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Chess and problem rambles by PW

28 Jan. 2018 – New digital subscription for ‘The Problemist’

The Problemist is undoubtedly one of the best chess problem magazines in the world. Produced by the British Chess Problem Society, each issue contains top-quality articles, news reports, original compositions (in six sections), selected problems (typically prize-winners), and tourney awards. Further, each instalment is bundled with The Problemist Supplement – also with originals and articles – which caters for newcomers to problems and is expertly edited by our own Geoff Foster. Starting from this year, you can subscribe to the electronic version of the publication at a greatly reduced rate. The annual membership cost is £5 (about AU$8.60) and it obtains six issues of the magazine in the PDF format. This is excellent value when you consider that the normal subscription is £25 for the hard copies (which is still available). Go to the British Chess Problem Society site for details on how to become a member.

Ilija Serafimović
Youth Chess Composing Challenge 2016
2nd Place, 1st Hon. Mention
Mate in 2

Here are two selections from the November 2017 issue of the publication. The first features in the inaugural C. J. Morse Award for two-move tasks and records, named in honour of the late Sir Jeremy Morse. Two-movers from any sources (not just The Problemist) that demonstrate a maximum effect of some sort were eligible for this tourney, which covers the 2012-2016 period. Instead of the award winner, I will quote one of the top eleven entries mentioned, by a young composer who was a successful entrant in our Guided Chess Problem Composing Competition. This delightful work by Ilija brings about a terrific number of knight promotions. The key is thematic, naturally – 1.g8(S)! with the threat of 2.Bg3. Two defences by the a8-rook allow White to deliver knight promotion mates: 1…Ra4 2.c8(S) and 1…Re8 fxe8(S). Black can also defend by promoting various pawns to knights, and these moves result in different queen mates: 1…f1(S) 2.Qd4, 1…gxh1(S) 2.Qg6, and 1…d1(S)+ 2.Qxd1. (Also, 1…Re7 2.Bxe7.) The total of six knight promotions (three white and three black) constitute a new record for single-phase two-movers.

Vasil Krizhanivsky
The Problemist 2015
1st Prize
Helpmate in 2
6 solutions

All originals published in The Problemist automatically take part in its (mostly) annual informal tourneys. Given the quality of the problems that such a prestigious journal attracts, the prize-winners in these tourneys invariably impress. The helpmate above won the 2015 two-move section by achieving what could be a first: a doubling of the cyclic Zilahi theme without the use of twins. In the first three solutions, the white officers rotate their roles in getting captured by the black queen and giving mate: 1.Qxe4 Rf6 2.d5 Sc6, 1.Qxd4 Bf5 2.Qf4 Rd5, and 1.Qxd6 Sc6+ 2.Ke6 Bf5. In each phase, the white piece that’s not part of the Zilahi scheme (i.e. it is not captured and doesn’t mate) always moves to guard flights. Hence there’s a formally perfect 3x3 cyclic change of functions (sacrificed/guard/mate) for the three white pieces. Such a theme rendered would be sufficient to make a very good helpmate, but here the composer has managed to produce another 3x3 cycle of function change that again incorporates a Zilahi. In this second triplet of solutions, it’s the black king that commences the cyclic play by making the thematic captures: 1.Kxe4 Re6+ 2.Kf4 Se2, 1.Kxd4 Bd3 2.Re3 Rxd5, and 1.Kxd6 Sb5+ 2.Kc6 Bxd5.

12 Mar. 2018 – Stockfish and a modern classic more-mover

The rise of chess engines in the last decade or so is an interesting topic from which I’ve been somewhat insulated, because of my focus on problem chess. Frequenting the Chess.com site has helped me to catch up with the advances of these incredible programs, which perform at superhuman levels on modest hardware. Thus I learnt that Stockfish, one of the strongest engines with an Elo rating of around 3500, is open source software that is accessible for free. And you don’t even have to install it on your computer; you can play against Stockfish directly on Chess.com, or set up a position on the site for the engine to analyse.

