Jean-Jacques Rousseau


Jean-Jacques Rousseau was born on June 28, 1712 in Geneva, Switzerland.  His mother died nine days after he was born due to complications from Jean-Jacques birth.  Rousseau’s formal education ended at the age of 12.  Until he was 37, Rousseau had written nothing except notes for his own music.  From 1725 to 1728, he was apprenticed as an engraver.  From 1731 to 1740, Rousseau lived with or close to Madame de Warens, his mistress.   At her country home, Les Charmettes, neaar Chambery in Savoy, Rousseau began his first serious reading and study, including chess.


Around 1731, when Rousseau was living near Chambery, France he met Gabriel Bagueret (born in 1671) of Geneva who taught Rousseau the game of chess.  Bagueret was employed by Peter the Great of Russia, perhaps as a secret agent.  Rousseau did not like Bagueret (Rousseau called Bagueret one of the  ugliest characters and the greatest madmen he had ever known) and, but Bagueret proposed to teach Rousseau how to play chess.  Soon, Rousseau visited the Café de la Regence and played Bagueret many games there.  Rousseau also met de Legal, Philidor, and others at the Café de la Regeance


According to Rousseau in Les Confessions, Book V:


 “I made an attempt, though almost against my inclination, and after several efforts, having learned the moves, my progress was so rapid, that before the end of the first sitting, I gave him the rook, which in the beginning he had given me (rook odds).  Nothing more was necessary; behold me fascinated with chess!  I buy a chess board and a “Calabrois,” (Gioachino Greco, also known as Il Calabrese, wrote a book on chess) and shutting myself up in my chamber pass whole days and nights in studying all the varieties of the game, being determined by playing alone, without end or relaxation, to drive them into my head, right or wrong.  After incredible efforts, during two or three months passed in this curious employment, I go to the coffee-house, thin, sallow, and almost stupid;  I seat myself, and again attack M. Bagueret; he beats me, once, twice, twenty times; so many combinations were fermenting in my head, and my imagination was so stupefied, that all appeared confusion.  I tried to exercise myself with Philidor’s book (L’analyse du jeu des Eschecs, first published in 1749) or Stamma’s book (Essai sur le jeu des echecs, published in 1737) of instructions, but I was still equally perplexed, and, after having exhausted myself with fatigue, was further to seek than ever, and whether I abandoned my chess for a time, or resolved to surmount every difficulty by unremitted practice, it was the same thing.  I could never advance one step beyond the improvement of the first sitting, nay, I am convinced that had I studied it a thousand ages, I should have ended by being able to give Bagueret the rook and nothing more.  That was time well spent! You will say; nod did I spend only a little in this way.  I abandoned this first attempt to learn chess only when I no longer had the strength to continue.  When at last I emerged from my room, I must have looked more dead than alive, which indeed is what I would soon have been if I had gone on like this much longer.  Surely no one could disagree that such a mind, especially in the full ardour of youth, was unlikely to maintain for long a healthy body.


From Confessions, Book VII:


I  had another expedient, not less solid, in the game of chess, to which I regularly dedicated, at the Cafe Maugis (on rue Saint-Severin), the evenings on which I did not go to the theater.  I became acquainted with M. de Legal (Philidor’s teacher and the best player in France until the coming of Philidor), M. Husson, Philidor, and all the great chess players of the day, without making the least improvement in the game.  However, I had no doubt but, in the end, I should become superior to them all, and this, in my own opinion, was a sufficient resource.  The same manner of reasoning served me in every folly to which I felt myself inclined.  I said to myself: whoever excels in anything is sure to acquire a distinguished reception in society.  Let us therefore excel, no matter in what, I shall certainly be sought after.


Rousseau discovered that he loved chess, and for some months he was completely obsessed with it.  He relied on intuition and not memory.  Laborious attempts to memorize chess openings and combinations got him nowhere.


Rousseau also tried to master draughts (checkers, usually on a 10x10 board and called Polish Draughts) , but he was also a weak draughts player.  He often visited Manoury’s coffee house (Café Manoury at the Place de l’Ecole, in which Manoury ran from 1766 to 1787) to play draughts (chess was also played there).  Manoury remembered Rousseau and said about him: “J.J., there is no need to mention him more precisely, whould have received two pieces if he would have played against a strong player.  But he only wanted to play against players of equal strength, and in despair that in this game he should always be a mediocre player and finally said goodbye to droughts.”  Manoury’s coffee house was mostly a gathering of draughts players or chess players that were not welcome in the Café de la Regence.  Manoury wrote a book on draughts called Essai sur le jeu de Dames a la Polonaise.  In 1785, Philidor pirated this book, which he called Traite sur le jeu de Dames a la Polonaise.  Philidor was also a strong draughts player and played draugts in Manoury’s Paris coffee house.


