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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.

28 Jun. 2018 – The greatest masters of both the game and problems – Part 2

In this instalment, we continue our survey of the greatest chess masters who have attained prominence in both the over-the-board game and problem composition. Whereas in Part 1 we focused on famous OTB grandmasters who are proficient problemists to boot, here I give my list of top-five outstanding problem and study composers who also play competitive chess at the master level. My selection is once again partly based on three measures of an individual’s achievements: (1) chess titles acquired, (2) Best World Rank as determined by Chessmetrics, and (3) FIDE Album points, indicative of the number of first-class compositions produced.

All but one of my picks are official grandmasters of chess composition, a title bestowed to those who have gained at least 70 FIDE Album points. I want to stress how this simple-sounding requirement is in fact extremely stringent, so that on average only a handful of people per year would qualify. Indeed, since the title was established in 1972, only 88 people have ever earned the distinction, as this complete list of Grandmasters for Chess Compositions shows. Hence unlike the grandmaster title for the OTB game, now held by about 1500 players, the corresponding title for composition is in no danger of devaluation!

In passing, I should also mention a select group of eight brilliant problemists who have obtained the grandmaster titles for both composing and solving problems: Milan Velimirović, Marjan Kovačević, Michel Caillaud, Aleksandr Azhusin, Miodrag Mladenović, Andreï Selivanov, Michal Dragoun, and Ladislav Salai Jr. The last of these double-GMs also appears in my top-five list.

5. Ladislav Prokeš (1884-1966)

Composing: IM, FIDE Album points: 38.33
Game: Master-level, Best World Rank: 36
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The Czech composer Ladislav Prokeš deserves a place here not only because of his impressive highest playing rank of 36, but also for his style of endgame composition. He was dubbed “the player’s composer” as his studies often have natural-looking positions with few pieces and their solutions are typically short but surprising – an appealing blend for the practical player. Remarkably prolific, Prokeš devised over 1,200 studies and also some directmates. He became an International Judge for composition in 1956. His International Master title for composing was awarded posthumously in 2016. As a player, he jointly won the Czechoslovak Championship in 1921 and represented his country at three Chess Olympiads (once with Réti as a teammate).

Ladislav Prokeš
Louma Tourney 1941
1st Prize
White to play and win

1.d7 Ra1+ 2.Ba2! (not 2.Kb3? Ra8 3.Bd5 Rb8+ 4.Kc4 Kxe5 =) Rxa2+ 3.Kb3 Ra8 4.e6 Ke5 5.e7, 1…Rd1 2.Bd5! Rxd5 3.e6 Ke5 4.e7, 1…Rh8 2.Bg8! (not 2.Bf7? Kxe5 3.Be8 Rh4+ 4.Kb5 Rd4 =) Rxg8 3.e6 Ke5 4.e7. The white bishop is sacrificed three times, each on a different square.

4. Yochanan Afek (1952-)

Composing: GM, FIDE Album points: 77.39
Game: IM, Best World Rank: 791
Solving: FM
Photo: Stefan64
Wikimedia Commons

The Israeli Yochanan Afek is the epitome of professional chess versatility, being the only person to hold five FIDE titles: Grandmaster and International Judge for composition, International Master and International Arbiter for the game, and FIDE Master for solving. He’s also a chess trainer, tournament organiser, and writer! As a composer, Afek is best-known for his endgame studies – which make up the majority of his output of more than 400 works – but he has additionally published directmates, selfmates, and helpmates of excellent quality. In competitive play, his best result was winning the 2002 Paris City Championship, which earned him a GM-norm. His expertise in both studies and the game makes him an ideal author of books such as Extreme Chess Tactics.

Yochanan Afek
Probleemblad 1980
3rd Prize
Mate in 2

Try: 1.b6? (threat: 2.Ra5). 1…Qd4+ [a] 2.Bd6 [A], 1…Qxe5 [b] 2.Bc5 [B], but 1…Qc3! refutes. Key: 1.Kc7! (2.Re8). 1…Qd4 [a] 2.Bc5 [B], 1…Qxe5+ [b] 2.Bd6 [A], 1…Qe1 2.Bb4. Virtual and actual play show a reciprocal change of white battery mates (labelled [A] and [B]) in response to the same pair of black queen defences ([a] and [b]).

