Author: Yuri Averbakh



A beautiful woman pleases the eye, a good woman  is the delight of the heart;

first just a beautiful trinket

second - a real treasure.



In 1953, on our way to the New World, the Soviet team stopped for the first time in Paris. Due to delay over visas, we had to spend a week in the French capital.

A week in Paris, and in summer at that! The lively Parisians on the boulevards and Elysee Gardens, the crowds of tourists at the Sacre Couer, Notre Dame, The Casino de Paris, the Place Pigale, the Venus de Milo in the Louvre, the solemn quiet of the Per-la-Chez cemetery. Each of us discovered this remarkable city in his own way.

Among the sights of Paris, there is one place special to the heart of every chessplayer.

«Paris is the only place in the world, and the «Café de la Regence» the only place in Paris, where one can meet the best chessplayers in the world", wrote Denis Diderot in the second half of the 18th century.

There it was possible to see the chess kings of the day: Sir Kermure de Legal and Francois Andre Danican Philidor, and later, in the 19th century, Pierre Charles Fournier de St Amant.

In the second half of the 19th century, its ancient walls saw Morphy, Anderssen, Steinitz, Lasker, and later Capablanca and Alekhine.

But it was not only chess masters who frequented this café. It was also the meeting place of such wonderful minds as those of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Voltaire, Dalambert, Diderot. «Jean-Jacques Rousseau went to the Café de la Regence every day to play draughts. He attracted so much interest from crowds of onlookers that police had to stand guard on the doors. And now people go there to drink coffee in his honour. The chair he used is kept as a precious relic"  says Karamzin in his "Letters of a Russian Traveller" (May 1790).

One should not jump to the conclusion that the Russian writer confused chess and draughts. In the 18th century, the board was called a draughts board and the games played on it were called draughts games.

Of course, we felt it was our duty to visit the Café de la Regence, and one day, a group of us, including the world champion and two future champions (admittedly, we did not know that then…) went there. We were led by Salo Flohr, who had been in Paris m,any times before the war and knew the city well.

Not far from the Louvre, we went along Rouchelle Street, crossed the Place Pale-Royal, and found ourselves in front of a small building, the façade of which read «Café de la Regence».

The café was not distinguished in any way from its brothers, which did not have such a brilliant past: tables for two and four, white tablecloths, the most ordinary dishes, glasses, salt shakers, etc. And mirrors on the walls.

And no chess sets!

Alas, no chess is played any more in this café. To our request for a chess board and set, the waiter refused

- Before the war, they had napoleon's chess set here", recalled Flohr. "I remember seeing it".

- Napoleon's set!", said the waiter,. Coming to life. "Here it is".

Indeed, in the wardrobe in the corner stood a lonely little table covered with a glass box. When we got closer, we saw under the glass unusual carvings of an ancient, worn and battered board, with the pieces set up in the initial position. The pawns were grenadiers with guns blazing, the bishops officers with drawn swords.

- There it is, a chess relic!" exclaimed Flohr. "Just think, Bonaparte himself sent these pieces into the attack

Somewhat later, the Place de l'Etoile, the Arc de Triomphe, a massive rectangle with the names of battles in which Napoleon was involved, I was reminded of these figurines. I wanted to find out the place chess occupied in the life of Napoleon. How did the greatest military genius in history play chess, one who fought in his lifetime more battles than Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar and Alexander Suvorov together? ..


It is doubtful that Bonaparte really played chess with the pieces they have at the "Regence". At best, these pieces were only used by those people who held in their hands the future of the Emperor of France. Here is why.