Rousseau moved to Paris in 1740, where he continued to play chess.  Rousseau earned his living with secretarial work and musical copying, where he met Francois-Andre Danican Philidor (1726-1795).


In 1740, Philidor began to frequent the Café de la Regence, where he was taught chess by M. de Kermur, sire de Legal (1702-1792).  Legal practically lived at the Café de la Regence.  For years he sat in the same chair and wore the same green coat, taking large quantities of snuff and attracting a crowd with is conversation and combinations.  He had already established his reputation as the best chess player in France when Philidor first walked into the Regence.  Rousseau would have met Legal, Philidor, and others at the Café de le Regance in  the 1740s.


In 1741, Rousseau met Therese Le Vasseur, a hotel servant girl.  They stayed together the rest of their lives, but never married until 1768.  They had five children, but he gave them all away to hospitals.


Rousseau often played chess (and perhaps draughts) with the French philosopher Denis Diderot (1713-1784).  In 1742, they were first introduced to each other in the Café de la Regence (established in 1718 on rue Saint-Honore, Place de Palais-Royal), and Rousseau won most of his games against Diderot.  An observer noted the following about Rousseau and his chess: “He mediates deeply between moves, but he plays with speed, which accords with his character.”


Diderot said of Rousseau: “Man strives for superiority, even in the smallest things.  Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who always beat me at chess, refused to give me a handicap to make the game more equal ‘Does it upset you to lose?’ he asked me.  ‘No,’ I said, ‘but I would make a better defense, and you would enjoy the game more.’  ‘That may be,’ he replied.  ‘All the same, let’s leave things as they are.


Diderot had been in Paris for seven years and was living a ragged Bohemian life.  He tried to make a living by teaching or writing and was glad when he was able to spend a few sous at the Café de la Regence or the Café Mangins, playing and watching chess.


In 1743-44, Rousseau was a secretary to the French Ambassador Comte de Montaignu to Venice.


In 1744, Philidor played two players blindfolded simultaneously.  The event was chronicled by the Chevalier de Jaucourt in the article on chess which he contributed to the great Encyclopedie of Diderot and D’Alembert, 1751-1765. 


In 1745, Philidor helped Rousseau with the music for his first opera, Les Muses galantes.  A biographer of Philidor concluded that Philidor provided a major contribution to it.  Rousseau, however, wrote that Philidor came twice to work on the opera, “but he could not commit himself to laboring diligently for a distant and uncertain profit.  He did not return again and I finished the task myself.”  It took Rousseau three months to complete his score of the opera.  The opera failed and was scoffed.  The score of the opera has since disappeared.


In 1750, Rousseau won first prize for the best essay on the subject “Has the progress of the arts and sciences contributed to the purification or the corruption of morals?”  Rousseau argued that it did not improve man in habits and moral.


In 1752, Rousseau wrote another opera called Le Devin du Village (The Village Soothsayer), which was performed for King Louis XV.  The king liked it so well, he offered Rousseau a life-long pension.  Rousseau turned down the offer.  Rousseau was then known as “the man who had refused a king’s pension.”  Some sources say that Philidor gave great assistance to Rousseau on this opera, but Philidor was abroad at the time, and did not return to Paris until 1754.


In 1752, a company of Italian singers came to Paris and produced a lively sensation by their melodious style.  Rousseau took advantage of this sensation and wrote Letter on French Music, which he criticized the French style and supported the Italian style.  However, the Italians were asked to leave the country.. 


In 1754, Rousseau returned to Geneva, reverted from Catholicism to Protestantism, and regained Swiss citizenship.


In 1755, he wrote a second essay where he maintained that only the uncorrupted savage is in possession of real virtue.


In 1756, Rousseau moved to a cottage near the forest of Montmorency, where he wrote The New Heloise (1761) , Emile (1762), and The Social Contract (1762).


In 1760, Diderot wrote Le Neveu de Rameau (Rameau’s Nephew).  In it, he describes taking shelter in the Café de la Regence and watching chess being played.  His book was first translated by Goethe and first appeared in German rather than French.


In 1762 Rousseau fled to Switzerland after his publication of Emile, which was banned and Rousseau was condemned for religious unorthodoxy.  He lived in Neuchatel (Motiers-Travers) from 1762 to 1765, then moved to Bienne in 1765.  When the government of Berne ordered Rousseau out of its territory, he visited England.


Rousseau enjoyed chess competition.  One opponent who lost regularly against Rousseau at the Cafe de la Regence, even when Rousseau removed his rook was asked by Rousseau, “Does it wound you to lose?”  Rousseau’s opponent replied, “Oh, no.  It’s the inevitable result since there is such a marked disparity in our means of defense.”  Rousseau replied, “Well, then, in that case let’s not change how we play; I like to win.”


