In Celebration of Napoleon

In publications which are somewhat lax with the truth, one can find three chess games that supposedly were played by Napoleon Bonaparte, the first French emperor. Serious historians think that these games were either made up or perhaps actually played, but not by Napoleon.

 He was a chess lover, but he wasn’t very strong. In an article “Napoleon Bonaparte and Chess,” Edward Winter quoted the British politician and amateur historian Lord Rosebery who in his book Napoleon: the Last Phase wrote: “At chess he was eminently unskillful, and it took all the courtliness of his suite to avoid defeating him, a simple trickery he sometimes perceived.”

 Yes, with potentates grinding millions of simple mortals between their jaws, one has to be careful. After WWII, the English chess master Harry Golombek was present as a journalist at one of the world championships in Moscow – I forgot which one it was – and asked a Russian general if Stalin also played chess. The general replied tactfully: “None of us has ever seen him at a chessboard, but we are convinced that he plays a very strong game.”

 Indeed, we know of a game reputedly between Stalin and Nikolai Yezhov, the head of the Soviet secret police, which was won by Stalin with a fine attack, showing considerable chess erudition. This proves that when the Soviets would invent a Stalin game, they didn’t take it lightly.

 Because it is 250 years ago that Napoleon was born (though only in August), the French city La Roche-sur-Yon, which was called Napoléon between 1804 and 1870, invited the strongest French player Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and the young former Dutch champion Jorden van Foreest to play a match on February 16 for the Trophée Napoléon. They played seven blitz games. Two normal ones, two FischeRandom games, two games that started with the so-called Napoleon opening 1.e4 e5 2.Qf3 and a blindfold game. Maxime Lagrave won with 4½-2½.

 In the game viewer, you can see one of the two games with this Napoleon opening. The emperor was supposed to have played it against the chess automaton the Turk, operated by the Austrian master Johann Allgaier. “Napoleon,” or whoever actually played that game, lost horribly.

 The idea of 2.Qf3 may have been to give mate with 3.Bc4 and 4.Qxf7. A much better version of this primitive idea is 2.Qh5 Nc6 3.Bc4 g6 4.Qf3 and actually Vladimir Kramnik once said that he had briefly considered playing like this in one of his games in his 24-game blitz match against Kasparov in 1998.

 The game in our viewer shows that one silly opening move does not spoil a game, as White had obtained quite a decent position before he went wrong.

 After his defeat against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, Jorden went to Moscow for the Aeroflot Open, where he was almost immediately confronted with a new shock: during the first round, after 45 minutes, the playing hall in Hotel Cosmos was evacuated because of a bomb threat made by telephone. The players were sent outside into the cold and one of them complained that he had just played an opening novelty that had now become worthless. Apparently there had been many bomb threats in Moscow on that day, and more hotels, cinemas and theaters were evacuated. But the next day the Aeroflot tournament could continue undisturbed.

 This is a good opportunity to show in the game viewer a classic problem by Alexander Petrov, probably the strongest Russian chessplayer of his time, known as “Napoleon’s Retreat from Moscow.” It is a celebration of Napoleon’s defeat.

 With the largest army Europe had ever seen, Napoleon conquered Moscow in September 1812, but already the next month he had to retreat because many buildings in the city had been set on fire and his troops suffered from extreme cold and food shortages.

 In Petrov’s construction, the black king is chased by white knights, just as the Russian cossacks had chased the French emperor in 1812.

 On move six, White misses a direct mate. This was not an oversight by the problemist, but a deliberate imitation of an actual historical occurrence. According to some historians it had been the same in 1812. The Russians had been able to capture Napoleon at the river Berezina, but had let him escape.

 About a million people died as a result of Napoleon’s catastrophic Russian campaign. It seems unlikely that Petrov’s beautiful construction, which celebrates the French defeat, was shown at the Napoleonic chess festival in La Roche-sur-Yon.

Click here to see Petrov’s problem as well as Vachier-Lagrave-van Foreest 2019