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Sports Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, August 18, 2011

The Emperor as Patzer
The chess career of Napoleon Bonaparte

By Peter Henner

Chess historians have documented that Napoleon Bonaparte was an avid chess player for most of his life. He was known to have played frequently with members of his staff; on one occasion, he was so involved in his game that he rudely ignored an ambassador who was seeking an audience.

However, while Napoleon loved the game, by all accounts, he was not particularly good at it. Those who reported on his skill noted that he did not understand the opening, and frequently played too quickly and too impatiently. Although it is impossible to tell for sure, one suspects that he won many games because his opponents were simply afraid to offend him by beating him.

Although he played throughout his life, it appears that he spent a lot of his time playing chess at St. Helena after his fall from power.

He reportedly always played several games of chess before dinner, and had received a particularly fine chess set of carved Chinese ivory as a gift from the governor of the Indies who knew that chess was Napoleon’s principal pastime in exile, and was grateful for Napoleon having saved the life of his brother after he had been wounded and captured the day before the Battle of Waterloo.

There are records of three games that Napoleon supposedly played. It is doubtful that he actually played any of them, but each one has an interesting story.

In Berlin, there was a famous “automaton” called the Turk that played chess (in actuality, a hollow statue with movable arms that was occupied by a chess player). Supposedly, when Napoleon entered Berlin in 1806, he played three games against the Turk, losing all of them. One of these supposed games was apparently recorded and is occasionally published.

Napoleon is also supposed to have played a game against Madame de Remusat, one of the most distinguished ladies in the consular court, the night before a popular nobleman was scheduled to be executed. She had hoped that he would be spared, based upon Napoleon’s muttering verses about clemency during the game; the nobleman was executed anyway.

The most famous game, which was actually published in Irving Chernev’s 1000 best Short Games of Chess, was supposed to have been played at St. Helena in 1820 against a Count Bertrand. In all probability, the game was played by a Captain Kennedy, who referred to the game as having been played by Napoleon in a work of humor published in the mid-19th Century but probably played the game himself. Although the game has a neat finish, it is certainly not a game of great chess; both players appeared to be about 1300 strength.

Kings v. Queens

September’s celebration of the opening of the World Chess Hall of Fame in St. Louis will include a tournament entitled “Kings v. Queens: a Battle of the Sexes.”  The tournament will feature two teams of three Grandmasters and two International Masters, one male and one female, with a total prize fund of $52,500.  Each player will play two games against each of the five players on the other team.

The Queens will be led by Grandmaster Judith Polgar, once ranked eighth in the world, and the strongest woman player in chess history, and will have an average rating of 2458.  The Kings will be led by top-rated American Grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura.  Both games will be played at a time control of game 25.

The first game will be a “Fischer random” with the pieces on the first rank arranged randomly.  Bobby Fischer designed this method of play so that players could not rely on memorized openings, and would have to rely on their own natural ability.

The hope is that this tournament will play a role in popularizing chess: However, given the fast time control, the number of games played in one day, and the surrounding hoopla, it is obviously not the best way of encouraging serious chess.

This week’s problem

After 13 somewhat erratic moves, the game attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte reached the position described below. There is a forced mate: Although it is five moves along, all of the moves are forced and, once you have found the first move, the remainder are obvious.

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