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When you give orders, empires fall.


You've spent your entire life conquering nation after nation in Europe: Italy, Germany, Spain. Great nations fall under the weight of your well-disciplined army and your strategic brilliance. The mere mention of your name, Napoléon Bonaparte, strikes fear in the heart of any who oppose you. In England, so you've heard, school children call you "Boney" and tell tales of how you devour naughty children! Nonsense, of course... but it gives you a chuckle.


All was going well for you until the year 1814 when a colation of your enemies force you into abdication and, ultimately, into exile on the island of Elba, 12 miles (20 km) off the Tuscan coast.


You shrug off your defeat and exile. You could use a vacation, anyway. Conquering Europe takes a toll on a man.


While in Elba, you keep your mind active by playing chess and smirking as your opponents collapse on the 64-square battlefield, reminding you of days past when it was grand armies capitulating before your might and brilliance.


Ultimately, you grow bored. Always a master tactician, you craft your escape and the following year, 1815, you escape with 700 men and make your way back to Paris, taking command of an army of 200,000 men.


Europe hasn't thought much of you lately. But like a rook waiting patiently and lying forgotten across the board, you and your army sweep in at just the right moment to wreak havoc upon your foes!


Seeing your opportunity, you decided to attack the English in the Dutch town of Waterloo. The English, however, prove to be a formidable opponent. To make matters worse, the Prussians join the English and smash your right flank to pieces. Your entire army is routed.


Four days pass before you gather the strength to abdicate. This, you fear, is the end of the French Empire. Confirming your fears, the Allies marched into Paris the following month and your nation, which once called you emperor, has now turned on you. You again find yourself thrown into exile.


This time, however, your adversaries are taking no chances with your imprisonment. You've been exiled to the island of St. Helena, which surrounded by thousands of miles of the Atlantic Ocean. To make matter worse, the island is practically one giant cliff. If someone did want to rescue you, where would they even land their ships? Adding insult to injury, there are over 2,800 men guarding you and 500 cannons!



Napoléon on the cliffs of St. Helena. Public domain picture.

This might be it for you. You suppose it could be worse, though. You are comfortable at least. But you were born to lead men and nations, not to rot away on an island.


One day, a gift arrives. At least someone is thinking of you! It is a chess set and a beautiful one made of carved ivory. You don't know much more about it, unfortunately, as the poor lad who was entrusted to deliver it to you perished on the long sea journey to St. Helena.



Napoléon's residence at St. Helena.

No matter. You will still enjoy having a beautiful new set. And you do, winning many victories against the locals.


But you never did find the best move on the board: For contained within one of the pieces, was a rather intricate escape plan to return you to Europe and your former glory!


. . .


When I first read this, I was amazed.   The soldier entrusted with the delivery of this chess set and the piece containing the plans died of a heart attack while en route to St. Helena!  So when Napoléon received the set, he knew nothing of the plan contained therein.  It is interesting to think that Napoléon spent the rest of his life staring at one of the greatest possible moves of his life on the chessboard, but unable to see it!


From my reading, there were a number of different plans to break him free of exile. Some were incredibly intricate involving a pulley system to get him down the cliff and deliver him into one of the finest submarines the 1820s had to offer (spoiler: they weren't fine at all; they usually just plunged straight to the bottom).


But many historians have speculated that Napoléon would have declined many of these far-fetched escape plans. If he couldn't escape in style, he would have none of it. But who knows, it is still fun to contemplate how history might have changed if he had escaped.


And on the plus side, an old patzer like me will likely never miss a move as important as the one he missed!


. . .


References:


Shenk, David (2006). The Immortal Game: A History of Chess. Doubleday. ISBN 0-385-51010-1.

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  • Glenn Julich

Okay, you knew it was just a matter of time before Bernie made his way over to The P.A.T.z.E.R. ... you knew it would happen eventually. You are just smart that way.


I love a good book on the history of chess and I've enjoyed a few about Bobby Fischer. When I'm waiting in line somewhere and have time to kill, I often pull up YouTube and look for videos on chess.


One day, when I was doing this, I watched a video interview of Bobby Fischer that was fascinating. I'm intentionally not posting it here, because it was filmed later in his life when his mental illness (I presume) had taken a firm hold of him, so he often has a tendency to off the rails with hateful, offensive tirades. If you want to see it, it should be pretty easy to find.


But he did say something interesting in this interview. He rambled incessantly about how he hated chess and hated what it had become. He didn't like the contemporary emphasis on memorizing and learning theory. At least that was his argument. This is perhaps a large part of the reason he became such an advocate for Fischer Random Chess. He was hoping that if he removed a lot of the theory, then maybe the more talented Chess player would prevail?


Interestingly, in 1993 Fischer visited László Polgár and his family in Hungary and Fischer played several games of random chess with them. Sofia even went on to beat him three games in a row.


Now fast-forward to 2019 and look at the results of the FIDE World Fischer Random Chess Championship. First place went to Wesley So. Second place went to Magnus Carlsen. So, even in Random Chess, we are seeing the same heavyweights that we see in the world of classical chess.


So I pose a question, good reader: Do you think that Bobby's frustration with chess was less about the overemphasis on theory and perhaps more about the frustration at his declining ability to cognitively keep up with the study of the game? That is, was his frustration more with the inevitable, gradual decline in cognitive function that all humans experience? And, of course, compounded by whatever psychiatric ailment he might have been suffering from?


I would very much love to hear your thoughts, so please share in the comments below!


(Note: For the full discussion of this post, please see my blog at Chess.com)

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  • Glenn Julich

Created with Crello. Used with permission.

I have never been so happy to ring in a new year as I have this year. What an absolute mess 2020 was. As I write this my arm is still sore from my recent COVID vaccine, which I am very thankful for. Unfortunately, it arrived a little too late for several of my friends and coworkers who are battling this terrible disease.


Overall, 2020 was miserable for many of us. That said, however, there were some glimmers of light in the otherwise dark year that 2020 was.


First, 2020 did bring back a resurgence in chess interest that the world hasn't seen since the time of Bobby Fischer. Many of us re-activated old chess.com accounts and brought our old chessboard and books out of the closet.


This past year also brought us a great Netflix series, the Queen's Gambit which added immensely to the interest in chess. Just take a look at this graph from Chess.com that shows server load over time in 2020.



Source: Chess.com

So I joined at around the red arrow when the COVID-19 mayhem started. And then the second spike is around the time the Queen's Gambit dropped on Netflix. Wow!


For me, putting my mind into the 64 squares was just a wonderful and healthy place to put my mind while chaos happened all around me. At lunch, I could sit someone in silence, pull out my phone, and check the status of the games I have been playing with many of you. I suspect many of you feel the same way.


The greater chess interest is better for all of us. The more money that comes into the various chess services that we all utilize, the better those resources will become for all of us.


I look forward to seeing how this increased interest translates into over-the-board play. I hope that once this horrendous pandemic is behind us, that maybe chess clubs around the world will see an influx of both players and revenue.


. . .


So 2020, good riddance you fuming, dumpster fire! Welcome, 2021! I hope you will be a better year. The bar is set pretty low, so don't blow it!


I look forward to a year filled (hopefully) with plentiful checkmates, and fewer blunders! Oh yeah, and NO PANDEMICS!


What are you looking forward to most in regards to chess and 2021? Let me know in the comments below!