Chess Tactics using opponent’s pieces to mate the king!

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Well, not exactly! The check has still to be given by your Knight, but the opponent’s King is so hemmed in by his own pieces and pawns that they don’t leave any escape hole for the King. Net result is a checkmate which would not be possible had the opponent’s pieces not surrounded the King to that extent and in that way contributed towards the checkmate! This is also the reason why the final check in this kind of mate, known as smothered mate, is by a Knight because it can jump over the King’s guards when your other pieces are not getting a look at the King.

This kind of checkmate may be relatively rare but it is of a great vintage! It was described in the oldest existing printed chess book, written by a Spanish chess player Luis Ramirez Lucena and published in 1497. But this smothered mate is popularly referred as Philidor’s Legacy or Philidor’s mate, taking its name from Andre Philidor, a great French chess player of the 18th century and considered to be the best of his times.

As the opponent is not likely to put his King into such a position on his own, this type of mate is often preceded by a sacrifice to force the opponent’s hands. Smothered mate has sometimes occurred during the opening phases also when one player handled his pieces badly or failed to identify traps laid by his opponent. We will show this later. So you must understand that Philidor’s mate is a type of smothered mate but all smothered mates need not go through Philidor’s position.

The basic mating net is generally cast in a position as shown below with White to play and mate.

Philidor's position

1. Qc4+ Kh8   1. … Kf8 2. Qf7#
2. Nf7+ Kg8  
3. Nh6++ Kh8  
4. Qg8+ Rxg8   Forced.
5. Nf7#  


You should remember the basic pattern where the White (or Black) Queen is on the diagonal to g8 (or g1) and the White (or Black) Knight is one step away from f7 (or f2) and the enemy King has to retreat to h8 (or h1) square with its own pieces clustered around. In actual play, the pattern may be masked by the presence of other pieces of both sides and some maneuvering may be necessary to reach the desired position from where you can deliver the coup d’etat.

If you doubt the need to remember the position on the assumption that all chess players are expected to be aware of something so old, you will be surprised to learn that even Grandmasters fall into this trap from time to time. Given below is a position from a game where a British champion succumbs to this type of mating net cast by a Dutch champion, both of them being well known Grandmasters.

Jan Timman (b. 1951) is nine times Dutch Champion, and earned his GM title in 1974. He was a contender for FIDE World Championship in 1993, but lost the match to Anatoly Karpov.

Nigel Short (b. 1965) was a chess prodigy and at the age of 10, participated in a simultaneous display by Victor Korchnoi and defeated him. At 14, he tied for first place in British Championship along with John Nunn and Robert Bellin. He became second youngest IM in 1979 and the youngest GM in 1984 till that time. He is a chess writer, coach and commentator and now lives in Greece.

smothered mate for a GM
The position shown occurs after 18 moves in the game played at Tilburg in 1990.

Follow the moves to see how the game almost imperceptibly gets transformed into ‘Philidor’s position”.

19. Ng5 Bxc4  
20. Nd5 Nd8  
21. e6 Bxd5  
22. Rxd5 Qa3  
23. Rd7 Nc6  
24. Bxc6 bxc6  
25. e7 Re8   ’Philidor’s position’!
26. Qc4+ Kh8  
27. Nf7+ Kg8  
28. Nh6++ Kh8  
29. Qg8+ Rxg8  
30. Nf7#  


To convince you farther about the need to identify this situation and to reinforce your ideas about how such positions develop, we will show you two more games in our continuation article on Philidor’s position.


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