Before Philidor

Before Philidor

Nov 7, 2018, 11:00 AM |
24 | Other

  Almost every chess player with the slightest interest in the development of the game knows of François-André Danican, better known by the appellation Philidor, a family name given to his grandfather, Michel Danican, an oboist in the royal ensemble, the Grand Écurie—and to his descendants— by King Louis XIII.

     Our Philidor was a musician (though not an instrumentalist), as was most of his family, and perhaps even a prodigy.   As exceptional as his music talent might have been, his chess talent overshadowed it.  

     Philidor learned to play chess as a young musician.   Prof. George Allen wrote in his biography of Philidor:

[Philidor] had already learned chess while attached to the royal Chapel. The Kings of France, in those days, heard Mass with music every morning. The time during which eighty musicians waited, near the Sanctuary, for the King’s approach and the beginning of Mass, must have hung heavily enough upon their hands ; and some means of amusement were considerately allowed them. Cards were forbidden; but a long table inlaid with six chess-boards, was provided by the higher intellects (we must presume) of the musical corps. It was in such sacred proximities, from musicians waiting to accompany with voice and instrument the Holy Sacrifice, that Philidor learned Chess.  When he left the Chapel he had the reputation of being the best player in the band.

    Philidor started frequenting that mecca of chess, the Café de la Régence, where he became a disciple of François Antoine de Legal.  Although Philidor would soon surpass Legal who was the strongest player at la Régence and  possibly the world at that time it's here this story begins.


     Philidor, between the ages of 14 and 18 and not yet at his peak, was approached by his mentor, de Legal,  as Geo. Allen also relates:

M. de Légal, it seems, had once tried, when young, to play a single game blindfold, but found himself so absolutely exhausted that he never repeated the experiment.  It now occurred to him, to ask Philidor, one day, whether he had ever tried to play from memory, 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 with the Abbé Chenard, which he won without seeing the board, and without hesitating upon any of the moves— Philidor then finding he could readily play a single game, offered to play two games at the same time, which he did at the Coffee-house.


At this stage of his progress, the power of playing blind-fold was suddenly developed in Philidor ; and in the utter ignorance, on everybody’s part, of what had been done in that way by the Paladins of the great Italian School a hundred and fifty years before, the sensation excited by the young prodigy’s feats was like that with which Paganini electrified the world in our earlier years.

   H.J.R. Murray in his illustrious tome, A History of Chess, expressed that he felt the ignorance of people concerning blindfold chess of past masters was somewhat uncalled for,  citing that blindfold chess-play, particularly that "of the Jesuit Sacchieri of Turin,"  had been mentioned in several publications:

And yet the performances of the Jesuit Sacchieri of Turin, lecturer in Mathematics at Pavia in the first half of the eighteenth century, who played three and four games at one time blindfold, were known in England. They had been recounted in Keysler's Travels, i. in The Gentleman's Magazine, March 1746, and in Lambe's Hist. Chess, 1764, 54, and were repeated later in Twiss, i. 20 (quoting Keysler's Turin, 1749).

nullGentleman's Magazine March, 1746

nullChess by Richard Twiss, 1787

    "Keysler," referenced above by Twiss, was  John George Keysler, F.R.S.  Born Johann Georg Keyssler in Germany in 1689,  he was an antiquarian, trained in civil law at the University of Halle.. Before settling in England he traveled extensively throughout Europe, visiting and studying its ancient monuments and later wrote of his travels in (published 1741 in German and 1749 in English) Travels Through Germany, Bohemia, Hungary, Switzerland, Italy, and Lorrain (Neueste Reisen durch Deutschland, Böhmen, Ungarn, die Schweiz, Italien und Lothringen).

nullfrom Travels Through Germany, Bohemia, Hungary, Switzerland, Italy, and Lorrain
by John George Keysler,  first published in English in 1749

  "Verci," also referenced above by Twiss, was Giambatista Verci, author of Lettere di Giambattista Verci sopra il Giuoco degli Scacchi  (1778) in which he wrote:

Che diremo del P. Saccheri? Quello valente Gesuita Lettore di Matematica in Pavia al principio di quello secolo, gia noto nella Repubblica delle lettere per opere date alle stampe , e spezialmente per un Trattato di Neosìatica, giuocava a perfezione fopra quattro scacchieri nel medesimo punto. Egli passeggiando senza mai volgerli dalla parte loro dava a tutti le regole de' movimenti de' pezzi fecondo le direzioni degli Avversari , che a bocca un dopo l'altro indicavangli la mossa fatta.

   which trusty Google translates as:

What will we say about P. Saccheri? The valiant Jesuit Mathematics lecturer in Pavia at the beginning of that century, already known in the Republic of the letters for works published, and especially for a Neosati treatise, played four chessboards in the same place. By walking without ever turning them on their side, he gave the rules of the movements of the pieces fruitful to the directions of the Adversaries, who pointed to the move made one after the other.

