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Chess and problem rambles by PW

27 Jan. 2019 – Top 10 greatest chess scenes in movies

For chess enthusiasts who are also fans of cinema, movie scenes that prominently feature the royal game hold a special appeal. Many people have produced lists of the most famous of such scenes, clips of which are typically found on YouTube. Surprisingly, however, no-one has attempted to put these chess sequences together in a single video. So I decided to do just that – choosing the ten best film depictions of the game (in my view), ranking them, and collecting them in a HD-quality video. The result is now on YouTube: Top 10 Greatest Chess Scenes in Movies. Because I wanted the selected scenes to be more-or-less self-contained and not mere snippets, some segments are longish (though none exceeds four minutes) and the whole compilation is 27 minutes in length. You can also jump to individual segments using the heading links provided below.

10. Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011)
A blitz game between Sherlock Holmes and his archenemy Professor Moriarty serves as the climax of this film directed by Guy Ritchie, a keen chess player. (He also made Revolver (2005), a crime thriller that references chess even more heavily, but it’s not as good.) The original scene goes for ten minutes, too long for our purposes and I had to edit out some non-chess related parts; that’s why this segment may feel a little disjointed at times. That the game played – based on Larsen-Petrosian, 1966 – develops into a form of blindfold chess is a plus, as this sort of feat is rarely displayed in movies.

9. X-Men (2000)
In the sci-fi X-Men series about mutants with superpowers, chess makes frequent appearances, sometimes at key moments. A few years ago I even created a YouTube video gathering these Chess Scenes in the X-Men Films. The game is mostly used to represent the rivalry between Professor Xavier and his “frenemy” Magneto, and this sequence from the first X-Men film is no exception. Apparently neither of the two actors involved (Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen) knew how to play chess and an over-qualified GM was brought in to teach them!

8. The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)
If anyone could make a chess game seem glamorous and sexy, it’d be two movie stars of the calibre of Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway. In this heist film, he’s a rich executive who masterminded a bank robbery and she’s an investigator on his trail. No one in their right mind would actually pay attention to the chess moves in this scene. Did I mention that the game opens with the Ruy Lopez?

7. Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993)
This film about the real-life prodigy Josh Waitzkin, based on one of my favourite chess books, is excellent but I’m not a fan of how his main rival is portrayed. That’s why I didn’t choose the Championship game between them that ends the movie. Instead I picked a terrific scene of the young Josh playing his hustler friend (Laurence Fishburne) in a New York park. Here the editing, music, and Oscar-nominated cinematography combine to perfectly capture the fun of speed chess.

6. Blade Runner (1982)
This cult movie posits a dystopian future in which androids are nearly indistinguishable from humans but are manufactured as slaves. Chess is used as a plot device here, as the leader of a group of rebel “replicants” (Rutger Hauer) exploits an ongoing game to gain access to the head scientist who created him. That the replicant also outwitted his genius maker in chess is obviously meant to suggest his superior intelligence over humans. The moves announced in this scene reproduce the ending of the Anderssen-Kieseritzky Immortal Game.

5. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001)
Chess acquires the big-budget, CGI-laden treatment in the first Harry Potter film. This movie franchise has been such a phenomenon in popular culture that the scene of giant “Wizard’s Chess” demands a good placing on my list, even though the film itself, aimed at youngsters, is not much to my taste. IM Jeremy Silman devised the critical position, in which Harry’s friend Ron sacrificed himself to help Harry to deliver mate. Check out Silman’s revealing article on his experience as the chess consultant on the film (linked below).

4. Pawn Sacrifice (2014)
Perhaps the more you know about the details of Fischer’s life and his World Championship match with Spassky, the more you’d be distracted by the inaccuracies of this biopic. Still, screenwriters are not giving up their artistic licences anytime soon and if we treat this as a feature film (not a doco), it is well-made and enjoyable. Take the Game 6 scene, which begins deliberately to convey the intensity of top-level play and the public’s captivation with the match. It then builds up to a dramatic finish that tells us something about the protagonists: one is an impeccable player, a little dazed by the world’s reaction to his brilliance, the other a perfect gentleman.

3. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Legendary director Stanley Kubrick was a chess lover who incorporated the game in many of his works, including The Killing (1956) and Lolita (1962). But the best-known of these chess moments comes from 2001, in which an astronaut relaxes by playing with HAL, the sentient onboard computer. HAL is a memorable character who always speaks pleasantly, whether he’s beating you at chess or going on a murderous rampage. Though nowadays we are used to programs demolishing human players, back in 1968 the idea would have been far-fetched, so the film is kind of prescient.

