds one of Philidor himself come back to witness the triumphs of his illustrious heir. I would rather play chess a day with De la Bourdonnais, than spend a week with Sardanaplus.
From the east and the west, from the north and the south, have players come to kneel at the footstool of the monarch. They present themselves under smiling pretences; but nerved, nevertheless, to have a pluck at his diadem. Hitherto, all have tried in vain; none having encountered La Bourdonnais, for fifteen years, to whom he could not give the pawn, with the single exception of the late Mr. McDonnell. At this moment, bowed down to earth with a cruel malady, De la Bourdonnais plays chess as well as ever. His great spirit rises above bodily suffering, and triumphs over pain. May health be shortly restored to him!
"Steady and ready," is the motto of De la Bourdonnais. If challenged to engage in an important match, no preparation is required beyond half an hour's notice. He will play you at any time, by night or by day, or both; rendering freely the most liberal odds, his stake being one franc to a hundred. If any one mode of training for the battle be more in favor with our chief than another, it is perhaps that of Gargantua; who, when he came to the Paris schools, to dispute with the sages of the Seine, "refreshed himself," says Rabelais, "two or three days; making very merry with his folks, and inquiring what men of learning there were in the city, and what wine they drank there."
The quickness with which La Bourdonnais calculates the coups is a beautiful part of his game. Since Philidor, he has never, in this respect, been equalled, Deschapelles having been a much slower player. When I first had the honour of measuring weapons with De la Bourdonnais over the chess-board, his rapidity was to me positively terrific. I was lost in the whirl. You raise your hand to play a move, and up go the Frenchmen's fingers in readiness to present his answer, before you have travelled half way towards the piece you mean to touch. You move, and your opponent replies ere your arm has regained its resting place. This bustle drives English nerves cruelly. We whip and spur, but cannot live the pace. If you are very slow, he does not hesitate to tap the table lustily. You labour out a ten minutes' calculation; and then, congratulating yourself on having done the deed, sink back in your chair to enjoy a heavenly interval of repose. Vain hope! -- mistaken mortal! In less than a single moment, La Bourdonnais plays his counter-stroke; and, wishing your adversary at tous les diables, you recommend, like him of Tartarus, the never-ending task of rolling the stone up the mountain. Custom reconciles you, however, to the railroad speed of La Bourdonnais; and comparing it with the broad-wheeled wagons we too often are compelled to travel by in this country, you say "This is, indeed, chess!" La Bourdonnais first introduced the piercing the sides of the chess-board, like a cribbage machine, in order to peg the number of games played at a sitting. He tells them off by the score!
The rapidity of De la Bourdonnais can only, in fact, be equalled by his gluttony for the game. Nothing satiates him, or causes him to cry, "Hold! -- enough!" His chess hours are from noon till midnight, seven times a week. He seems to be a species of chess-automaton, wound up to meet all conceivable cases with mathematical accuracy. When he played his famed match here of nearly one hundred games with our McDonnell, the hour of meeting being between eleven and twelve A.M., the encounter has frequently continued until six or seven P.M.; after which Mr. McDonnell would cease playing, exhausted frequently even to weariness. Not so De la Bourdonnais. He would snatch a hasty dinner by the side of the chessboard, and in ten minutes be again enthroned in his chair, the hero of the hundred fights, giving rook, or knight, or pawn, as the case might be, to any opponents who presented; fresh as the dewy morn, and vigorous as though 'twere breakfast time. He would play thus till long past midnight; smoking cigars, drinking punch, and pouring forth his full soul in even boisterous merriment; dismissing at times his punch, in favour of what he termed, "Burton ale-beer," the only fault of which, he was wont to say, was, that after three or four bottles, he became additionally impatient, if he found his adversary slow. I recollect that upon one occasion he played above forty games of chess at a sitting, with amateurs of every grade of skill; and with all this, he had to be at his post to encounter McDonnell in the morning!
The habits of De la Bourdonnais over the board are, indeed, the very reverse of what would be expected from so profound a thinker; but he appears to be divided into two existences, -- the one of which does the chess, the other the fun. Jokes, songs, and epigrams, burst in a flood from his lips, in tones like those of Lablache. This is, of course, chiefly after dinner, when giving large odds, when winning; for, should the tables turn in the latter respect, the brows of our friend lour like the storm-clouds of Mont Blanc. De la Bourdonnais expressed himself to me, as being altogether confounded at the imperturbability of McDonnell under defeat. Our countryman, at one sitting, lost three games running; "And yet," quoth La Bourdonnais, "he could smile! Had it been me," added the Frenchman emphatically, "I should have torn the hair from my head!" -- and so he would.
