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Blind, and in straitened financial circumstances, the oldest surviving ex-world chess champion died in March, aged 89. Perhaps Vassily Smyslov felt forgotten at his life's end; he would not have done had he been able to see his obituaries, published worldwide, all of which paid tribute to his uniquely harmonious style of play.

Smyslov's own memoir was entitled In Search of Harmony, but this was not just a reference to the way he made the chess pieces sing. He was himself a notable baritone whose first love was music. It was only when he failed at the final elimination competition for entrance into the choir of the Bolshoi opera that the young Smyslov devoted himself entirely to chess. 

He wrote in his autobiography: "It was probably because of my strong attraction to music from childhood that I became accustomed to thinking of chess as an art...And moreover, an art which is in some ways closer to music than it is customary to think. Perhaps chess and music are drawn together by laws of harmony and beauty which are difficult to formulate and difficult to grasp."

If there is a link between chess and music, one would expect it to lie in the field of composition, rather than performance. Is not the constructor of a symphony the closest to a grandmaster as he attempts to bring order out of the chaos of mere sound? There was one man whose life was organised on precisely those lines: François-André Danican Philidor, who was born in 1726 into a musical dynasty — many of them employed by the French court. François-André joined the royal choir of Louis XV at the age of six and began composing at the age of 11. As an adult, he became one of France's most successful composers of operas, none of which is performed today. 

Philidor well understood that he was being usurped in popularity by other composers during his lifetime. And, as Smyslov did two centuries later, he decided to concentrate on chess instead. It might seem remarkable that he felt he could better support his family in this way, but Philidor was already the strongest chess player in the world. His book, Analyse du jeu des Echecs, became the game's definitive instructional work for more than a century. Philidor's understanding of chess was far ahead of his time: his games display a profound strategic grasp that most of his opponents were quite unable to understand, let alone counter. 

Perhaps — who knows? — it was Philidor's prodigious musical intuition that somehow gave him a special insight into how the chess pieces should be harmonised: how that army of symbols (rather than singers) could be made to combine best together. Just as the best musicians can hold entire symphonies in their head, without needing a score, so Philidor had an extraordinary ability to play chess without sight of the board. In London in 1783, Philidor played three games simultaneously blindfold. His defeated opponents signed affidavits, under the impression that the wider public would otherwise not believe that such a thing were possible. Since then, much more prodigious feats of chess visualisation have been achieved, but in the 18th century Philidor was untouchable in his virtuosity.

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