Despite being a keen chess player, Napoleon Bonaparte was more a pawn than a king on the board
Beautifully abstract as it appears to its modern admirers and practitioners, chess has its origins as a game symbolising that ugliest of pursuits: war. Its most recognisable origins were in seventh-century India, when the game Chatarunga emerged, with pieces denoting chariots, elephants, infantrymen, horsemen and, of course, a king.
The military connections with chess have persisted to the present day, though the castles and knights that we now use are utterly remote from modern warfare, even as symbols. Some of the initial funding for the Deep Thought chess computer program that eventually beat the human world champion (Garry Kasparov) came from the Pentagon’s Defense Advance Projects Agency — or so I was told back in 1989 by Darpa’s then head of funding for expert systems research, Lieutenant Colonel Robert Simpson. He said the Pentagon believed that “a machine like this, programmed with knowledge of the terrain a pilot is going through, can digitise all the various route choices, explore them, and choose the optimum route. That is what Deep Thought is doing.”
That seemed far-fetched, but the Pentagon has always been willing to put small amounts of its vast resources into the most fanciful-sounding projects. More recently, it emerged that the Swedish national defence college had been studying how leading chess players construct their plans, to see how their methods could be applied to real situations on the battlefield. One of the Swedish military researchers, Jan Kuylenstierna, told the Guardian: “Chess resembles real war in many respects. It involves a struggle of will and it contains what has been termed the essentials of fighting — to strike, to move and to protect.”
Despite all this, there has not been a notable correlation between great military leaders of the past and an interest in chess. Perhaps it is because those engaged in planning real battles with real humans would be unlikely to want to spend any spare time pummelling their brains in a symbolic version of the same endeavour.
Yet there is one military campaigner of immense significance who, according to a number of accounts, was a chess enthusiast: Napoleon Bonaparte. Recently, marking the 200th anniversary of Napoleon’s ultimately disastrous Russian campaign, St Petersburg’s Museum of Ethnography displayed an extraordinary chess set made by the jewellery house of Anna Nova, called “The Chess. 1812”. The White king is Napoleon, the Black one Alexander I of Russia. The two armies are made of white and black jade, decorated with 6,700 diamonds, 9,400 rubies and 3,200 sapphires — a chess set fit for a billionaire Russian oligarch wishing to demonstrate his wealth and his patriotism at the same time.
While he would have seen nothing like that, Napoleon was given a spectacular chess set for his own use during his exile on St Helena; it was, according to one account, a gift from “The Honourable John Elphinstone, a token of gratitude to Bonaparte for having saved the life of his brother, Captain Elphinstone, of the 15th Light Dragoons. He was severely wounded and made prisoner the day before the battle of Waterloo.” The chess set, allegedly, was “Chinese . . . of exquisitely carved ivory, marked with eagles and the initial N surmounted by the Imperial Crown”.
It would have been well used. In his Mémorial de Sainte-Hélène, Napoleon’s companion in captivity, le Comte de Las Cases, wrote that “before dinner the emperor always played several games of chess”. The question to which we would all like the answer is, of course: how good a player was Napoleon? His successful military campaigns were characterised by a style that we associate with the greatest chess players: speed of attack, combined with an ability to concentrate force with maximum impact on the opponent’s weakest point. Yet although a spectacular game allegedly played on St Helena against his aide-de-camp General Bertrand shows some of that brilliance, it is nowadays regarded as a hoax: a game between two genuinely strong players of the day and attributed to Napoleon for literary purposes.
In 1836 an issue of La Palamède (the world’s first chess magazine) contained an account of Napoleon’s chess skills by the Duke of Bassano, who had actually played the great military leader on a number of occasions. He wrote: “The Emperor was not skilful in opening a game of chess. From the outset he often lost pieces and pawns. It was only in the middle game that he was inspired; the mêlée of pieces kindled his intelligence.”
Obviously, there is no reason why a brilliant military strategist should be anything more than a mediocre chess player, even if it was his favourite pursuit away from the battlefield. The construction of a real-life battle plan, while resting heavily on deception, does not require anything like the powers of geometric visualisation essential in calculating long chessboard variations. In some respects warfare is closer to a game like poker, in which it is impossible for much of the time to know exactly what the opponent has at his disposal — chess is an “open information” game, by contrast.
That Napoleon could even have been a poor chess player is given greatest credibility by the game which he is said to have played at the Schönbrunn Palace in 1809 against the Mechanical Turk. This was a fake chess-playing machine which was one of the sensations of Europe from the late 18th century until its destruction by fire in 1854. The “machine” in fact contained an artfully concealed operator, who at the time Napoleon played “it” was the German chess theorist Johann Allgaier.
Here is that game said to have been played between Napoleon and The Turk/Allgaier. The emperor’s opening play is as bad as the Duke of Bassano observed: indeed, the whole game is dreadful enough to be entirely genuine. 1.e4 e5 2.Qf3 (Napoleon plays a beginner’s move right at the start) Nc6 3.Bc4 (The crude idea: Qxf7 mate is threatened) Nf6 (Foiled!) 4.Ne2 Bc5 5.a3 (Pointless) d6 6.0-0 Bg4 7.Qd3 Nh5 8.h3 Bxe2 9.Qxe2 Nf4 10.Qe1 (This blunder should have lost on the spot) Nd4 (The Turk could have decapitated the Emperor with the obvious 10…Qg5, when 11.g3 would be met by Qxg3+ as the f-pawn is pinned) 11.Bb3 Nxh3+ 12.Kh2 (At least Napoleon had seen 12.gxh3 Nf3+ winning his Queen) Qh4 13.g3 Nf3+ 14.Kg2 Nxe1+ (The Turk could have forced mate in three moves with the sacrificial 14…Nf4+: but he’s winning every which way) 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 checkmate. Worse than the retreat from Moscow.