Louis-Charles Mahe de La Bourdonais

by Bill Wall

Louis-Charles Mahe de La Bourdonnais (La Bourdonnais) was born on Reunion Island (named Bourbon Island until 1793) in the Indian Ocean, in 1795 (some sources say 1797). The month and date of his birth are unknown. He was born into a distinguished and noble family. His family was wealthy and his grandfather, Bertrand-Francois Mahe de la Bourdonnais (1699-1753) was the governor of Bourbon (La Reunion) and Mauritius (1735-1746) and a French naval commander who had spent three years in the Bastille before being acquitted on charges of treason.

He was sent to the College of Henri IV in Paris where, in 1814, he learnt chess.

In 1818 he started playing chess at the Cafe de la Regence. He had his own table at the Regence and played 12 hours a day, 7 days a week.   He took his first chess lessons from Jacques Mouret (1787-1837), a French chess master.

In 1820 he took chess lessons from Alexandre Deschapelles (1780-1847).

In 1821, at the age of 24, he defeated Alexandre Deschapelles with 6 wins and 1 loss, and John Cochrane with 7 wins in a triangular contest, held near Paris. Deschapelles then gave up chess for whist. La Bourdonnais was now perhaps the strongest chess player in the world, and he remained the strongest chess player in the world until his death, at the age of 43, in 1840.

In 1823 Bourdonnais went to London and defeated Lewis with 5 wins and 2 losses.

In the Spring of 1825 he visited England and defeated all the chess players he met. In July he married an English girl, Eliza Waller Gordon.

In 1831 he lost all his fortune (he inherited a small estate from his father) in land speculation in Saint-Malo, a port city in northern France. He then tried to earn a living at chess.

In 1833 he published 2 volumes of chess in Paris, called Nouveau Traite du Jeux des Echecs (New Treatise on the Game of Chess). For the first time, advice was given on how to study chess from a chess book and how to calculate chess variations in the mind. The book covered some openings, simple endgames, and curious positions.

In June 1834 he played Alexander McDonnell (1798-1835), England's best player, at the Westminster Chess Club. From June to October 6 matches were played. They played 85 games and Bourdonnais won 45 games, drew 13, and lost 27. (Other sources say he won 44 games, drew 14, and lost 30). Over 3,500 moves were made.

George Walker organized the event and William Greenwood Walker, the aged Secretary of the Westminster Chess Club, wrote down all the moves. This was the first important chess match of modern times and the longest chess match in history. Bourdonnais could not speak English and McDonnell could not speak French. The only common word between them was check. Their games started at noon and ended at 7 pm. There was no time limit. They played every day except Sunday.

Bourdonnais won the first match with 16 wins, 5 losses, and 4 draws. He lost the 2nd match with 4 wins, 5 losses, and no draws. He won the 3rd match with 6 wins, 5 losses, and 1 draw. He won the 4th match with 8 wins, 3 losses, and 7 draws. He won the 5th match with 7 wins, 4 losses, and 1 draw. He lost the 6th match with 4 wins, 5 losses, and no draws.

La Bourdonnais talked and laughed during the match with McDonnell if la Bourdonnais was winning. He would swear to himself in French when he was losing. Between moves, because McDonnell took so long in moving, la Bourdonnais would go to another room and play quick chess with others for stakes. He earned extra money that way during the match.

The match was suspended to allow La Bourdonnais to return to Paris on business. Also, William Greenwood Walker, the Westminster Chess Club Secretary, died during this period.

In 1835 La Bourdonnais was making plans to continue his match with McDonnell. But McDonnell developed a kidney infection and died of Bright's disease on September 14, 1835.

In 1836 he became co-editor, along with Joseph Mery, of the world's first chess magazine, Le Palamede. It was a monthly chess magazine. The magazine was named after the mythical Greek hero of Troy, Palamedes, who is one of the many fabled creators of chess. He was also the Secretary of the Paris Chess Club, earning 1,200 francs a year.

In 1838 he suffered a stroke, then dropsy.

In 1839 the Paris Chess Club folded. La Bourdonnais had no money and had to sell his books, furniture, and even his clothes.

In November, 1840 he went to London to work at Simpson's Divan. His salary was 2 guineas a week. In November he was diagnosed with dropsy and scrotal hernia.

M. de la Bourdonnais played his last chess game on December 9, 1840 at his lodging, No. 4, Braufort-building.  He was too sick to finish his second game and told his wife, “Put away that chess board carefully.  I shall never need it again.”

He died in London on December 13, 1840 at the age of 45. He was buried at Kensal Green in London, like his rival, McDonnell. George Walker paid for the funeral and burial.

In 1842 Le Palamede published the only known portrait of Bourdonnais. It was on their cover.

In 1842 a second edition of La Bourdonnais's book was published.

Jouy – Bourdonnais, Paris 1836

1.e4 e5 2.f4 exf4 3.Nf3 g5 4.Bc4 g4 5.Ne5 Qh4+ 6.Kf1 f3 7.Nxf7 Nc6 8.d4 Bg7 9.c3 Nf6 10.Nxh8 d5 11.exd5 Ne4 12.Qe1 g3 13.Bd3 fxg2+ 14.Kxg2 Bh3+ 15.Kg1 Nxd4 16.Qxe4+ Qxe4 17.Bxe4 Ne2 mate  0-1