   Twiss later mentions a Saracen player named Buzecca from the 13h century player capable of playing two blindfold games and a sighted game simultaneously.  His source was Istorie Fiorentine by Giovanni Villani:

nullIstorie Fiorentine by Giovanni Villani

  Twiss gave the  following translation:

In those times, in the year of Christ 1266, there came to Florence a Saracen named Buzecca, a very great master of Chess-playing, and in the Palace del Popolo, before Count Guido Novello, he played at one time at three Chess-boards, with the best masters of Chess in Florence, playing at two by memory, and with the third by sight ; and two games he won, and the third he made a drawn game (by perpetual check), which circumstance was esteemed marvelous.

   It was also well known from such works as those by Carerra and Salvio that blindfold chess, or chess without sight of the board, had been practiced by the famous players of the 17th century such as Ruy Lopez and Medrano of Spain, Alphonso Cerone of Granada; the Italians Mangiolini of Florence, Leonardo di Bono from Cutri, and Paolo Boi of Syracuse, Sicily. The Portuguese apothecary and writer, Damiano of Odemira, even used the tenth and final chapter of his book to give some tips on playing sans voir.

  Here Murray noted the newspaper accounts portraying Philidor's blindfold exploits as unique and new.:

They accordingly resolved that the blindfold performances which Philidor had commenced in 1782 should for the future be fortnightly instead of annually as before. These performances had created an extraordinary excitement at first, and the newspapers of 1782 are very amusing' reading. The Morning Post of 28 May says, in its account of the performance in which Philidor played Count Bruhl and Mr. Bowdler at the same time, seeing neither board, and drawing the first and losing the second game:

The celebrated Mr. Philidor, whose unrivalled excellence at the game of Chess has long been 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 huma. mind, which faculty, however, is perhaps exclusively at present his own. . . . The idea of the intellectual labour that was passing in the mind of Mr. Philidor, suggested a painful perception to the spectators, which, however, was quite unnecessary, as he seldom paused half a minute, and seemed to undergo little mental fatigue. . . . 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 s proof, at once interesting and astonishing, of the power of human intelligence.

And the World of the same date begins its account:

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.

Fourteen performances of this character are on record in which Philidor played now two and now three simultaneous blindfold games, or (in his later years) two games blindfold and a third across the board, and the games played on seven of these occasions are in existence. His total score for nine such performances (10 wins, 4 draws, 6 losses) does not argue any surpassing ability as a blindfold player.

   Murray seems to have taken the above information, almost verbatim, from Richard Twiss' Chess and not from their original sources.

   Below is a notice in The Morning Post about one of Philidor's blind simuls.  "Mr. Verdoin" is a probably a typo for "Mr. Verdoni" as Verdoni supplanted Philidor in England after Philidor's death:

nullMorning Post and Fashionable World, 1792

     Let's return to Kesyler's "Father Scacchieri." 

    This was Giovanni Girolamo Saccheri.  Born into a well-to-do family from Sanremo in 1667.  The son of a lawyer, Saccheri was said to have been a precocious child.  In an era and area dominated by the Roman Catholic Church, it was considered a high honor for a child to have a religious calling.  Giovanni entered the Jesuit seminary in Genoa in 1685 a few months before his 18th birthday.  He was sent to the Collegio di Brera in Milan in 1690.   It was in Milan where Saccheri took up mathematics, a subject for which he'd attain a certain amount of renown.   He published  Quaesita geometrica, his first work in mathematics in 1693.   After his ordination in 1694, Saccheri was sent to Turin as a philosophy instructor (not mathematics as Murray and others had stated) at Turin's Jesuit College.  Although he was there only 3 years,  it was in Turin where his chess play was observed by John Keysler.   Before leaving Turin, Saccheri published a work on philosophy, Logica demonstrativa.   It wouldn't be until 1733, two months before his death, that Saccheri would publish his important mathematical work, Euclides ab omni naevo vindicatus.  This publication became forgotten but  was rediscovered around 1880, when was found to be an important pioneering work in the field non-Euclidian geometry. 


   In closure, we'll look at what is probably Philidor's most notable blindfold simul in which he played 3 boards giving the move in two of the boards and pawn & move in the third.
        Notice this was in May of 1783 and two of his opponents, Thomas Bowdler and Count Hans Brühl had played in his London blindfold simul debut the year before, as referenced by Murray above.

   One odd feature I've encountered was confusion about the date itself.  Over time these games had been published in a wide variety of periodicals., where the following notations came from, gives the date as May 26 (which I changed).

   However, The Chess-player's Manual from 1864 (edited by J. Löwenthal) gives the date May 10


   and Blindfold Chess by Eliot Hearst and John Knott  gives the date May 8.


    While it's rather insignificant, it is a curious discrepancy.  I  imagine the date was the the date of the publication the transcriber used. The date given by Hearst seems most likelythough not conclusive considering this snippet from the 1805 book, The Elements of Chess (This was the first original American chess book, published in September 1805 in Boston by William Pelham and edited by Pelham's nephew, William Blagrove.  Bill Wall.  
Mr. Wall himself gives the date May 28, 1783)


   This exact quote had been given by both Richard Twiss (1787) and Charles Tomlinson (1845) with the difference being that they simply gave "May, 1783" with no specific date.

