Pawns are transgender: d’Éon and Philidor

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Pawns are transgender: d’Éon and Philidor


Transgenderism, especially amongst teenagers, is one of the great causes célêbres  of our times. Both Rishi Sunak and Sir Keir Starmer found themselves in hot water over this issue during Prime Minister’s questions earlier this month. The mother of a murdered transgender teenager was present in the House of Commonswhile Rishi was busy insulting Sir Keir about his inability to define a woman.

Chess, of course, is rife with transgenderism, though largely on the board, rather than off. The ability of all sixteen pawns to transition from male foot soldiers to Amazonian warrior Queens, on 8th rank promotion, is integral to the game.

I recently came across the following salutary post on X (formerly Twitter), concerning the dilemma faced by a parent confronted by a teenager demanding to transition his gender:

A friend of a friend just had a 15 year old child ‘come out’ as trans .. her immediate reaction was to tell her son that she no longer identifies as his mother because the child she had and contributed half her DNA to was a Male and a son that she had named in loving honour of a deceased Grandfather.  And that she did not have any daughters. Then she offered to call CPS to find him a Foster Care placement. He immediately backed away from the Trans.”

I must say, my rather more Swiftian proposal (based on some modest lifetime experience) would have been to express unbridled enthusiasm at the changeover, claim that we had always wanted a daughter, not a son (or vice versa, as applicable), and generally push for the transition to take place as quickly as possible. My strategy (a proven success in related circumstances) is based on deleting the element of excitement and opposition from the transaction, so that the (from a parental point of view) undesirable transition suddenly becomes boringly non-confrontational, and hence uncontroversial.  My modest proposal is predicated on the assumption that if the rebellious element is removed, said teenager might lose interest in what had originally bid fair to be a promising major source of conflict with the parents.

The most notorious instance of a flesh and blood transgender chess enthusiast was that of the Chevalier d’Eon de Beaumont, who frequented  the courts and chancelleries of Europe towards the close of the 18th century. He was a contemporary of the great French grandmaster and proto-world champion Philidor. I have written about this singular character before, but the transgender career of this unique cavalier is worth revisiting.

Charles-Geneviève-Louis-Auguste-André-Timothée d’Éon de Beaumont (1728–1810), apart from being a chess aficionado, was also a French diplomat, lawyer, cavalry officer, swordsman, lady-in-waiting, and part-time nun. These job descriptions appear to be incompatible: “nun” and “cavalry officer”, for example, seem mutually exclusive. So was he a man or a woman?

Originally qualifying as a doctor of jurisprudence, d’Éon often dressed as a woman and in 1755, while on a clandestine mission for Louis XV, he rose to become a confidante of the Empress Elizabeth of Russia. The following year he returned to St Petersburg, in the guise of the diplomat brother of his former female incarnation. In 1763, following the peace treaty which terminated the Seven Years War, he was appointed minister-resident and plenipotentiary for Louis XV in London. D’Éon, although detested by the King’s favourite mistress Madame de Pompadour, clung on to his diplomatic post, conducted an extravagant lifestyle and incurred huge debts. At this time, sums totalling more than £120,000, a colossal amount for the time, were wagered as to the true nature of his gender.

According to the authoritative Oxford Companion to Chess:

“When Louis XV died in 1774, the author Beaumarchais was sent to London to negotiate with d’Éon to give up state papers and cease acting as ambassador. In return d’Éon was well paid and pensioned but had to agree to dress as a woman. In June 1777 the Chevalier d’Éon de Beaumont’s name was listed as a subscriber to Philidor’s new edition, but in July 1777 the high court, in a trial brought by a gambler, decided, in d’Éon’s absence, that he was a woman. In August d’Éon turned up at Versailles in his old uniform of Captain of Dragoons, whereupon the government immediately ordered him to dress as a woman, and as such he became lady-in-waiting to Marie Antoinette for two years.”

Thereafter, D’Éon entered a convent – perhaps several – before resurfacing in London as a female fencer and chess player, sufficiently strong to beat Philidor in one of the latter’s blindfold displays. Sadly, this game has not survived among the relative handful of extant games by Philidor.

