56. Chess coming up
In the 18th c. the eyes of the Dutch elite were turned towards France: everything happening there was interesting, was important. Fashionable gentlemen and ladies ‒naturally I first mention the head of the family‒ dressed themselves after the Parish fashion, received friends and acquaintances in the salon and conversed in in that marvellous French language, had a nanny from France so that the children got the right education, and imported books from France.
Among these books were guides how to play the game they vaguely knew, in the Netherlands it was not often played. Its French name was eschecs, its Dutch name schaken. It certainly concerned an interesting game, because the French with their good taste played it! See chapter 42: a member of the Dutch elite translated a French chess book. Next step: some Dutch chess players wrote their own book.
The chess club
In the 18th c. the club we know ‒chess, draughts, hockey, football (soccer)‒ did not yet exist. The Dutchman Hans Scholten carried out inquiries into the origin of the chess club in the Netherlands. I summarize his results. I do not know if investigations of this kind have been made outside the Netherlands. Because of that I cannot say if the development described by Scholten elsewhere took place in the same way or strongly diverged. At any rate there is one identical factor: the members of the chess club were from the higher social classes.
The first Dutch chess club
The first club was founded in The Hague. However, chess club is not the right name, it was rather a kind of Rotary club. Hague archives contain membership lists and minutes of meetings, allowing Scholten to determine the descent of the members and the doings of club.
In the first half of the 19th c. more of these Rotary clubs were founded. Why just in that time? And why the choice of chess? Scholten did not hazard an explanation. An attempt.
The coffee house
In the 17th and 18th c. the coffee house was the domain, call it haven of refuge, of men from the better social and economic circles, also of an artist of simple birth who was accepted because he had made some name. In the second half of the 18th c., impossibly to indicate it more precisely, the city-dweller got interested in nature, in the peace and quiet of the countryside. It becomes visible in arts: poets capture a cloudy sky, a wood, a heath, in words, painters in color: we are in the era we call Romantism.
Entrepreneurs jump on to it: they build coffee houses outside the city, for the country air gives their visitors a sound appetite. And the prospect of a glass of lemonade keeps the children under control. One sentence back I mentioned those places coffee house, but this is a wrong name. We Dutch call them uitspanning, literally ‘place where the horse gets a rest and is unharnessed’. The managers of the city coffee house get a hard time, with rivals who do not only men but whole families.
Nevertheless the gentlemen deserve our pity: no longer they can retire in the urban coffee house. For this reason, gentlemen from The Hague cooked up a trick: they found a chess club.
The Hague chess club
The first Dutch chess club was founded in 1803. The gentlemen belonged to the local upper class. By a strong ballot and a high membership fee they kept off people outside their circle [Scholten 143]. Around 1806 the club had 135 members: high government officials; high military men, including 20 foreigners; jurists; doctors; manufacturers. One of the members was the king of the Netherlands, Louis Napoleon Bonaparte. After his departure to Amsterdam the number of members sorely fell [Scholten 45-7].
What can be the reason the gentlemen chose to pass off as players of chess? Why not opt for draughts, the game by tradition so familiar? I see two motives. For the first motive the home situation is responsible: draughts was also played at home. For this reason a master of the house could not use draughts as a pretext to get away for an evening from wife and children. A second ground is the urge to contrast, to distinguish themselves. Draughts was a game for the entire community, for everyone, and therefore unsuitable. Chess was a new game, in those days only played by a small minority of the highest social classes. Chess board and chess pieces were not usual household goods, to play the game a man had to leave his home.
Scholten, chess player, took his information from archives. A later investigator, Jan de Ruiter, draughts player, had digital sources at his disposal. In the first half of the 19th c., 70 chess clubs were founded in the Netherlands. De Ruiter also took draughts into his investigations: the Dutch founded 4 draughts clubs and 2 clubs were the members played chess as well as draughts. As noticed before, chess, and probably also draughts, were only a pretext: the main thing was the gathering, the meeting with members of a higher class who were only accessible was the reason to become a member of a club. Chess was of minor importance, the statutes of some clubs even forbade to play other games. There is a analogy with the societies in Paris and London in the late 18th c.: there too the meeting of the notables was the main thing and chess was of less importance, see chapter 55.