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Philidor (1726-1795), in a portrait from his "Analyse du jeu des Échecs"

There is no argument about who is the strongest player in the world. Magnus Carlsen has led the official FIDE list since 2010. But when the latest rankings were released in August, a new name had seized the fiercely-contested second place: Maxime Vachier Legrave. With a storming series of tournament victories, the 25-year-old Frenchman had left in his wake a number of more established figures, notably the two ex-world champions Vladimir Kramnik and Viswanathan Anand.

In the modern era, France has not been associated with chessboard supremacy. But two centuries ago the Café de la Régence in Paris was where the world’s best chess players could be found. In the 1820s Louis de la Bourdonnais was considered to be the strongest of all, having defeated his mentor Alexandre Deschapelles.

These names are now seldom spoken of. However, they had a mighty predecessor, whose influence persists to this day: François-André Danican Philidor (1726-1795). This scion of a family of French court musicians was one of the most fluent composers of his time: his output included no fewer than 24 comic operas (though apparently he was a man without personal wit). Philidor’s bust still stares out imperiously from the façade of the Paris Opera.

But while he also had a remarkable talent for chess, he did not turn to the game professionally until a mishap in his musical career. He travelled to Holland in 1745 with a 13-year-old harpsichordist (called Lanza) — who died. Without the attraction of a female prodigy, the concerts were all cancelled. Stranded, Philidor decided to earn his crust over the 64-square board rather than in the concert halls — and eventually in the coffee-houses of London, where strong chess players from the continent were able to profit by teaching and displays.

The latter was Philidor’s route to glory: he had developed a particular skill for playing without sight of the board. His party trick, so to speak, was to play three such “blindfold” games simultaneously. At the time, this was considered so extraordinary that those involved signed affidavits lest otherwise it would not be believed such a thing had happened.

But for Philidor chess was not just an opportunity to put on a show. He was an astonishingly deep thinker about the very essence of the game, and set out those thoughts in a 1749 work Analyse du jeu des Échecs. One of its chapters contained analysis of the endgame with rook, bishop and king versus rook and king alone. This remains the trickiest endgame regularly occurring in grandmaster play: the disposition of the five pieces in which the side with the Bishop can force a win is known to this day as “the Philidor position”.

A critical game in the Moscow world championship tournament six months ago, that between Fabiano Caruana of the US and Russia’s Peter Svidler, reached exactly one of the positions that Philidor proved was a win with best play. But Caruana, who if he had won might well have qualified to play a title match against Carlsen, missed his chance. As he said later: “I saw the Philidor position so many times and I just forget every time what I’m supposed to do!”

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