The Chevalier’s pension was, unsurprisingly, cancelled after the French Revolution and in 1791, Christie’s held a three-day sale of the books and manuscripts of a certain “Mademoiselle” d’Éon. In 1796 an accidental and inadvertent fencing wound led to “her” retirement. The Chevalier made a living by engaging in demonstrations of swordsmanship against notable opponents, while dressed in incongruously cumbersome female garb. D’Éon spent the rest of his days in London, and only at his death was the truth about his gender established: a fully functioning male, but endowed with certain female characteristics. The designation “eonism” has, in fact, been adopted as a psychiatric term for male transvestism. RuPaul’s Drag Race, another excellent Netflix series, along with the sensationally popular Queen’s Gambit, would have been a natural outlet for his drag queen talents in mesmerising adoring crowds.

A win by Philidor who, in the run up to the French Revolution, identified the humble pawns as the soul of chess. The opponent is unknown and the rather quaint comments (apart from some modern interpolations in italics) stem from Philidor himself. It’s tempting to speculate that the mysterious anonymous opponent might even have been our notorious transgender Chevalier, but we have no evidence for this.


NN vs. François-André Danican Philidor

(From: Analyse du jeu des Échecs, 1749)

Annotations by Philidor, from Black’s perspective.

1.e4 e5 2. Nf3 d6 3. Bc4 f5 

It is always advantageous to change your king’s bishop’s pawn for his king’s pawn, because, by that means, your king’s and queen’s pawns may place themselves in the centre of the chess-board; besides, in castling on the right wing, your castle finds itself free and able to act from the very beginning of the game, as will be shown by a back-game on the same play.

3… f5!? was fine for the 18th century, but is overly assertive for more modern times; for example: 3… Be7 4. d4 exd4 5. Nxd4 Nf6 6. Nc3 O-O 7. O-O Nxe4 8. Nxe4 d5, when Black maintains equilibrium. After the text, White can play 4. d4 Nc6 5. Ng5 Nh6 6. d5 f4 (6… Ne7 7. Nc3 g6 8. exf5 Nhxf5 9. Qf3 h6 10. Ne6 bxe6 11. dxe6; 6… Nb8 7. Nc3 g6 8. exf5 Nhxf5 9. Qf3 h6 10. Ne6 Nxe6 11. dxe6) 7. h4 Nb8 8. Ne6 Bxe6 9. dxe6 Nc6 10. Nc3 Be7 11. Nh5+, and establish a significant advantage. “You” and   “your”, by the way, refer to Black, in other words Philidor himself. 


4… c6 5. exf5

If your adversary refuse taking your bishop’s pawn, you are still to leave it exposed, and not move it till he has castled; you must afterwards, with your pawns on the right wing, form your attack upon the pawns which cover his king, as is explained in a back-game on that move. You are to observe, as a general rule, not to determine easily to push on the pawns on either wing before your adversary’s king has castled, because he will otherwise retire on the side where your pawns are less advanced, and consequently less able to annoy him.

5… Bxf5 6. Bg5 

6.Bg5 is not best. White retains a small initiative with: 6. O-O Be7 7. Re1 Nf6 8. Bg5 Nbd7 9. d4 d5 10. dxe5 Ne4 11. Bxe7 Qxe7 12. Bd3 O-O 13. Nbd2, but after the text, it is Black in possession of that small edge. 

6… Nf6 7. Nbd2

Should he take your knight with his bishop, you must take his with your pawn, in order to bring the strength of your pawns towards the centre.

7… d5 8. Bb3 Bd6

This is the best square your king’s bishop can choose, except the fourth of your queen’s bishop: in that place he may be of use in forming your attack upon the king’s castle’s pawn, in case he should castle on his left side.

8… Bd6 is indeed playable,  but 8… Nbd7, delivers Black an absolutely level position. 



9.Qe2 fails to capitalise on Black’s sub-optimal 8th move. White should prefer 9. O-O Nbd7 10. c4 Bxd3 11. Re1 Qb6 12. cxd5 cxd5 13. Bxf6 gxf6 14. Re3 Nc5 15. Rc1 Nxb3 16. Nxb3, when a safer king and far better development are sufficient compensation for the pawn. 

9… Qe7 10. O-O

If he had castled on his queen’s side, it would then have been your play to castle on your king’s side, in order to attack him afterwards more easily with the pawns on your left. Again, it being necessary to observe, as a general rule, that, as it is often dangerous to attack the adversary too soon, here likewise you must be reminded not to be too hasty in your attack, until your pawns are previously sustained by one another, and also by your pieces, otherwise those premature attacks will be unsuccessful, as will be shown by a back-game on this play.