In Book X, Rousseau described his encounters with Prince Conti.  In June 1760, Rousseau played two games of chess against Louis Francois I de Bourbon (1717-1776), the Prince of Conti from 1727 to his death in 1776.  The games were played at Rousseau’s apartment at Mont-Louis.  Conti did not like to lose at chess and he played and lost two games against Rousseau.  His entourage used to make urgent signals to Rousseau to start losing, but Rousseau kept on winning and said, “Monseigneur, I honor your serene highness too much not to beat you always in chess.”  When someone suggested that Rousseau let Conti win occasionally, Rousseau replied, “What!  I did give him a rook!”  If a prince could not win against Rousseau without a rook, then he deserved to lose.  Despite losing to chess all the time to Rousseau, Conti became a patron of Rousseau.  Rousseau mentioned that Prince Conti had beaten the Chevalier de Lorenzi, who as a better player than himself.


In 1955, Irving Chernev published a game, Rousseau vs. Conti, Montmorency 1760 in his book, 1000 Best Short Games of Chess.  The game (#649) was a Guioco Piano. 


1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Bc5 4.c3 Qe7 5.O-O d6 6.d4 Bb6 7.Bg5 f6 8.Bh4 g5 9.Nxg5 fxg5 10.Qh5+ Kf8 11.Bxg5 Qg7 12.f4 exd4 13.f5 dxc3+ 14.Kh1 cxb2 15.Bxg8 bxa1=Q 16.f6 Qxg8 17.Bh6+ Qg7 18.Bxg7+ Kg8 19.Qe8 mate.


However, this game was not played by Rousseau.  James Mason (1849-1905) also mentioned the game (game 90) between these two in his book Social Chess (London, 1900).  Mason remarked that the dated back to 1759 and stopped the game after move 16 (16. P-B6! and wins).   The first 11 moves can be found in Greco’s games (or what he compiled as traps).  The historian H.J.R. Murray (1868-1955) says the game was obtained from the Doazan manuscript, where it is given as  by Busnardo, which he thinks was an Italian compilation of the early 17th century, and called the game between Rousseau and Conti a literary forgery.  The game between Rousseau and Conti was also mentioned in Chess World in 1865 and by Ellis in Chess Sparks in 1895 (game 2).  Murray says the game first appeared in the Palamede, 1843, 41-2.


Also in Book X, Rousseau mentioned his desire in Montmorency to play chess against two acquaintances, Ferraud and Minard.  Rousseau lived in Montmorency from 1756 to 1762.


In 1765, Rousseau was said to have played chess against the Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) while living in England.  That game went: Rousseau-Hume, 1765, 1.e4 d6 2.Nf3 Nd7 3.Bc4 e5 4.d4 c5 5.dxe5 dxe5 6.Nc3 Be7 7.Qd5 Nh6 8.Bxh6 O-O 9.Be3 Qb6 10.Nxe5 Qxb2 11.Nxf7 Qxa1+ 12.Kd2 Qxh1 13.Nh6+ Kh8 14.Qg8+ Rxg8 15.Nf7 mate  1-0


On September 27, 1767, Rousseua wrote a letter to Pierre-Alexandre Du Peyrout.  Rousseau related the story about him and Conti playing chess.


Rousseau returned to Paris on June 24, 1770.  He was often seen strolling in the Luxemburg Gardens, going to the theater, or playing chess at a café (Café de la Regence or Café de Procope or rue de la Comedie) on the evenings he did not go to the theatre.  He visited the Café de la Regence many times and may have played Philidor several times.  The Café de la Regence was a resort of philosophers and literary men, where D’Alembert and Diderot met almost every day.  Rousseau would usually order a pitcher of beer and challenge players to a game of chess, and if they did not know how to play chess, then he would challenge them in a game of checkers.


The Abbe Jean-Joseph-Therese Roman (1726-1787), wrote a poem (des Echecs, published in Paris in 1807) about one of his chess games he says he played against Rousseau in 1770.  That game went Roman-Rousseau 1.e4 e5 2.f4 exf4 3.Nf3 g5 4.Bc4 g4 5.Ne5 Qh4+ 6.Kf1 Nh6 7.d4 d6 8.Nd3 f3 9.g3 Qh3+ 10.Kf2 Qg2+ 11.Ke3 Ng8 12.Nf4 Bh6 13.Bf1 Qxh1 14.Bb5+ c6 15.Bxc6+ bxc6 16.Qxh1 and Black resigns.