В период с 1794 по 1795 год Бонапарт находился в Париже. Двадцатипятилетний генерал в отставке, познавший уже славу побед, но поссорившийся с начальством, оказался не у дел. Он почти ежедневно бывал в «Режанс» и коротал время либо наблюдая за игрой, либо играя сам. Но мог ли предвидеть тогдашний хозяин кафе, что этот угрюмый молодой человек в потертом сером пальто станет величайшим полководцем мира, грозой европейских монархов?! In the period from 1794 to 1795, Napoleon was in Paris. The twenty-five year old general, who already knew the glory of victories, had quarreled with his superiors, and was out of work. He was in the "Regence" almost daily and whiled away the time either watching the game or playing himself. How could the then owner of the a café foresee that this sullen young man in a shabby gray coat would become the greatest military leader of the world, the terror of European monarchs?

«Bonaparte? Who is he? Where did he serve? Nobody knows», - such were the not very flattering words of the father of the young lieutenant Junot, when he brought the news that General Bonaparte was going to take him to his aides.

And at the café Regence at that time there were many chess sets…

… Multivolume fundamental research, thousands of books, countless memoirs. Librarians count about two hundred thousand works on Napoleon. Almost all of whose lives intersected with his, considered it their duty to tell about this. Unfortunately, along with reliable information, the memoirs contains many anecdotes, and it is often impossible to distinguish truth from fiction. This is typical for the descriptions of the private life of Bonaparte, his amusement in his free time. 


Napoleaon and Matternich. Drawing by A Paul Weber, 1967.

Only by meticulously comparing different memories can you catch a grain of truth. In terms of chess, all commentators agree. If the great man's great passion was the desire for fame and power, his few free hours Napoleon gave to his third passion - the game of chess.

He played chess all the time and everywhere - in his youth at the military college, in later years in the rooms of palaces, while sailing on ships, in the bivouac when campaigning, in between battles. Everywhere, wherever fate took him, he had his chess set: in Egypt, Russia, Poland, on the island of Elba, and, finally, where some twenty years later his remains rested - on the island of St. Helena.

Napoleon played fast, not particularly focusing, giving full freedom to his flights of thought. When his opponents thought for very long, he would get angry and show his impatience clearly.

Not many people can calmly endure the blows of fate. Even in chess. Napoleon, with his Corsican temperament, was not one of that number. When he lost, he would get angry and could not hide his dissatisfaction. But, as you can imagine, the people around him knew of this weakness of the great leader and tried not to provoke such anger too often. However, Napoleon understood people quite well.

- "How can it be?", he once asked. "I often lose to people who lose to those I beat. That's a paradox, don't you think?" And, with a smile, he rolled his eyes, giving to understand that he was not deceived by his friends' tricks.

Concerning Napoleon and chess, there are various stories, of differing degrees of reliability. I cannot vouch for the documentary accuracy of the following episode, although it is interesting that it was told in his day by the French player Labourdonnais.

«Once the Emperor was playing chess with Marshall Bertier, when the arrival of the Persian Ambassador was announced. Napoleon was impossible to drag away from a game, once he was engrossed in it. Without stopping the game, the Emperor ordered that the Ambassador be brought in and after the usual opening formalities, asked him a raft of questions about Turkey, Persia, Mohammed, the Koran, Eastern women, war discipline, etc.

At first, the Ambassador was upset, but then, like an experienced diplomat, he settled down and began to answer. He praised his home country to the heavens and especially praised the Isfahan riders as the world's best horsemen. Napoleon, half joking and half seriously, began to argue with this claim, but the Ambassador would not flinch.

- "In Europe, you have excellent soldiers, but Persian horses!" he exclaimed..

When these words were translated, Bonaparte laughed and said to the interpreter:

- Tell him that tomorrow I'll show him real cavalry!


The ambassador apologised and left. The game went on.

Whilst thinking about his moves, the Emperor occasionally gave orders. From the Tuilleries orderlies came from all sides. In Paris, dragoons gathered. Like knights on the chessboard, the Emperor kept them in his hands.

And the next day, in front of Napoleon and the ambassador, 40,000 horsemen filed past.

