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Early Modern Chess
The Dawning of Enlightenment

by Gary A. Thomas

In my previous two articles, I described the evolution of chess from the Arabic game of shatranj; see "The Intervolving Roots of Chess", Jan 99. And then in the continuation of the article I described some of the particular influences on chess and the famous personalities who were greatly responsible for increasing popularity of the game; see "The Early History of Chess", Feb 99. Now, I wish to expand on the topic of how chess developed from the Game of Kings into our modern chess culture.

As the game of chess progressed during the Renaissance it was primarily a leisure pass-time for the nobility. Yet their patronage of great chess players was a crucial element for continued development of the game. This allowed the brightest minds of the period to critically evaluate the game, and then to promote advanced chess theory in their written publications. The writings of Lucena, Damiano, Lopez, and Greco were only the first of many publications on chess theory and strategy, but were important contributions to developing our current chess culture. This is when the foundation was built for the future of the game.

As the Enlightenment Period began, all across Europe were indications of a growing chess culture. Chess was no longer a game exclusive to the nobility, but increasingly found a new following of intellectuals from various classes of society. This increased popularity of the game is evident in references within various articles published at the time, and even within the arts such as in theatrical plays and in poetry. The most telling indications of it's widespread popularity is seen in an emergence of professional players, team matches, spectator exhibitions, and organized competitions. More and more chess literature was published on the qualities of various opening strategies. And, probably at the crux of all this, coffeehouses appeared across Europe where amateurs and professionals alike devoted their leisure time to the game of chess.

It is no coincidence that by the latter seventeenth century the dominant centers of chess became established where the coffeehouse was found to be most popular. Specifically, in London and Paris. In the late seventeenth century Slaughter's Coffee House became the premiere chess café for Londoners, while Parisians most frequented the Café de la Regence.

In the eighteenth century English players were widely dedicated to the study of chess. However, it was France which would produce the world's greatest chess players for the next century. First there was Sire Legal de Kermur. He dominated the finest players of France for two decades; but interestingly, he was to become most noted for tutoring his successor. He took an interest in a teenage boy he met at the Café de la Regence who was a music student as well as a fine chess player. M. de Kermur began to tutor the boy in chess by giving him the odds of a rook, and within three years the young musician was able to play the champion of France in level odds.

philidor.gif (14714 bytes)

Thus emerged the greatest figure in the early history of modern chess, the 18th century French player Francois-Andre Danican Philidor (1726-1795). By the time he turned 18 years old, he discovered that he had a gift for playing blindfold chess and astonished spectators in 1744 when he played two games simultaneously blindfolded. Although he did not officially defeat M. de Kermur until a match in 1750, he was regarded as the unofficial world champion since 1747 when he defeated Philip Stamma in an astonishing match at odds in London. In that match he won +8,-1 after giving the English champion the advantage of the move and to win for any drawn game. In 1749 Philidor returned to France and wrote what was to become the most influential work on chess theory in history, Analyse du jeu des Echecs (Analysis of the game of chess). It was published all across Europe and eventually translated into many languages. Philidor's book was the first to analyze many of the main strategic elements of chess and to recognize the importance of proper pawn play. The theme of his work was that 'Pawns are the heart and soul of chess', an insight which was not fully understood or appreciated until the twentieth century. He also introduced the chess strategies of prophylaxis, positional sacrifice and the blockade. Philidor was the champion of the chess world for nearly fifty years, and the leading operatic composer of France for twenty years.

In the mid eighteenth century, there were other contributions made to chess theory by players who were outside of the London-Paris circle. Commonly referred to as the Modenese School, were the prominent Italian chess theorists Ercole del Rio, Giambattista Lolli, and Domenico Ponziani. Del Rio wrote enlightened chess problems. Lolli wrote expansive endgame studies. Ponziani evaluated strategies and analyzed opening lines. Used together, these specialized writings provided a full course of study for aspiring chess enthusiasts of that time. All of these men were very critical of Philidor's ideas, but the Modenese School failed to regenerate a revival of Italian dominance of the game. Instead, their work ironically represents the end of an era.

