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Early Modern Chess
The Dawning of Enlightenment
by Gary A. Thomas
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.
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.
Engravings of the first well known chess playing automaton known as 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
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
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
Capt. Smith - Philidor, London, 1790
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
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
Qe3+ 26.Kh1 fxg2+ 27.Kxg2 Rf2+ 25...Qe3+ 26.Kh1 Bc8 27.Bd7 f2
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 firstname.lastname@example.org