53. Chess, an intellectual game
Chess has the image of a complex, difficult game; to play it at a high level you need intellectual abilities. A very interesting question is, how chess acquired this image.
A sociological account
The English chess historian Richard Eales sought a sociological answer. After players like André Philidor published instruction books chess became a game which one could learn, said Eales. Because of this aspect intellectuals became interested in the game, Eales argued; he indicated the period 1650-1800. The outsider observes that it is intellectuals who are playing chess, and in their head a conviction is planted: ‘To play chess well you need intellectual capacities’.
I agree with Eales that there has been a development of this kind. However, the conviction cannot have developed in the 17th and 18th c., for the simple reason that in that time both chess and draughts were games played by intellectuals. In my view the development in question is nearer to our time; I shall return to this subject.
Eales missed those draughts playing intellectuals. Why? A year after the French edition of 1749 an English translation was brought on the market. Full title: “Chess analysed; or Instructions By which a perfect Knowledge of this Noble Game May in a short time be acquir’d”. London: Printed for J. Nourse, and P. Vaillant, in the Strand. M.DCC.L. Eales quoted Philidor via the English edition, see note 29 at page 121 of Eales’ book. Well then, at page VII and VIII of Philidor’s book we read is complaint about the disastrous influence which draughts in Philidor’s environment exercises on the way chess players played a game. These intellectual were intellectual draughts players too. What ‘s more, during his stay in the Netherlands Philidor had proved to be a strong draughts player. Why did Philidor’s complaint and his apparent playing strength in draughts Eales not give a reason to think?
In bygone days the entire society played draughts, from the illiterate farmer to king. This is the result from my historical research as well as from the reproduction in Mourik & Stoep 2019. Therefore we may assume that Philidor learned the game in the family circle, as was usual in his time. He has increased his playing strength in chess in games with members of the Royal Orchestra (chapter 43), later in the coffee house.
Chess in the coffee house
In the 18th c. the beau monde visited the coffee house; one of the distractions was draughts. In the late 17th c. chess players, who were used to play their game in seclusion, went to play their game in a place of public resort: the coffee house. It was in the coffee house that the intellectual elite of Paris discovered chess as a game worth playing. Chess became an interesting pastime: just like draughts the brains and not the dice was responsible for gain or loss. This must have attracted the intellectual. In chapter 52 I mentioned names of French chess playing intellectuals, hereafter I mention names of some draughts playing intellectuals.
The grow from chess to an intellectual sport
Because of the instructive chess lesson in the book published by François-André Philidor in 1749, Richard Eales is considering him the representative of a new approach in chess.
According to Eales, this new approach began half a century earlier: “Before and after 1700 the increasing difficulty and bookishness of chess diminished its traditional appeal, but simultaneously opened up new sources of support; from now on chess grew and flourished because of its intellectual and sporting qualities rather than it symbolic prestige” [1985:95].
A marginal comment. Eales sees the symbolic as the most important hallmark of medieval chess [1985:60-8]; the title of his second chapter is “The symbolic game of the middle ages”. In Eales’s view chess as a game to play was central for the player of the 18th c., for the player of the middle ages it was the symbolic value of the game. I disagree: in the middle ages it was the artist, the novelist, who applied a symbolic value to chess, not the player. A chess payer sees a board and pieces, the symbolic value artistic contemporaries linked with the game passes him by.
Some pages further, Eales elucidated his remark on chess as a sport: “The changes which took place in the status of chess during the eighteenth century were important, because they prepared the way for the emergence of the modern game as a sort of serious intellectual sport” [1985:101].
Draughts playing intellectuals
I mention the names of some draughts playing French intellectuals.
André Philidor of course. When he was stuck in Holland in December 1745, he saved his life because he played a strong game of draughts (chapter 44).
Denis Diderot (portrait above) visited both Café de la Régence, meeting place of chess players, and Café Manoury, meeting place of draughts players [Stoep 2007:95].
