Was Napoleon good at billiards?

Napoleon was not known for his sportsmanship (see my post on interesting Napoleon facts). Billiards was one of the most popular games in late 18th-early 19th century France. How was Napoleon at billiards?

Game of Billiards by Louis-Léopold Boilly, 1807. One can guess why Captain Coignet tried to see what he could whenever Marie Louise stretched herself across the billiard table.

Game of Billiards by Louis-Léopold Boilly, 1807. One can guess why Captain Coignet tried to see what he could whenever Marie Louise stretched herself across the billiard table.

Billiards in France

The first recorded reference to a billiard table is found in a late 15th century inventory of the possessions of King Louis XI of France. By the Napoleonic era, billiards was popular among all classes of people in France.

“Billiards are played at almost every house in every street,” an anonymous visitor to Paris observed in 1816. (1) Another visitor commented:

[N]o book ever degrades the silken luxury of a French salon; very rarely is a room set apart for such guests in the metropolis; and in the country, a billiard table is the usual occupant of the apartment which, in England, is reserved for the library. We know a village situated just 12½ miles from Paris, containing six families whose yearly income would average about 2500£, equivalent to 4000£ in England; and of 850 meaner inhabitants. In all the wealthy houses taken together, two thousand volumes could not be mustered: but, in each of them is a billiard table: and there are moreover five public billiard tables in the village, for the amusement of the 850 poorer inhabitants. In a radius of three miles are six or eight more villages; and, in nearly all these, the ratio of books and billiard tables is nearly the same. As we recede from Paris, the ratio of books diminishes, in a much more rapid progression, than that of billiard tables. But, in the village alluded to, there is one billiard table to about 182 volumes. We are afraid to aver that the average of entire France would be one billiard table to one hundred volumes. (2)

In Napoleon in America, Frenchmen are playing billiards even as one of the characters is about to be executed.

Napoleon and billiards

Napoleon’s private secretary Baron de Méneval tells us about a game of billiards Napoleon played with General Lannes when Napoleon was First Consul of France.

One day the First Consul had ordered some Arab horses, which had been given to him, to be brought into the courtyard of the castle at La Malmaison. Lannes proposed to the First Consul to play him a match at billiards for one of the horses. Napoleon consented. He wanted to lose, and had to lose, and his adversary won the match with great ease. ‘I have beaten thee,’ he said to the First Consul whom he was in the habit of addressing in the second person singular, ‘and so I have the right to choose.’ And without waiting for the permission, which he did not ask, he runs up and examines the horses one after the other, and choosing the handsomest, has it saddled, and jumping into the saddle says: ‘Good-bye, Bonaparte. I sha’n’t dine here. I’m off, because if I stayed thou wouldst be capable of taking thy horse back again. (3)

Though Méneval implies that Napoleon lost on purpose, it is not clear he could have won even if he tried. According to Sophie Durand, lady-in-waiting to Napoleon’s second wife Marie Louise:

Napoleon played billiards very badly, without any attention, and ran about the whole time: he chose that time to give vent to his anger, or to scold, if he had anything to complain of. (4)

Napoleon probably didn’t fare well in his matches against Marie Louise, unless she let him win. Captain Jean-Roch Coignet, a grenadier of Napoleon’s guard, writes:

Marie Louise was a first-rate billiard-player. She beat all the men; but she was not afraid to stretch herself out across the billiard-table, as the men did, when she wanted to make a stroke, with me always on the watch to see what I could. She was frequently applauded. (5)

Napoleon’s first wife Josephine also enjoyed a game of billiards, according to Napoleon’s valet Constant.

She loved to sit up late, and when almost everybody else had retired, to play a game of billiards, or more often of backgammon. It happened on one occasion that, having dismissed every one else, and not yet being sleepy, she asked if I knew how to play billiards, and upon my replying in the affirmative, requested me with charming grace to play with her; and I had often afterwards the honor of doing so. Although I had some skill, I always managed to let her beat me, which pleased her exceedingly. (6)

Billiards in exile

When he was in exile on Elba in 1814-15, Napoleon occasionally played billiards at his mother’s house. During Napoleon’s final exile on St. Helena, the British sent a large mahogany billiard table from London for his use. It was installed at Napoleon’s residence of Longwood House in July 1816. Napoleon tried it for the first time on July 24. He apparently did not use it very often. One of his companions, Count de Las Cases, wrote on September 3, 1816:

[T]he Emperor took a turn on the lawn…but, finding the wind very violent, he soon returned to the house and played at billiards, a thing which he very seldom thought of doing. (7)

In February 1817, Napoleon taught Betsy Balcombe, the teenage daughter of an East India Company superintendent on St. Helena, how to play the game.

Billiards was a game much played by Napoleon and his suite. I had the honour of being instructed in its mysteries by him; but when tired of my lesson, my amusement consisted in aiming the balls at his fingers, and I was never more pleased than when I succeeded in making him cry out. One day our pass from Sir Hudson Lowe only specified a visit to General Bertrand, but my anxiety to see Napoleon caused me to break through the rule laid down, and the consequences of my imprudence were nearly proving very serious, as my father all but lost the appointment he then held under government. I had caught sight of the emperor in his favourite billiard-room, and not being able to resist having a game with him, I listened to no remonstrance, but bounded off, leaving my father in dismay at the consequences likely to ensure. I was requested to read a book by Dr. Warden, the surgeon of the Northumberland, that had just come out. It was in English, and I had the task of wading through several chapters, and making it as intelligible as my ungrammatical French permitted. Napoleon was much pleased with Dr. Warden’s book, and said ‘his work was a very true one.’ I finished reading it to him whilst we remained with Madame Bertrand. (8)

After that, Napoleon apparently lost interest in the game. His valet on St. Helena, Louis-Joseph Marchand, tells us:

The Emperor did not play billiards, but when walking by he would amuse himself by rolling the balls around. (9)

Napoleon used one of the rosewood billiard cues when superintending work in his garden, as both “a stick and a measure.” (10) When dictating his memoirs, he would spread out maps on the billiard table. Napoleon eventually made a gift of the billiard table to his servants, having noticed that they liked to play the game when he was outside.

