Time travel through a chess book- The New Indian Express


Express News Service

CHENNAI: Of the several thousand books that form the collection of the Madras Literary Society, one assumed special significance the past two weeks a 480-page tome on chess, published two centuries back.

While the city was held in sway by the just-concluded Chess Olympiad, this curious book, titled Tabular Demonstrations of the Various Positions and Movements as Described By Philidor with Many Other Critical Situations and Moves and a Concise Introduction to The Game by J.G. Pohlman, occupied pride of place at the Society for the duration of the event. “Every month, we display books pertaining to a particular theme. Because of the Chess Olympiad this month, we decided to display this book,” Thirupurasundari Sevvel of the MLS said.

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A man called Philidor
The name Philidor might ring a bell with chess players as an opening strategy called the Philidor defence. It was named after François-André Danican Philidor, a Frenchman who lived in the 18th century. Born into a family of musicians, Philidor had a stable career as a professional composer who went on to compose more than 20 operas. But his calling card to international celebrity was the game of chess, which he took to seriously at age 14. He was only in his mid-20s when he first published Analyse du jeu des Échecs, or Analysis of the Game of Chess, which went into three editions. He was, by then, widely recognised as the best in the game, and the book, with detailed descriptions of new strategies, cemented his reputation further. He travelled across Europe, toppling opponents on the chessboard everywhere he went. More famously, he played three games blindfolded in England, and ended up winning all three.

A priceless piece
The book that lay before me was published in 1819, two decades after Philidor’s passing in England, where he spent his last years on the run from the French Revolution. The passage of time and 200 years is no small period had left its mark on the book, but it was restored through tissue lamination 26 years ago. As somebody who loves to sniff through old books, the urge to hold it and bring it close to my nostrils was irresistible. But given its significance as a priceless piece of history, and the fact that it was the only available copy of the book in south India, I was obliged to keep a safe distance.

Thankfully, there were expert hands to do the heavy lifting as they unfurled each page. Apart from the first 35 pages that give the reader a brief introduction to the game, the remainder of the book is taken up by illustrations. Each chapter is devoted to a single game, and every move by both black and white chess pieces is carefully illustrated, giving the reader a clear idea of what is going on. The book goes on to describe four other games and the different types of gambits, each with several variations, as well as several types of mating. More significantly, it features illustrations of every move in Philidor’s famous blindfolded games.

The response to the book display has been quite positive, says Thirupurasundari, adding that a group of schoolchildren visited to get a glimpse of the book and were amazed to know such a book existed. “The whole idea of displaying such books is to bring alive conversations around history and heritage through them,” she shared. The book has now been retired to its original place.

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Time travel through a chess book- The New Indian Express

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