As a problemist, I was naturally curious to see how efficiently Stockfish deals with long directmate problems. And the answer seems to be “very.” It solved the great majority of more-movers of up to about 12 moves that I tested in mere seconds, and even cooked a few. (Note that when you run Stockfish on Chess.com, its speed still depends on your own computer’s processing power.) Although this is impressive, Stockfish is of course no substitute for a specialised problem solver like Popeye, which uncovers all of the variations in a problem and provides certainty to its soundness. Stockfish is designed to keep looking for the best move indefinitely, or it stops analysing according to a time-limit, so you can’t tell if any forced mating sequence it has found is in fact the shortest possible. Furthermore, Stockfish can be inconsistent in being unable to crack some not-very-long directmates in a reasonable time. Here is an excellent 9-move problem that stumped the engine, but was solved by Popeye in less than eight minutes.

Theodor Siers
Die Schwalbe 1935
Mate in 9

White’s plan is to mate on e7 with the bishop, while avoiding stalemate from capturing the knight. Black is almost in zugzwang, since most knight moves allow the bishop mate and 1…Sd5/Sc6 is answered by the waiting move 2.Bc5, after which the knight must unguard the mating square. However, White has to move the king first to fend off 1…Sc2+. 1.Kb2? fails to 1…Sxd3!+ 2.K-any Sc5 3.Bb4 Sxe4!, creating an escape square on f5 for the black king. White therefore plays 1.Kb1!, but after 1…Sd5, 2.Bc5? is premature because of 2…Sc3+!, again winning the vital e4-pawn. If 2.Kc2? instead, Black counters with the resourceful 2…Se3+! 3.K-any Sf5!, which simultaneously protects e7 and attacks g7, thus dislodging the white rook. So where should the white king go? No progress is made if it stays on the queen-side, because the black knight can continue to switch between b4 to block the bishop and d5/c6, where the knight either checks directly or (if White plays Bc5) executes a fork that will give the piece access to e4 or f5, as previously seen. Correct is 2.Kc1! forcing 2…Sb4, and then 3.Kd1! Sd5.

At this point, you might guess that the theme of the problem is that the white king marches all the way from a1 to h1 without leaving the first rank. Hence not 4.Bc5? or 4.Ke2? because of 4…Sc3+ again, but 4.Ke1! Sb4 5.Kf1! Sd5 6.Kg1! Sb4 7.Kh1! Sd5, and finally the king is safe from checks by the pesky knight – 8.Bc5 S-any 9.Bxe7. The solution exploits a curious geometric feature: h1 is the only white square on the board that cannot be attacked in one move by a knight on either d5 or c6. The maximum-length orthogonal trip by the white king is superbly engineered in this first-rate composition.

When Stockfish tackled this position, it took a few minutes to find a forced mate in 13, starting with 1.Rxh7. After a couple of hours, it picked the right first move, 1.Kb1!, but based that on a wrong continuation, 1…Sd5 2.exd5?, which lets the black king escape to f5, and this leads to mate only on move 12. Are there directmates even shorter than this 9-mover that cannot be solved – within an hour, say – by Stockfish? With few clues on what would give the engine trouble, I threw some random 7- and 8-move problems at it, but most were handled quickly. Then it occurred to me that I could try using the current problem by Siers but with the first few moves of its solution shaved off; at which point of the shortened variation will Stockfish get it right? As it turns out, the engine found the solution only at the mate-in-5 stage. That means the shortest forced-mate sequence I know of that cannot be solved by Stockfish is a mate-in-6, with the white king starting on d1 and the black knight on d5. Can anyone unearth a mate-in-5 position that is too difficult for Stockfish!?

