Louis-Charles Mahé de Labourdonnais (1795 or 1797–1840) led a much less picturesque life than either Philidor or Deschapelles. Essentially it consisted of playing chess and, for variety, writing about chess. Although born into the nobility, Labourdonnais never showed any serious interest in the military, or in anything else, really, other than chess. Chess he took very seriously, never regarding it either as a mere game or as a symbolic battle, but always as an end in itself.
Labourdonnais’s grandfather, Bertrand-François Mahé de Labourdonnais, had had a distinguished career as an admiral, serving as governor of the Mascarene Islands in the Indian Ocean in the 1730s and 1740s, capturing Madras from the British in 1746, and making an appearance as the benevolent governor of idyllic isles in the popular Rousseauist novel Paul et Virginie (1788). Appropriately for a young nobleman of such ancestry, Labourdonnais attended the prestigious Collège Henri IV in Paris. But within a few years of graduation, sometime around 1820, he strayed into the Café de la Régence. There he first learned the moves of chess, studied under Deschapelles, and was crowned king of the French players, all in the space of about three years. For a while he continued to live like the aristocrat he was born, dividing his time between Paris and the château he had inherited at St.-Malo. Gradually, though, chess took over his life. He traveled to London several times in the 1820s in order to test himself against the leading British players. In 1826, probably on one of those trips, he married an Englishwoman. He committed his last infidelity to chess the following year when he edited and published the memoirs of his grandfather. He himself fathered no children, only masterpieces of abstract strategy.
Labourdonnais and Deschapelles were the obverse and reverse sides of the same medal. After noting that they both died of hydropsy, Saint-Amant remarked: “But what a contrast in physique! Labourdonnais was large, fat, well-fed, sanguine; Deschapelles on the other hand was delicate, thin, sombre, and bilious. In one, there was intemperance of every sort, abuse of a strong constitution; in the other, abstinence and restraint in everything.” With regard to the latter, “One had to have seen his cold, calm, severe bearing, saturated with punctiliousness, to have a real conception of it. It was the last conversation of Socrates with his disciples, to judge by the attention and reverence with which one had to listen to him. At the least interjection, the slightest remark, he stopped, and did not begin again until total silence had been restored.”
Labourdonnais, in contrast, was described as Rabelaisian by the contemporary English chess enthusiast George Walker. The gourmand of his circle, Labourdonnais took trencherman honors at the luncheons given by Deschapelles at his Faubourg du Temple home. In the Café de la Régence, he smoked cigars, drank heavily, and carried on boisterously, jok-ing, singing, gesticulating, and emitting bon mots—all the while piling up victories on the checkered board. Walker gives us an admirable illustration of the excesses of the romantic period:
Not only did Labourdonnais have great stamina, he also moved speedily and without hesitation; he combined intensive with extensive play. This was how he could steam through so many games in one session. Walker writes that Labourdonnais made holes “like a cribbage machine” in the margin of the chessboard, using pegs to keep track of the total. Another member of the Westminster Chess Club corroborated Walker’s characterization:
His chess hours are from noon till midnight, seven times a week. He seems to be a species of chess-automaton, wound up to meet all conceivable cases with mathematical accuracy.…He would snatch a hasty dinner by the side of the chessboard, and in ten minutes be again enthroned in his chair, the hero of the hundred fights, giving rook, or knight, or pawn, as the case might be, to any opponent who presented; fresh as the dewy morn, and vigorous as though ‘twere breakfast-time.…I recollect that upon one occasion he played above forty games of chess at a sitting, with amateurs of every grade of skill.
He played with marvelous rapidity, yet rarely made a mistake. “Tout ce que je demande,” he used to say, “c’est une petite position.” The moment he had got his petite position, his opponent’s doom was sealed. I could never play my best against him; his rapidity dazed me. Although talking and laughing all the time, no sooner had I made my move than his at once came down with a loud impact on the board, as though he meant to break it. I was fascinated, and fell an easy prey to the huge python.
The foregoing accounts make it clear that the intimidation exercised by Labourdonnais was not confined to the chessboard. Able to decide on his own moves in a flash, he had little patience for more deliberate players. He expressed his impatience “by sundry very plain gestures and shrugs,” and even by drumming his fingers on the tabletop. When the game was going his way, he “talked and laughed a good deal”; when going against him, he “swore tolerably round oaths in a pretty audible voice.” Walker, by no means a Francophobe, complained that in his time the French chess players displayed little sportsmanship. When they lost a game, they shouted, threw the chessmen, and often failed to pay their wagers. When they observed a game, they commented on it freely, second-guessing the players and criticizing their moves out loud. One may take it that Walker’s charges had some foundation, without necessarily accepting his implied comparison of national characters. Players in Britain, Germany, or Italy may or may not have been more polite. But whatever the case elsewhere, French chess circles clearly no longer recognized the social graces even as minor deities.