Visiting St. Helena in 1908, Lord Curzon found the table in an unused room at the back of Plantation House, the governor’s residence. It had been employed by one governor as a carpenter’s bench and by another as a screen across a door leading into the back yard. (11) You can see a photo of the table in the billiard room at Longwood House on my friend Margaret Rodenberg’s Finding Napoleon site.

Napoleon’s billiard legacy

Though Napoleon didn’t care much for billiards, he may deserve some credit for the game’s continued popularity in France. Some 30 years after Napoleon’s death, British writer Angus Reach wrote:

In this [French] village…dreary as it was, I found a café and a billiard-table. Where, indeed, in France will you not? Except in the merest jumble of hovels, you can hardly traverse a hamlet without seeing the crossed cues and balls figuring on a gaily painted house. You may not be able to purchase the most ordinary articles a traveller requires, but you can always have a game at pool. I have frequently found billiard-rooms in filthy little hamlets, inhabited entirely by persons of the rank of English agricultural labourers. At home, we associate the game with great towns, and, perhaps, with the more dissipated portion of the life of great towns. Here, even with the thoroughly rustic portion of the population, the game seems a necessity of life. And there are, too – contrary to what might have been expected – few or no make-shift-looking, trumpery tables.

The cafés in the Palais Royal, or in the fashionable boulevards, contain no pieces of furniture of this description more massive or more elaborately carved and adorned than many I have met with in places hardly aspiring to the rank of villages. It has often struck me that the billiard-table must have cost at least as much as the house in which it was erected; but the thing seemed indispensable, and there it was in busy use all day long. A correct return of the number of billiard-tables in France would give some very significant statistics relative to the social customs and lives of our merry neighbours. It would be an odd indication of the habits of the people, should there be found to be five times as many billiard-tables in France as there are mangles; and I for one firmly believe that such would be the result of an impartial perquisition. …

I like – no man likes better – to see the toilers of the world released from their labours, and enjoying themselves; but after all there is something, to English ways of thinking, desperately idle in the scene of a couple of big, burly working men, sitting in the glare of the sun-light the best part of the day, wrangling over a greasy pack of cards, or rattling dominoes upon the little marble tables. I once remarked this to an old French gentleman.

‘True – too true,’ he replied; ‘it was Bonaparte did the mischief. He made – you know how great a proportion of the country youth of France – soldiers. When they returned – those who did return – they had garrison tastes and barrack habits; and those tastes and habits it was which have brought matters to the pass, that you can hardly travel a league, even in rural France, without hearing the click of the billiard balls.’ (12)

You might also enjoy:

10 Interesting Facts about Napoleon Bonaparte

10 More Interesting Napoleon Facts

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How the 20 Questions game came to America

  1. Anonymous, A Picturesque Tour Through France, Switzerland on the Banks of the Rhine and through Part of the Netherlands in the year 1816 (London, 1817), p. 48.
  2. The Edinburgh Review, Vol. 34 (November 1820), p. 417.
  3. Claude-François de Méneval, Memoirs Illustrating the History of Napoleon I from 1802 to 1815, Vol. II (New York, 1894), p. 388.
  4. Sophie Cohondet Durand, Napoleon and Marie-Louise, 1810-1814: A Memoir (London, 1886), p. 221.
  5. Jean-Roch Coignet, The Note-Books of Captain Coignet, Soldier of the Empire, edited by Jean Fortescue, (New York, 1929), p. 197.
  6. Louis Constant Wairy, Recollections of the Private Life of Napoleon, translated by Walter Clark, Vol. I (New York, 1895), p. 73. Constant also noted that Josephine often played a game of billiards before breakfast (p. 331).
  7. Emmanuel-August-Dieudonné de Las Cases, Mémorial de Sainte Hélène: Journal of the Private Life and Conversations of the Emperor Napoleon at Saint Helena, Vol. III (London, 1823), p. 71.
  8. Lucia Elizabeth Balcombe Abell, Recollections of the Emperor Napoleon, during the First Three Years of His Captivity on the Island of St. Helena (London, 1844), pp. 158-159.
  9. Louis-Joseph Marchand, In Napoleon’s Shadow (San Francisco, 1998), p. 413.
  10. Louis Étienne Saint-Denis, Napoleon from the Tuileries to St. Helena, translated by Frank Hunter Potter (New York and London, 1922), p. 174.
  11. George Nathaniel Curzon, Tales of Travel (London, 1923), p. 168.
  12. Angus B. Reach, Claret and Olives, from the Garonne to the Rhone (New York, 1853), pp. 176-177.

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Napoleon played billiards very badly, without any attention, and ran about the whole time: he chose that time to give vent to his anger, or to scold, if he had anything to complain of.

Sophie Durand