18 Apr. 2018 – ‘Esling’s Memories Expanded’ and ‘Ken Fraser – A Quiet Achiever’

Bob Meadley has sent me two splendid e-books that he published some years ago. Although their problem contents are somewhat peripheral, anyone keen on chess and especially its historical aspects will find much of interest in these well-researched documents. The first is Esling’s Memories Expanded (2009), which Bob compiled with the late Ken Fraser. Frederick Karl Esling (1860-1955) was the first official Chess Champion of Australia. He was also a railway engineer in charge of many important projects in Melbourne, Victoria, including the rebuilding of the Flinders Street Railway Station. Both of his careers, chess and professional, are covered in this comprehensive biography. Esling also composed some good problems that are tough to solve, and a small (incomplete) selection of his works is included. Below I quote one of his easier but appealing three-movers. At a sizable 268 pages, this document is divided into four PDF files which you can download here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.

The second e-book is Ken Fraser – A Quiet Achiever (2014). Ken Fraser was the curator of one of the greatest collections of chess books in the world, the M.V. Anderson Chess Collection in the State Library of Victoria. Under the main heading, “The Letters from Ken,” Bob chronicles Fraser’s work as a chess researcher and the invaluable assistance he gave to other chess writers and historians, including Bob himself. “Problems are mentioned quite a lot in the pages,” wrote Bob, who indicated that the State Library intends to add the document (in whole or part) to its website.

Frederick Esling
Melbourne Leader 1941
Mate in 3

The diagram position contains a short set line, 1…f4 2.Rxf4, but most of the black rook’s moves – including some strong captures – are not prepared with white continuations. The key-move 1.Bf4! (waiting) removes the set variation but provides for 1…R~file by crossing over d6, so that 2.Rd6 (short mate) no longer interferes with the bishop’s control of e5. (An unimportant dual follows 1…Rc5 with both 2.Rd6+ and 2.Re6 working.) The main variations occur when the black rook stays on the 6th rank. After 1…Rxf6, 2.Sg7 puts Black in zugzwang as the rook cannot maintain its focus on the knight’s mating squares: 2…R~rank 3.Sxf5 and 2…R~file 3.Se6. If 1…Rb6, then 2.Sc7 brings about similar focal play: 2…R~rank 3.Sb5 and 2…R~file 3.Se6. Accurate by-play follows the remaining rook defences: 1…Re6 2.Rxf5 (threat: 3.Rd5) Re5/Rd6 3.Be5, and 1…Ra6 2.Bxa6 Kd5 3.Rd6.

27 May 2018 – The greatest masters of both the game and problems – Part 1

The world of composed problems and endgame studies, though derived from competitive chess, has developed into a sophisticated art form that is quite distinct from the practical game. The specialised skills required in each of these two disciplines of chess means that it’s rare for individuals to truly excel in both. In this two-part Walkabout, I will consider such exceptional talents and present the greatest masters who have attained prominence in both areas. The first part here lists my top-five grandmasters of the over-the-board game who are also accomplished problemists. The second instalment will proffer the top-five elite problem composers who also play the game at the international level.

Such “greatest” lists are inevitably subjective, but I will be guided (not ruled) by a number of tangible measures of achievement in the game and problems:

(1) Titles. The familiar titles of Grandmaster, International Master, and FIDE Master in OTB play all have their counterparts in problem composition, as conferred by the World Federation for Chess Composition. An obvious criterion for my lists is the attainment of such titles, ideally in both fields. In cases where a person doesn’t hold an official title in one activity, I will give an estimate of their skill level.

(2) Best World Rank. The highest ever ranking of a player as calculated by Chessmetrics provides a simple but effective way to (indirectly) compare masters from different eras. Such a measure of relative strengths seems more revealing than Elo ratings, which are fraught with issues such as inflation.

(3) FIDE Album points. The FIDE Albums, dated from 1914 to the present, are anthologies of the world’s best chess compositions. The selection for inclusion in these Albums also determines the aforementioned titles awarded to composers. The title requirements are based on a point system; each problem selected gains 1.00 point while an endgame study earns 1.67. A composer must accumulate the following number of points to acquire the corresponding title: 12 for FIDE Master, 25 for International Master, and 70 for Grandmaster.

