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         The History and The Culture of Chess

François-André Danican Philidor
April 2007


François Andre Danican-Philidor


The following biography of Philidor by George Walker comes from his 1832 translation of  Philidor's Analyse du Jeu  - ( pages ix - xxxiii ) 


ANDRÉ DANICAN PHILIDOR was born at Dreux, near Paris, in 1726. His grandfather was celebrated as an oboe player at the court of LOUIS XIII. An Italian, named PHILIDOR, was much admired by the king for his superior performance on the same instrument; and, on his departure for Italy, LOUIS gave. M. DANICAN the sobriquet of PHILIDOR, which was ever afterwards appended to the family name. - Our author's father and several of his brothers were musicians in the bands of LOUIS XIV, and LOUIS XV.
At six years of age PHILIDOR was admitted into the choir of the Chapel Royal at Versailles; where, being obliged to attend daily, he first began to play Chess. There were about eighty musicians always waiting: and cards not being allowed in the sanctuary, they had a long table inlaid with a number of Chess-boards; with which they amused themselves during their leisure time. - It does not appear the PHILIDOR ever studied Chess from books, though we know that he was acquainted with the writings of SALVIO and other authors; but such early and incessant practice as he enjoyed was quite sufficient to supersede the necessity of pursuing any other mode of acquiring the game, particularly when grafted on the genius of PHILIDOR. PHILIDOR must have been a good musician at a remarkably early age, for when only eleven years old, he composed a motette, which was performed in the Chapel, and which was so much admired by LOUIS XV, that he gave our precocious author five louis, which encouraged the child to go on with his composing. When he had attained his fourteenth year, he left the Chapel, and was then reputed as being the most skilled Chess-player of the whole band. At this time several musical compositions of his were performed at the Concert Spirituel, and favorably received by the Parisians, as being the productions of a boy who was already master of the sciences of harmony and Chess. As a teacher of music PHILIDOR might now have established himself in a lucrative connection, but he applied so closely to Chess, as entirely to neglect those pupils whom the kindness of friends had procured for him; he consequently lost his scholars, but attached himself to his favorite study with increased perseverance. The best Chess-player then in France was M. DE KEMUR, SIRE DE LEGALLE, and young PHILIDOR sought every opportunity of Receiving his instructions; by which he improved so essentially, that in three years he played as well as his master. MONS. DE LEGALLE happening once to ask him whether he had ever tried to play without seeing the board, PHILIDOR  replied, that as he had calculated moves, and even whole games at night in bed, he thought he could do it, and immediately played a game in this manner with the ABBÉ CHENARD, which he readily won, without being confused or hesitating on any of the moves. This was a circumstance much talked of in Paris and he frequently repeated the same method of playing. PHILIDOR then finding he could readily play a single game, undertook to go through two games at once, without looking over the boards. Of this feat, which was performed in a public café, the following account is given in the Encyclopédie Française: -

"We had a Paris a youth of eighteen, who played two games of Chess at the same time, without seeing either of the boards, beating two gentlemen, to either of whom, he, though a first-rate player, could only give the knight when looking over the pieces. We add a circumstance of which we were eye-witnesses: - in the middle of one of these games a false move was designedly made, which after a great number of moves he discovered, and placed the piece where it ought to have been at first. This young man, the son of a musician of repute, is named M. PHILIDOR; he himself is a great musician and perhaps the best player at Polish Draughts1 there ever was or ever will be. We quote this as a most extraordinary example both of memory and imagination."

1 PHILIDOR's skill in Polish Draughts is rather over-rated by the writers of this article, as we know that although a first-rate, he was note equal to M. LE BLONDE, and several other great players of that day. - In a voluminous collection of critical ends of games at Polish Draughts (published by DUFOUR, Paris, 1806), I find six ingenious positions of PHILIDOR's composition.

In 1745, PHILIDOR went to Holland with SIGNOR LANZA, whose daughter, though only thirteen years of age, was already celebrated as a fine pianoforte player. The famous GEMINIANI was to meet them at Rotterdam, and the party united were to give a series of concerts. SIGNORINA LANZA, however, being indisposed, remained with her mother at Paris; and at Rotterdam they received the melancholy news of her death. The concert scheme being thus put an end to, PHILIDOR was left in a foreign country almost penniless. He now had to find a temporary resource in his skill at Polish Draughts (a game as well then as now universally played throughout Holland), and supported himself by his knowledge of Chess and Draughts during the twelvemonth he remained among the Dutch.