Murray also does not think this game was played by these two people.  Murray says that the game is the first of the Gambits in the French editions of Greco.  Murray stated, “We have no genuine example of Rousseau’s play, and perhaps it is as well for his reputation that it is so.  A player who either would not or could not make a scientific study of the game, who derived no benefit from practice with Philidor, who reached the limit of his powers in a single day, assuredly could not know nothing of the brilliancy of chess.”



After Rousseau became famous, when he visited the Café de le Regence, police were sent to the Café to prevent the crowd from breaking the windows, so eager they were to see Rousseau playing chess attired in his fur cap and flowing Armenian robe, according to Friedrich Melchior (1723-1807), Baron von Grimm.


On February 26, 1770 Rousseau wrote a letter to M. de Saint-Germain and mentioned that chess was his only amusement.  Rousseau called chess “the touchstone of human intellect.”  Rousseau did not like to gamble,  He playe at the casino once while in Venice, but was to bored to go on.  He said, “Chess, where one does not bet, is the only game that gives me pleasure.”


Francois-Marie Voltaire (1694-1778) also played chess at the Café de la Regence, but Rousseau and Voltaire may have never played chess against each other.  They hated each other and always quarreled.  Voltaire was in Paris in the 1750s and did not return to Paris until February 1778.  He died three months later on May 30, 1778.


Between 1765 and 1770, Rousseau wrote The Confessions, the first “romantic” autobiography.  It was published several years after his death and has several references to chess.


Rousseau later moved back to France and lived there for a time in disguise.  In 1770, he was officially permitted to return to Paris as long as he didn’t write anything against the government.


In 1778, Rousseau moved to Ermenonville.


Jean-Jacques Rousseau died of apoplexy on July 2, 1778 in Ermenville, France.  He was 66 years old.


Eugene Rousseau


In 1810, Eugene Rousseau, a distant relative of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, was born in St. Denis, France.


In 1839, Eugene Rousseau lost a 100-game match to Lionel Kieseritsky at the Café de la Regence.


In 1840, Eugene Rousseau played a few offhand games with Adolf Anderssen,


In 1841, Eugene Rousseau came to New Orleans and worked as a bank cashier.  He played a match against John Schulten, a wine merchant, in New Orleans and lost with 10 wins, 11 losses, and no draws.


In their second match in late 1841, Eugene Roussseau defeated Schulten with 7 wins, 4 losses and no draws.


In 1842, Eugene Rousseau drew a match with Benjamin Oliver wit 5 wins each and one draw.


In 1843, Rousseau defeated Schulten in a match in New York with 13 wins, 8 losses and no draws.


In 1843, Marie Aycard wrote an article called ‘Jean-Jacques et le Prince de Conti,’ which appeared in La Palamede, pages 41-42.  He said the game between the two  had been written down by the chevalier de Lorenzi, a leading Italian player and chess instructor of the Prince.


In December 1845, Eugene Rousseau played a match against the Englishman Charles Henry Stanley (1819-1901), the secretary of the New York Chess Club, for the title of chess champion of the United States, the first contest ever for this title and the first organized chess event in the U.S.  The match was played for a stake of $1,000 (winner take all and no time limit) at the Sazerac Coffee House in New Orleans.  Stanley won with 15 wins, 8 draws, and 8 losses (there was no time limit and draws didn’t count – first to win 15 games was the champion).  Rousseau’s second in the match was Ernest Morphy, who took his 8 1/2 year old nephew Paul Morphy to the match.  It was at this match that Paul Morphy got interested in chess.


In 1847, Paul Morphy, age 10, beat Eugene Rousseau in a game for the first time.


From 1849 to 1850, Morphy and Rousseau played over 50 games, and Morphy won most of them. 


Rousseau is the author of a dubious gambit, Rousseau’s Gambit, 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 f5.  Rousseau played this and lost against Paul Mrophy (then aged 12) at New Orleans on October 28, 1849.


In 1850, Johann Lowenthal visited New Orleans and beat Eugene Rousseau 5 games straight.


In 1858, Eugene Rousseau returned to France and was the secretary-general of the variety theater in Paris.


In  June-July 1867, Rousseau played in an international tournament in Paris with 12 other players.  He took last place with 4 wins and 19 losses.  Drawn games did not count and were not replayed.  Ignazt Kolisch won the event.  In the final round, he defeated Szymon Winawaer, which prevented Winawer from sharing 1st place with Kolisch.


Eugene Rousseau died in France in 1870 at the age of 60.  He had an historical Elo rating of 2370.





Annales de la Societe Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Volume 3 (Geneva, 1907) ‘Rousseau joueur d’echecs,’ by I. Gruenberg

Annales de la Societe Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Volume 42 (Geneva, 1999), ‘Rousseau, joueur d’echecs au café 1770-1771’ by Jacques Berchtold

British Chess Magazine, February, 1900

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Le Palamede, 1843

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