The Café de la Régence


The Café de la Régence


      What the Age of Revolution was to European society at large, the Café de la Régence era was to chess: the childhood of many of its characteristic present-day institutions.  The chess club; the chess journal; the international chess match;  sub-specialties such as imaginative writing on chess subjects, problem composition, and simultaneous blindfold exhibitions;  the study and publication of systematic analyses as an essential part of mastering the game; and, in general, a commitment to chess commensurate with that to any art of science. These are some of the distinctive institutions of modern chess that took form during the Café de la Régence era.  The glory years of the Café de la Régence, whose traditions prevailed until the new institutions established themselves, were indeed those of a regency.
     Before the Café de la Régence era, it had been aristocrats who constituted the social group in Europe most identified with chess; during that era, it was intellectuals; since then, it had been quite simply professional chess players.  Before that era, many Europeans [and Americans - SBC] regarded chess as a mere game; during that era, a useful and meaningful game; since then, a serious pursuit.  Before that era, ches was played by some people as symbolic war; during that era, by many officers as a pasttime; since then, by many people as a real battle for fame and fortune.
     In a broader societal context, out of the Café de la Régence period emerged the idea that chess greats are cultural heroes.  A prominent French poet  [M. Joseph Mery - SBC] wrote that Labourdonnais had avenged Waterloo with hid victory over MacDonnell in 1834.  The French government bestowed a pension on Labourdonnais for his contribution to the national culture.  Since then, becoming a great chess player has been regarded an accomplishment, without qualification.  And one need not be a great chess player to justify taking a serious interest in the game.  Playing chess has become a legitimate activity in and of itself.  Prefaces to chess books no longer argue for the game as they once did, adducing such reasons as that it teaches military science or moral value.  Arguments for chess, no longer deemed necessary, are no longer made.  The development of the idea that playing chess is self-justifying ran parallel to or perhaps was an offshoot of the development of the idea of art for art's sake.  It reached its epitome at the end of the nineteenth century in the formiula of Ernst Cassirer:  "What chess has in common with science and fine art is its utter uselessness."
     In 1852, the Café de la Régence lost its original home on the place du Palais-Royal, where it had opened in 1681 as one of the first coffee-houses in Paris.  It found temporary quarters on the rue de Richelieu for two years, then moved permanently to the rue Saint-Honore, 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 1850s, playing eight blindfold games simultaneously, it was the visit of Morpheus, and the Café de la Régence has slept peacefully ever since.
 -Crescendo of the Virtuoso by Paul Metzner, 1998

Recently I posted an article of the history of the Café de la Régence in the Chess History Group page.  Chess clubs and chess cafés are of a particular interest to me.  Here I wanted to give some perspectives on the Café de la Régence that I didn't include in the other, much longer, article.

One can also visit:
       the Café de la Régence   and   the Café de la Régence II 
for my detailed history of the Café or 
       The Café de la Régence, by a Chess-player 
a 7 part article written by Geo. Walker for Frazier's Magazine in 1840 (and transcribed by Mark Weeks).  