3. Ladislav Salai Jr. (1961-)

Composing: GM, FIDE Album points: 87.35
Game: IM, Best World Rank: 524
Solving: GM
Photo: YouTube

Ladislav Salai Jr. of Slovakia recently joined the exclusive club of double-GMs by gaining the composing title last year, having been a grandmaster solver since 2011. He is an International Master for playing the game as well, and this triple accolade seems to be unique. In composition, he’s equally proficient in studies, directmates, helpmates, selfmates, and unorthodox problems that employ armies of fairy pieces. He tends to favour very complex themes that involve a formal relationship between the variations. In the OTB game, he played for Slovakia at the 1996 Chess Olympiad, and won the Slovak Championship of 1997. Incidentally, his late father Ladislav Salai Sr. was also an accomplished problemist.

Ladislav Salai Jr.
Czechoslovakia–Israel Composing Match 1992
6th Place
Mate in 2

Tries: 1.Sd3? (threat: 2.Rd4 [A]). 1…Se6 2.Sf6 [B], but 1…Ra4! 1.Bd7? (2.Sf6 [B]). 1…Se4 2.c4 [C], but 1…Sh7! Key: 1.Sg3! (2.c4 [C]). 1…Rc5 2.Rd4 [A]. The three white moves marked [A], [B], and [C] recur in the virtual and actual play as threats and variation mates, in a pattern called the cyclic pseudo le Grand theme. Furthermore, in all three variations White’s mating move cuts off a white line of guard to a flight-square, after it’s blocked by a black piece.

2. Milan Vukcevich (1937-2003)

Composing: GM, FIDE Album points: 162.67
Game: FM, Best World Rank: 70
Solving: Master-level
Photo: ‘My Chess Compositions’ book cover

The Yugo-American Milan Vukcevich was a top-class problemist, brilliant player, and distinguished scientist rolled into one. Unusual among composers highly-skilled at the game, he created few endgame studies, and his diverse FIDE Album entries comprise directmates, selfmates, helpmates, and unorthodox types. He was also a strong solver who came third in the 1981 World Chess Solving Championship. In practical play, Vukcevich represented Yugoslavia in the 1960 Chess Olympiad where he won a bronze medal, and his best tournament results were equal first in the 1969 U.S. Open Championship (shared with Benko and Bisguier) and third place in the 1975 closed U.S. Championship. There’s little doubt he could have scaled even greater heights as a player if not for his chosen career as a professor and theoretical scientist, one who was nominated for a Nobel Prize in chemistry.

Milan Vukcevich
StrateGems 1998
1st Prize
Mate in 3

Key: 1.Qh7! (threat: 2.Rh1+ Kxg2 3.Qe4). 1…Qxh7 2.Kc3 (3.B~) Qxh2 3.Be4, 2…Qd3+ 3.Bxd3, 2…Qc2+ 3.Bxc2, 2…Qxb1 3.Rxb1, 2…Kf1 3.Bd3. 1…Bxh7+ 2.Kb3 (3.B~) Bd3 3.Bxd3, 2…Bc2+ 3.Bxc2, 2…Bxb1 3.Rxb1, 2…Kf1 3.Bd3. 1…Sxh7 2.Kd3 ~ 3.Bc2. 1…Sg6 2.Kc3 (3.B~) Kf1 3.Bd3. 1…g6 2.Rh1+ Kxg2 3.Qb7. 1…Kf1 2.Rh1+ Ke2 3.Qd3. This famous work features a three-fold queen-sacrifice key that also invites two black checks, followed by quiet white king moves and battery mates.

1. Genrikh Kasparyan (1910-1995)

Composing: GM, FIDE Album points: 175.83
Game: IM, Best World Rank: 31
Photo: ARVES

Considered by many to be the greatest study composer of all time, the Armenian Genrikh Kasparyan was one of four people honoured with the grandmaster title for composition when it was instituted in 1972. His body of work, consisting of about 600 studies, is marked by great depth of analysis and subtlety of play. His favourite themes include domination, positional draw, mate, stalemate, and systematic manoeuvre. He was an International Judge for composition, and he also authored many endgame anthologies that are now regarded as classics. In competitive chess, Kasparyan became an International Master in 1950 when the title was introduced. He won the Armenian Championship ten times, including twice with Petrosian as the joint-winner, and qualified for the finals of the USSR Championships four times.