I should point out that the back games, to which Philidor refers, represent variations given in his book, for which there is no space here.  

10… Nbd7 11. Nh4

He plays the knight to make room for his king’s bishop’s pawn, with a design next to advance it two squares to try to break the line of your pawns.

Philidor’s next decision is risky, with …Be6 being normal. Nevertheless, although provocative, it does not disturb the balance.  

11… Qe6 12. Nxf5


 If he had pushed his king’s bishop’s pawn two squares, instead of taking your bishop, you should then have attacked his queen with your queen’s bishop, and then pushed your king’s castle’s pawn upon his bishop, to force him to take your knight; in this case, your best way would be to take his bishop with your pawn, in order the better to support your king’s pawn, and replace it in case it be taken.

12.Nxf5?! is arguably premature. Better was either, 12. c4 Nc5 13. Nxf5 Qxf5 14. Bxf6 Nxb3 15. axb3 Qxf6 16. cxd5 cxd517. Nf3 O-O 18. Ra5 Bc7 19. Rxd5, or slightly better still: 12. Ne4 Nxe4 13. dxe4 Nc5 14. exd5 Nxd5 15. Bc4 O-O 16. a3 e4 17. g3 Kh8 18. Rad1 Nd7 19. f3 Nc5+ 20. Kh1 e3 21. Ng2 Rf5 22. b4 Rxg5 23. bxc5 N7f6 24. Rd3 Re5 25. Rb1 Rb8 26. Rbb3, with an even position in both lines.

12… Qxf5 13. Bxf6

If he did not take this knight, his bishop would remain imprisoned by your pawns, or he would lose three moves, which loss would entirely ruin his game.

According to his dogma, Philidor captures in such a way as to accumulate pawns in the centre. Nevertheless, 13…Nxf6 is a better recapture. 

13… gxf6 14. f4 

An inaccuracy, finally ceding the  advantage to Black. White should prefer, 14. c4, as after: 14… Nc5 15. cxd5 Nxb3 16. axb3 cxd5 17. Nb1 Rg8 18. Nc3 Qg4 19. f3, White has regained parity.

14… Qg6 

A strange move, given the note to White’s 10th, encouraging opposite-side castling. The motive seems to be preserving queens on the board, and indeed, 14… O-O-O delivers Black a small advantage after, 15. fxe5 Qxe5 16. Qxe5 fxe5 17. Nf3 Nc5, for example.

15.fxe5 fxe5 16. Rf3

He plays this castle with the design either to attack and remove your queen or to double it, if necessary, with his other castle.

A clear mistake. Much better was, 16. c4 dxc4 17. Bxc4 O-O-O 18. Ne4 Rhf8 19. Bf7! maintaining parity.

16… h5


 You play this pawn two squares, to give room to your queen, in case your adversary attack her with his king’s castle.

16… h5 is unnecessary for the Queen’s protection, as per Philidor’s note. Black should prefer 16… O-O-O when White is worse after all of the following:

17.a) 17. Raf1 e4 18. dxe4 Qh5 19. g3 Ne5 20. exd5 Nxf3+ 21. Qxf3 Qg6 22. Ne4 Rhf8 23. Nxd6+ Qxd6;

17.b) 17. Kh1 Bc7 18. Raf1 h5 19. c4 Qd6 20. g3 Kb8 21. cxd5 cxd5 22. Rf5 h4 23. g4 Rhe8;

17.c) 17. c4 e4 18. dxe4 d4 19. Rf5 Rhe8 20. Qf2 Rf8 21. Rf1 d3 22. Kh1 Qh6 23. g3 Bb4;

17.d) 17. Rg3 Qe8 18. Rf3 Nc5 19. Re1 Kb8 20. Kh1 h5 21. c4 Bc7 22. Qf2 Qe7 23. d4 Nxb3 24. Nxb3 e4.


17.Raf1 hands the initiative back to Black. White should play: 17. c4! dxc4 18. Bxc4 O-O-O 19. Raf1 or Ne4, which restores equilibrium.

