Sarah's Chess Journal

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         The History and The Culture of Chess

May 2007


When most of us want information about chess history, we look in books and periodicals, even internet sites, devoted to that subject. Thanks to the great chess historians from H.J.R. Murray to Edward Winter, much of this information has been collated for our collective benefit. That's the basis of chess history, but it doesn't end there.

Modern researchers and storytellers such as Prof. Jerry Spinrad are utilizing the unique capabilities of digitalized books and newspapers to gather previously elusive perspectives on historic persons and events. It's all good, but it doesn't end there.

People have always been interested it literature, art and films about chess and there is a lot written on those subjects. The indefatigable and amazing Bill Wall has developed lists and more lists showing us all about these connections. But it doesn't end there.

There's a slightly skewed, more indirect way of researching chess history that few people follow. I subscribe to it and Lawrence Totaro, proprietor of Ultimate Chess Collecting and author of the book, Fisching for Forgeries, and who wrote the following article, does too. The premise if that chess is more than a game - it's a culture all to itself. As such, those who involve themselves in that culture and carry a part of it inside themselves, often see things in chess terms others might not and express themselves from that point of view. So, we have musicians, authors, cinematographers, historians, sociologists, philosophers bringing chess into subjects that aren't chess-specific. A corollary to this approach is that the understanding of chess history is enriched by an understanding of the events and customs of the time that have nothing directly to do with chess itself. While this holistic approach isn't necessary, it's certainly worthwhile and often far more interesting and entertaining.

Below, Mr. Totaro shares some references he found concerning Napoleon and chess. It should be noted that there are four games attributed (all incorrectly) to Napoleon Bonaparte. All four can be viewed at Two of the games are with Empress Joséphine's Lady-in-waiting, Elisabeth le Michaud d'Arcon de Vaudey, Madame De Remusat  with whom Napoleon had an affair (actually one game is a mirror image of the other); one game is with the Automaton, the Turk (Johann Allgaier) and one is with Henri Gratien, Comte Bertrand when in exile at St. Helena. While undoubtedly Napoleon played each of these individuals at chess, it's just as clear that these were not the games.
Edward Winter's excellent treatment].

Napoleon with Madame De Remusat



Napoleon: Check! Remember that it is not first time; I believe that in a few more moves you will be convinced that more I am better prepared for this game than you thought!

Cornwallis: Curses! I am going to lose this game; you are too much for me

"Cornwallis' second-in-command, Charles O'Hara, attempted to deliver Cornwallis's sword to French general, Comte de Rochambeau. But Rochambeau directed O'Hara to American General George Washington, who coolly steered the British officer to Washington's own second in command, Major General Benjamin Lincoln."

According to Memoirs of Napoleon Bonaparte, vol.16, by Louis A. F. Bourienne, his Private Secretary; 1832:

[during his journey to exile in St. Helena] He was but an, indifferent chess-player, and there was no very good one on board.  He asked, jestingly, "How it was that he frequently beat those who beat better players than himself?"  Vingt et un was given up, as they played too high at it; and Napoleon had a great aversion to gaming.




Napoleon at chess

It should be noted that we must, as chess researchers, go beyond just chess references in order to obtain objective knowledge. The following list of sources outside the chess world illustrates the influence that chess has instilled on many of its enthusiasts. Instead of searching for people, places and events within “chess,” it is much more important as well as efficient, to search for “chess” in other materials.

Memoirs Illustrating the History of Napoleon I from 1802 to 1815. Volume: 1. Contributors: Claude-François De Méneval - author, Napoleon Joseph De Méneval - editor. Publisher: D. Appleton. Place of Publication: New York. Publication Year: 1894.

Page 58
Now they would snatch off his wig whilst he was sitting in grave meditation in his arm-chair, now they would come and mix up the figures on the chess-board just as he was absorbed over some difficult move.

Page 121
He lived in a very homely manner, especially when at La Malmaison. He used to spend the hours which were not taken up by work, exercise, or shooting, with Josephine. He used to lunch alone, and during this repast, which was a relaxation for him, he received the persons with whom he liked to converse on science, art, and literature. He dined with his family, and after dinner would look in at his cabinet, and then, unless kept there by some work, would return to the drawing-room and play chess As a general rule he liked to talk in a familiar way. He was fond of discussions, but did not impose his opinions, and made no pretention of superiority, either of intelligence or of rank.

Napoleon at St. Helena: Or, Interesting Anecdotes and Remarkable Conversations of the Emperor during the Five and a Half Years of His Captivity. Contributors: John S. C. Abbott - author. Publisher: Harper & Brothers. Place of Publication: New York. Publication Year: 1855.

Pages 17-18
The voyage occupied sixty-seven days. The Emperor, as was his custom, adopted regular habits for the employment of his time. He breakfasted in his room, and passed the day, until five o'clock in the afternoon, in reading writing, or conversing with those of his companions whom he had invited to his cabin. He then dressed for dinner, and entered the saloon, where he frequently amused himself for half an hour with a game of chess.