Paris sent them off on a long journey. Before them lay Moscow…"

Napoleon's marshals were also keen on chess. As well as Berthier, both Murat and Count Bassano were regular opponents of Napoleon.

«The Emperor played the start of the game badly", said the last-named in his memoirs. "He often lost pieces and pawns in the opening. Admittedly, his opponents did not always manage to exploit this. He only became inspired in the middlegame. The clash of forces excited him. He would see 3-4 moves ahead and would carry out clever and beautiful combinations.".

"On St Helena, he played every day, and chess gave many moments of happy relaxation, to the greatest of prisoners and exiles."

It is hard not to believe Count Bassano. He accompanied the Emperor into exile. However, his words are confirmed by other witnesses. Thus, Las-Kas in "Memories of St Helena" writes: "Before dinner, the Emperor would play several games of chess".

And here is an extract from the diary of Lady Malcolm, who visited the prisoner of St Helena, together with her husband, Admiral Malcolm:

«Bonaparte turned to the Lady and asked her whether she played chess".

- Yes – she replied.

Then he ordered that a board and pieces be brought out. He played quickly, exchanging words with the Admiral the whole time. Sometimes he moved pieces incorrectly, sometimes he made bad moves, and someone among the surrounding circle would show him his mistake. Lady Malcolm won. He laughed and suggested another game. As before, eh suggested she have the first move. This time Bonaparte played with greater attention and won."

These extracts about Napoleon's play suggest that he was not a very good player and was in no way better than his opponents.

It is only possible to assess his play accurately by looking at some of his games. And if he was so keen and played so much, surely it can't be right that among the great volume of information preserved about him, we do not have a single one of his games?

Unfortunately, it seems that among Napoleon's immediate circle, there was nobody acquainted with chess notation, who could write down and keep the scores of the games played by the great leader. More likely, neither Napoleon himself, nor anyone else, regarded these games, which were just a form of relaxation, as especially important.

Even so, on the pages of chess books and magazines, there are three games, which are supposed to be by Napoleon. They were played in different periods of his life: in 1804 (during the First Consulship, at the height of the Republic), in 1809 (before the battle of Vagram) and in 1820 (the year of his death on St Helena).


Almost a quarter of a century after Napoleon died, in the French magazine Palamede, the world's first chess magazine, some sensational material appeared: "a game of chess, played by Napoleon".

We will reproduce it in full, only adding a few introductory words.

At the beginning of 1804, the secret police informed the First Consul of an impending attempt on his life. Threads of the plot led to royalists in London. Their aim was the restoration of the Bourbons. The police managed to catch the culprit, but Napoleon was not satisfied.

- The Bourbons should not think I can't give them what they deserve!, he exclaimed.

And now Talleyrand threw petrol on the flames, by adding:

- The Bourbons obviously think that your blood is not as precious as their own."

This drove Napoleon to fury. He decided to land a counterblow. And with his customary determination, he started to act. He organised a conference of several people, including Fourchier and Talleyrand.

The meeting decided to arrest and charge one of the Bourbon leaders, the eldest son of Prince Conde, Count Engiensky.

The Count lived abroad at the time, in the city of Ettenheim in Baden. It was highly unlikely that he was connected with the conspiracy, but Napoleon was not deterred. Action must be taken and the Bourbons taught a lesson.

In mid-March, a French cavalry detachment of gendarmes invaded Baden entered Ettingheim, arrested the Duke and took him to France. On March 20 the Duke was brought to Paris and imprisoned in Vincennes castle. The same day, late in the evening, he appeared before a court martial. The Duke was charged that he was fighting against his homeland and received money from its enemies.

While the court martial was going on, Napoleon was at his castle in Malmesan.

And now a word from Palamede:

«The case was heard on 20 March 1804 in Malmasan. Count Enghiensky had just arrived in Venciennes, where the military tribunal judged him and condemned him to death.».

