What was Philidor Thinking?

What was Philidor Thinking?

Aug 14, 2009, 11:06 AM 11,357 Reads 12 Comments

All chess players have heard the famous maxim by François-André Danican Philidor (1726 – 1795) that “Pawns are the soul of chess,” and most are probably familiar with Philidor’s Defense.  But what was he thinking when he suggested 2…d6 instead of 2…Nc6 as a defense to 1. e4 e5  2. Nf3?  I checked with three large online openings databases, including chess.com, and found that 2…Nc6 is favored over 2…d6 by more than 20-to-1.

I do not imply that no one plays Philidor's Defense.  It has been employed by such luminaries as Nimzowitsch, Tartakower, and Alekhine.  But it was also the defense played by the losing side in Morphy's famous "Opera Game".

Of all the players I have so far studied for this continuing series of blogs about the people behind the named openings, Philidor is the most interesting.  His famous maxim regarding pawns appears in the Preface to his famous 1749 book Analyse du Jeu des Échecs – in English: Analysis of the Game of Chess.

Philidor knew that his book was groundbreaking for in the preface to an English edition published in Boston in 1826, Philidor wrote, “I believe, I am the first of my nation who has taken upon himself to set forth in a true light the theory and practice of this game… I…flatter myself of having brought to some degree of perfection the theory of a game, that learned authors, such as Leibnitz and others, have classed among the sciences.”

Some people step on the wrong side of the tense border between confidence and arrogance, but not Philidor.  The Oxford Companion to Chess points out that Philidor’s book was the very first (1) that gave detailed annotations on how to play the middle-game, (2) that presented chess strategy as a whole, and (3) that presented the concepts of the blockade, prophylaxis, positional sacrifice, and mobility of the pawn formation.

He also made a great contribution to end game theory with his analysis of what is known as Philidor's Position. With Black to move, he can guarantee a draw, even though he is a pawn down.

Philidor’s ancestral name was Duncan, which was changed to Danican when his Scottish forbears settled in Normandy.  The name was later changed to Philidor following a remark by King Louis XIII, who compared an earlier Danican to a famous Italian musician by the name of Filidori.

Indeed the family penchant for music was passed down to François-André, who was as talented in music as he was chess, and in fact, it was the former that led to the latter.  When he was only six, Philidor was admitted to the choir of the Chapel-Royal at Versailles.  When they were not playing music, the court musicians played chess at six inlaid boards on a long table.  When Philidor was ten years old, he offered to play an elderly musician, who laughed at him, but agreed.  He stopped laughing when he was mated by the boy, who then ran away from the room in fear of retaliation.

Chess was bound to Philidor’s musical career throughout his life.  In 1745 he was stranded in Rotterdam when he went there to assist in a series of concerts by a young harpsichordist who suddenly died.  In order to survive, Philidor had to teach chess and checkers (draughts), at which he was also proficient.

Philidor had numerous musical accomplishments during his career.  He described music as his chief occupation, and chess only a ‘diversion’; yet ironically, his earnings from chess were used to subsidize his musical compositions, which paid poorly.  Like many intelligent people, his mind was wittier than his mouth for he was described by contemporaries as “boring”, yet he was highly successful as a composer of comedic operas.

His teacher, Legall, whom Philidor had bested within three years of his chess studies, asked Philidor if he could play blindfold chess.  His reply was that he had already been doing so as he lay in bed at night.  Indeed, Philidor created a sensation at his public blindfold displays, even though others had played blindfold long before him, as I noted in a previous blog on Blindfold Chess.

His fame at chess grew until he became recognized as the best player in France, England and the Netherlands. 

While many chess openings named after famous players were not invented by those players, this was not the case with Philidor’s Defense.  He introduced that opening in his famous book, where it appeared as the third game.

Here is Philidor’s Defense, as it appeared in the English translation with Philidor's own annotations:

Unlike modern chess books, Philidor’s games “were, undoubtebly, composed by Philidor himself for his work”, wrote the magnificently named Tassilo von Heydebrand und der Lasa in a supplement to the previously referenced English edition of Philidor's book.

Philidor really did believe that pawns were the soul of chess.  In the first 100 annotations of his book, I counted 79 explicit references to pawns, while some of the remaining 21 annotations were remarks on pawn moves without using the word ‘pawn’. This preponderance of pawn passages continues throughout the entire text.

So now let us return to the question posed in the title.  Why did Philidor prefer 2…d6 to 2…Nc6 in response to 1. e4 e5  2. Nf3?  It is not simply that d6 is a pawn move, and Philidor loved his pawns, though I am sure that is part of the answer.  The other part is that 2…Nc6 would block his c7 pawn, and no lowly piece should hinder a potential Queen.

Note to the gentle reader:  This blog is one of a continuing series that discusses the players whose names grace many openings.  Here are the links to these blogs published to date:

The Names behind the Openings, Part 1
Bird to Bogo
Caro, Kann and Chigorin – Openings Players
Evans and Göring: Gambiteers
Who was Giuoco Piano?
A Greenfield Opening
Who Suggested 1. b3 ??
Nimzowitsch (in 4 syllables)
Petrov and the Mysterious Morphy Self-Mate


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