      A whole chapter might be devoted to the literary cafés of Paris, much more numerous than ever were the literary coffee-houses of London in the last century. The first Paris café destined to identify itself with literature was the Café Procope, so called from the name of its founder, Procopio Cultelli, who, in the earliest days of coffee-drinking among the French and among Europeans generally, installed himself at No. 13, Rue des Fossés-Saint-Gerniain, opposite the Comédie Française. The wily Sicilian had evidently opened his coffee-house in view of the French actors. But it was the authors who became its principal frequenters ; first the dramatists connected with the Comédie Française, and afterwards authors of all kinds. In France, however, there are scarcely any authors who do not at least try their hand at dramatic writing. Neither Crébillon, with his Catalina, nor Jean-Baptiste Rousseau, with Jason, nor Pirón, with Fernand Cortez, nor Diderot, with Le Fils naturel, nor Voltaire, with so many celebrated plays, can be regarded solely or specially as dramatists ; yet all of them contributed to the French theatre, and all arc remembered among the frequenters of  the Café Procope.
    The Café Procope was still at the height of its reputation when, in 1784, Beaumarchais'  Marriage of Figaro was
produced ; and it was the scene of a great literary gathering immediately before the representation of that famous comedy. After the Revolution, however, it gradually lost its character as a literary centre.  And now the Comédie Française crossed the water — an unmistakable sign that the left bank no longer possessed its ancient importance, and that everything not already to be found on the right bank was gradually moving to that favoured shore. The Café Procope still exists, but it has quite lost its old literary character ; nor is it much frequented even by the students, who on the left bank form so important a part of the community.
     The Café de la Régence owes its name to the period in which it was established. Haunted as it was by
chess-players, it was nevertheless the resort of distinguished writers, with Voltaire, d'Alembert, and Marmontel amongst them. Here Diderot sat side by side with the Emperor Joseph II. Robespierre looked in now and then to have a game of chess, and among other occasional visitors of distinction was the youthful  General Bonaparte. Nor, from the list of the modern frequenters of the Café de la Régence, must Méry or Alfred de Musset be omitted.
- Old and New Paris: Its History, Its People, and Its Places by Henry Sutherland Edwards, 1893