Honourable Mentions: The World Champions
Many World Champions in the past also engaged in chess composition. Steinitz, Capablanca, Botvinnik, and Smyslov all produced endgame studies, while Lasker and Euwe devised both directmate problems and studies. Each of these individuals’ output was good in numbers, suggesting a serious interest in the activity. However, their works were not exceptional in quality, and none of these World Champions are represented in the FIDE Albums.

Honourable Mentions: Solving Grandmasters
The solving of composed problems represents yet another major branch of chess. Akin to the competitive game, there are international solving tournaments in which participants could gain norms and titles. Only six people hold the distinction of achieving the grandmaster titles in both solving and OTB play: Jonathan Mestel, Ram Soffer, John Nunn, Bojan Vučković, Kacper Piorun, and Alexander Miśta. Since solving problems and playing the game are relatively similar (both are about finding the right moves), the overlap in expertise here is less surprising. That is one reason why these double-GMs don’t make my top-five list, with one exception…

5. John Nunn (1955-)

Game: GM, Best World Rank: 10
Solving: GM
Composing: Expert-level
Photo: Lovuschka
Wikimedia Commons

The standout among the OTB/solving GMs is the English player John Nunn, whose accomplishments in both the game and composition are well ahead of the rest of the group. His best results as a player include winning the prestigious Wijk aan Zee tournament three times, and obtaining two individual gold medals at the Chess Olympiads. On the problem side, Nunn has been crowned World Champion for solving on three occasions. His book Solving in Style guides you through the thinking process of a master solver and it also serves as an excellent introduction to the different types of chess problems. He is a fine composer as well, adept in a variety of genres including endgame studies and helpmates. In the problem below, he makes a rare foray into directmate territory.

John Nunn
The Problemist 2012
5th Prize
Mate in 3

Key: 1.Sec4! (threat: 2.Bxg2+ Rxg2 3.Se3). 1…Rbb2 2.Sc2 (3.Bxg2) Rxc2 3.Sb6, 2…S~ 3.S4e3. 1…Rab2 2.Sb5 (3.Sb6) Rxb5 3.Bxg2. 1…Raxa1 2.Sc2 (3.Bxg2) Rxf1/Re1 3.Sb6, 2…S~ 3.S4e3. 1…Rbxa1 2.Sb5 (3.Sb6) Ra6 3.Bxg2. The Wurzburg-Plachutta mutual interferences seen in 1…Rbb2 and 1…Rab2 are complemented by the 1…Raxa1 and 1…Rbxa1 pair.

4. Paul Keres (1916-1975)

Game: GM, Best World Rank: 2
Composing: Expert-level, FIDE Album points: 3.33
Photo: Daan Noske/Anefo
Wikimedia Commons

The Estonian grandmaster Paul Keres is regarded by many as the greatest player never to have become World Champion. He won the famous AVRO tournament of 1938 and could have been the world title challenger to Alekhine if not for the outbreak of WWII. As a composer, Keres created about 200 works, mostly directmates of various lengths and some studies. The thematic contents of his directmate problems indicate a standard that is generally a class above that of the World Champion/composer group.

Paul Keres
Norsk Sjakkblad 1933
1st Prize
Mate in 2

Key: 1.Bg2! (threat: 2.Sf3). 1…Sc7 2.Be5, 1…Se7 2.Bc5, 1…Sb6 2.Sc6, 1…Sf6 2.Se6, 1…Sc3 2.Qf2, 1…Se3 2.Qb2, 1…Sxb4 2.Rxb4, 1…Sxf4 2.Rxf4, 1…Bxd3 2.Qxd3. The eight black knight moves are answered by different mates – the knight-wheel theme.

3. Oldřich Duras (1882-1957)

Game: GM, Best World Rank: 4
Composing: Master-level, FIDE Album points: 17.50
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

FIDE officially introduced the grandmaster title in 1950, and among the select group of 27 first recipients was the Czech player Oldřich Duras. He was an elite tournament player a few decades earlier; one of his best results was equal first place at Prague 1908 ahead of Rubinstein and Marshall. In composition, other than studies Duras focused on three-move directmates. He belonged to the Bohemian school which emphasises elegant model and echo mates. Although he had sufficient FIDE Album points for the FIDE Master title, when the award was established it was not conferred retroactively to deceased problemists.

