Les Pions de Résistance

François-André Danican Philidor, composer turned blindfold king of the chessboard

Chess
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!”

Philidor’s grasp of chess strategy was so far ahead of his time that he might almost have been an alien from a more advanced planet. As David Hooper and Ken Whyld put it in their wonderful Oxford Companion to Chess: “For the first time the strategy of the game as a whole was explained. For the first time concepts such as the Blockade, Prophylaxis, Positional Sacrifices and Mobility of the Pawn Formation were laid down.”

It was in his understanding of pawn structures that Philidor was most revolutionary: he was the first to recognise that the weakest of all the pieces were actually the most important. Or, as he put it: “My main purpose is to gain recognition for myself by means of a new idea of which no one had conceived . . . that is, good play of the pawns. They alone are the soul of chess . . . the winning or losing of the game depends entirely on their good or bad arrangement.”

So it is fitting to end with this Philidor victory against John Bruehl from one of his celebrated three-game blindfold displays, at Parsloe’s Chess Club in London on May 8, 1783 — a triumph for les pions. 

1.e4 e5 2. Bc4 c6 (Philidor shows his intention to build a powerful pawn centre as early as move 2: he threatens 3…d5) 3.Qe2 (Bruehl counters Philidor’s idea: if now 3…d5 4.exd5 cxd5 5.Qxe5+) d6 4.c3 f5 5.d3 Nf6 6.exf5? (ceding central control for no good reason) Bxf5 7.d4 e4 8.Bg5 d5 (Philidor now has exactly the central pawn mass he aimed for) 9.Bb3 Bd6 10.Nd2 Nbd7 11.h3 h6 12.Be3 Qe7 13.f4 h5!? (Any other player of the day would have gone on the attack with 13…exf3 14.Ngxf3 Nh5. But Philidor’s blocking 13…h5 — directed against White’s idea of playing g4 — is exactly in accordance with the prophylactic strategy set out by Aron Nimzovitch in his revolutionary work My System almost a century and half later) 14.c4 a6 15.cxd5 cxd5 16.Qf2 0-0 17.Ne2 b5! (Philidor tightens his grip on the light squares, with the idea of manoeuvring his Knight to c4 — again a concept later identified with Nimzovitch) 18.0-0 Nb6 19.Ng3 g6 20. Rac1 Nc4 21.Nxf5 gxf5 22. Qg3+ Qg7 23.Qxg7+ Kxg7 24.Bxc4 bxc4? (Philidor too dogmatically follows his own rule of “capturing towards the centre”. 24…dxc4 was much stronger, with the idea of moving his Knight next move to the fabulous square d5) 25.g3? (25.b3 immediately was better) Rab8 26.b3 Ba3 27.Rc2 cxb3 28.axb3? (28.Nxb3 was best, with the idea of landing on c5) Rbc8 29.Rxc8 Rxc8 30.Ra1 Bb4!? (Philidor gives up a pawn rather than allow Rooks to be exchanged after 30…Rc1+) 31.Rxa6 Rc3 32.Kf2 Rd3 33.Ra2 Bxd2 34.Rxd2 Rxb3 35.Rc2 h4!? (Another pawn sacrifice, to activate his Knight) 36.Rc7+ Kg6 37.gxh4 Nh5 38.Rd7? (38.Rc6+ should draw comfortably, but Smith has missed Philidor’s idea) Nxf4! 39.Bxf4 Rf3+ 40.Kg2 Rxf4 41.Rxd5 Rf3 42.Rd8 Rd3 43.d5 f4 44.d6 Rd2+ 45.Kf1 Kf7 46. h5 e3 (This central pawn roller is the apotheosis of Philidor’s strategy. But if White had now played 47.Rd7+, he could still have drawn, with the idea 47…Ke6 48.Rd8 and if 48…Rxd6 49.Re8+ will pick up the deadly Black e-pawn) 47.h6?? f3 and White resigned, as there is no way to stop one of Black’s pawns from queening. A strategic symphony by Philidor.