Genrikh Kasparyan
64 1935
White to play and draw

Not 1.Qe4+? Kb8! 2.Qxe7 Qg6+ 3.Kxh4 Qh6+ 4.Kg4/Kg3 f1(Q), and Black wins. 1.Qc8!+ Ka7 2.Qc7+ Ka6 (2…Ka8 3.Qc8+ perpetual check) 3.Qxe7 Qg6+ (3…f1(Q) 4.Qb7+/Qa7+ Kxb7/Kxa7 stalemate, else perpetual check, e.g. 4.Qb7+ Ka5 5.Qb4+ Ka6 6.Qb7+) 4.Kxh4 Qh6+ (4…f1(Q) 5.Qb7+/Qa7+ Kxb7/Kxa7 stalemate, else perpetual check) 5.Kg3 f1(Q) 6.Qe2+! Qxe2 stalemate. Three different stalemate positions occur, the final one of which involves exploiting the black king’s placement on a6.

5 Aug. 2018 – ‘Chess Problems Out of the Box’ by Werner Keym

The German expert Werner Keym has brought out a wonderful new book entitled Chess Problems Out of the Box. An updated and expanded English edition of an earlier volume in German, this is a collection of 500 orthodox but out-of-the-ordinary problems by over 200 composers. Its first sections deal with the special moves in chess, namely castling, en passant capture, and pawn promotion, as they occur thematically in directmates, endgame studies, helpmates, and selfmates. A number of unconventional ideas and devices are then covered, such as asymmetry, board rotation, and the addition of pieces. The remainder of the problems – about half of the book’s total – involves retrograde analysis, either as the focus of a composition or a subsidiary feature. Practically all types of retros are represented here: last move determination, legality of castling and en passant capture, retractors, proof games, dead reckoning, illegal clusters, and many more.

The author has made a brilliant selection of problems for this anthology. For each theme that is examined, he provides a variety of first-rate examples that could be, say, a letztform (ideal setting), a maximum task, a first realisation, or a particularly attractive demonstration. Thus we see directmates in which the four castling moves all take place, endgame studies that bring about Allumwandlung, helpmates that (nearly!) accomplish the 100 Dollar theme (black and white excelsior knight-promotions), and so forth. While many famous classics are cited, the vast majority of the selected works are new to me, including the two samples below.

György Páros
FIDE Review 1958
Special Prize
Helpmate in 3
Twin (b/c/d) Sb5 to d3/f3/h5

The first is a beautiful rendering of black Allumwandlung in a helpmate. Depending on where the white knight begins in this quadruplet, Black promotes to a different type of piece and uses it to block each of the king’s four diagonal-flights. Meanwhile, the white bishop guards four pairs of flights cyclically and the white knight controls the fourth flight as it mates from different squares. 1.h1(B) Bd3 2.Bc6 Bg6 3.Bd7 Sc7, (b) 1.h1(Q) Bg2 2.Qh5 Be4 3.Qf7 Sc5, (c) 1.h1(S) Bb5 2.Sg3 Bc6 3.Sf5 Sg5, (d) 1.h1(R) Bb5 2.Rhd1 Be8 3.R1d5 Sg7. Readers are encouraged to solve the next problem before reading further!

Werner Keym
Weser-Kurier 1968
Mate in 2

The book’s wide-ranging coverage of retros, with clear explanations of the various sub-types, also makes it an excellent introduction to the genre, an area in which Keym is an authority. He is a fine composer too, and many of his own works are presented here. The miniature above is a delightful example in which the pleasantly open position disguises the retro content. Ostensibly this two-move problem is solved by 1.Rb6!? Kxc4 2.Qd4, but that’s an invalid solution because Black has no possible last move in the diagram! The black king couldn’t have come from any of its adjacent empty squares, where it would have been in an illegal double-check. Therefore White must have made the last move, and it’s Black to play now: …Kxe6 1.Rc7! Kd5 2.Qf5, and …Kxc4 1.Qd4+! Kxb3 2.Re3, 2…Kb5 2.Rb6. This retro idea, categorised under unconventional first move, is suitably described as a “nasty trick”!

Chess Problems Out of the Box (2018, Nightrider Unlimited) is available for €10 (paperback), €28 (hardback) + postage. For more details on the publication (including a free excerpt) and information on how to order, go to the book’s page on the publisher’s site.