In the middle 18th century, there were other advances which drew the attention of the public to chess. A machine was created that was said to play chess at a master level. This was named "The Turk", and it was a sensation which was exhibited all across Europe and America for nearly a century.

turk-ad.gif (45238 bytes)
Engravings of the first well known chess playing automaton known as the Turk

turk.gif (15769 bytes)The first chess playing machine was invented by the famous Hungarian engineer and inventor Baron Wolfgan von Kempelen who was Counselor on mechanics to the royal court. He first exhibited it at the Viennese Royal Palace in 1769. The Baron claimed that the machine could play chess and would wind it up with a key and invite members of the audience to inspect the device and to play against it. It was in fact a hoax; but no one discovered the secret. The automaton was big enough to hide somebody small inside who would operate it. After the death of the inventor, the Turk had become so famous that it continued to make world tours. In 1809 at an exhibition in Shoenbrunn, the Turk played a famous game against Napoléon 1st. The Turk was destroyed in a fire at the museum of Philadelphia in 1856. Other automata were invented later and continued to perform, most notably Ajeeb and Mephisto which worked in similar fashion.

The next unofficial world champion of chess was another Frenchman, Alexander Louis Honore Lebreton Deschapelles (1780-1847). Deschapelles was the son of a French Marshal, and a student of the military school at Brienne. He entered into the French Army at Sambre-et Meuse and as a soldier for Napoleon he lost his right hand at the battle of Fleurus while fighting against the Prussians. He was a gifted chess player, who dominated the game as champion from 1798 until he resigned his championship in 1821 to his student La Bourdonnais. Some of the many famous players of the time which he defeated were Cochrane, Lewis, Schulten, and Saint Amant. He was also a gifted player of bridge where he made between 30,000 and 40,000 francs per year at playing whist; and is still commemorated by the whist term 'Deschapelles coup'. It is said that he was a great braggart, that he claimed to have mastered the game of chess and reached his full potential after only two days of learning. As such, he felt that the study of books on chess theory and strategy were disdainful.

Louis Charles Mahe de La Bourdonnais (1797-1840) was the gifted pupil of Deschapelles and the strongest player until his death. He devoted most of his chess playing career to proving himself superior to the leading British chess masters. His most famous accomplishment was his victories over the leading British player, Alexander McDonnell of Ireland. In 1834 they played a series of six matches, totaling 85 games in which La Bourdonnais won by a convincing total score of +45,-27,=13.

I have often read, and heard it proclaimed that the La Bourdonnais - McDonnell matches marked the beginning of modern chess. Reasoning that it was an international match between widely recognized champions with all of the games recorded and published. I personally believe this to be an error for a couple of important reasons. First, because the Romantic style of chess play was firmly ensconced at this time as the only acceptable method for playing, and would last for another thirty years. As a result of this style, most games were mainly played by book, with tired old gambits accepted according to the rote actions required by chess etiquette of the time. This was then followed by wild sacrificial play with both players attacking to reach an earliest possible victory. Sacrificial attacks were considered the only manly way to attack, and it was disgraceful to refuse the capture. Secondly, there was still not an established set of commonly accepted rules for the game. Match rules changed from one locale to the next, with no organized manner for recognizing or establishing champions. The era of modern chess could not begin until recognized players could compete within established basic rules, but otherwise feel free to play as they wished in order to win. This is truly what is meant by the term "Modern Chess Era". In this era, we see a time which the masters test the boundaries of positional and strategic theory. When ideas of Romantic, Classical, and Hypermodern styles all clash together on the board. When playing 'as expected' is a sure way to lose, and a propensity to expect the unexpected is a common mark of the greatest players. But I will leave this for my next article for this column.

Below, I have included three famous games from the early modern era of chess. The first, is a game that pitted man against 'machine' in which Napoleon was defeated by the Turk.

