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The French School of Chess (18th/19th cent.)
For nearly 100 years French chess players were the strongest in the world.

The French School of Chess: For nearly 100 years, from the mid-18th century to the mid-19th century, French chess players were the strongest in the world. The line from Philidor, to Deschapelles, to La Bourdonnais, to Saint-Amant, reminds us of a modern relay team, each player passing the team's baton to his successor. Before the French the Italians had reigned supreme at chess and after the French the English took the helm.

Origins of Chess in France: The great chess historian H.J.R. Murray wrote, 'The evidence derived from the nomenclature of chess points to a knowledge of the game and its technicalities in parts of Christian Europe outside the Iberian peninsula certainly at an earlier date than 1000 A.D.' By nomenclature, Murray meant the names of the game and pieces (Roi, Dame, Tour, Fou, Cavalier, Pion). The Middle French name of the game was eschec, which evolved into the Modern French échecs.

Medieval Chess: Originally a Muslim game, European chess followed Muslim rules until the late 15th century, when the moves of the modern Queen and Bishop were introduced. Our knowledge of early chess is from stories, many of French origin, where the game plays a supporting role: Huon de Bordeaux playing the king's daughter to save his head and have one night with her, Garin de Montglane playing Charlemagne for similar stakes, and Floire et Blanchefleur tricking a Saracen prison guard.

Café de la Régence: Cafés came into vogue in Paris in the mid-17th century and by the mid-18th century 'chess was played in nearly every café' [Murray]. 'The Régence was established as a rendezvous for the literati of the day. Voltaire, the two Rousseaus, Franklin, and Philidor, are but a few of the men of note who constantly frequented the Régence in early times.' [Walker]. To these we can add Robespierre and Napoleon; Deschapelles, La Bourdonnais, and Saint-Amant. They all played chess at La Régence.

François-André Danican Philidor (1726-1795): Philidor was born into a family of musicians and at age 6 entered the choir at Versailles. In the 1740s he started studying chess at La Régence with Legall de Kermeur (1702-1792), the best player in France. After three years he had surpassed his teacher. In 1749, he published his famous book L'analyse des Échecs, the most important chess work since Greco's writings 100 years earlier. At London 1783 he played three blindfold games simultaneously, an amazing feat at that time.

Philidor's Principles: Philidor's book was the first to treat the strategical side of chess in depth. Today every chess player knows his famous dictum, 'The Pawn is the soul of chess'. It has many applications -- the interactions of the Pawns with the pieces, the importance of Pawn structure, and the changing value of Pawns in the phases of the game. He also analyzed the theoretical endgame R+B vs. R, and gave his name to 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 d6, the Philidor Defense. He considered 2.Nf3 to be unsound.

Alexandre Louis Honoré Lebreton Deschapelles (1780-1847): 'Deschapelles was born with a brain of so perfect an organization for the acquirement of games [that] whatever game he at any time took up, he immediately fathomed, and this in a manner so comprehensive, as to rank him in each particular pursuit, not merely as first-rate, but as the first' [Walker]. Chess was no exception. '"I acquired chess," said he, in the presence of fifty amateurs, "in four days!' He always gave odds, often Pawn and two moves. Only a few of his games were recorded and have survived.

Louis Charles de la Bourdonnais (1795 [or 1797]-1840) : Dr. Emanuel Lasker called La Bourdonnais 'an extraordinary genius'. He learned chess around the age of 20, and studied with Deschapelles at La Régence. 'The quickness with which La Bourdonnais calculates the coups is a beautiful part of his game. Since Philidor, he has never been equalled, Deschapelles having been a much slower player. The rapidity of La Bourdonnais can only, in fact, be equalled by his gluttony for the game. Nothing satiates him, or causes him to cry, "Enough!"'. [Walker]

Pierre Charles Fournier de Saint-Amant [St. Amant] (1800-1872): The last of our French champions, frequenter of La Régence and student of Deschapelles, Saint-Amant was least smitten by chess. He made a comfortable living as a wine merchant. 'It is matter of universal regret that St. Amant has in a measure fallen away from his allegiance to the chequered flag he once followed, by night and day, through France and England, and now confines his chess to Sunday evenings. He has beaten every player but Deschapelles, La Bourdonnais, and Boncourt.' [Walker]

The French Century - In Competition:

Correspondence match Paris - London : One of the first correspondence matches on record was between players from Paris and the London Westminster Club. Played from 1834 to 1836, Paris won 2-0. The French Defense (1.e4 e6) received its name after it was used by the Parisian team.

La Bourdonnais - McDonnell Matches : In 1834, La Bourdonnais played a series of six matches with Alexander McDonnell (1798-1835), a Belfast-born resident of London. The series of 85 games, considered to be the first unofficial World Championship, was won by La Bourdonnais. The overall quality of the games exceeded anything recorded before the matches.

Le Palamède : In 1836 La Bourdonnais became editor of the world's first chess magazine, Le Palamède, and continued until 1839, when publication stopped. Saint-Amant took control in 1841 and published until 1847.

Staunton - Saint-Amant Matches : In 1843, Saint-Amant played two matches with Howard Staunton (1810-1874), a Shakespearean scholar and resident of London. The Frenchman won the first match (+3-2=1), a short contest played in London. The Englishman won a longer match (+11-6=4) played a few months later at La Régence. Staunton's victory signaled the symbolic end of French chess domination and the baton passed to England.

Morphy in Paris : Paul Morphy (1837-1884) travelled to Europe in 1858. After spending a few months in London, he continued to Paris at the end of the summer. At La Régence he played and beat Daniel Harrwitz (1823-1884; +5-2=1 after losing the first two games), Adolf Anderssen (1818-1879; +7-2=2), and Augustus Mongredien (1807-1888; +7-0=1). Between the first two matches, he played eight simultaneous blindfold games (+6-0=2). These were the last great events that La Régence, which finally closed its chess room in 1916, would see.