Page 58 sh K. Small parlor, with a little table upon which the Emperor often played chess before sitting down to dinner.

The Longwood House in St. Helena where Napoleon lived in exile from 1816 until his death on 5 May 5, 1821

[the above picture of the floor plan of Longwood has been edited to indicate the location of Napoleon's chess board in room "K"]


              The Salon in the Biltmore House                                                                            a postcard from the Biltmore House
                   that now houses Napoleon's Chess set                                                                                              showing Napoleon's Chess set


The Salon. When the men retired to the Billiard Room, or the Smoking Room or Gun Room in the Bachelors' Hall, the women would often go to the Salon. Here, they would read, engage in conversation, or play games-cribbage, checkers, mah-jongg, card games like whist and euchre, or perhaps chess on an Empire walnut game table with ivory pieces used by Napoleon while exiled on St. Helena Island (1815-1821). They could consider the wonderful hangings created for Cardinal Richelieu, the 17th century French statesman. The hangings are velvet and stitched with metal-thread couching depicting the cardinal's hat and armorial bearings.

Page 103
A short time before dinner, I presented myself as usual in the drawingroom. The Emperor was playing at chess with the grand marshal. The valet de chambre in waiting at the door of the room brought me a letter, on which was written very urgent. Out of respect to the Emperor, I went aside to read it. It was in English. It stated that I had written an excellent work; that, nevertheless, it was not without faults; that if I would correct them in a new edition, no doubt the work would be more valuable for it; and then went on to pray that God would keep me in his gracious and holy protection.

Page 578
July 9. On the evening before the battle of Waterloo, an English officer, Captain Elphinstone, had been grievously wounded, and was lying stretched on the field in a hopeless condition. The Emperor happened to pass near him, observed his situation, and sent the surgeon in attendance on his person to make the necessary applications to stanch his wounds, from which the blood was copiously flowing. His natural goodness toward the wounded prompted him also to give him some wine from the silver flask which one of the chasseurs of the Guard always carried on service near his person. This providential assistance saved Captain Elphinstone's life.

From the chess reference, Le Palamède, 1838, we have something different. It does not mention, however, that the set was made for saving Captain Elphinstone’s life, as follows:

During his captivity at St Helena Napoleon received from the Governor of the Indies, Sir John Elphinstone, a superb chessboard made by the best Chinese workmen. Napoleon had been generous to an English officer named Elphinstone and when the captain’s brother, Sir John Elphinstone, learned that Napoleon’s sole pastime at St Helena was chess he had the set made. The letter N, surmounted by the Imperial Crown, was engraved on each piece. It was decided by Hudson Lowe that the chess set would be given to Napoleon only if he agreed to have the N and the imperial crown effaced. On learning this, Napoleon shrugged his shoulders and said to Marshal Bertrand: ‘Is the despatch of this chessboard an affair of state? Does this man fear that I shall give check to all the kings of Europe? Poor man.’ Napoleon was more impressed by the generous gesture than by the cumbersome chess set itself. The rook sat on an enormous elephant, and Napoleon said jokingly, ‘I should need a crane to move this rook. I shall send the basket to Marie-Louise, the box of counters to my mother and the chess pieces to my son’

Napoleon at St. Helena: Or, Interesting Anecdotes and Remarkable Conversations of the Emperor during the Five and a Half Years of His Captivity continues:

The Emperor was at that time struggling with all Europe against him. His physical and mental energies were oppressed by cares and toils, such as no mortal ever sustained before. The night was darkening around him, and he was pressing on to the fatal field of Waterloo. His personal attention to the wounded Englishman, under these circumstances, is indeed an extraordinary proof of his humanity. The Hon. John Elphinstone, brother of the wounded officer, president of the East India Company's establishment in China, in gratitude to the Emperor for thus saving the life of a beloved brother, sent to St. Helena several small cases, containing a set of chess-men in ivory, of marvelously beautiful workmanship, a box of dice, another of counters, and two magnificent baskets of large dimensions, all exquisitely carved. Each of these objects was ornamented with the imperial crown, eagles, and letter N.

Page 124
"Had the king," Napoleon continued, "remained longer in France, he would probably have lost his life in some insurrection. But had he fallen into my hands, I should have thought myself strong enough to have allowed him every enjoyment in some retreat of his own selection, as Ferdinand was treated at Valençay."
Immediately after this conversation, the Emperor engaged in a game of chess with Las Casas. His king having accidentally fallen from the board, he exclaimed, "Ah! my poor king, you are down!" Las Casas picked the piece up, and restored it to him in a mutilated state. "Horrid!" said the Emperor; "I certainly do not accept the omen, and I am far from wishing any such thing. My enmity does not extend so far."

Page 527
New-Year's Gifts--Representations of Chateaubriand and of Sir Robert Wilson--Annoyance from Rats--Secret Amours of Napoleon--The Invasion of England--Conduct of the Governor.