Labourdonnais played fast and accurately in part because he played a lot. In chess, speed and practice are mutually reinforcing: the more games one plays, the faster one’s decision making becomes; and the faster one plays, the more games one plays in a given period of time. Nowadays, all top contenders play “speed chess” as part of their training in order to learn recurring configurations through frequent exposure to them. Twentieth-century grand masters, it has been estimated, can distinguish “some 50,000 basic ‘building-block’ configurations—small groupings of pieces by which the board’s more complex structures are erected.” 
Labourdonnais played fast and accurately also because he studied. Unlike Deschapelles, he was abreast of contemporary opening and endgame theory. He read chess books and in 1833 produced one of his own, the Nouveau traité du jeu des échecs (New Treatise on the Game of Chess). Although several translations and a second French edition followed within a few years, his book is not very highly regarded. Perhaps it is because he did not introduce many new ideas or annotate his games very instructively. Unlike Philidor, Labourdonnais does not seem to have been good at communicating his knowledge. But there is no doubt that he had great knowledge and could apply it. Deschapelles was the last of the great pure improvisers and in his own time an exceptional case. After Philidor, codifying one’s knowledge in a book had become de rigueur for European players of the first rank. Many who were not of the first rank also published, and translations and reissues of the classic works began to proliferate as well.
The championship chess match was a creation of the nineteenth century. The eighty-five-game series, actually constituting six matches, that Labourdonnais and Alexander MacDonnell played from June to October 1834, has been generally regarded as the first championship ever since it took place: It was the first long series of games between two opponents each of whom had the reputation as the best in a circle of dedicated players. The fact that the opponents came from different countries and that the circles they represented became identified with those countries added to the interest and prestige of the event, making it not merely the first championship but also the first international championship. The British players invited Labourdonnais to London specifically for the purpose of staging the event, which soon attracted the attention of newspapers and the general public. Accounts of the outcome differ; collating them yields something on the order of forty-five wins for Labourdonnais and twenty-seven for MacDonnell, with thirteen draws. Considering the number of games it encompassed, the length of time it lasted, and the competitive intensity it generated, this first championship must have been as grueling as any subsequent one. The daily sessions lasted from eleven A.M. or noon until six or seven P.M., after which MacDonnell often retired exhausted, sometimes “walking his room the greater part of the night in a dreadful state of excitement.” He died the following year of a kidney disorder at the age of thirty-seven. By contrast, Labourdonnais often spent the evening after a session playing more games against other opponents. A prolific but now forgotten writer, Joseph Méry, celebrated the Frenchman’s victory in a long poem entitled Une Revanche de Waterloo (A Revenge for Waterloo).
Curiously, Philidor is generally considered to have been the first European chess champion, even though Labourdonnais won what is generally considered to have been the first European chess championship. Philidor won his unofficial posthumous title by playing a lot of chess outside of France and never meeting his equal. The second match to be widely recognized as a championship was again one pitting the best of Great Britain against the best of France, the Staunton–Saint-Amant match of 1843. Fully organized championships, with time limits for play and tournaments to determine challengers for an official title, began in the 1860s. Since then, such matches have been held every few years.
In 1836 Labourdonnais founded Europe’s first chess journal, Le Palamède, named for Palamedes, the mythical Greek inventor of the game. Labourdonnais’s deteriorating health forced him to suspend publication in 1840, but within a year of his death Saint-Amant revived it and kept it going through 1847. This experiment established the viability of the genre. Beginning in 1841, British enthusiasts could read Howard Staunton’s Chess Player’s Chronicle, which lasted until 1902. In Germany, the Schachzeitung (Chess Times), later called the Deutsche Schachzeitung (German Chess Times), began in 1846 and continues to this day, interrupted only by World War II. The longest unbroken run is probably that of the British Chess Magazine, which has been coming out regularly since 1881. Since these pioneers opened up the territory, two thousand more have appeared and, mostly, disappeared. In 1950 there were more than one hundred chess periodicals in print worldwide.
One gambit that has been particularly successful for these publications from the first issue of Le Palamède to Advances in Computer Chess is the chess problem. In the most common of the various kinds of chess problem, the reader is presented with a chessboard situation, which may or may not arise in the course of an actual game, and challenged to use the white pieces to force checkmate on the black pieces in a specified number of moves, usually two, three, or four. Chess problems, unlike chess journals, were hundreds of years old, but they too began to multiply in the nineteenth century. Philidor’s Analyse du jeu des échecs contained no chess problems. Labourdonnais’s Nouveau traité du jeu des échecs contained sixty, although the author himself had composed only eight of them. Periodicals provided an ideal format for chess problems, since they could withhold the solution from the reader for a tantalizing space of time. In the new era signaled by the appearance of journals, it became possible to specialize in composing problems, just as it became possible to specialize in writing chess literature—poetry, short stories, biographical sketches, travel pieces, and the like on chess subjects. For example, P. A. d’Orville made his name as a composer of problems, and Joseph Méry, coeditor with Labourdonnais of Le Palamède, as a writer; neither distinguished himself as a player.