Napoléon I. - 'The Turk' (Allgaier), Schoenbrunn, 1809

earlymodern1.gif (5181 bytes)1.e4 e5 2.Qf3? Nc6 3.Bc4   Unfortunately for Napoléon, Allgaier was inside 'the Turk' and was one of the best players of his time; he obviously knew the refutation to this most basic of traps. 3... Nf6 4.Ne2  The knight can no longer go to it's best square, f3, now occupied by the queen. 4... Bc5 5.a3?  Wasting a tempo. 5... d6 6.0-0 Bg4 7.Qd3 Nh5 8.h3 Bxe2 9.Qxe2 Nf4 10.Qe1 Nd4  The time lost in the opening by white allows black to start an attack. 11.Bb3 (see diagram) Nxh3+! 12.Kh2  If 12.gxh3 Nf3+ and white is lost. 12.Qh4  The right time to bring out the queen, the minor pieces are established 13.g3 Nf3+ 14.Kg2 Nxe1+ 15.Rxe1 Qg4 16.d3 Bxf2 17.Rh1 Qxg3+ 18.Kf1 Bd4 19.Ke2 Qg2+ 20.Kd1 Qxh1+ 21.Kd2 Qg2+ 22.Ke1 Ng1 23.Nc3 Bxc3+ 24.bxc3 Qe2+ White resigns

The next game is of course a historical classic. I have chosen to display this game here because it so clearly demonstrates Philidor's ideals of winning through superior pawn structure. Although I am certain that most readers are familiar with this game, further study of it will serve to strengthen an understanding of the concepts involved.

Capt. Smith - Philidor, London, 1790

1.e4 e5 2.Bc4 Nf6 3.d3 c6 4.Bg5?! h6!? 4...d5 was best 5.Bxf6 Qxf6 6.Nc3 b5 7.Bb3 a5 8.a3 Bc5 9.Nf3 d6 10.Qd2 Be6 11.Bxe6 fxe6 12.O-O White has castled into a position under siege. 12...g5 13.h3 Nd7 14.Nh2 h5   Black has superior spacial advantage and freedom of movement to build an attack. 15.g3 Ke7 16.Kg2 d5 17.f3 Nf8 18.Ne2 Ng6 19.c3 Rag8 20.d4 Bb6 21.dxe5 Qxe5 22.Nd4 Kd7 23.Rae1 h4 24.Qf2 Bc7 25.Ne2?  Too passive, better is 25.exd5 25...hxg3 26.Qxg3 Qxg3+ 27.Nxg3 Nf4+ 28.Kh1 Rxh3 29.Rg1 (see diagram) Rxh2+ 30.Kxh2 Rh8+ 31.Nh5 Rxh5+ 32.Kg3 Nh3+ 33.Kg4 Rh4++ 0-1

The next game is from the famous series of 6 matches between the French and British chess champions, which was won by La Bourdonnais after 85 games. The text of the game I have selected is most remarkable. La Bourdonnais is able to use an onslaught of Pawns safely against MacDonnell's Queen and Rook.

Macdonell, A.- La Bourdonnais, Game 62 of 85, London, 1834

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 e5 5.Nxc6? The ensuing exchange strengthens Black's pawn center 5...bxc6 6.Bc4 Nf6 7.Bg5 Be7 8.Qe2 d5 9.Bxf6 Bxf6 10.Bb3 O-O 11.O-O a5 12.exd5 cxd5 13.Rd1 d4 14.c4 Qb6 15.Bc2 Bb7 16.Nd2 Rae8 17.Ne4 Bd8 18.c5 Qc6 19.f3 Be7 20.Rac1 f5   20…Bxc5? 21.Nxc5 Qxc5 22.Bxh7+ loses; instead Black offers the sacrifice to mobilize his central pawns.  21.Qc4+ Kh8 22.Ba4 Qh6 23.Bxe8 fxe4 24.c6 exf3 25.Rc2   25.dxc6?! leads to mate after 25…Qe3+ 26.Kh1 fxg2+ 27.Kxg2 Rf2+   25...Qe3+ 26.Kh1 Bc8 27.Bd7 f2   Threatens 28…Qe1+ 29.Qf1 Qxd1 30…f1=Q+   28.Rf1 d3 29.Rc3 Bxd7 30.cxd7 e4 31.Qc8   Threatens 32.Qxf8+ and 33.d8=Q    31...Bd8 32.Qc4 Qe1 33.Rc1 d2 (see diagram) 34.Qc5 Rg8 35.Rd1 e3 36.Qc3 Qxd1 37.Rxd1 e2 0-1


If you are interested in the history of chess and would like to contact the author of this column, you may send comments to Gary Thomas at gthomas1@aol.com


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