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Monday, July 28, 2014

Alexandre Deschapelles

     Alexandre Deschapelles (March 7, 1780, near Versailles – October 27, 1847, in Paris) was a French player who, between the death of Philidor and de la Bourdonnias, was the strongest player in the world and was considered the unofficial world champion from about 1800-1820. During his lifetime he was also known as Guillaume le Breton.
     Not only an expert chess player, in the upper society of his time he was also known as an expert in the card game Whist. Whist was first played on scientific principles by a party of gentlemen who frequented the Crown Coffee House in Bedford Row, London, around 1728. Edmond Hoyle, likely a member of this group, began to tutor wealthy young gentlemen in the game and published A Short Treatise on the Game of Whist in 1742 which became the standard text and rules for the game for the next hundred years.
     Deschapelles excelled not only at chess but at billiards, Polish draughts, trictrac, and whist. Three months after learning the moves of Polish Draughts, he defeated the French champion of that game.
     After the death of Philidor in 1795 four men, Verdoni, Bernard, Carlier and Leger, who were nowhere near Philidor’s level, publish a popular chess books and were considered the best players in the world. It was Verdoni who replaced Philidor at Parsloe's in London until he died in 1804 while Bernard and Carlier ruled at the Café de la Régence in Paris.
     Around 1798 Deschapelles appeared out of nowhere. Deschapelles claimed, among other outrageous things, to have learned all he needed to know about chess in just four days. According to chess player and historian George Walker, Deschapelles noted: "I acquired chess, in four days! I learned the moves, played with Bernard, who had succeeded Philidor as the sovereign of the board; lost the first day, the second, the third, and beat him even-handed on the fourth; since which time I have never advanced or receded. Chess to me has been, and is, a single idea, which, once acquired, cannot be displaced from its throne, while the intellect remains unimpaired by sickness or age."
     His father, Louis Gatien Le Breton Comte des Chapelles, was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, USA and his mother was from the south of France. Gatien served as an officer in a dragoon regiment and later became, through the influence of his close friend, an officer in the royal household with a number of rooms near the king's chambers in the château of Versailles. Gatien decided that his son should start a military career, and so Deschapelles was sent to the military academy at Brienne.
     In 1791 when terror began to reign in France, Louis Gatien decided to emigrate to Germany with his wife and two daughters. Deschapelles remained behind and soon had to join Napoleon's army. After losing his right hand in battle, he was known as "Manchot" (one-armed). At the same time received a saber cut that opened his skull from his forehead to his chin which left him disfigured. Phrenology enthusiasts of his era suggested "cranial saber-wounds" were responsible for his amazing chess skill. Deschapelles himself was a revolutionary and received his wounds fighting for Napoleon but when Napoleon crowned himself Emperor, he turned against Deschapelles and tore off the Cross of Honor (of which he received one of the first ever issued) he had received from the army.
     After learning chess in 1798, Deschapelles took up residence at and ruled the Café de la Régence. Then in 1806 the army in which Descapelles served entered Berlin and he challenged and defeated at Rook odds the best players in Germany. The year 1812 found Deschapelles employed as a superintendant of the tobacco monopoly, a post granted to him by a Napoleon aide. In 1815, after Waterloo, Deschapelles formed a band of partisans which named him their general, but that escapade was short lived.
     In 1820, Deschapelles took on Bourdonnais as a student and the following year John Cochrane, a young Scottish master, visited France and Cochrane, Deschapelles and Bourdonnais played a triangular tournament. Deschapelles played Bourdonnais and Cochrane giving them each the odds of a pawn and 2. He beat Cochrane 6-1 but lost all 7 of his games to Bourdonnais. Deschapelles then played Cochrane even but requiring himself to win 2/3 of the games as a form of odds. Cochrane won that match. That's the only recorded instance of anyone beating Deschapelles even.
     In 1821, Willian Lewis came to Paris expressly to play Deschapelles. William Lewis (1787–1870) was an English player and author, nowadays best known for the Lewis Countergambit and for being the first player ever to be described as a Grandmaster . Lewis won the 3 game match receiving odds of pawn and move by drawing two and winning one. Deschapelles then challenged Lewis to an extended match of 21 games at odds of pawn and 2 at much greater stakes but Lewis declined.
     In 1822, Deschapelles gave up chess probably because by then Bourdonnais was the better player. He took up whist and won more money at it than he ever had at chess. With his new found wealth, he and his bride rented a villa near Paris with orchards, pheasants, pumpkins and melons. His melons and pumpkins won prizes and were highly valued, leading George Perigal, an English player, to write "M. Deschapelles is the greatest chess player in France; M. Deschapelles is the greatest whist player in France; M. Deschapelles is the greatest billiards player in France; M. Deschapelles is the greatest pumpkin-grower in France; M. Deschapelles is the greatest liar in France."
     In 1836, after being out of chess for 14 years, Deschapelles began playing again and drew a 3 game match (+1 =1 -1) against Saint-Amant giving odds of pawn and 2. He won a 5 game match (+2 =2 -1) against Wilhelm Schulten of Germany in 1842 at odds of pawn and 2. He then played Saint-Amant a 5 game match winning +3 -2.
     For the last year and a half of his life, Deschapelles was confined to bed, suffering from delusions and composing rambling constitutions for various countries. His final wishes were that he should die unannounced and unheralded and be buried in a pauper's grave.
     Deschapelles reportedly once asked an opponent if they would play a game for stakes, to which he stated "My religion forbids me to play for money", Deschapelles replied "Mine forbids me to be absurd!" Here's a nice win at odds against Cochrane.

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