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Great Players: Philidor

Great Players: Philidor

The first in a series about great chess players of the past

"My main purpose is to gain recognition for myself by means of a new idea of which no one has conceived, or perhaps has been unable to practice; that is, good play of the pawns; they are the soul of chess: it is they alone that determine the attack and the defence, and the winning or losing of the game depends entirely on their good or bad arrangement." - Philidor, Analyse du jeu des Échecs

François-André Danican Philidor (1726-95) was one of those fortunate individuals who managed to be an important figure in two completely separate fields; in this case, chess and music. In one of those curious twists of fate that sometimes happens, his reputation as a composer has faded somewhat over the centuries, while the music he has written remains intact (for those who are interested, here are part 1, part 2 and part 3 of his opera Tom Jones); the opposite is true of his chess, where his reputation survives, but most of his games are sadly lost from the historical record.

So what makes Philidor such an important figure in the history of our game? The answer lies in two places: his contributions to endgame theory and his understanding of positional play.  His 1777 analysis of rook and pawn versus rook led to one of the most important theoretical draws with that material balance being known as the Philidor Position; he also published analyses of two notoriously tricky pawnless endings: queen versus rook and rook and bishop versus rook.

His understanding of positional play was also remarkable for someone of his era. Most of the great early players we know about were players with great tactical ability, but somewhat lacking insight into what makes positions tick when there are no tactics in sight. Philidor was, from the very limited sample (10, and all from when he was over 50) I have of his games, somewhat the opposite. He was well aware of the strength of protected passed pawns, the importance of controlling the centre, and how good connected passed pawns in an ending can be, but sometimes he would miss resources for his opponents that would have prevented him from exploiting those advantages.

His name not only lives on in endgame theory, but also in opening theory; he gave his name to Philidor's Defence, 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 d6. It's unclear whether he ever actually played it - I have no games where his opponents played 2.Nf3 - and his idea of following it up with an early ...f5 proves dubious for tactical reasons, but the opening itself has seen something of a revival in recent decades, as a coiled spring weapon where black tries to bide his time and see whether white overreaches.

 

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