Our author paid his first visit to England in 1747. - The principle Chess-club in London at that time held their meetings at Old Slaughter's Coffee-House, in St. Martin's-lane. SIR ABRAHAM JANSSEN was then the best player in England, and indeed the best player PHILIDOR ever met with excepting M. DE LEGALLE, as the Baronet could win one game out of four, without taking odds of PHILIDOR. After SIR A. JANSSEN the best players were PHILIP STAMMA of Aleppo (who wrote a clever book on Chess), MR. CUNNINGHAM, LORD SUNDERLAND, LORD GODOLPHIN, LORD ELIBANK, MR CARGYLL, DR. BLACK, DR. COWPER, and MR. SALVADOR. During his stay in London this year, PHILIDOR played a match of ten games with STAMMA, giving him the move, allowing the drawn games to be considered as won by STAMMA, and betting him five to four on each game. With these immense odds in his favor, the Syrian won only two games, of which one was drawn. - PHILIDOR returned to Holland in the following year, where he composed his treatise under the title ANALYSE DU JEU DES ECHECS. At Aix-la-Chapelle he was advised by LORD SANDWICH to visit Eyndhoven, a village between Bois-le-duc and Maestricht, where the British army was encamped. PHILIDOR there played Chess with the DUKE OF CUMBERLAND, who not only subscribed himself for a number of copies of the work, but procured a great many other subscribers. PHILIDOR'S ANALYSIS was first published in the French language, in London, 1749, and has been since translated and reprinted in almost every capital in Europe.

In 1751, while PHILIDOR was a Windsor with the DUKE OF CUMBERLAND, he introduced DR. BLACK, who kept a school at Chiswick, as a first-rate player to the DUC DE MIREPOIX, the French Ambassador. The duke, who was a passionate admirer of Chess, was so gratified with the doctor's society and style of play, that he generously obtained for him a living worth £200 a year, which was in the gift of GEORGE II. This year PHILIDOR went to Berlin, by invitation of the soi-disant philosopher, FREDERICK of Prussia, who saw him play Chess several times at Potsdam, but did not encounter him himself. There a MARQUIS DE VARENNES and another gentleman, who played even with the king, and of these PHILIDOR could win, giving the knight. He remained at Berlin a short time, and then went to PRINCE WALDECK's at Arolsen, where he stayed eight months; and after paying a visit of three weeks to the Court of the LANDGRAVE of Hesse-Cassel, returned to London, where he remained some time, continuing to cultivate his musical talent with increased success, and with approbation of the best judges, including the immortal HANDEL. It is to be regretted that to PRINCE WALDECK'S at Arolsen, where he stayed eight months; and after paying a visit of three weeks to the Court of the LANDGRAVE of Hesse-Cassel, returned to London, where he remained some time, continuing to cultivate his musical talent with increased success, and with approbation of the best judges, including the immortal HANDEL. It is to be regretted that PHILIDOR never visited Italy; he would there have found Chess-players worthy of contending with; and how interesting to the present generation would have been a collection of games actually played between PHILIDOR and PONZIANI or ERCOLE DEL RIO!

PHILIDOR returned to Paris in 1755 with the intention of devoting himself entirely to music; and solicited the appointment of Master of the Chapel Royal, where two new motettes of his composition were performed; but as the Queen preferred the old school of music, he was unsuccessful in his application; consoling himself, however, with the compliments he received from the first professors and amateurs of the musical art. About this time he played a match at Chess with M. DE LEGALLE, and had the pleasure of conquering his old master 1

1At the respected age of eighty-five, M. DE LEGALLE was still the best player in France, always excepting PHILIDOR.

In 1759, PHILIDOR's first musical drama, entitled, BLAISE LE SAVETIER, was performed at the Opera Comique with so much success that he wisely abandoned church music, and applied himself wholly to writing for the stage; producing a succession of new operas, which established his reputation as a clever musician. It would be foreign to our work to give a list of these compositions, which comprise more than twenty-five complete operas, and numerous other musical publications.

PHILIDOR continued to follow up his success in music for about seven years; and then, emboldened by his increasing popularity, aimed at an entire change of the national musical taste; and accordingly composed a tragic opera called ERNELINDA,  PRINCESS OF NORWAY, with recitations and airs after the Italian manner. This piece was got up at the Opera Comique; and, notwithstanding the cabals of the nobility, who were bigoted to the old style of music (so ably satirized by JEAN JACQUES ROUSSEAU), and the no less important opposition of the principal singers and dancers, the piece ran eight successive nights before it dropped. LOUIS XV was so well pleased with this opera, that he rewarded the composer with the munificent pension of twenty-five louis; which was regularly paid during the life of the monarch.