17… O-O-O 18. c4 e4


 Here is a move as difficult to comprehend as to be well explained; in the first place you are to observe, that when you find yourself with a string of pawns following one another, the pawn which is at the head of them must strive to preserve its post; your king’s pawn not being upon the same coloured squares, or in an oblique line with the others, your adversary has pushed his queen’s bishop’s pawn, for two reasons: the first, to induce you to advance your queen’s pawn, which would then be stopped by that of his queen, and, by that means, to render useless your king’s pawn thus left behind: the second is, to prevent, at the same time, your king’s bishop from battering upon his king’s castle’s pawn. You ought, therefore, to push your king’s pawn upon his castle, and even sacrifice it, because your adversary, by  taking it, opens a free passage to the pawn of your queen, which you are to advance immediately, and sustain, in case of need, with your others, in order order to try to make a queen with it, or draw some other considerable advantage from it, to win the game. It is true, that his queen’s pawn being now on the same line with its king, appears to have the same advantage of having no opposition from your pawns to make a queen; however, the difference is great, because his pawn being entirely separated and incapable of being joined to, or sustained by, any of the others, will always be in danger of being seized on his road by your pieces continually warring against it. This move, as has been before observed, is very difficult; and one must be already a good player to judge well of it.

18… e4!: the engine’s immediate and first choice.

19.dxe4 d4 20. Bc2 

19.Bc2? is an error. White should try, 20. Rf5 Ne5 21. Nf3 d3 22. Qd2 Rhe8 23. Kh1 Bc7 24. Ng5 when Black’s advantage is minimalised.

20… Ne5

It was necessary to play this knight, in order to stop his king’s pawn; the more so, because this very pawn, in its present situation, stops the passage of its own bishop, and even of its knight.

 21. Rf6 

21.Rf6?? is a potentially losing blunder. After, 21… d3! 22. Bxd3 Qg4 23. Kh1 Nxd3 24. Qxd3 Bb4 25. Qf3 Rxd2, Black’s assault on the White king (assisted by an additional bishop) is irresistible.

21… Qg7 

21… Qg7? is hardly the strongest continuation, as the note to White’s 21st demonstrates.

22. Qf2


 He plays his queen, in order afterwards to give check, but, if, instead of playing her, he had pushed his king’s castle’s pawn, to hinder the attack of your knight, you must have pushed your queen’s pawn one square, which would have insured you the game.

Philidor suggests, instead, h4?? The engine tears into this option with ferocity, indicating that both:

22.a) 22… d3 23. Bxd3 Nxd3 24. e5 Bxe5 25. e5 Qxe5 26. Qxe5 Nxe5; and

22.b) 22… Rhg8 23. Rxd6 Rxd6 24. Nf3 d3 25. Bxd3 Nxd3 26. Ng5 Qd4+; are overpowering.


22… Ng4 23. Qf5+ Kb8 24. Rxd6

He takes this bishop to save his king’s castle’s pawn; besides, that bishop proves more incommodious to him than all your other pieces, and by this play he keeps your queen’s castle in check with his queen. 

24… Rxd6 25. Qf4 Qe5



Having the advantage of a castle against a bishop, towards the end of a party, you will gain by exchanging queens; because his queen is troublesome to you in her present situation, and to avoid the check-mate, he finds himself under the necessity of taking her. 

25… Qe5?! forces queens off, but Philidor’s caution of avoiding possible checkmate blunders is unconvincing. A much stronger continuation is 25… Ne5! 26. Bd1 (26. Nf3 Nxc4 27. Nd2 Ne5 28. Nf3 Re8 29. Nxe5 Qxe5 30. Bd3 Qxf4 31. Rxf4 Rde6) 26… Ka8 27. Nf3 Nxc4 28. Nh4 Rdd8 29. Nf5 Qf6 30. b3 Ne5 31. Qh4 Rdf8.

26.Qxe5 Nxe5 27. Rf5 Ng4 28. c5 Rg6 29. Nc4 Ne3 30. Nxe3 dxe3 31. Rf3 

A terminal error, but White is probably already lost, in any case.

31… Rd8

You must make yourself master of the openings, to bring the castles into play, especially at the latter end of the game.

32.Rxe3 Rd2

Whatever else he had played, he could not prevent you from doubling your castles, without losing his bishop, or suffering you to make a queen with your pawn. White resigns 0-1


Ray’s 207th book, “ Napoleon and Goethe: The Touchstone of Genius”  (which discusses their relationship with chess and explains how Ray used Napoleonic era  battle strategies to develop his own chess style) is available from Amazon and Blackwell’s.


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Member ratings
  • Well argued: 92%
  • Interesting points: 93%
  • Agree with arguments: 92%
31 ratings - view all

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