This is how Thiers described the evening in his multi-volume work "The History of the Consulate and the Empire":

«The First Consul sought solitude and serenity in his shelter in the Malmaison. His surroundings were his secretary, Josephine, plus a number of ladies and men. Distracted, trying to appear calm, he sat down at the table and began to play chess with one of the most famous ladies in his court. The same, knowing that the Duke was brought to Paris, trembled with fear at the thought of the possible consequences of that fateful day. She dared not raise her eyes to the First Consul, who, being in great agitation, whispered famous poems about revenge, first Corneille, then Voltaire. It could not be a bloody irony. It would be unworthy and useless. But this hard man was agitated and returned several times to the idea of the greatness and nobility of a defeated and disarmed enemy. The lady thought that the Duke was saved. She was happy. Unfortunately, this did not happen. …»

«This was the story of Madame Remusat. She included it in her memoirs, to this day remaining in the manuscript. Thiers said that they were written warmly and very entertaining. The boundaries in which Thiers wrote his history did not allow him to bother with the game of chess. We, however, believe that it is our business, and give it with all the details, which we were able to find out.

Here the games, as it was played. Napoleon must have been quite busy with other thoughts, however, one can picture his style of play. He probably played quite mechanically, following his usual method, which seems to us more like the Italian school than Philidor.»


Dе Remusat – Bonaparte

1. d3. A woman's opening, solid and cautious.

1. … Кf6. No worse than any other reply to White's first move.

2. e4 Kc6 3. f4 e5 4. fe K:e5 5. K c3. A very weak move, allowing Black to avoid any danger, connected with the opening he has chosen.

5. ... Kfg4 6. d4. Фh4+ 7.g3 Фf6. This tactic is the point of the calculation and cunning.

8. Кh3. White should not move this knight. It was possible to rebuff Black's attack with 8. Фе2. Then both black pieces would be attacked and White would win.


8 ... Кf3+. But now Black is winning.

9. Кре2 К:d4+ 10. Kpd3 Ke5+. The attack continues crushingly.

11. Кр:d4 Cc5+.


Now events proceed by force. The bishop sacrifice decides.

Napoleon sat at the board, leaning on his left rm. He moved the bishop and whispered the following poem:

No! That would mean betrayal.

Forgiving allows you to offend.

The death of the leader, the other - a dungeon.

Then I could live.

Yes, but all the time with a penalty.

I'm tired of the blood, and have no power to stop.

I wanted to instil fear, but anger is aroused.


And how much blood

I have wanted to shed

Only hate drives on.

At rest, I can not live. 


Thinking about more important matters, Mme de Reiusa was lost in contemplation. The First Consul asked:

- Does this mean you have problems?

The game continued.

12. Кр:с5. A necessary capture. White avoids mate in one, but is mated in two instead.

12. ... Фb6+ 13. Kpd5.


In the sky, is it possible I was destined by fate

Another traitor to see before me?

Let the wicked rock calling  itself hell, in the fire.

I control myself, and the world captivated me.

I firmly hold the power. In the future remains

My victory day. I have a right to be proud.

Having said these lines, he played 13. ... Фd6x, and added:

- Check and mate. Tomorrow I will give you a chance of revenge, but now, we must talk about other things.

But all the other faces were sad and worried. Nobody spoke. Silence reigned. Only the First Consul, striding quickly around the room, read aloud the wonderful poetry of Voltaire:


I behold the finger of God in the troubles that have brought us to the rock,

Desperate my spirit to God, resorts,

Who punishes us and forgives us large.

At dawn, the Duke of Enghien was shot. Josephine found out about it, cried, and Madame de Remusat never asked for revenge.

A game, played by the great general! And on such a fateful day. It was enough to produce delight. The game was reprinted around the world. Chess fans admired the brilliant finale. Everyone was fascinated by the name of Napoleon, and no one questioned the authenticity of the game. But there were serious grounds for such doubt.

Who was the author of this interesting romantic story? He preferred to remain anonymous. But why?