PHILIDOR came to England for the fourth time in 1769; and as in the interim Chess had become extremely fashionable here, he found a new club instituted at the Salopian Coffee-house, where he frequently played. Five years afterwards another club was established, next door to the Thatched House Tavern in St. Jame's-street, which lasted many years.1

1 It is surprising, that considering how much Chess is now played, or attempted to be played, every endeavour to establish a Chess-club on a large scale at the west end of the town, should have so completely failed. Perhaps the chief reason of this is to be traced to the fact of the most devoted admirers of the game, being those who cannot afford high subscriptions. Surely it would answer the purpose of some enterprising man to open a handsome Chess "Salon" on very moderate terms of admission - something like the best Cigar Divans, without their Havannah atmosphere.

Soon after the beginning of this latter club several of the members made a subscription among themselves, in order to remunerate PHILIDOR for the time he lost in attending their meetings, The best players in this club, and at that time in London, were COUNT BRUHL, the HON. H. CONWAY 2, LORD HARROWBY, MR. BOWDLER, and MR. JENNINGS.


In playing over the board, the Pawn and two moves, or the Knight in exchange for the first two moves, constituted the fair odds between these gentlemen and their invincible visitor. The first match recorded as having been played in public by PHILIDOR, without seeing the board, was in 1782, when he played two games in this manner at once; the following paragraphs are curious, as showing the sensation produced in the Chess world by this interesting and then novel exhibition.

Extract from the Morning Post of May 28, 1782 -

"The celebrated MONS. PHILIDOR, whose unrivalled excellence at the game of Chess has been long distinguished, invited the members of the Chess-club, and the amateurs in general of that arduous amusement, to be present on Saturday last at a spectacle of the most curious kind, as it was to display a very wonderful faculty of the human mind, which faculty, however, is perhaps at present exclusively his own.

In consequence of this invitation, thirty gentlemen and three ladies attended M. PHILIDOR at Parsloe's in St. Jame's-street, where, in their presence, with his eyes closed, he contended with two gentlemen at the same time, who had each a Chess-board, and who may be deemed among the first players in Europe next to himself 1

1 And yet with this conclusive evidence to the contrary, I have heard it asserted that these gentlemen were not first-rate players. --Laterly PHILIDOR could only give COUNT BRUHL the Pawn and Move, but as he was then long past sixty years of age, it may fairly be presumed that his extraordinary faculties were somewhat dimmed . --COUNT BRUHL was at this time decidedly the best player in Europe after PHILIDOR.

COUNT BRUHL was his adversary at one board, and MR. BOWDLER at the other, and to each was allowed the first move. - The games lasted one hour and forty minutes. The game with the COUNT was drawn, and MR. BOWDLER won the other, owing to the exact similarity in the two openings, for if the games had less resembled each other M. PHILIDOR would have preserved a more distinct recollection.

The idea of the intellectual labour that was passing in the mind of M. PHILIDOR suggested a painful perception to the spectator, which however was quite unnecessary, as he seldom paused half a minute, and seemed somewhat jocose through the whole, and uttering occasionally many diverting pleasantries. The whole passed in the French language.
When the intrinsic difficulty of the game is considered, as well as the great skill of his adversaries, who of course conducted it with the most subtle complications, this exertion seems absolutely miraculous, and certainly deserves to be recorded as proof at once interesting and astonishing, of the power of human intelligence."

Extract from THE WORLD, of the same date.- After a very similar account of this match, the editor proceeds thus:

"This brief article is the record of more than sport and fashion; it is a phenomenon in the history of man, and so should be hoarded among the best samples of human memory, till memory shall be no more.

The ability of fixing on the mind the entire plan of two Chess-tables, with the multiplied vicissitudes of two-and-thirty pieces in possible employment upon each table, that a man should maintain the two games at once, without seeing either, but merely from the report of move after move upon both; and this, contending not with bad and inexperienced play, but with two of the best and most practiced players in Europe; all this makes up a wonder of such magnitude as could not be credited, perhaps would not be credible, without repeated experience of the fact.

This has been had from MONS. PHILIDOR again and again, but never with more struggle, for his antagonists were COUNT BRUHL and MR. BOWDLER. They never were more excellent: how much resource there was, and guarded enterprise, may be imagined from the time they took in playing. During the whole of that period the memory of this astonishing man was never for a moment absent nor confused: - he made not one mistake.