   To the above quoted material Twiss added "from London newspapers in May 1783" that "he defeated Count Bruhl in an hour and twenty minutes, and Mr. Maseres in two hours. Mr. Bowdler reduced his game to a drawn battle in an hour and three quarters. To those who understand chess, this exertion of Mr. Philidor's abilities, must appear one of the greatest of which human memory is susceptible."
   He also noted that on that same occasion Philidor played another (apparently sighted) 3 board simul against Count Brühl, Mr. Jennings and Mr. Erskine, giving them all Pawn&move. "the Count made a drawn game, and both other gentlemen lost their games."


John George Pohlman's 1819 book, Chess Rendered Familiar by Tabular Demonstrations of the Various Positions, gives the same quote with May 8, 1783 as the exact date. Pohlman was a Senior Examiner in the Office for Auditing the Public Accompts.

William S. Kenny used the same quote in his 1823 book, Practical Chess Grammar, giving May 8 1783 as the date. Additionally, he stresses the uniqueness and unbelievability of Philidor's feat:

    Page 10 of the Montreal Gazette, May 26, 1894, recounted this same quote but uniquely gives the date of May 5, 1783.

   The players and their games:

   Count Hans Brühl, F.R.S.
[Count Hans Moritz von Brithl auf Martinskirche]  was born in Wiederau, Germany on Dec. 20, 1736. He studied literature at the University of Leipzig from 1750-54. In 1755 he was attached to the Saxon legation in Paris., then spend 4 years as in various political positions in Warsaw. In 1763 he was appointed "Polish and Saxon Ambassador Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to the Court of St. James," arriving in London in 1764.  He held this position until his retirement in 1803. Interested in music, astronomy and chronology, he built two personal observatories, one in Harefield,  the other in London and published a book on chronology, A Short Explanation of the Most Proper Methods of Calculating a Mean Daily Rate in 1792 (he also published other works on chronology, astonomy and politics in English, French and German) .  It's quite likely that he originally met Philidor through their mutual interest in music, but he was also a fairly strong chess player and a regular opponent of Philidor.  He played Philidor on at least 20 occasions and 17 game scores between Brühl and Philidor have survived (which may also be the very reason they survived) as well as 10 more games against various other opponents.  In 1765 he was elected  fellow of both the Royal Society of England and Imperial Academy of Science of St. Petersburg.  He died in London on June 9, 1809.

   Dr. Thomas Bowdler, F.R.S., L.R.C.P.
was born in 1754 and died in 1825. He frequented the Strand club on St. James, where he was considered one of the strongest players.  He along with Count Brühl, played in Philidor's first simul in London, at Parsloe’s Coffee-house, on May 27, 1782.  Bowlder lost his game while Count Brühl managed a draw.  In his 3 game blindfold simul of May 8, 1783, Philidor won 2 and drew 1. Bowdler's was the drawn game.
    Bowdler played Philidor a series of 5 games in April of 1788. Philidor gave him odds of the f7 pawn and two moves in 4 of the games and pawn and one move in one game. Bowdler won 1, lost 2, drew 2  (see: G. Walker's 1835 book, A Selection of Games at Chess, Actually Played by Philidor and his Contemporaries). Bowdler played Philidor one more time in 1789. Philidor gave him odds of the f7 pawn, but not the move, and won in 40 moves. Unfortunately, Bowdler also attained a different sort of fame or infamy.
   Thomas Bowdler was a physician, having received his M.D. in Edinburgh in 1776. He was elected fellow of the Royal Society in 1781 and fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in 1784. He abandoned medicine in 1885 devoting his life to philanthropy by engaging himself with prison reform, religious societies and societies for "the prevention of vice."
   His unmarried twin sister, Henrietta, was a writer. In 1807 she, with help from her brother, edited a compilation of Shakespeare's plays to make it more "family friendly," expunging expressions (or sometimes modifying them), particularly those deemed profane, lewd or licentious and even entire scenes to which she felt children and proper ladies shouldn't be exposed.  Appropriately enough, it was published under the name The Family Shakespeare. It was never meant to supplant Shakespeare's original works (as most copyists seem to imply), but simply to provide a version they felt could be used around children or in a family setting.  For reasons unknown Thomas was listed as sole editor.   He would actually edit later editions, usually reducing the number of censored items.  Since his name was the only one attached to the book, the  backlash from the literary community fell fully upon him.  In the 1820, the eponymic term bowdlerization was created to describe censorship of artistic works.  Henrietta's more active involvement has mostly been ignored or forgotten.


   Francis Maseres, F.S.A, F.R.S.
was born in London on Dec. 15, 1731.  He earned a degree in mathematics, followed by a degree in law, and spent 3 yeas as attorney-general in Quebec.  Despite the fact he was fluid in French and diligent in his work, his anti-Catholic bias made him quite unpopular in predominantly Catholic Quebec, truncating his tenure there.   Returning to England he was awarded the position "Cursitor Baron of the Court of Exchequer of Inner Temple London" which he held until his death while also holding various other legal positions.  He published around thirty mathematical works, as well as works on Quebec. He died a wealthy man on May 19, 1824.


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