On Chess: When The Game Of Kings First Became A Game Of The People | St. Louis Public Radio

On Chess: When The Game Of Kings First Became A Game Of The People

Jun 25, 2020

Chess is often described as the game of kings. And it is. But there was a time when chess was also the game of those who were overthrowing their kings. That was a time when chess was the game of dangerous radicals and revolutionaries, writers and intellectuals. It was a time when men and women used coffeehouses, newspapers and salons as we use the internet to spread once-forbidden ideas and knowledge — ideas that would ultimately shatter the old order and usher in the modern world.

In all the vast upheavals of the 18th century, chess was in the thick of things. It was played in taverns and inns as well as royal courts; played by misfits and disaffected intellectuals as well as kings and aristocrats. In 1784, five years before the storming of the Bastille, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, in an essay analyzing and defending the Enlightenment, dubbed that century “sapere aude," which translates as "dare to know," "dare to be wise," or, more loosely, as "dare to think for yourself."

“Sapere aude” thus became the unofficial battle cry of the Enlightenment. It is also good basic advice for any chess player.

Dare to Know: Chess in the Age of Reason" is the latest exhibit at the World Chess Hall of Fame examines this fascinating and little-understood era of chess history in depth for the first time, covering roughly the years from 1700 through 1830. At the beginning of the era, with few exceptions, chess was a game played primarily by kings and their courtiers, as well as the clergy. By the era’s end, people of all classes played in great numbers. Chess books began to be published more widely. The saga of chess in the 19th century had begun.

What caused such a drastic transformation in our beloved game? It was a natural outgrowth of the Enlightenment, a phenomenon that likewise transformed so much of the world. This exhibit includes material from the various regional Enlightenments of Europe and America, but focuses primarily on that most central Enlightenment — the French Enlightenment. Most historians define the era as beginning in the early 18th century and ending sometime much later in the century, usually with the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789. “Dare to Know” includes the Enlightenment as well as both the pre- and post-Enlightenment periods.

Reinventing the world — the Encyclopédie

It is impossible to discuss the Enlightenment without also discussing the famous “Encyclopédie” of Diderot and d’Alembert. The most famous, revolutionary, and subversive encyclopedia ever published, the lofty and audacious goal of the “Encyclopédie” was nothing less than an attempt gather all human knowledge, and yet at the same time, to fundamentally change the way people think.

But before all this, the “Encyclopédie” had set out to be, first and foremost, an encyclopedia. [Indeed, scholars still rely on it for authoritative answers to many historical questions related to 18th-century France.] The “Encyclopédie” was the work of its chief editor, the philosophe Denis Diderot, assisted by Jean Le Rond d’Alembert and over 150 other authors, many toiling in obscurity. By far, the most prolific author was the Chevalier Louis de Jaucourt, who wrote over 17,000 articles, or roughly a quarter of the entire “Encyclopédie.” Diderot himself wrote well over 5,000 articles, the second-highest total.

To modern people, it may seem hard to believe that the writing of an encyclopedia could be fraught with controversy. But this one was written by a unique group of progressive intellectuals known as the “philosophes,” who could not help but infuse their articles with high-minded concepts of tolerance, reason, open-mindedness and egalitarian political ideas, all of which posed a bold and flagrant challenge to the authority of both Church and State. As a result, the philosophes — or the “encyclopédistes,” as they came to be called — worked under constant threat of censorship, arrest and even worse.

An enduring mystery: knight or bishop?

Chess is included in the “Encyclopédie” in two main places: First, in the fifth text volume (1755), under the E’s (for “échecs,” the French word for chess), on page 244, there is an article about the game, written and signed by the ever-prolific Chevalier Louis de Jaucourt.

And second, in the ninth plate volume (1771), there is an illustration of a chess set that has fascinated and confused chess historians and collectors for some 250 years. The set appears in the volume not because it was considered important to show what a chess set looked like, but merely because it was one of the typical products of a toymaker. Known as an Encyclopédie set, or sometimes as a Diderot set, few complete examples of this once-common set are still extant. It later gave rise to French chess set styles such as the Directoire and Régence.

J.E. Nilson, Das Schach Spiel (The Chess Game), 1730, Aquatint.
Credit Collection of the World Chess Hall of Fame

The six different chess pieces are depicted in a sophisticated manner, giving both elevation (side view) and plan (top view), in the manner of an architectural drawing. One of the pieces, fourth from the left, is depicted as having a top cut into a crude triangle. Many writers have pointed out that this crude triangular cut was probably cheaper than employing a skilled carver to make horses’ heads, the rest of the set being turned quite inexpensively on a lathe.

Though one might expect the piece to be a knight, other information in this entry conflicts with this identification. On the comments page that precedes this plate, the third piece from the left is referred to as the cavalier, or knight, while the fourth piece from the left is dubbed the “fou,” or bishop. This does not agree with how the pieces sit on the board at the start of play. There has been tremendous debate over the years about this conundrum, but with access to a genuine first edition of the “Encyclopédie,” I believe (with all due respect to those who disagree) that I have solved it. The piece ordering on the comments page is a typographical error — a misprint. The fourth piece from the left is indeed the knight.

The rise of the coffee house

Just as chess was the chosen game of the philosophes, coffee was their chosen drink. Because of the way coffee tended to sharpen the wits rather than dull them like alcohol, coffee was the obvious choice for all manner of thinkers, writers, philosophes, encyclopédistes, scientists, academics and everyone else intent on living what we would now call a life of the mind.

Today, it is almost impossible to find a decent chess coffeehouse anywhere in the world. It was not always so. Once there were thousands of them. Every major city in Europe and the Americas had countless options to choose from; there were some 300 coffeehouses in Paris alone, most of them allowing or encouraging chess and other sober games such as draughts. Many chess players today have heard of the Café de la Régence, and perhaps Café Procope in Paris, but these were only the most famous.

Chess players today often tend to think of the Café de la Régence and places like it merely as places where chess was played, but this is a woefully inadequate view of history. If ever there were a place where world-shaking ideas flowed along with the flow of the black brew, mingling with the gentle click of the pieces, it was that venerable and much-mourned institution, the chess coffeehouse.

Stay tuned for the conclusion coming soon. In the meantime, learn more about “Dare to Know: Chess in the Age of Reason," or see the free exhibition at the World Chess Hall of Fame, on view through Nov. 1, 2020.

Tom Gallegos is an antiques collector and dealer, independent researcher, and self-taught antiquary. His greatest areas of interest are the history of Western Civilization before the Industrial Revolution, the history of science, and the history of ideas. He has been a member of Chess Collectors International since the 1990s, though he collects in many other areas as well, including Greek, Roman and Medieval antiquities, and also participates in other collecting societies in areas such as playing cards, rare books, maps and prints, scientific instruments, and nautical antiques. Though no longer active as a tournament player, he formerly held a U.S. Chess Class-A rating, and still enjoys playing chess daily.