January 1. Dr. O'Meara was admitted to the Emperor in the drawingroom, and wished him a happy New-year. Napoleon smiled and said,
"I hope that the succeeding year will find me better situated. Perhaps I shall be dead, which will be much better. Worse than this can not be."
He then, with his own hand, presented to Dr. O'Meara a snuff-box, saying,
"Here, doctor, is a present I make to you, for the attention which you have manifested toward me during my illness."
He also presented to the Countesses Bertrand and Montholon some beautiful vases of porcelain, which had been presented to him by the city of Paris. To Count Bertrand he gave a set of chess-men; to Montholon and Gourgaud, handsome ornaments. Each one of the children also received some elegant gift from him. It was a dark and dismal day, and the island was enveloped in fog which the eye in vain attempted to penetrate.

Page 579
The exiled, captive Emperor could take but little pleasure in receiving gifts which had thus been soiled by the touch of the governor. But in his dreary chamber he endeavored to forget these outrages. In the evening he gathered his companions around him, and they passed a cheerful hour in examining and admiring the exquisite workmanship of the articles. "I will send," said he, "the work-basket to the Empress Maria Louisa, the box of counters to my mother, and the chess-men and superb board to my son."
In reference to these gifts, Mrs. Abell records the following pleasing incident:

"Early one morning, while I was wandering about the gardens and plantations at Longwood, I encountered the Emperor, who stopped, told me to come with him, and he would show me some pretty toys. Such an invitation was not to be resisted, and I accordingly accompanied him to his billiard-room, where he displayed a most gorgeously-carved set of chess-men, which had been presented to him by Mr. Elphinstone. He might well call them toys, every one being in itself a gem. The castles, surmounting superbly chased elephants, were filled with warriors in the act of discharging arrows from their bended bows; the knights were cased in armor, with their visors up, and mounted on beautifully caparisoned horses; mitred bishops appeared in their flowing robes; and every pawn was varied in character and splendor of costume, each figure furnishing a specimen of the dress of some different nation.

"Such workmanship had never before left China: art and taste had been exerted to the utmost to devise such rare specimens of skill and elegance. The Emperor was as much pleased with his present as I should have been with a new plaything. He told me he had just finished a game of chess with Lady Malcolm with these beautiful things, and that she had beaten him--he thought, solely from his attention having been occupied in admiring the men instead of considering the game. The work-boxes and card-counters were lovely, the latter representing all the varied trades of China minutely executed in carving.

"Napoleon observed that he thought the chess-men too pretty for St. Helena, and that therefore he should transmit them to the King of Rome. Another present which attracted my attention was a superb ivory tea-chest, which, when open, presented a perfect model of the city of Canton, most ingeniously manufactured of stained ivory; underneath this tray were packets of the finest tea, done up in fantastic shapes."

Page 592
In this long communication the governor says, "Presents may be as obnoxious to the security of detention as a letter, and might require to be examined with a minuteness that would baffle any purpose of ornament or utility to be derived from them. A letter may be concealed under the squares of a chess-board, or the folds of a book cover, as well as in the lining of a waistcoat; and I am not necessarily called to place my trust in any person by whom they are sent.

Napoleon the First: A Biography. Contributors: Arthur Dart Bissell - transltr, Edward Gaylord Bourne - editor, Margaret Bacon Corwin - transltr, August Fournier - author. Publisher: Henry Holt. Place of Publication: New York. Publication Year: 1903.

Page 632
In this serious situation at the close of September, while "his game of chess was growing puzzling," as the Emperor said to Marmont, he made another effort at diplomacy.

Page 731
He divided his time between working on his memoirs, often dictating for hours without weariness to Las Cases, Gourgaud, or Montholon; billiards, chess, reading the English papers, which he had just learned to read for himself, and new books that were sent him.

Napoleon, the Last Phase. Contributors: Lord Rosebery - author. Publisher: Arthur L. Humphreys. Place of Publication: London. Publication Year: 1900.

Page 157
He played at some games--billiards, in a careless fashion; reversi, which he had been used to play as a child; and chess. At chess he was eminently unskillful, and it taxed all the courtliness of his suite to avoid defeating him; a simple trickery which he sometimes perceived. On the
Northumberland he had played ving et-un [the same as Blackjack or twenty-one -sbc], but prohibited it when he found that it produced gambling. At all games he liked to cheat, flagrantly and undisguisedly, as a joke; but refused, of course, to take the money thus won, saying, with a laugh, "What simpletons you are. It is thus that young fellows of good family are ruined."

Napoleon. Contributors: Herbert Fisher - author. Publisher: Henry Holt and Company. Place of Publication: New York. Publication Year: 1913

Page 124
The conception of a monarch as a being whose principal function is to please his subjects was quite alien to Napoleon. His duty and absorbing pleasure was to rule them, and to rule them always. If he played cards or chess, he played for victory; if he could not win by fair means, he cheated.

Any other references regarding “chess” within the world of Napoleon, readers are asked to kindly pass them along.





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