Who Was The First Great Chess Player?
The greatest chess player of all time is usually recognised as Garry Kasparov. But while his exploits are legendary, who can be considered the first great chess player? In reality, there can only be one answer; the Frenchman Francois-Andre Danican Philidor.
Philidor was born in 1726 and showed promise in both chess and music from an early age. Indeed, in the early years, it seemed music would be his passion. His motet, composed at the age of 11, was performed in no less prestigious a venue than Versailles. Fortunately for the world of chess, his ability in that field soon began to shine through too. In 1740, he started to play regularly at the famous Cafe de la Regence where he played Benjamin Franklin. In 1747, he played, and comprehensively defeated, the Arabian Philip Stamma of Aleppo. This was followed in 1755 by a defeat of his former tutor, Legal, in a match. These victories, and others against the strongest opponents he came up against, confirmed his status as the best player in the world.
The Frenchman’s chess skills were not limited to reining supreme over other players. His book “Analysis of Chess” written in 1749, was a masterpiece that has stood the test of time. The analysis of endgames in particular was the benchmark against which future authors were compared. The fact that by 1871 it there had been about 70 editions bears testament to its importance.
Philidor’s dominance over rivals was evident for over 40 years, and although opportunities for travel were limited, he did play in Belgium, Germany and especially England. It was during the latter part of his life, that his position as the World’s greatest player scaled new heights. In 1783, Philidor stunned, not just the chess world, but the whole of Europe, when he performed a mental feat that was not thought possible by playing 3 games of chess simultaneously without sight of the board. He won 2 games and drew the third. Signed affidavits were taken in case some would doubt his exploits.
The French Revolution starting in 1789 was not a comfortable time for Philidor. Despite being famous only for his chess and musical abilities, his family’s historical connection to the king’s service necessitated his moving to England in 1793. France’s loss was England’s gain, and he continued to impress the London chess scene with more blindfold exploits.
Although Philidor died in 1795, the chess legacy he left through his games and writing helped teach and inspire many generations. This is why, he is undoubtedly, the World’s First Great Chess Player.