The Man Who Saved Philidor

Aug 6, 2009, 8:42 PM |

As most folks know, the custom of saving games didn't really begin in earnest until 1836 when William Greenwood Walker published the  Labourdonnais-M'Donnell match he recorded in 1834.

In the intervening year, 1835, another Walker - George - published his famous book, A selection of games at chess, actually played by Philidor and his Contemporaries, in which he had this to say:


Half a century has now elapsed since Philidor soared in the height of his fame. His celebrated Treatise on Chess has been translated into most modern languages, and continues to sustain its well earned honors. Undoubtedly the most interesting sections of that publication are the games played by Philidor without seeing the board. Of these, there are but nine, and they strike us at once as being so gifted with excellence, that we feel angry at the scantiness of the allowance, and long to be afforded further proofs of the transcendent skill of our mighty master. Philidor's visits to this metropolis were spread over a long series of years—from 1747, to his death in 1795—and during that time, he must have played many hundred games of the highest order. It is, unfortunately, too notorious, that most of the chief Chessplayers are careless about noting down their games ; and in almost every case of the preservation of similar relics, we are indebted more to the zeal of the bystander, than to the generosity of the author. Philidor was rarely, if ever, known to record games of his own playing, and the same indifference has been since remarked in La Bourdonnais, Le Breton des Chapelles, and other distinguished players. The most earnest inquiries had been addressed to the last surviving contemporaries of Philidor, as well as to the remaining branches of his family yet existing in France, for any manuscript relics of which they might be possessed ; but as such applications were uniformly fruitless, the chances of any fresh publication bearing his name, became, as years rolled on, both fewer and fainter. Still there remained to us a latent, lingering hope, that sooner or later, on the breaking up of some overgrown moth-eaten library, or curious antiquarian depository, —additional reminiscences, connected with the name and epoch of Philidor, might open to the light of the nineteenth century.

This hope, I rejoice to say, has been most unexpectedly and suddenly realized,—this event, so ardently desired, has here come to pass. Without the mysterious, and oft-times suspicious, agency of an old oak chest, or black ebony cabinet, a huge parcel of bona-fide Philidorian MSS. has found its way to earth by the most simple and unromantic means of transit. The choicest part of this "treasure trove" is comprised in the present volume, and it becomes me, briefly, to give a sketch of its history and discovery.

Among the leading Chess-players in England, contemporary with Philidor, was the Reverend George Atwood. His acquaintance with mathematics was extensive *, and, between that science and Chess, were his leisure hours chiefly divided. Mr. Atwood was a pupil of Philidor, and did honor to the lessons of his master. He compiled, from various sources, a number of MS. volumes, in illustration of different branches of Chess ; and, among the rest, collected several hundred games, played either by himself, or, under his own observation, by the first players of the age. At the death of Mr. Atwood, and on the consequent dispersion of his books, the greater part of his Chess-papers fell into the hands of his friend, Joseph Wilson, Esq. F. A. S., on whose library shelves, for many years, they quietly slumbered. Mr. Wilson belonged himself to the Philidorian set, and was no mean performer. He appears to have assisted Mr. Atwood with occasional contributions, and to have thus taken a share in the formation of the MS. collections alluded to. Mr. Wilson died three years back, and, on the sale of his library **, the whole of these MSS., comprising nearly twenty volumes of various sizes, were bought by Mr. Thorpe, the bookseller, of Bedford-street, Covent Garden, in whose sale-catalogue of rare and valuable MSS., for 1833, they were displayed as below f ; and from whom I hold them, "cum privilegio,"— by the fairest of tenures—purchase. I am minute in these details, not only for the sake of removing any doubts which might otherwise reasonably exist in this country, as to the genuineness of the MSS., but for the satisfaction of my brother Chess-players in France and Germany. It may be added, that the great merit of many of the games selected, affords the strongest intrinsic evidence of their indubitable authenticity.

* Mr. Atwood was the author of several works on Mathematics ; including " A Treatise on RectilinearArches," &c.

** Mr. Wilson's Library was sold by public auction, at Messrs. Sothebys' Rooms, in Wellington-street, Strand. 1832-3.

        Extract from Mr. Thorpe's Sale-Catalogue of MSS. 1833:—
227. Chess.—Experimental Games at Chess ; by the late George Atwood, 4to. 10s. 6d.
228. Chess.—Results of Games, played by Philidor, Count Bruhl, Bowdler, and other Chess players, describing minutely every move, with Problems concerning the game. By the Rev. George Atwood, the celebrated mathematician. Folio, 2l. 12s. 6d.
229. Chess.—Twelve volumes of Memoranda of Original Games, Notes on Philidor's Rules, &c. By the Rev. George Atwood, 5l. 5s.

   George Atwood was born in 1745. he went to Westminster school and graduated from Trinity College in Cambridge in 1769 after which he stayed and taught mathematics there. In 1776 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.
   William Pitt, British Prime Minister and one of Atwood's former students, gave Atwood a position as a personal secretary and an office in the Treasury.
Atwood's Machine   Atwood's secular accomplishments include a book on on Newtonian mechanics, A Treatise on the Rectilinear Motion, published in 1784.   In it, he introduces Atwood's Machine, used to demonstrate for the first time the laws of uniformly accelerated motion of a free-falling body due to gravity.
He also did work of the theories of ship stability as well as the engineering of arches and bridges.

   He was awarded the Copley Medal of the Royal Society.
(The Copley Medal was established by Sir Geoffrey Copley and is the most prestigious award give by the Royal Society of London. Other recipients include Ben Franklin, Albert Einstein and Max Planc) 
   As far a chess goes, Atwood was a very good amateur. He contested Philidor in many games, but most importantly, he preserved some of them, an unusual practice at that time. He also has the distinction to have been Philidor's opponent in the last games he played - at Parsloe's Club in 1795 - before he (Philidor) died.

Of the 68 games of Philidor that have been preserved for posterity, George Atwood recorded 14.  

Below are what are considered the last two games played by Philidor -
played, at odds, against Atwood at Parsloe's Chess Club on June 29, 1795.


There is every reason for believing that these two games ("Games 46 and 47) were the last ever played by Philidor. He died six weeks after the date of this sitting, in his seventieth year. From the newspapers of the day we learn, that "for the last two months of his life he was kept alive merely by art, and the kind attentions of an old and worthy friend."  When he played these latter games, he was, therefore, in a state of debility hardly consistent with the energy required to conduct a difficult contest ; but his Chess-intellect shone out to the last in high and undiminished brightness. As a mark of respect to the immortal name of Philidor, the Metropolitan Chess-club suspended their meetings for some time after his death. It is disgraceful to them that no funeral tablet was erected, to point out the place of his rest.
                                               -George Walker