Close to the Palais Royal, but not in it, nor at present where it originally stood, is the Café de la Régence, the head-quarters of chess. This café dates from the year 1718, and derives its name from the epoch. It seems to have been chosen by common consent, from the day of its foundation, as the arena for those duels wliich do no greater barm than consume an enormous deal of time that might haply be employed to less advantage. Here Philidor, the king of chess of that day, was enthroned, having for one of his most constant antagonists the philosopher Jean Jacques, who was always
beaten and always lost his temper. In a long list of players appear the names of Diderot, Voltaire, D'Alembert, the
Duke de Richelieu, Marmontel, Marshal Saxe, Chamfort, Bernardin de St. Pierre, the Emperor Joseph the Second, and another philosopher who deserved the title more than Rousseau — the illustrious Benjamin Franklin.
     The Café de la Régence declined during the troublous times of the French republic, but by degrees it was re-peopled. At a later period came  Deschappelles, De la Bourdonnaye, De Forbin, Lacretelle, Fontaine, and a host of other modern notabilities — Alfred de Musset being not the least celebrated. But there are things more disturbative than even a revolution, and that which displaced the Café de la Régence was renovation. The decree went forth to unite the Tuileries to the Louvre, and, as a necessary consequence, the Place du Palais Royal was swept away. With it went the stronghold of chess — not, however, to be removed very far off : a newer and more elegant asylum for the disciples of Palamedes being erected in the Rue St. Honoré, immediately opposite the open space, close to the Théâtre-Français, formed by the demolition of one side of the old Rue du Rempart. M. Delvau, who supplies these particulars concerning the Café de la Régence, makes some remarks on chess-playing, which he characterises as a kind of "cold madness," and which, though not very flattering to lovers of "the noble game," are, perhaps, worth transcribing. "Certainly," he says, "it is better to pass eight hours by the clock in pushing backwards and forwards bits of wood, ivory, pasteboard, or bone, without uttering a single word, without bit or sup — yes, this is a hundred times better than employing all those hours in calumniating one's neighbour ; but I may be permitted to believe that an intelligent man has other functions to fulfill, and other duties to perform, than chess-playing or calumny. The calumniator is a scoundrel, but the chess-player is an useless member of society, and we all of us have some useful task to perform."  Akin to the Café de la Régence is the Café Procope, in the Rue de l'Ancienne Comédie, on the south side of the Seine. Coffee was originally sold in Paris in 1669, at the shop of an Armenian named Pascal, but the trade languished after his death, and was almost extinct, when a Sicilian, one Procopio (whose name was Gallicised into Procope), revived the establishment of Pascal at No. 13, in the street which was then called the Rue de la Comedie. This was in 1721-, and the best company soon gathered at the Cafe Procope, inclnding noblemen, academicians, philosophers, and the guards of the king. There, were to be seen Voltaire, Destouches, Piron, J. B. Rousseau, Fonteuelle, Crébillon, Diderot, and mauy more literary stars. The actors also flocked thither, and certain literary farmers-general ; for such there | were. To Procope, the founder, succeeded Coltelli, who assumed the former name, and in his time the following scene occurred : Poullain de St. Foix, a writer of dramas which have not kept possession of the stage, entered the Café Procope one day in a very Bad humour — one of his pieces having probably been hissed the evening before. Following him closely came one of the king's guards, who desired that a cup of café au lait and a roll might be brought for his dinner. "That's a poor dinner !" muttered St. Foix — an expression which the guardsman either did not or would not hear. When a man is out of temper a trifle aggravates him, and St. Foix continued to harp on the same theme, each time londer than before ; until the guardsman, compelled at last to take some notice of what he supposed was meant for an insult, looked up angrily at the author, with the intention of awing him to silence. "You won't prevent me, however," said St. Foix, "from thinking that a cup of coffee and a roll are a poor dinner. Yes, he continued, more warmly, "a cup of coffee and a roll are a very poor dinner."   On this the guardsman rose from his seat, and significantly pointing to his sword, quitted the room. Everybody wore a sword in those days, and St. Foix, author as he was, had no objection to draw his weapon. He followed the guardsman into the tennis-court hard by, and after a few thrusts was wounded in the arm. His adversary then courteously approached him, expecting the amende honorable, when to his astonishment St. Foix observed : "Yes, sir, I maintain that a cup of coffee and a roll make a very poor dinner!" The guardsman was on the point of renewing hostilities, when the noise of their quarrel having attracted several persons, two ot the marshal's guard interfered, took possession of their swords, and conducted the combatants before the Duke de Noailles, the senior marshal of France. Called upon to explain, the guardsman said that St. Foix had insulted him several times, even after the duel ; but he was interrupted by the pertinacious author: "My lord," he exclaimed, "I had no intention of insulting this gentleman, whom I consider a brave man and a gallant soldier ; but even your rank will! not prevent me from saying that a cup of coffee and a roll are a very poor, shabby, sneaking, miserable dinner!"  The Duke de Noailles burst out laughing, every one laughed, and so did Louis the Fifteenth when he heard the story. Thus the affair ended; but if the poor guardsman's pay had been increased it would have had a more satisfactory termination. There is rivalry at the Café de Procope with the Café de la Régence as to chess, and dominoes are in great vogue there — one tremendous match being recorded, which lasted two years, the players being M. Renard, the bookseller, and M. Dantzell, engraver to the Mint.
-All the Year Round:  A Weekly Journal  by Charles Dickens, 1859



  The influence of the Régence was felt since before Philidor until after Morphy.  During that time several truly great and some nearly great players held court in that legendary Café - Philidor, Bernard, Léger, Carlier, Deshappelles, La Bourdonnais, Schlumberger, Boncourt, Saint-Amant,   Kieseritzky, Harrwitz.  But every succession has it beginning and the beginning of the Café de la Régence line was  Sire de Légal whom Diderot referred to as "a wit and a great chess player."  By the time Philidor arrived at the Café de la Régence (in 1740), Légal, who was born around 1700 in Brittany, was already an establishment. Forty years later, one could still find Légal, sitting in the same chair in the same green coat indulging in his snuff habit entertaining the crowds with his conversation and chess play. Philidor, who received rook odds from Légal when they first met, became his equal, but never his superior, after three years of constant apprenticeship. Légal also taught Philidor to play blindfold.  Not only did Légal set the bar high for chess skill at the Café de la Régence, but he introduced the entertainment factor that attarcted crowds and generated business, something for which many of his successors were to become famous.