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§ 1. The Second Career of François-André Danican Philidor (1726–1795) as a Chess Player

Rain or shine, it is my regular habit every day about five to go and take a walk around the Palais-Royal.…If the weather is too cold or rainy, I take shelter in the Café de la Régence, where I entertain myself by watching chess being played. Paris is the world center, and this café is the Paris center, for the finest skill at this game. It is there that one sees the clash of the profound Légal, the subtle Philidor, the staunch Mayot; that one sees the most surprising combinations and hears the most stupid remarks. For although one may be a wit and a great chess player, like Légal, one may also be a great chess player and a fool, like Foubert and Mayot.[1]

Thus begins Denis Diderot’s famous work of indeterminate genre, Le Neveu de Rameau (Rameau’s Nephew, 1760s). Whether considered a work of fiction or nonfiction, its opening passage certainly contains much that is true to life. The Café de la Régence was a real café, established in 1681 and later renamed for the Regency period, from 1715 through 1723, when it won great popularity. It was in fact widely regarded as the site of the best chess-playing in Europe, if not the world, from Philidor’s rise to prominence around 1740 until Labourdonnais’s death in 1840. And Diderot did indeed frequent the place.[2]

Several others among the philosophes, those eighteenth-century intellectuals who led the movement known as the Enlightenment, also entertained themselves there. Montesquieu perhaps, Voltaire and Benjamin Franklin very likely, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau most definitely paid regular visits during one period or another in their lives. Spectators assembled there in crowds after Rousseau became famous and the police had to station guards at the door to control them. For their part, the philosophes did not go to the Café de la Régence only to watch or to converse; they went to play chess.[3]

Portrait of Philidor. Courtesy of the John G. White Collection, Special Collections, Cleveland Public Library. Photograph by the Cleveland Public Library Photoduplication Service
[Full Size]

The “royal game” had been accepted for hundreds of years at face value, as just a game, an amusement, a diversion. The few who ascribed a deeper significance to it considered it a symbolic representation of war, an activity generally associated with the aristocracy, and the game itself was also generally thought to belong to the aristocracy. In the eighteenth century, however, intellectuals took an increasing interest in chess, so that by the end of the century it had become as much or even more their game than the nobility’s. The philosophes, who had a collective reputation for questioning everything, began to wonder whether there might be something in the game other than mere amusement or symbolic war.

Diderot appears to have been undecided on the matter, to judge from Le Neveu de Rameau. The Encyclopédie (1751–80), the great literary monument of the Enlightenment edited by Diderot and his friend d’Alembert, expresses the same uncertainty in its article “Échecs” (Chess). The author of the article, the chevalier de Jaucourt, concedes that some people,

struck by the fact that chance has no part in this game, and that skill alone brings victory, have regarded good chess players as endowed with superior minds; but if this reasoning is correct, how is it that one sees so many mediocre thinkers, indeed even a few near-imbeciles, excel at the game, while geniuses of all sorts have not been able to reach the level of a mediocre player?

Nevertheless, both Jaucourt and his editors must have felt that the game had some significance beyond its obvious entertainment value, otherwise why devote an article to it at all, and why admire people who excel at it, such as Philidor?

We have had at Paris a young man aged eighteen, who used to play two games of chess at once without looking at the boards, beating two players of better than average ability, to each of whom he could only give odds of a knight when playing with sight of the board, although he himself was a player of the first rank. To this feat may be added something that we witnessed with our own eyes: In the middle of one of these matches, an illegal move was deliberately made; after a rather large number of subsequent moves, he recognized the error and had the piece put back where it belonged. This young man is a M. Philidor; he is the son of a musician of some renown; he is himself a great musician, and perhaps the best player of Polish checkers there ever was or ever will be. This is one of the most extraordinary examples of the power of memory and imagination.[4]

The German philosopher and mathematician Leibniz, another representative of the Enlightenment, unhesitatingly recommended chess: “I strongly approve the study of games of reason, not for their own sake, but because they help to perfect the art of thinking.” [5] Thus, unlike Jaucourt, Leibniz did expect good chess players to be good thinkers. Philidor, perhaps misunderstanding him, wrote in the preface to his chess treatise: “I believe I have improved the theory of a game that many famous authors, such as Leibniz, consider a science.” [6]

Others believed that chess could teach morality. In a letter, Diderot drew attention to the chess master Légal’s maxim that when a misplay occurs, the rectification “in doubtful cases should always be against the player who might have been in bad faith.” Diderot did not credit the game as much as the player, however: “What is so frivolous that it cannot inspire a few serious reflections?” [7] While living in Paris, the didactic autodidact Benjamin Franklin composed a short essay entitled “The Morals of Chess” (1779). He asserted therein that playing chess was “not merely an idle amusement” but a constructive activity that fostered the virtues of foresight, circumspection, caution, and perseverance.[8]

Le Neveu de Rameau first appeared in print not in French but in German, in a translation made by the ennobled literary giant Goethe, who did not really belong to the Enlightenment, although his lifetime overlapped those of most of the philosophes. In one of his early dramas, he had a character say of chess that “the game is the touchstone of the intellect.” [9] These eighteenth-century intellectuals, whatever the diversity of their views on chess, all seem to have considered it more than just a game. Perhaps they could have reached agreement on the limited conclusion advanced by the salon aphorist Chamfort: “A good heart is not sufficient to play chess.” [10]

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