The brief but accurate comments on the game suggest that they were written by a strong chess player. From 1841 to 1847 the magazine "Palamedes" was edited by one of the most brilliant masters of the time, Pierre-Charles Fournier de Saint-Amant. It is known that all unattributed comments and notes in the magazine belonged to him. If Saint-Amant was the author of this original literary and chess composition, why he did not publicly announce it? Why sidestep the question about the sources from which the text of the game was taken?

Maybe it was given by Madame Remusat in her memoirs? This is hard to believe: that fateful day, she had no time for chess. (author's note - Later I found a second-hand copy of the memoirs of Madame Remusat. No chess game is in there, alas.)

It is also suspicious that the game fully accords with the Duke of Bassano's account of Napoleon's play, which we cited earlier. Napoleon played the opening poorly, but when a fight ensued, he came up with a beautiful idea and executed a combination, four moves deep.

We will be precise. In the game, as published in Palamede, Napoleon in fact had the white pieces, but the game started with Black moving first. Apparently, Napoleon gallantly gave the first move to his charming opponent

This confusion over the colour of the pieces has in more recent times led to the printing of a second version of the game, and in it Napoleon played White.

1.Кс3 е5 2. Кf3 d6 3. e4 f5 4. h3 fe 5. K:e4 Kc6 6. Kfg5 d5 7. Фh5+ g6 8. Фf3 Kh6 9. Kf6+ etc..

It is possible that a not too scrupulous journalist read of this game  in Palamede and then reconstructed it from memory. He remembered the final combination and which colour Napoleon had. To make things work, he had to "distort" things by adding a senseless white move.


A bad example is contagious. In 1862 in England there appeared the memoirs of a  certain Captain Kennedy. They provide a game, allegedly won by Napoleon against General Bertrand on St Helena in 1820.


Bonapart - Bertrand

1. e4 e5 2. Kf3 Kc6 3. d4 K:d4 4. K:d4 ed 5. Cc4 Cc5 6. c3 Фe7 7. 0-0 Фe5 8. f4.

8. ... dc+ 9. Kph1 cb 10. C:f7+ Kpd8 11. fe baФ 12. C:g8 Ce7 13. Фb3 a5.

14. Лf8+! C:f8 15. Cg5+ Ce7 16. C:e7+ Кр:e7 17. Фf7+ Kpd8 18. Фf8X.


General Bertrand could not confirm the accuracy of the game, as he died in 1824. In his "Memoirs of St. Helena" no chess games appear.

While serious researchers, such as Murray, consider the game fictional, it still continues to turns up in the pages of magazines and books.

When one plays through the game, one can clearly see that a class player was playing White. You can check for yourself how accurate was the move 8. f4! Here we can see the master's hand. After Black accepted the rook sacrifice, his position was hopeless. Of course, he could have defended more tenaciously, but this would only have delayed the inevitable.

White played the opening at a high theoretical level – using the Scotch Game. This debut was named after the game by correspondence between Edinburgh and London in the late 1820s, after the death of Napoleon. The first studies of Scotch Game appeared later, in the forties, fifties. Only then did it become a fashionable, popular opening.

If we accept the fact that this game was really played by Napoleon, then, first, he was ahead of the development of opening theory and the Scotch Game should be renamed the Napoleon Opening, and secondly, it is necessary to recognize that on the island of St. Helena, Bonaparte greatly improved his in chess , and this is at odds with comments of witnesses.

So, surely not all the games attributed to the great commander are false? No, I think not.

In 1809, during the campaign of Wagram, Napoleon captured Vienna and chose as his headquarters the residence of the Austrian emperors, the suburban castle Schönbrunn. There at that time a mechanic called Johann Meltsel served at the Imperial court, who was the owner of the famous chess machine. He had bought the machine from its inventor Wolfgang Kempelen.