8 Sep. 2018 – Adventures with endgame tablebases

In an earlier Walkabout column (12 Mar. 2018) I looked at the engine Stockfish from a problemist’s perspective. Another major advance in computer chess has been the development of endgame tablebases, which in some ways are even more amazing than super-strong engines. Tablebases are essentially databases of endgame positions that have been exhaustively analysed so that their outcomes (win/loss/draw) with best play by both sides are known with certainty. Moreover, in these positions the result of every possible move has been determined precisely, and thus each winning or losing move is provided with a “depth-to-mate” number, i.e. how many turns before mate is forced. What this means is that for any tablebase position, we know its complete “truth” and how perfect play would proceed.

Early tablebases could only deal with settings of specific materials, e.g. K+Q vs K+R, but as computer performances improved, we saw the creation of general tablebases that could handle any combination of pieces up to a certain total number of units. A milestone was reached in 2012 when a Russian team used a supercomputer to generate the Lomonosov tablebases, which cover all possible endgames with seven units or fewer (barring the trivial cases of six pieces vs king). Consequently, the game of chess is more-or-less solved for such miniature positions! Here are some online resources for accessing these marvels of modern technology: (1) Nalimov EGTB – 6 pieces maximum (free); (2) Lomonosov Tablebases – 7 pieces maximum (annual subscription fee required, but free for fewer pieces); (3) Android app for Lomonosov – 7 pieces maximum (free and highly recommended).

Tablebases analysis and resultant discoveries about the endgame have had a profound effect on many facets of the game; see the Wikipedia entry on the subject for details. Here I will consider how tablebases affect chess composition, and delve into three positions that illustrate what has been made feasible in problems and endgame studies. These positions employ the same material of Q+S vs R+B+S, and although I didn’t realise it at the time, this is identical to the pieces used in some length-record settings uncovered by tablebases, where to force mate requires over 500 (!) moves. My initial aim was merely to give Lomonosov some random homebase positions (all units on their array squares) to test and see if any of them would yield interesting play. The most remarkable case that I came across, with a depth-to-mate number of 90, is diagrammed below.

If we treat this position as a directmate problem that requires the quickest mate to be found, a surprisingly large number of white moves in the solution are uniquely forced. In deciding on the main variation, I tried to maximise the number of such precise moves, and in the given line 77 of the 90 white moves are unique and they are marked with an '!'. Since “only” 13 white moves have duals, these alternatives are specified as well whenever they occur. As in most lengthy tablebase solutions, the play is not really human-comprehensible. But out of all these perfect moves, the stand-outs are three instances where the white king retreats from e2 to d1 for no apparent reason. If this were a composed problem without any duals, these recurring Kd1! (at moves 22, 32, and 41) would have been a marvellous theme!

