Philipp Stamma - The Syrian Sorcerer

Philipp Stamma
Philipp Stamma
Philipp Stamma (1705 - 1755) was the strongest master in the world during the second quarter of the 18th Century. He was born in Aleppo in Ottoman Syria in 1705 and became a chess bridge between Europe and the Arab world.

He was the most successful and famous player to transition from the Arabic variant, Shatranj, to the European version of the game. Moving first to Italy, then on to France, and finally to England, he was recognized as the best player in Europe about a century after the days of Gioachino Greco.

This was achieved after adjusting to the rule changes, making it all the more extraordinary a feat. He gained a huge standing in the game through his literature as much as his exploits over the board. His seminal contribution, Essai sur le Jeu des Échecs, in 1737, established him as the foremost authority on chess theory.

Pilgrimage to Europe

Philipp Stamma
Philipp Stamma moved from Aleppo to Italy
Little is known of Stamma's childhood. He was born in Aleppo in 1705 and became a great chess player. He played the Arabic form of the game which is called Shatranj.

It is very similar to Western chess, same board, same pieces, but does not feature the rule changes introduced in Europe to speed up the opening.

The pawns for example cannot move two squares on their first move, only one. There are other little differences and Stamma had to familiarize himself with these when he moved to Europe. But he did and soon he was building a reputation for himself in the western variant.

Italy, France and England

Philipp Stamma toured Italy, France and England
Philipp Stamma toured Italy, France and England
He moved from the Arab world to Italy as a young man. He stayed a while, wowing the Roman courts while adjusting to the rules of western chess.

Later he moved to France and enjoyed similar success in the Café de la Régence in Paris. His gravitas expanded when he produced his most famous chess book, Essai sur le Jeu des Échecs (Essay on the Game Of Chess), in 1737.

He would publish later editions in English and Dutch. Now he was considered the premier authority on chess theory. Aspiring chess players, strong masters and celebrities with an affinity for chess all sought his literature.

In time he decided to move on again and he found himself in England. He took a job as an Arab translator. He held court in Slaughter's Coffee House in his spare time. Before long he was recognized as the strongest player in England.

Slaughter's Coffee House

Philipp Stamma was a regular in Slaughter's Coffee House
Philipp Stamma was a regular in Slaughter's Coffee House
His days in England represented the best of his career. Records of only a handful of his games survive. Nevertheless we know he was the best player in England in much of the 1740s.

Slaughter's Coffee House on St. Martin's Lane was London's answer to the Café de la Régence in Paris. The strongest players in England would gather here to play chess. Stamma was a regular here, playing against all comers.

He published an English version of Essai sur le Jeu des Échecs. The English version was called The Noble Game Of Chess (published in 1745). He dedicated it to Lord Harrington, the Secretary of State and a chess fan.

The Noble Game Of Chess

Essai sur le Jeu des Échecs
Philipp Stamma: Essai sur le Jeu des Échecs
Essai sur le Jeu des Échecs contained 100 compositions or chess games and problems. He challenged his readers to solve the riddles. He was a very strong endgame player so his imagination conjured up some fascinating positions.

The well known mating pattern of checkmating a King in front of his Rook pawn with just a King and Knight is one of many. This became known as Stamma's Mate.

Stamma went on to publish several more editions of his classic work. The second edition saw 74 more puzzles added to the 100. The English edition, The Noble Game Of Chess followed eight years after the original French edition. Further releases saw a Dutch version for Holland.

Stamma vs Philidor

Philipp Stamma was beaten by Philidor
Philidor overcame Philipp Stamma
Francois Philidor emerged as Legall de Kermeur's amazing protégé at the Café de la Régence in Paris in the 1740s. Only Legall could still claim to be Philidor's equal. Philipp Stamma was the best player at Slaughter's Coffee House in London. Philidor arrived in London in 1747 to play England's best players.

Stamma had for many years been considered the best but this challenger was turning heads with his new style of play. It was inevitable that the two would meet.

The officials arranged the match. It was decided that Philidor would play every game with the Black pieces. All draws would be scored as a win for Stamma. We can see from these facts alone that Philidor was favorite to win.

The winner would be the first player to win 8 games. No record of the match survives except for the result. Philidor won 8-1 with 1 drawn game. Stamma would be in Philidor's shadow from that moment on.

Legacy of Stamma

Philipp Stamma was the chess bridge between Europe and the Arab world
Philipp Stamma was the chess bridge between Europe and the Arab world
Stamma brought the Arab chess world to Europe. He brought Arabian ideas to the chess cafes of the great European cities. He declared Arab masters superior to European masters in his book.

It was difficult to test the veracity of this claim as masters from the Middle East had not played in Europe, except for Stamma. One of the main differences was that the Europeans played alone with only their own counsel as they searched for the right move. The Arab masters would often play as two teams, each side consulting and debating before selecting a move.

Clearly Essai sur le Jeu des Échecs made Stamma the most respected master in Europe for several years. Later he was overtaken in this regard by Philidor after the Frenchman's resounding victory over him in London.

Moving On

Legall De Kermeur
Legall De Kermeur
Stamma used an early form of algebraic notation in his chess literature. The only differences from today is he would put P before pawn moves (1.e4 would be written as 1.Pe4). He would also note the original file of any piece instead of the letter of the piece (1.Nf3 would be recorded as 1.Gf3).

We might have been using algebraic notation much earlier had he the skills to overcome Philidor. After Philidor beat him, he became the premier chess theoretician. He used Descriptive notation in his books and articles and so that form of notation became popular.

There will be more on Philidor later but first we should discuss his mentor, himself a genius chess player. He was the first in a line of great French chess masters. He was Legall de Kermeur.