2. From Russia with Love (1963)
This early James Bond film opens in a beautiful setting of a match between a Czech grandmaster and his Canadian opponent. The lavish interiors of the playing hall must have cost a small fortune to produce, for a scene that lasts for only two minutes or so. The Czech turns out to be the chief planner of the evil SPECTRE organisation, thus his chess prowess is meant to establish him as a master strategist and formidable foe for Bond. Given the popularity of the Bond films, the position seen on a demonstration board – modelled on the Spassky-Bronstein, 1960 game – could be considered the most famous chess diagram ever.

1. The Seventh Seal (1957)
Swedish director Ingmar Bergman’s tale set in medieval Europe is regarded as one of the greatest films of all time. A battle-weary knight (Max von Sydow) returns home from the Crusades only to encounter Death in human form. The Grim Reaper is ready to claim his life but the knight challenges him to a game of chess, as a delaying tactic (a bit like not resigning in a lost position?!). This cinema classic contains imageries that have become iconic, especially those of the knight facing off Death across a chessboard, and its influence can be gauged by how often its scenes are referenced and parodied in modern culture. An easy pick as No.1 on this list!

The Seventh Seal segment consists of three separate chess sequences and solely because of its total length, this video is blocked on YouTube in a few European countries. If you’re affected and cannot view it at Top 10 Greatest Chess Scenes in Movies, here’s a link to a slightly shortened version (unlisted on YouTube). Its only difference is that it contains two rather than all three excerpts from The Seventh Seal.

Further reading and viewing
These articles discuss and analyse the specific chess positions featured in many of the above scenes, some with notes on the goofs detected. Chess errors are almost customary in movies, and these great scenes are far from immune.
The Subtext Buried In Seven Great Movie Chess Scenes by Walt Hickey and Oliver Roeder
Oscars for Chess on the Big Screen by Todd Bardwick
Creating the Harry Potter Chess Position by Jeremy Silman
Chess goes to the movies: Blade Runner by Jonathan B (The Streatham & Brixton Chess Blog)

Lastly, an insightful video from ‘Now You See It’, a film analysis channel on YouTube.
The Meaning of Chess in Movies by Jack Nugent

23 Mar. 2019 – Stockfish and another modern classic more-mover

Like all top chess engines, Stockfish is a super-tactician and as such it’s normally able to uncover any forced-mate sequences that aren’t excessively long. Yet there are certain directmate problems that are relatively short but which confound the engine. A year ago in a Walkabout (12 Mar. 2018) I wrote about such an exceptional composition, a 9-mover that was unsolved even when its solution was truncated. Given that Stockfish has had two new releases since that column appeared, it seems appropriate to provide an update on its progression as a problem solver. Furthermore, I will present another superb directmate that stumped the engine. Not only is this problem even shorter than the 9-mover, but it possesses an unusual feature that might explain why the program has trouble unravelling either of these works.

As a recap, here is Theodor Siers’ 9-move problem that was fully analysed in the earlier column. At the time, the Stockfish version 8 on Chess.com could not find its solution after running for an hour. Even if we simplify the problem by removing the first few moves of its main variation, the engine failed to solve it until the play is reduced to 5 moves. That means Siers’ problem at the mate-in-6 stage could be the shortest forced-mate sequence that “defeats” Stockfish.

Theodor Siers
Die Schwalbe 1935
Mate in 9

1.Kb1! Sd5, [M8 unsolved by SF10: 2.Kc1!] Sb4, [M7 solved by SF10: 3.Kd1!] Sd5, [M6 unsolved by SF8: 4.Ke1!] Sb4, [M5 solved by SF8: 5.Kf1!] Sd5 6.Kg1! Sb4 7.Kh1! Sd5 8.Bc5 S-any 9.Bxe7.

Cut to the present, we find that version 10 of Stockfish has improved significantly at this 9-move task. It should be mentioned here that I'm now using a PC installation of Stockfish, which gives greater control of its functions compared with the Chess.com Analysis feature. By using Lucas Chess as the interface, it’s also easy to swap between different versions of Stockfish and compare their performances. Now Stockfish 10 manages to solve not only the 6-move position but the 7-move one as well. The mate-in-7 sequence was found in under an hour (the time limit used in all of these tests), with the settings of maximum depth and three lines of evaluation. The problem at the mate-in-8 stage – let alone the original mate-in-9 – remains too difficult for the engine (various numbers of evaluation lines were tested).

Soon after writing about Siers’ masterful work in the first instalment, I came across another more-mover that Stockfish 8 could not handle. This 7-mover by Vladimir Nikitin, diagrammed below, renders a brilliant theme and it became an instant favourite of mine. The task here looks impossible and I gave up on it rather quickly, but the solving program Popeye confirms that the solution is correct in about 50 minutes. Stockfish 8, on the other hand, wasn’t able to crack it until the main line is reduced to 5 moves; therefore a year ago this directmate shared the unsolved mate-in-6 record with Siers’ problem.

