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After chess came to its modern form in the late 15th century, strong players had emerged in Europe by the 16th and 17th centuries. It wasn’t until the 18th century, however, that the first player of true talent and genius came to the fore. He was Francois Andre Danican Philidor.

Philidor was born in France on September 7, 1726 to a family of musicians. His grandfather, Michael Danican, was given the appellation “Philidor” by King Louis XIII in remembrance of a skilled oboist who had once visited his court.

King Louis appointed Michael Danican as a musician of the royal chapel. His son, Michael Danican III, took to his music, inheriting the appointment and becoming King Louis’ bassoonist. He played with his brothers and nephews in the Louis’ royal band.

Philidor was the son of Michael Danican III. At age six, he became a page in the royal chapel, a role that had him rubbing elbows with the best musicians of his day. Philidor fast became a good one himself, and by eleven he had composed his own motet. More significantly, the pageship allowed him to learn chess.

While awaiting morning mass, Philidor would match wits with his friends, and by all indications his adversaries were equally good at chess as they were at music. By the time his pageship ended when he was fourteen, he had emerged as one of the best players of France.

Alamy François-André Danican Philidor playing blindfold in a match

Music and chess remained strong influences to Philidor after he left the chapel. In between giving music lessons and copying music, he would visit Paris’ famed coffeeshop that was then, and for another century thereafter, the chess nook of Europe’s best players – the Café de la Regence. Here I met Kermur de Legal, France’s strongest player. It took Philidor a few years to give de Legal a decent game.    

In 1745 Philidor joined a musical tour to Holland, but it so happened that the soloist died before their group could begin. Philidor was stranded in Holland, forcing him to fall back on chess.  Haunting the cafes of Rotterdam and Amsterdam, he supported himself by wagering on his games and conducting exhibitions for a fee. 

Chess in Holland allowed Philidor to meet chess-playing officers of the English army, who took a liking to him and invited him to London. Philidor did so in 1747, and there proved his mettle by his encounters with Abraham Janssen and Philip Stamma.  

Abraham Janssen was England’s strongest player, while Philip Stamma was a celebrated Syrian player and famous chess author. Janssen could only win one game of four against Philidor. Stamma, on the other hand, was given the advantage of playing White every game and of counting draws as wins in his favor. Yet, he still lost 8-2, with one of his wins being a draw.

In 1749, Philidor published his L’Analyze des Echecs. It is a historic book for being the first to lay down a clear strategy for winning. Other writings up to that point had only imparted some irrational and non-sporting points about chess, such as never to drink before playing, or to have your opponent take that side of the board facing the sun. Philidor, on the other hand, taught important principles, the most important of which involve pawn play.

In 1754, Philidor returned to France and faced his old nemesis, de Legal, once more in a match.   Sharpened by his match experiences with Janssen and Stamma, and by his exhibitions in Holland, Philidor beat de Legal this time. Although de Legal was already fifty-three, he was still one of the best players in the world and remained so for three more decades. No one but Philidor was to ever beat him in a match.

Philidor’s chess career was boosted when in 1770 a new chess club opened in England. Its members were eager to improve their game, and Philidor was invited to be its resident master who would be a ready opponent of the highest class to everyone. Another club opened in 1774 and Philidor served it in the same capacity. From that point on up to 1992, Philidor would split his time between France and England, spending February to June in England as a professional chess master and all the remaining months of the year as a musician in France.

In 1789 the French Revolution broke out, with the resulting social and political turmoil leading to the unfortunate classification of Philidor as a proscribed émigré. His health began failing him, which was likely worsened by his grief at being unable to return to France, his wife and children. He died in England on August 31, 1795.   

Among Philidor’s special skills was his ability to play blindfold chess, his exploits being one of the very first recorded accounts of blindfold play. Blindfold chess over several boards may not be remarkable anymore among modern masters, but nothing like it then had been witnessed. To the chess circles and European society of that time, playing two games simultaneously without sight of the board was something miraculous.  

Philidor’s principles of pawn play in L’Analyze have come to be some of the most enduring concepts of positional play, with little refinements to them in the next two and a half centuries that chess theory was to develop. At the time Philidor taught them, however, they were so far above the comprehension of his contemporaries. The world had to await the arrival of the first World Champion, Wilhelm Steinitz, more than a hundred years later for them to be fully understood, and for their truths and value to be seen and appreciated in practical play.

Philidor claimed that “Pawns are the Soul of Chess,” which just about encapsulates his teachings that pawns determine the strategic nature of the game. Among the precepts that Philidor himself or other masters after him developed that speak to the truth of his statement are the following:   

  • “An attack should never be begun before the pawns leading it are thoroughly supported. Without this precaution, the attack will be useless”

  • “Genuine attacks are carried out by the united efforts of many pieces.”
  • “Pawns, especially central ones, that have advanced to the fifth rank, lose part of their strength since they can be easily attacked by the enemy pawns from their third rank.”

Philidor dominated chess when it was still in its infancy, and when much was still to be discovered about it. He may have lacked opponents who would formidably test his genius, but that was only because he was too far ahead of his times, probably farther than any great master after him was in his own era. He stands as one of the most brilliant chess thinkers of all time.

Books Relevant to the Ideas and Teachings of Philidor

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We invite you to check the following books. They work on, expound, or are relevant to the ideas and teachings of Philidor on pawn play.

  1. Pawn Power in Chess by Hans Kmoch
  2. Pawn Structure Chess by Andrew Soltis
  3. Understanding Pawn Play in Chess by Drazen Marovic
  4. Dynamic Pawn Play In Chess by Drazen Marovic
  5. The Power of Pawns by Jorg Hickl
  6. Chess Structures by Mauricio Flores Rios
  7. Small Steps to Giant Improvement by Sam Shankland
  8. Small Steps 2 Success by Sam Shankland
  9. Pawn Power by Angus Dunnington


About author

Eugene Manlapao

Eugene Manlapao

Hi, I'm from the Philippines and I hold a degree in Bachelor of Arts, Major in English, Creative Writing. I'm a corporate fellow by profession and a certified lover of chess and literature. When free from work, I scramble dividing my time among my wife and two lovely daughters, devouring literary classics and chess books, participating in over-the-board tournaments, playing casual blitz and rapid games online, and writing chess as well as non-chess articles. My love for chess has had me bitten by the chess set-collection bug. I'll be very happy to receive comments on my articles and reviews for Chess Equipments.


  1. Great articles! You are describing so well the lives and events regarding these famous chess players that readers literally ‘travel’ back in time with these great players throughout Europe and elsewhere where the famous chess games took place and are able to ‘see’ the old games once again. Your articles also help understanding better the connections between different players, their strategies and how chess evolved over time. Much respect for your work!


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