The owner of the last-mentioned coffee house, Pierre Manoury, wrote two draughts books, in 1770 and 1787. His second book contains the report about a search to the origin of the draughts variety played by the Parisians, Philidor and Diderot included. This part was written by one of France’s greatest minds, who was curious about the game he so often and enthusiastically played: Charles-Marie de la Condamine (1701-1774), explorer, geography, mathematician and draughts player. In 1745 he returned form a travel to the Amazon river, his name buzzed through Paris. Philidor must have known his name. I don’t know if the two ever met. It is quite possible, the intellectual world of Paris was small. Condamine was going round with Voltaire ‒Voltaire knew Philidor‒, collaborated on the “Encyclopédie” and was incorporated in the ranks of the immortals, for that were the members of the Académie française: their name lives on.
Voltaire stayed at the court of Stanislas Leszczyṅski (portrait above), I wrote in a previous chapter. Stanislas was a former king of Poland who had escaped from his native country. The French king married his daughter. The king was obliged to give his father-in-law a decent accommodation, a castle in the neighborhood of Nancy. Unlike the members of the French royal house, Stanislas showed an aptitude for intellectual matters. He like to be in the company of kindred spirits, and his court grew into a meeting point of intellectuals. De la Condamine was one of them. In a next chapter more about him
The Frenchman Augustin Cabanès (1862-1928) wrote about the last evening of Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais (1732-1799). Source: Georges Balédent, “Le Damier”, 1886 III:744-6. De Beaumarchais was an all-round man: he was a writer, an arms dealer and an editor. Because of his adventurous life he became a French idol. Cabanès had the degree of a doctor of medicine and wrote historical work. A reliable source, you would say, but Cabanès was also known because he wrote such nice fancy stories.
And this Cabanès, did not he rely on an earlier source? In the years 1872-1909, the French chess magazine “La Stratégie” (1867-1940) had a draughts column. In the issue of April 15, 1874, Charles Joliet (1832-1910), a much publishing journalist and man of letters, wrote about Beaumarchais’ last evening of life. How trustworthy is Joliet? I quote some sentences. “Beaumarchais was a passionate draughts devotee. One evening, surrounded by friends and family, he was playing when exactly at ten o‘clock Antoine entered the room. Beaumarchais was totally caught up in his game. Antoine coughed and said: ‘Sir, it’s ten o’clock’. ‘OK Antoine, OK, but I want to finish this game’ (…). The next morning Beaumarchais was found dead in his bed…”.
Abraham de Moivre (portrait above) (1667-1754) was a French mathematician and statistician. He has become known because of the thesis of De Moivre, the thesis of De Moivre-Laplace and because of his work in the field of the theory of probabilities. When the Roman Catholic majority violated the pact with their protestant compatriots he got into troubles: he was a Huguenot. In 1685 he was thrown into prison, in 1688 he was released. Then he fled to London. He became friends there with celebrities as Isaac Newton, mathematician, physicist, astronomer, theologian and author, Edmond Halley, astronomer, and James Stirling, a Scottish mathematician. England recognized him as a great scientist by inviting him to join the Royal Society, the physical equivalent of the Académie Française.
According to “American Chess Magazine” March 1924:68, de Moivre suffered poverty, despite his scientific merits. Out of financial need he could often be found in coffee house Slaughter, where he earned a few pounds extra by playing chess and draughts for a stake. For Dutch intellectuals too draughts was an almost daily pastime: many members of an Amsterdam society for arts and sciences subscribed to the draughts book of the Dutchman Ephraim van Emden [Bakker 1974, Bakker 1975].
Coffee house Slaughter in St. Martin’s Lane was founded in 1692 by John Slaughter. From 1700 to 1770 men came here for chess in a private room [Murray 1913:846].
Rousseau, draughts player
Jean-Jacques Rousseau deserves particular attention. In his diary he extensively noted down his incompetence to learn chess on a sufficient level, but as far as I know nothing about his incompetence to learn draughts on a sufficient level. His compatriot Pierre Manoury told in his draughts book of 1787 some stories about the customers of his coffee house.
Well, Rousseau was a regular visitor. He was really a disastrously bad player, said Manoury: every strong player allowed him to start with two pieces more and nevertheless he lost! Finally, Rousseau accepted he would always remain a bungler and he stopped playing draughts [Stoep 2007:95-6].
How to take Rousseau’s parade? ‒ for that it is, a parade, I believe. “In spite of my great gifts, I, Jean-Jacques, am not able to master that difficult chess”? Or: “In spite of my great gifts I, Jean-Jacques, am not able to master a relatively simple game as chess whereas a lot of dumb-clucks are playing it well”?