Napoleon wished to inspect machine and in the presence of an audience, to play with it. The secret of the machine was simple. Inside the box with a chess board, in front of which sat a human-sized doll in exotic Turkish costume, was hidden a man, operating a clever mechanism. It is known that at different times, various  strong players played inside the machine. So, against Napoleon, it seems that it was one of the strongest masters of the day, Johann Algayer.

He was much stronger than Napoleon and won without any difficulty.

Bonaparte- "Machine"


1. e4 e5 2. Фf3 Kc6 3. Cc4 Kf6 4. Ke2 Cc5 5. a3 d6 6. 0-0 Cg4 7. Фd3 Kh5 8. h3 C:e2 9. Ф:e2 Kf4 10. Фe1.

White has played the opening primitively and obtained the inferior position, but his last move loses by force. By means of 10. Фg4 it was still possible to ofefr some resistance.

10. ... Кd4. This is possible, but simpler was 10. ... Фg5! 11. Cb3 K:h3+. Here too, more decisive was 11. ... Фg5 12. g4 Kf3+ 13. Kph1 Фh4, and there is no defence to mate. Nor 12. g3 Kf3+ 13. Kph1 Фh5 14. h4 Фg4 help, with the same result. But maybe the Machine was keen to prolong the game? ..

12. Крh2 Фh4 13. g3 Kf3+ 14. Kpg2 K:e1+ 15. Л:e1 Фg4 16. d3 C:f2 17. Лh1 Ф:g3+ 18. Kpf1 Cd4 19.Kpe2 Фg2+ 20. Kpd1 Ф:h1+ 21. Kpd2 Фg2+ 22. Kpe1 Kg1 23. Kc3 C:c3+ 24. bc Фe2X.

Some authors tend to assume this game also to be fictional. But what would be the point in this story? To debunk the glory of Napoleon as a strong chess player? However, none of his contemporaries have claimed that he was. Conclusion: of the three games quoted, only the last could have been played by Bonaparte.


- Amazing! - lamented in the IX century the legendary Caliph al-Ma'mun. - I rule the world from the Indus River in the East to the West of Andalusia, but I can not cope with the thirty-two chess pieces on a space of two cubits by two.

A thousand years later, Napoleon could rightfully say the same. Alas, on the chessboard, he was just an ordinary general. The outstanding military strategist could bring into battle a hundred thousand soldiers, but could not cope with the little tiny chess pieces. figures. His brilliant mind, so striking on the battlefield for its original solutions, lost its sharpness, and paled when it came to chess.

Why is this? At first I was looking for an objective reason for this paradox. After all, in chess, we are dealing with a very limited number of military forces, and pieces removed from the board cannot be replaced. A success in military operations is often determined by skilful use of the reserves, and the introduction of fresh forces at the decisive moment of the battle.

Like no other, Napoleon would always keep the old guard in reserve and throw it into battle at the a critical time!

By the way, in the battle, Napoleon did not spare his men. As he himself admitted, in the wars which he conducted, one million seven hundred thousand Frenchmen died. That is more than in the First and Second World Wars combined!

However, after thinking further, I found other subjective reasons. I think Napoleon was pinned down by the strict rules of chess, he was cramped within the narrow confines of the sixty-four squares. His leadership talent needed in a much larger space. The wide plains of Marengo, the vast field of Austerlitz, where he could turn around completely, there he felt master of the world.

And then the small chessboard. And miniature toy soldiers. He loved to play with them. That was fun, entertainment in his leisure time. But to take chess seriously, to study it - not really, if you please!

Besides, Bonaparte always had so little free time. True, he had gone into exile. At St. Helena, Napoleon found time almost every day to play chess. But for studying it?

One who survived the fateful moment in so many battles, who broke into pieces the armies of entire states and with a careless gesture, like figures from the chess board, swept away the kings of real countries, of course, could not stoop to a serious study of the game of chess, no matter how interesting it was for him.