The Smothered Mate or Philidor's Legacy

Dec 26, 2010, 6:55 PM |


John A. Galbreath

The Smothered Mate, or Philidor's Legacy.
by John A. Galbreath, New Orleans, La.

This, at once the most elegant and interesting of chess endings, happens but seldom in actual play, and the following examples, all occurring in play, cannot fail to be of much interest and instruction to the reader. Every chess player is familiar with the ordinary forms of the ending which is given in all the elementary handbooks, and it is therefore unnecessary to repeat any of them here.

"Philidor's Legacy" is the name which, by a sort of universal consent, has been given' to the ending in honor of the famous French Master; but it is certain that it was known nearly a century before Philidor was born, in 1726.

By whom it was first played cannot even be conjectured. Mr. Steinitz, writing of the ending in his International Chess Magazine, January, 1885, page 25, has this to say in a note to a game between himself and an amateur:

"This mate is an ordinary version of the smothered mate, the first authorship of which is commonly ascribed to Philidor, after whom it is generally named "Philidor's Legacy". Mr. J. G. Ascher, of Montreal, has however latterly come into possession of a very rare book on the game printed in 1656, nearly sixty years before Philidor was born, in which a specimen of this beautiful mate occurs. The book referred to is apparently a translation of an Italian author named Biachimo, and we understand that neither the original work nor its translation are mentioned in any printed index of chess books." Mr. Steinitz, while a great chess player and a most profound analyst, was not very strong in matters pertaining to chess history.

The book referred to was presented to the writer many years after Mr. Steinitz"s note was written, and after considerable research I have found that it is an English translation of the first edition of Greco, the celebrated Calabrian. George Walker in the appendix to his "Treatise on Chess", third edition published in 1841, gives a "Bibliographical Catalogue of Printed Books and Writers on Chess" up to that period, and has this: "Beale, Francis— The royall game of Chesse-playe, sometimes the recreation of the late king, with many of the nobility, illustrated with almost an hundred Gambetts, being the study of Biochimo, the famous Italian. London, 1656, 8vo, pp. 122.  Mr. Beale's work is, in fact, the translation and first edition of Greco, who is erroneously styled "Biochimo'' instead of "Gioachino".

It is in this first edition of Greco then that we have the first authentic record of the smothered mate, and it was doubtless familiar to all the great chess players who preceded him, many years before Columbus sailed on the voyage which resulted in his discovery of the western world. It must be remembered in this connection that anciently the Queen was the weakest of the pieces, and that she acquired her present power some time during the Fifteenth century. The smothered mate therefore was discovered by some chess artist who lived and played the game between that time and the advent of Greco's book. It may have been the Calabrian himself who first played it. So much for the origin of the ending. Like many other things, it is lost in the misty past, so we will continue to call it Philidor's Legacy, in honor of the amiable and gifted French Chess Paladin.
-American Chess Bulletin, 1912.


The mate offered by Greco in the above article was:

But this mate first appeared in Lucena's 1497 book "Repetición de amores y Arte de ajedrez."  The Mammoth Book of Chess by Graham Burgess and John Nunn published the following position from Lucena:

Below is a scan from Luis Ramírez de Lucena's book showing the position

(the A, B, C,and E seem to indicate the move order with D (visible on d8), the alternate move)