Oldřich Duras
České slovo 1922
Mate in 3

Key: 1.Kg5! (waiting). 1…Kd8 2.Ba4 (threats: 3.Qd7/Qe8) Ke7 3.Qf6 [model], 2…Kc8 3.Qxa8 [model]. 1…a5 2.Bg4+ Kb8 3.Qb5 [model], 2…Kd8 3.Qd7. 1…Kb8 2.Bf3 (3.Qxa8/Qb7/Qe8) Kc8 3.Qe8 [model]. 1…Rb8 2.Bg4+ Kd8 3.Qd7. Four model mates are shown, two of which are echoes.

2. Richard Réti (1889-1929)

Game: GM-level, Best World Rank: 5
Composing: Master-level, FIDE Album points: 15.00
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The great Slovak-Austrian player Richard Réti was a proponent of the Hypermodernism school which revolutionised chess theory in the 1920s. His most celebrated victories were perhaps those over Capablanca and Alekhine in the New York 1924 tournament, using the opening that now bears his name. Réti was also a world-class composer of endgame studies. His classic K+P vs K+P Draw must be one of the most famous positions in chess history. The high quality of his compositions makes up for his fairly small oeuvre of about 50 studies. Many of his best works, displaying great depth and complexity, are all the more remarkable considering they were constructed before the advent of computer-testing.

Richard Réti
Tagesbote 1925
White to play and win

Not 1.a5? Kb5! 1.Ba5! (threats: 2.Bd2/Be1… 3.a5) Kb3 2.Bc3!! Kxc3 (2…Bxc3 3.a5 c4 4.a6 Bd4 5.a7! Bxa7 6.g7 c3 7.g8(Q)+; not 5.g7? Bxg7 6.a7 c3 7.a8(Q) c2=) 3.a5 c4 4.a6 Kd2 5.a7 c3 6.a8(Q), e.g. 6…c2 7.Qa5+ Kd3 8.Qe1 Bh6 9.Kg2 Bg7 10.Qc1 Be5 11.Kf2 Bd4+ 12.Kf3 Kc3 13.Ke2 Bg7 14.Qd2+ Kb3 15.Kd3. Paradoxical first-move blocks the white pawn, followed by a double-sacrifice.

1. Pal Benko (1928-)

Game: GM, Best World Rank: 17
Composing: IM, FIDE Album points: 40.00
Photo: F.N. Broers/Anefo
Wikimedia Commons

A top grandmaster for three decades from the 1950s to the 1970s, the Hungarian-American Pal Benko won the US Open Championships a record eight times. He qualified for two Candidates Tournaments which determined the world title challenger. The Benko Gambit is named after him. As a problemist, he is both prolific and versatile, producing hundreds of compositions in all genres. He has published studies, directmates of various lengths, helpmates, retro-analytical problems, and even some unorthodox or fairy compositions. He remains the only person to have officially gained both the GM title for OTB play and the IM title for composing.

Pal Benko
Magyar Sakkélet 1975
3rd Hon. Mention
Mate in 3
Twin (b) Pb7 to e7

Part (a): Tries: 1.b8(Q)+/f8(Q)+/f8(S)? Kc6! Key: 1.b8(S)! (threat: 2.f8(Q)+ Ke6 3.Qe7). 1…Ke6 2.f8(S)+ Kxf6 3.Sd7, 2…Kd6 3.Rd7. Part (b): Tries: 1.e8(Q)?=, 1.f8(Q)/f8(S)? Kc6! Key: 1.e8(B)! (2.f8(Q)+ Ke6 3.Qe7/Bd7). 1…Ke6 2.f8(B) Kxf6 3.Rh6. Two pairs of underpromotions.