Mate in 90

1.Qa4+! Kf7 2.Qb3+! Kg7 3.Qg3+! Kf7 4.Sd2! Be7 5.Qf3+! Sf6 6.Qb3+! Kf8 7.Qb8+! Kg7 8.Qg3+! Kf7 9.Sf3! Rh5 10.Sg5+! Kg7 11.Sh3+ (11.Se6+) Kf7 12.Sf4! Rh6 13.Qb3+! Ke8 14.Qe6 (14.Ke2) Kf8 15.Qc8+! Se8 16.Qf5+! Bf6 17.Ke2! Sd6 18.Qg4! Be7 19.Sg6+! Kf7 20.Se5+! Kf6 21.Sd7+ (21.Qf4+) Kf7 22.Kd1! Incredible! For instance, 22.Kd3? is one move slower, while 22.Kf3? takes another 195 moves to mate! 22…Rh1+ 23.Kc2! Rh2+ 24.Kd3! Rh6 25.Qf4+ (25.Qf3+) Kg7 26.Qg3+! Rg6 27.Qe5+! Kf7 28.Qd5+! Kg7 29.Qd4+! Kg8 30.Se5! Rg3+ 31.Ke2 (31.Kc2) Rg2+ 32.Kd1! Again! 32…Rg5 33.Qd5+! Kh7 34.Qe6! Rg1+ 35.Ke2! Rg2+ 36.Kf1 (36.Kf3) Rg7 37.Qh3+! Kg8 38.Ke2! Bf8 39.Qb3+! Kh8 40.Qe3 (40.Qf3) Kg8 41.Kd1! Yet again! Here some white king moves permit Black to draw, e.g. 41.Kf1? To see why, check the next diagram! 41…Be7 42.Sc6 (42.Qb3+) Bf8 43.Sd8! Be7 44.Qb3+! Kh7 45.Qd3+! Kg8 46.Qd5+! Kh8 47.Se6! Rf7 48.Qe5+ (48.Qh5+) Kg8 49.Qg3+! Kh8 50.Qg6! Rf1+ 51.Kd2! Rf2+ 52.Ke1 (52.Ke3) Rf7 53.Ke2! Rh7 54.Sf4! Bf8 55.Qg5! Sf7 56.Qf5 (56.Qd5) Kg8 57.Se6! Rh2+ 58.Kf1! Another mysterious retreat; now 58.Kd1? is slower by two moves. 58…Rh1+ 59.Kg2! Rh7 60.Qg4+ (60.Qg6+) Kh8 61.Qg3! Rg7 A strange-looking defence but it is the best. 62.Sxg7! Bxg7 63.Qh3+! Bh6 64.Kg3! Kg7 65.Kg4! Kf6 66.Qf3+! Ke6 67.Qb3+! Kf6 68.Qb6+! Ke7 69.Kf5! Sd6+ 70.Kg6! Bf4 71.Qd4! Bh2 72.Qh4+! Ke6 73.Qxh2! Kd5 74.Qg2+ (74.Qd2+/Qg3/Kg5) Ke5 75.Qc6! Se4 76.Qc4! Sd6 77.Qc5+! Ke6 78.Qd4! Se8 79.Qc4+! Kd6 80.Kf5! Sg7+ 81.Ke4! Se6 82.Qd5+! Ke7 83.Ke5! Sf8 84.Qd6+! Kf7 85.Qf6+! Kg8 86.Kf5! Sh7 87.Qe7! Sf8 88.Kg5! Sh7+ 89.Kh6! Sf6 90.Qg7!

In endgame studies, best play by both sides is assumed and since tablebases contain such perfect play information, they become a powerful resource for obtaining correct study positions. Some composers have written special programs to “mine” tablebases and generate studies that meet the criteria of soundness (dual-free variations) and interest (certain themes displayed). This method of composition is contentious for obvious reasons, but regardless, you can see some striking results of this approach in the problemist Árpád Rusz’s blog. Sometimes it’s even possible to “discover” a study by chance simply by examining the tablebase analysis of a random position. In the solution of the Mate-in-90 problem above, it’s mentioned that 41.Kf1? allows Black to draw. It turns out that the way in which Black forces a draw here is both precise and special – sufficiently so to work as a study. Here is the position in question, reflected and with the colours reversed:

Peter Wong
OzProblems.com 2018
White to play and draw

Black generally has a win with this material (as implied by the forced mate in the homebase diagram), but if the knights were exchanged, the remaining Q vs R+B is normally a book draw. The sacrificial opening 1.Sc5! is thus aimed at bringing about a knight swap via the fork, e.g. 1…Qd5 2.Sxe4 Qxe4 =. Black has two options that avoid an immediate exchange. (1) Accept the sacrifice with 1…Sxc5, but this diverts the black knight to the queen-side with the result that it cannot interfere with a perpetual check: 2.Rf2+ Kg7 3.Rg2+ Kh6 4.Rh2+ Kg5 5.Rg2+ Kf6 6.Rf2+, etc. If the king goes to the e-file, two sub-variations arise: (a) 6…Ke7 7.Re2 Se4 8.Bg2. With the knight about to be lost, Black’s only chance is 8…Qb6+ 9.Kh1! (9.Kf1/Kh2? would lose, e.g. 9.Kf1? Qf6+! 10.Kg1 Qd4+ 11.Kf1 Qa1+ 12.Re1 Qf6+ 13.Ke2 Qf2+) Qh6+ 10.Kg1 Qc1+ 11.Kh2 Qc7+ 12.Kh1 and Black can make no progress despite the material advantage, i.e. a positional draw. (b) 6…Ke5 7.Re2 Se4 8.Bg2 Qb6+, and now in contrast to (a), 9.Kh1? would lose to 9…Kf4! 10.Rxe4+ Kg3 11.Bf1 Qh6+, but 9.Kf1 or 9.Kh2 draws – this dual is a pity – 9…Qb1+ 10.Re1 Qd3+ 11.Re2 Qd1+ 12.Re1 another positional draw. (2) The alternative 1…Qb6 seems to win the white knight without allowing perpetual check, as the piece is both pinned and doubly attacked, but 2.Rf2+! (unpinning the knight with check, e.g. 2…Ke7 3.Sxe4) induces 2…Sxf2 3.Sd7+ Ke7 4.Sxb6. I like how if Black doesn’t take the offered knight on the first move, White promptly sacrifices the rook instead!