Thus, during Labourdonnais’s reign as champion, several signs marking the onset of professionalization first appeared. The accelerating intensity with which chess has been cultivated in the Western world since then cannot be more strikingly illustrated than through the simultaneous blindfold exhibition. Such demonstrations of chess skill had lapsed since Philidor’s death in 1795, but Labourdonnais revived them in 1837. Attending a performance in the spring of that year “were peers, parliamentary deputies, generals, colonels, artists, men of letters; it was a convention.” That was how Le Palamède trumpeted the event, muting the disparity between Philidor’s frequent performances of three blindfold games at once and Labourdonnais’s mere two. But Labourdonnais began to play blindfolded only in the last few years of his life, and he seems to have been working up to three games just before his final illness. More significant, since his revival of the exhibition, a continuous stream of performers has maintained it. Indeed, in terms of the number of games played at once, they have steadily escalated the level of achievement. A younger Café de la Régence master, Lionel Kieseritzky, played four simultaneous blindfold games in 1851. The American master Paul Morphy played eight in the Café de la Régence in 1858. Louis Paulsen, an American originally from Germany, played fifteen in 1859. After a succession of intervening record holders, Harry Pillsbury, yet another American, played twenty-one in 1902, with the added difficulty that all his opponents were top-ranked masters against whom he was competing in a championship tournament. Still later, an American originally from Belgium, Georges Koltanovski, a specialist in such feats, played thirty-four blindfold games simultaneously in 1937, fifty in 1952, and finally fifty-six in 1961 in San Francisco, winning fifty of them and drawing the other six.
In the mid-1830s, Labourdonnais lost most of his fortune in a building speculation. The rest of it he spent on a luxurious holiday with his wife in the south of France. Only a loan from Captain Guingret, a fellow chess enthusiast, later commandant of the École Militaire and president of the Paris chess club, whom they happened upon, enabled them to return to the capital. From that point forward, Labourdonnais had to live on his earnings at chess.
Unfortunately, both his earnings and his health soon went into decline. He was diagnosed as dropsical and submitted to twenty-one drainings in the space of eighteen months. In the last month of his life, December 1840, he traveled to London in the hope of improving at least his financial situation, if not his health. But after a few days he was too sick to appear in public and too poor to be able to afford either food or medical attention. The British players took up a collection so that he did not have to die literally in a garret. Like Philidor, he died in London; also like Philidor, he died on the verge of his deliverance. He had just been voted two pensions, one from the French government as a “man of letters,” for his contribution to culture, and another from the île de la Réunion, the largest of the Mascarenes still under French control (as it remains yet today), in appreciation for his grandfather’s service as governor there.
Maintaining the tradition of the Café de la Régence masters, Labourdonnais continued to give odds to the end. The Hungarian master József Szén arrived in Paris in 1838, and Labourdonnais measured his inferiority at a pawn and two moves. After imposing that handicap, the Frenchman proceeded to lose thirteen of twenty-five games. Making even more questionable use of the principles of the Old Regime, Labourdonnais ranked himself above Philidor. Once in a conversation with the chevalier de Barneville, who was born a half-century before him and died after him, he asked:
Brushing aside Barneville’s advanced age, all differences in styles of play, and all changes in the competitive environment, Labourdonnais concluded from the fact that he gave greater odds to Barneville than Philidor had given him that he, Labourdonnais, was the better player. The conversation continued:
“Let us converse a little about distant history, my dear chevalier; on what terms did you play with Philidor?”
“He used to give me a knight and a pawn.”
“I would have given, then, a pawn and two moves to Philidor?”
“And how did you play against Jean-Jacques Rousseau?”
“I used to give him a rook.”
“He was a weak player then.”
“But on the other hand,” said the chevalier, “he had colossal pride, and the most frightful character of any chess player who ever lived.” 
Despite the vestige of rank-consciousness, Labourdonnais had abandoned his aristocratic and warrior heritage, or perhaps he had sublimated it into chess. He had lost, sold, or given away all of his inherited possessions. He never saw the Mascarenes. He had no apparent talents or skills, and cultivated no interests or friendships, outside of chess. Chess provided almost his only connection to the world. His success at chess determined not just his career but eventually his whole life and his very identity.