Tricks, Traps, and Illusions in the Coffeehouse Chess Game

Coffeehouse ChessThis month in St. Louis, Missouri, the US Chess Championship is taking place, which reminds us of those endless hours at the college coffeehouse we spent, lost in the luscious embrace of caffeine and Cassia, the goddess of chess.

The term “coffeehouse chess” describes a wild, trap-laden style of play that often relies on bizarre gambits and razzle-dazzle. You can see it in action at the lively chess tables in New York’s Washington Square Park, where seasoned chess sharks play each other countless blitz and bullet games, the pieces flying as each player tries to cram an immoral masterpiece on the board in 3 minutes, 2 minutes, 1 minute.

The Mecca of Chess in a Cup of Mocha

The intimate connection between coffee and chess began in Europe in the 1700s. In Paris, the cultural capital of the continent, the Cafe de la Regence near the Louvre was where all the Enlightenment geeks would hang out for hours, sipping cups of mocha while playing chess. On any given Sunday circa 1780, Voltaire, Rousseau, and Franklin could be seen there kibitzing over the rented-by-the-hour chess boards while discussing politics, science, and philosophy.

One of the regulars at the Cafe de la Regence was Francois-Andre Philidor, one of the pioneers of chess theory. Philidor was also a distinguished composer, producing more than 20 operas during his career, but his name is most associated with the royal game today. ”Pawns are the souls of chess” is his famous axiom, and he was widely considered to be the strongest player of his day, often battling his rivals at coffeehouses around Europe.

Philidor’s most curious opponent was the Turk, an elaborately designed hoax lauded as a chess-playing automaton. Built by Austrian inventor Wolfgang von Kempelen in 1770, the machine consisted of a boxy chess table with the torso of a turban-clad gentleman seated on one side. The Turks arms actually moved, lifting the pieces with startling precision.

The Kick Is in the Machine

The Turk amazed everyone who saw it. They believed they were witnessing the first chess-playing automaton, a human-beating computer, a strange visitor from 1996. Even more incredibly, the Turk won most of its games with bloodthirsty swiftness. Its inventor, however, rarely exhibited the Turk, even dismantling it, so its secrets remained a mystery for years.

In 1783, however, the Emperor Joseph II of Austria practically commanded von Kempelen to showcase the Turk in the coffeehouses of Europe. It won most of its games at the Cafe de la Regence, but Philidor easily defeated it in their much anticipated match.

The Turk was in fact an illusion—a chess master, probably one of short stature, was hiding in the box, moving the Turk’s arms with levers and magnets. After von Kempelen sold the machine, its new owners took it all over the world, where it defeated Ben Franklin and Napoleon Bonaparte before being destroyed in a Philadelphia fire in 1854.

That was about the time Cafe de la Regence moved to a different location and an era in the history of chess and coffee ended. Although chess is still played in coffeehouses today, saying your opponent has a coffeehouse style is a bit of an insult. That’s a shame.

Coffee and New Orleans: a 400 Year Affair

A New Orleans tradition.

A New Orleans tradition.

NEW ORLEANS – The Cafe du Monde is a time capsule and one of America’s monuments to coffee. It’s always crowded, always open, and the floor and tables are perpetually sticky or wet. No one comes here for white-cloth table service. The menu is basic green and white, printed on stickers affixed to the battered chrome napkin dispensers:


Coffee (au lait or black)

Orange Juice (fresh squeezed)

Cold Milk (white or chocolate)

Your order comes with a spoon and a 6-oz. water in an old-school diner glass. Your waiter appears to be from Vietnam or maybe the Philippines, and the warmed evening air is alarmingly close for early April.

The busker on the nearby sidewalk launches into “The Sunny Side of the Street” for the fourth time, his saxophone gleaming in the lingering dusk. A river of people flow by in both directions, mostly tourists or conventioneers.

Beignets come in threes, covered in powdered sugar. These squares of fried dough do not have a shelf life and should be eaten hot, but be careful not to inhale as you bite into one. Although inhaling powdered sugar is physically harmless, your cool will be forever forgotten by your companions.

The coffee you are served is thick and hot, cut with chicory and boiled milks that gives it the color of the river swirling on the other side of the levee just a few yards away. Chicory is the root of the endive plant and devilishly compliments dark roasted coffee so well a lot of people once thought of it as a substitute.

Napoleon, for one, wanted to ween the French from hard-to-get Turkish coffee by giving them chicory instead. Like many of the Emperor’s schemes, it didn’t work. But for most of the 19th century, American coffee was cut with chicory, so much so that finding pure coffee in North America was a tall order of buffalo chips.

At Cafe du Monde here in the French Quarter, coffee and chicory served au lait is the norm since 1862. But North America really met coffee for the first time in New Orleans, where for more than a century, the aroma of dark roast coffee coming from numerous commercial roasters along the riverfront permeated the French Quarter every morning.

The little cafe today is always packed with tourists. But to us, the definition of an institution is a place where even locals go.