No passing events can shake the attention of La Bourdonnais when at chess. He concocts jests and mates in the same crucible. Une petite position is what he aims at from the beginning. Let him once attain that, and be sure he'll hold his own. When the joke and the laugh rise highest, then look out for your squalls, and reef your topsails. To you it is a dark night, but to his leopard eye the first rays of the sun are gilding the mountain top. His advantage improves, and he absolutely smothers you in mystification and nonsense. Taruffi once met Ercole del Rio in a chess café; and when beaten soundly, exclaimed, "You must be either the devil or Del Rio!" The mortality of our hero is certainly at times to be suspected. The clearness with which he foresees consequences, through a long vista of checks and changes, is truly admirable. No man sacrifices a piece so well; none knows so fully the art of playing the proper move at the proper time. When hard pushed, his coups de resource are electrifying. Win a piece, it is a trifle; nothing short of killing him outright will avail you. Strike him merely to the earth, and Antaeus-like, he rises stronger from the fall. "I should never have given up chess," said Deschapelles once to me, "except in favor of La Bourdonnais. He is worthy to sustain the honour of my school, and in his hands the reputation of France is safe."
De la Bourdonnais has not disdained to study books. He has played through all that has been written. The openings are familiar to him. He has the most dashing variations of attack at his fingers' end, and meets a new mode of assault intuitively with the strongest defence. He is not like one fine player who, perhaps, can only conduct the middles of games well; or another, who possesses bit the mechanical knowledge of openings and endings. De la Bourdonnais plays every part of chess well; the pieces in a complicated situation, above all, beautifully. His pawn play, towards the close of the game, is superb; as a judge of what we term "position", he stands alone. Many established axioms he appears to disregard, but this arises from the species of second sight he possesses over the board. Isolated pawns he thinks of "not over much," a piece in danger troubles him not. Set-openings he laughs to scorn, and breaks up what the tyro has been taught, and rightly taught, to think legitimate rules. The genius of La Bourdonnais or a Napoleon makes its own laws, and owns none other. De la Bourdonnais plays to check-mate, and he does it; what would you have more? He bowls at the adverse king with the force, and celerity, and deadly sweep of a Mynn, or a Congreve rocket.
The game we are looking over is done; De la Bourdonnais gives check-mate, and the noise becomes positively infernal. Not only do all chatter at once, but like the talking bird in the Eastern tale, each man appears endowed with twenty different voices. A rush is made towards the chess-board and a dozen hands snatch at the pieces to shew what the unfortunate loser could, would, should, or might have done. Thus was Job comforted of old, and thus do the tormentors attack a man already suffering sufficient disquiet in being beaten. The English are the best lookers-on in the world, the French the very worst. They do not hesitate, during the most interesting crisis, to whisper their opinions freely; to point with their hands over the board; to foretell the probable future; to vituperate the past. It is hard to play before such critics; and rather trying to the nerves to hear yourself styled, perhaps, "an ass," for what you thought a neat bit of play; or to see lips coiling, and sneering, and smiling contemptuously at your proceedings, knowing that the scorners in a similar case would play ten times worse than you have done. When your move is made, half a dozen voices are loudly raised to demand "Pourquoi diable, you didn't do this?" or, "Why you overlooked that?" I have lost many games in Paris through similar impertinences, and have all but vowed that when I next play chess there, it shall be in a barricadoed room. Talking of barricades, I may here remark that never was the Café de la Régence more thronged with chess players than during the three glorious days of July, 1830. Speak of parting lovers! why 'twere easier to sunder Romeo and Juliet, than two stanch chess-players over a good game. Ten revolutions worked at once around -- the sun and moon dancing the chahut, with the stars whirling by in joyous gallopade -- no wreck of worlds or systems could, I say, sever two real chess enthusiasts in the heat of battle.
To those who think I exaggerate the noise of the Régence at the close of the evening, I can only say, witness it before passing judgment. In singing and spitting, its inmates are particularly strong; would that they all sang the same tune, and spat only, as French lady vocalists do on the stage, between the verses. I know Frenchmen who, at chess, expectorate airs with variations, and are quite surprised we do not sanction the custom. Cigars are forbidden in the Régence. This is it should be. The same moral rule which permits one individual, in a public room, to blow second-hand tobacco smoke in your face, should be equally lenient to the smokers of opium, valerian, or assafoetida. Eat, drink, or suck what you will yourself, but do not force me to go shares against my will.
To whom is destined the marshal's baton when De la Bourdonnais throws it down, and what country will furnish his successor? The speculation is interesting. Will Gaul continue the dynasty by placing a fourth Frenchman on the throne of the world? -- the three last chess chiefs having been successively Philidor, Deschapelles, and De la Bourdonnais. I have my doubts. Boncourt is passing, St. Amant forsaking chess; and there is no third son of France worthy of being borne on the books, save as a petty officer. May we hope that the laurel is growing in England? No! Ten thousand reasons forbid the supposition. Germany, Holland, and Belgium, contain no likely man. At present De la Bourdonnais, like Alexander the Great, is without heir, and there is room to fear the empire may be divided eventually under a number of petty kings. M. Deschapelles considers that chess is an affair of the sun, and that the cold north can never produce a first-rate chess organisation. I cannot admit the truth of the hypothesis; since we find the north, in our time, bringing forth the hardest thinkers of the day in every department. Calvi of Italy will go far in chess; but so will Szen of Poland, and Kaesaritzki of Livonia. The imperial name of the latter is alone a pawn in his favour; but, I repeat, the future is yet wrapped in darkness.
G.W., November 1840.