With all his great applause, it does not appear that PHILIDOR was ever so far rewarded for his persevering energy in the cause of Chess as to become, in a pecuniary point of view, independent of his British patrons. We are assured by Twiss, who lived long in habits of friendly intimacy with him (and from whose pages I have largely borrowed), that PHILIDOR would never allow any of his numerous family to learn the game their father so excelled in. With a wife and NINETEEN CHILDREN entirely dependent for many years upon his labours for their livelihood, it was only by exercise of the most
unremitting energies of his peculiar talents, that music and Chess united could be forced to yield their master more than a very meagre competency. To the great detriment of his pocket, PHILIDOR could neither spin around for a quarter-of-an-hour on the point of his foot, nor play the devil's concerto on the fourth fiddle-string: he contributed largely to the amusement of that generation, and fortunately fared better than BURNS or CHATTERTON.

During the ensuing years of his life, PHILIDOR continued to reside in London every winter, and to return in the summer to his family at Paris, playing matches occasionally without seeing the board, and constantly winning of the best players who opposed themselves to him. The ensuing article is extracted from a London newspaper of May, 1783.

"Yesterday at the Chess-club in St. Jame's-street, MONS. PHILIDOR performed one of those wonderful exhibitions for which he is so much celebrated. He played three different games at once, without seeing either of the tables. His opponents, were COUNT BRUHL, MR. DOWDLER (the two best players in London), and Mr. MASERES. He defeated COUNT BRUHL in one hour and twenty minutes, and Mr. MASERES in two hours; Mr. BOWLDER reduced his game to a drawn battle in an hour and three quarters. To those who understood Chess, this exertion of M. PHILIDOR's abilities must appear one of the greatest of which human memory is susceptible. He goes through it with astonishing accuracy, and often corrects mistakes in those who have the board before them."

Between 1788, and 1792, PHILIDOR played eight different matches in the same manner, each match consisting in general of three games; and in 1792 he played two similar matches in the presence of the Turkish ambassador. These latter games probably gave rise to the foolish report of PHILIDOR's having been beaten by the Turk. The only foundation that can be assigned for this, is a newspaper paragraph which appeared after the death of PHILIDOR, and which was ill-naturedly reprinted by Twiss in 1802. Had there been any truth to this account, it would have certainly been made public during the life of PHILIDOR; but, from its not having appeared immediately after the pretended incident occurred, as well as from the manner in which it is worded, I have no doubt of its having been the production of some petty slanderer, envious of the reputation he thus meanly attempted to injure. The following is a wind-up of this precious morçeau; it is a fine specimen of the beautifully ridiculous: -

"After winning six games in succession of PHILIDOR, the Ambassador told him that he knew several Chess-players at Constantinople who were able to beat him, giving him the Rook ! ! "

Although now past the period when the human intellect is considered to be at the height of its powers, PHILIDOR did not relax in his exertions to promote Chess. In 1795, the last year of his life, our veteran, then sixty-nine years of age, played three blindfold matches in public. The last of these was announced by him in the daily papers as follows: -

"By particular desire, MONS. PHILIDOR, positively for the last time, will play on Saturday, the 20th of June, at 2 o'clock precisely, three games at once against three good Chess-players; two of them without seeing either of the boards, and the third looking over the table. He most respectfully invites all the members of the Chess-club to honour him with their presence. -Ladies and gentlemen not belonging to the club may be provided with tickets at the above-mentioned house to see the match, at five shillings each."

On Saturday, August 29, 1795, the public were informed of the death of this unconquered, and indeed unrivalled Chess-player, in the following article, which appeared in the daily paper.


"On Monday last, the 24th of August, this long celebrated foreigner made his last move - into the other world. For two months he was kept alive by the art and the kind attention of an old and worthy friend. To the last moment of his existence he enjoyed, though nearly seventy years of age, a strong and retentive memory, which long rendered him remarkable in the circle of his acquaintance in this capital.

"M. PHILIDOR was a member of the Chess-club near thirty years, and was a man of those meek qualities that rendered him not less esteemed as a companion, than admired for his extraordinary skill in the game of Chess, for which he was preeminently distinguished.

"It is only two months since he played two games at the same time, against two excellent Chess-players, and was declared the victor. He was, besides, an admirable musician and a capital composer.

"What seemed most to have shaken the poor old man's constitution, and to have precipitated his exit, was not being able to procure a passport to return to Paris to see his family (who reside there) before he paid his last debt to nature. This refusal was rendered still more bitter, on its being intimated to him that he was denounced by the bloodthirsty committee of French Revolutionists as a suspected character. From the moment he was made acquainted with this circumstance he became a martyr to grief - his philosophy forsook him - his tears were incessant - and he sank into the grave."


17, Soho Square, 1832



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