Francois Philidor

Francois Andre Danican Philidor (1726-1795) had a chess career that spanned over 50 years. He was born on September 7th, 1726 in Dreux, France and was the 7th unofficial world chess champion from 1747-1795. He was from a family of musicians. His father was married twice and his second wife was was about 50 years younger. Philidor, one of his 20+ children, was one of the youngest children from the second marriage, so by the time he was of age, most of his siblings were already dead as was his father. He was more or less on his own his entire life. He started by singing in a boys choir at age 6. It’s said that when his voice broke and he had plenty of free time, he would hang around the musicians, many of whom played chess.

Philidor was recognized as a musical prodigy, but the field of music was highly competitive and at age 14, he went off to Paris to earn a living by giving music lessons and copying scores. He started hanging around the Café de la Regence which was the world’s center for chess at the time. There he met Legal de Kermeur, considered the best player in the café (therefore, in Paris, and therefore, possibly the world). Philidor became so obsessed with chess that he lost most of his music students from neglect. After 3 years, Legal was no longer a match for him. At that time, in 1744, Philidor gave his famous simultaneous (2 games) blindfold chess demonstration. His results were poor, =1 -1, but the demonstration was considered an extraordinary display of mental power and praised throughout the world, making Philidor a celebrity of sorts.

The next year Philidor took a job organizing a concert tour that featured the 13 year old harpsichord prodigy, the daughter of the producer. While in Holland, the poor girl died and the tour closed. Philidor was stuck in Rotterdam without funds. He started playing chess for money to survive. From here on, chess became more than just a pastime for Philidor – it became one of his sources of income.

When he earned enough money, he took off for England. In London he played Phillip Stamma, the noted Syrian chess author whose reputation exceeded his talent. Philidor beat him decisively by a score of +8 -2 (but one of the loses was really a draw, as Philidor allowed any draw to be considered a loss). This match effectively ended Stamma’s chess career. He also played against and defeated (+4 -1) Sir Abraham Janssen whom many consider to have been Philidor’s strongest opponent.

Returning to Holland in 1748, Philidor wrote his book, L’analyse du jeu des Eschecs (Analysis of the Game of Chess). This was the first real book since Greco. His approach was entirely unique. He wanted to teach principles rather than moves. No one had ever approached chess in this manner. He also understood something about positional play. He wrote the famous line, “Les pions sont l’ame du jeu” or “Pawns are the soul of the game”, indicating that pawns are the most static and therefore the most reliable anchor with which to apply principles. His book was well received.

He played a 3 game blindfold simul in Berlin in 1751, this time winning every one. Except for a match with Legal in Paris, which he won, Philidor devoted most of his time to music. It wasn’t until 1771 that he started playing chess seriously again – and this was in London. The Parsloe Chess Club members underwrote Philidor’s expenses to come there from February to June each year and allowed him to earn extra money teaching and playing side games. Philidor did this for 20 years and produced very little musically during this time, so it might be surmised that chess had become his main source of revenue.

Philidor started giving blindfold demonstrations to make a little extra cash. While in Paris, he had played, and defeated the Turk, the famous automaton built by Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen in 1770. Oddly, the Turk also became his prime competitor for audiences in London.

Philidor republished his book twice. While successful in its official releases, it was even more so in the cheaper rip-offs. It became a profound influence in chess, particularly in England. He also designed his own style of chess pieces that became very popular for a time.

In 1792 Philidor was accidentally put on a French list of persona non gratis, thanks to the French Revolution. He was stuck in England. It was finally all straightened out after 2 years, during which he hadn’t seen his wife and children and supported them by sending his earnings. But before he could leave for France, he died on August 24th, 1795.

Philidor was buried at St. James in London. Of the possibly thousands of games he had played, only 68 were ever recorded and even these games were only those played in the last eight years before he died. We’ll never fully know the strength of Philidor in his prime.

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