44. Philidor learned chess
François-André Danican Philidor, born in 1726 and nursed in or in the vicinity of the palace of Versailles, shelter of king Louis XV and his royal household, learned chess. For me, child of 20th c. Western Europe, learning chess was a casualness. For Philidor too. “In the 1740s, chess was played in every coffee house in Paris”, Philidor told four decades later to the Englishman Richard Twiss, who interviewed him for his two-volume book “Chess” (1787 and 1789) [Eales 1985:109].
What Philidor considering his age did not realize was that chess and coffee house had not always been a natural combination. A short retrospective of the results of my investigations into the period 1500-1700.
Chess in France in the 16th and 17th c.
In the 16th and a part of the 17th c., chess was socially invisible. The game was played, but in closed companies (chapter 37). That invisibility was for instance proved by the meaning the game name eschecs had received around 1500, namely tables. This indicates that the game name was unused waiting for a group which needed a name. There was such a group: players of tables, they needed a name for their game. The name eschecs was free, it was only used by the members of the closed chess societies.
Chess in 18th c. France
My investigations into the social position of board games as chess, tables and draughts in bygone ages yielded a result which is at odds with the prevailing image of Harold Murray’s assessment: “All indications point to chess having been the favorite indoor recreation of the upper and middle class throughout the whole of this period” [1913:851]. I found for example that in the 16th and 17th c. draughts was by far the most popular board game, with tables at the second place (chapter 37). In the 18th c., draughts and tables remained their favorable position. When in some countries chess made a breakthrough, in the late 17th or in the early 18th c. ‒impossible to determine the exact decade‒ it had to share a position with draughts and tables.
About 1700, the game name echecs lost its meaning tables. The reason cannot be that tables lost its attraction, the game remained popular. No, we have to look to the chess players, they demanded the exclusive right on the name eschecs. When they stepped in the open and the number of chess players increased, a second meaning of the game name eschecs became unpractical. A question of language economy: it hampers the communication when two different board games bear the same name.
As a seismograph the language registers changes, and for this reason it is a useful instrument in the historical research field, I repeat once more.
A role for the coffee house
The coffee house, risen in the 17th c. and broken through in the 18th c., brings a part of the social life that in former days took place in the shelter of the private house into the limelight. In the Netherlands it was the well-to-do who visited the coffee house: intellectuals, dignitaries, merchants (chapter 39), and the clientage in France will be the same.
The new meeting place showed things which were unseen, drew chess players out of their isolation, making their game visible.
It happened already in the late 17th c. A certain Caze included seventeen games from the 1680s he saw playing in Paris by the best players in a chess manuscript [Eales 1985:100].
The degree of the interest in chess fluctuated. Eales [1985:104] quoted a passage from the “Encyclopédie”, volume from 1755: “Chess is generally out of fashion; other tastes, other ways of spending time, in a word other less excusable frivolities have succeeded it”.
Apart from this the coffee house was not only a place to play a cultured game as chess ‒and draughts, I shall later harp on this game‒ but also to gamble, as it seems the main activity. Tables is played with dice and is a cross between a mind game and a gambling game. The descriptions of tables in Dutch and Flemish inns and coffee houses given in chapter 39, prove how easily the game led to quarrel and misery. How high were the stakes? We may not compare them with the stakes in the higher circles of Versailles and Paris. In his extensive memories of his life at the court, the duke of Saint-Simon wrote about the stakes: “They rose higher and higher”, so that gambles games were repeatedly forbidden, naturally in vain [Eales 1985:102-3].
Where did Philidor learn chess?
The coffee house brought chess from seclusion to publicity. The coffee house developed next to the traditionally pubs and taverns to a place for the better off, only men. Did these men introduce chess in their house, did they order board and pieces to play the game with wife and children? In the Netherlands in the 18th c. chess slowly penetrated into the city dwelling, although the number of chessboards remained far behind the number of draughtboards (chapter 40). The development in Paris and surrounding areas will not have differed much, it was slow.
How great is the chance that Philidor learned chess in the family circle? It looks to me there is little chance, and so he learned the game in a public place. Not in the coffee house, a child was not admitted there. In Philidor’s case the public place was the concert hall of the palace. “Philidor learned chess from the musicians of the Royal Orchestra”, his biographer wrote, and my reasoning leads me there too, to the concert hall.