How does this tablebase-produced study compare with existing compositions that involve the same material? The Chess Endgame Study Database, which enables searches based on the exact material used, brings up five studies with matching pieces. An examination of these varied endgames reinforces my view that the setting above is of publishable quality. However, among these examples there is an exceptional study that shows a similar kind of idea; though not an anticipation, it’s clearly the superior work thanks to its more intensive treatment of the theme, and I quote it below.

Naturally, we can set up this position on Lomonosov and check its analysis against the author’s solution. And this brings us to another salient feature of tablebases – their ability to confirm the soundness or otherwise of every miniature study ever composed. While engines like Stockfish are strong enough to solve most studies, they do so without necessarily providing certainty to the accuracy of the intended play. Tablebases can do these verification tasks perfectly and instantaneously, within the 7-piece limit. For testing directmate problems, programs like Popeye are still preferable because of the convenience of the solution files they produce, though again tablebases have a speed advantage when solving miniatures with lengthy solutions. In the case of the Matouš study here, it is proved to be sound and completely dual-free.

Mario Matouš
Tidskrift för Schack 1981
1st Prize
White to play and draw

Black has numerous threats in the diagram, including 1…Qxb2, 1…Qf2+, and 1…Sxe2 2.Rxe2 Qxh4+, so White has to start with forcing checks: 1.Rb8+ Kh7 (1…Kg7? 2.Sf5+) 2.Rb7+ Kg8 (2…Kh6? 3.Sf5+) 3.Sf5! Qf2+ (best because Black wants to avoid exchanging the knights, e.g. 3…Qc5 4.Rg7+ Kf8 5.Rxg1 Qxf5 =) 4.Kh1. Now Black has three plausible captures, and in the resulting distinct variations White’s methods of securing a draw are remarkably harmonious. (1) 4…Qxe2 5.Se7+! (5.Kxg1? Qg4+, the black knight is immune to capture because of deadly queen checks, not just here but for the rest of the variation!) 5…Kf7 6.Sd5+ Kf8 (6…Ke8 7.Re7+, 6…Ke6/Kg6 7.Sf4+) 7.Rb8+ Kg7 8.Rb7+ Kh6 9.Rb6+ Kg5 (9…Kh5 10.Sf4+) 10.Rg6+! Kf5 (10…Kxg6 11.Sf4+) 11.Rf6+ Kg4 (11..Ke5 12.Re6+! Kxe6 13.Sf4+) 12.Rg6+ Kh4 (12…Kh3 13.Sf4+) 13.Rh6+ Kg3 14.Rg6+ Kf3 (14…Kf2 15.Rg2+) 15.Rf6+ perpetual check. (2) 4…Qxf5 5.Bc4+! (again White can’t touch the knight: 5.Kxg1? Qe4! 6.Rb8+ Kg7 7.Bf1 Qg4+ 8.Bg2 Qd4+ 9.Kh1 Qd1+ 10.Kh2 Qd6+) 5…Kh8 (5…Kf8 6.Rf7+) 6.Rb8+ Kg7 7.Rb7+ Kg6 (7…Kf6 8.Rf7+) 8.Rb6+ Kh7 (8…Kg5/Kh5 9.Rb5) 9.Rb7+ Kh6 10.Rb6+ perpetual check. (3) 4…Sxe2 5.Sh6+! Kh8 (5…Kf8 6.Rf7+) 6.Sf7+ Kg7 7.Se5+ Kg8 (7…Kh6/Kf6 8.Sg4+) 8.Rb8+ Kh7 9.Rb7+ perpetual check.

Three different perpetual checks are arranged with great precision and economy in this wonderful study. I was delighted to find that it was selected for the FIDE Album, the anthology of the world’s best chess compositions. And as readers may have noticed, this First Prize winner was published back in 1981, well before computers were able to assist with the creation of any chess problems or studies. That’s a victory for human ingenuity, yes?