Holland is a peculair country. In the past, for instance in the 17th and 18th c., the Netherlands was a republic whereas neighboring countries as Engeland and France had a king. Today Holland is a kingdom and the English and the French live in a republic. More peculiar: the first Dutch king was the son of an Italian who joined the French army. And most peculiar: the first Dutch king was put on the throne by his brother.
The name of this brother was Napoleon Bonaparte, proclaimed emperor by himself. Napoleon had conquered the Netherlands, had dropped his brother Louis Napoleon there and proclaimed him king. It was in 1806.
In 1810, Napoleon gave him the order to return to France. The reason: in his brother’s view he too easily picked up with the Dutch and in this way he more acted on behalf of the Dutch than of the French interests. Curtains for the first king in the history of Holland.
In 1806 the first Dutch king became a member of the chess club in his residence The Hague. Was Louis Napoleon Bonaparte a chess player? Difficult to say, because first and foremost the Hague club was an association, a gathering, of gentlemen from the Hague high society; chess was a pretext for maintaining relations and establishing new ones (chapter 56).
Was emperor Napoleon a chess player? Stories were spread that he adored the game, there even were three games recorded he should have played. But the sources are dubious. The reports about André Philidor from chess side appeared to be not entirely reliable. Expressed less politely: the reports were rather incomplete. Philidor loudly complained about the great influence from draughts on chess, but no chess historian made mention of it. The pattern is recurring around emperor Napoleon and his brothers, this is becoming clear from two articles published by the Dutchman Wim van Mourik in “Het Damspel”, the magazine of the Dutch Draughts Association, in 1996 and 2016. I take his information.
Father Bonaparte brought up his children on Corsica. The birthplace is fixed up as a museum, wrote van Mourik. He saw two gaming boards there.
One: an inlaid board with 10×10 chequered squares, a draughts board.
Two: a two sided playable board with a pattern for tables on one side and a chequered 8×8 pattern on the other. There is no information on the belonging pieces. Was there one set of 2×15 flat round pieces? In that case it was a board for tables and draughts. Were there two sets: 2×15 flat round pieces and 2×16 chess pieces? In that case it was a board for tables, chess and draughts. The second possibility seems reasonable: Joseph, the eldest son, was considered as a weakling because he wasted his time by playing draughts and chess [“Soribner’s Monthly Illustrated Magazine” October 1887:76]. He had better pattern himself on his brother Napoleon, his surrounding thought: Napoleon was hardly a child, he already was a strapping man!
In 1811 emperor Napoleon paid a visit to Amsterdam. He stayed at the palace on the Dam, in the city center.
As it fits for an important guest, Napoleon was hard to please: he wished a draughts board, so a board with 10×10 squares, and a tables board in the wing where the city had accomodated him. Especially for Napoleon the house steward bought two valuable dice, so that the guest could play tables. Napoleon’s demand raises a question: who were his draughts and tables opponents? Men from his retinue? His wife, the empress?
The empress, Marie Louise, turned out to be a troublesome lady. In her wing she wished a billiard table. And in her room a chamber pot ‒”A big one please!”‒ and a missal. A missal? That gave difficulties, as the Dutch considered it as an attribute of idolatry. In the eyes of the Dutch, adherents of the Protestant service, Roman Catholics were idolaters. In Holland in those days, a roman catholic was a second-class citizen.
Napoleon and his entourage had there residence in Fontainebleau. Which games were played there at the court? We know it from the gadgets the court ordered from the Paris furniture and cabinet maker Martin Guillaume Biennais. Biennais designed furniture for the notables of France.
In the late 19th c., Alphonse Maze-Sencier published an overview of the furniture and gaming boards supplied to Fontainebleau by Biennais. In 1804 card tables, draughts boards and chess boards. In 1810 six chess boards and six draughts boards of walnut and cherry-wood. These twelve board cost 83 francs. Also two mahogany draughts boards with draughts pieces of green and white ivory. These two draughts board and pieces cost a lot more than the twelve other boards: 280 francs.
The great number of chess and draughts boards suggest that Napoleon used them as promotional gifts, thinks van Mourik.
Biennais told about the games played at the court: “These people are playing draughts and chess and they also like dolphin lotto”. Dolphin lotto is a game with numbered pieces.
It is striking that the court did not buy boards for tables. Biennais made them, his logo, see below, has an opened tables board. In Amsterdam Napoleon demanded a tables board. How to explain it?
On Biennais’ logo no chess board: besides the tables board there is a draughts board. Napoleon bought chess as well as draughts boards. But in Amsterdam he asked for a draughts boards, not for a chess board. In 1810 he bought a number of “common” draughts and chess boards but besides two valuable draughts board with valuable pieces. Biennais’ logo gives the impression that his clientele was more interested in draughts boards than in chess boards, and Napoleon’ behaviour seems to confirm this.