Vladimir Nikitin
Shakhmaty v SSSR 1984
Special Prize
Mate in 7

Let us analyse this curious position. Black’s pieces are completely locked up in the corner, but they form a strong fortress against which White cannot break through, at least not in time. Here’s a try sequence that Stockfish finds almost instantaneously, where White launches a successful assault on h3 – 1.Qe6 f5 2.Bxf5 e4 3.Rh8 e3 4.Bxh3 Qxh3 5.Rxh3+ Bxh3 6.Rh8 Rxe1 7.Qxh3+ Kg1 8.Qxh1, but the mate is one move too slow! As one might expect, the actual solution requires a more subtle approach. White’s plan is to deploy the knight to execute a smothered mate on g4, but the piece cannot begin its three-move trip immediately because 1…e1(Q) would unleash the black force against the white king. Rather, White must start with four preparatory moves designed to protect the king, so that the knight trip becomes safe to play. If White shifts the bishop as part of this fore-plan, Black’s e5- and f6-pawns will be forced by zugzwang to march forward two steps each, conveniently unguarding the three squares that the knight wants to access (Sd3-e5-g4).

How does White use the first four moves to secure the king against disruptive black checks that could follow …e1(Q), a move that not only adds a queen but also activates the f2-rook and f1-bishop? The difficulty here seems but compounded by the powerful white force available, which offers numerous options for shielding the king, and the king itself has many potential hiding squares to choose from. Let’s try placing the piece on a1, for example: 1.Ka1 f5 2.Bb1 e4 3.Rc1 f4 4.Rb2 e3 5.Sd3, and after 5…e1(Q) the white pieces have blocked all queen checks and also …Ra2+, hence 6.Se5 and 7.Sg4 seem unstoppable. But in fact Black can refute with 5…e1(S)!, since 6.Se5 Sc2+! checks after all and there’s no mate next move.

The correct fore-plan sees all four white line-pieces making attractive long-range moves to cover the king, which stays on its initial square. Notice how White’s move order is neatly forced, as these line-pieces must avoid interfering with each other. 1.Rc1! f5 2.Bc2! e4 3.Rb2! f4 4.Qb3! e3 5.Sd3 e1(Q); now that the coordinated white army has forestalled checks by Black’s promoted queen, f2-rook, and f1-bishop, 6.Se5 is viable and Black cannot prevent 7.Sg4.

What makes this composition so strikingly original is that the greater part of White’s play is motivated purely by defence. Siers’ problem also has this rare feature, in that the white king’s trek is aimed at evading the black knight’s checks. With hindsight, it’s obvious what caused Stockfish difficulties are these paradoxical defensive moves that are integral to the most efficient mating line. I guess nobody told it that in some special circumstances, defence is the best attack! Be that as it may, the newest version of Stockfish has also advanced in dealing with Nikitin’s 7-move task, deciphering the mate-in-6 position within the hour. But unlike the case with Siers’, the improvement is for one move only. Nikitin’s original mate-in-7 position is still too tough and thus it becomes the shortest forced-mate sequence I know that cannot be solved by Stockfish.

28 Apr. 2019 – ‘Alexandre’s 2020 and American Chess Nuts’

Bob Meadley’s research on chess problem history isn’t confined to Australian materials and in a new interesting article he examines The Beauties of Chess (1846) and American Chess Nuts (1868), two immense problem anthologies that were standard reference works of their times. The former, edited by A. Alexandre, consists of 2020 positions, mostly directmates of a pre-modern style. The latter, edited by E.B. Cook, W.R. Henry, and C.A. Gilberg, contains some 2400 problems of greater variety, some illustrating early themes. Bob provides background information for the two volumes and discusses their contents in detail. He compares the two collections, and concludes that “[The Beauties of Chess] deals with the formative years of problem composition whereas [American Chess Nuts] is about first class composers such as Loyd and Cook. The books deal with different eras.” The article includes 24 selections of problems from these important texts, and below I quote an example from each. Here’s a link to download the article: Alexandre’s 2020 and American Chess Nuts.

Baron Tassilo von Heydebrand und der Lasa
No.291 in The Beauties of Chess 1846
Mate in 5

1.Qc8+! Rb8 2.Qc6+ Rb7 3.Qe8+ Rb8 4.Qe4+ Rb7 5.Rc8. The queen zigzags to clear the c-file for the rook. Bob’s summary of Alexandre’s collection seems appropriate here: “The problemists of today have moved well away from these game positions with checking keys mostly but some are very good and come from a time before the great divergence into themes when the problem was very close to the game.”

Sam Loyd
The New York Clipper 1856
1st Prize
Mate in 4

1.Qg1! ~ 2.Bf2 ~ 3.Bxb6 (threats: 4.Sb4/Qc5) Kd5 or Sxb6 4.Qc5. The eponymous Loyd-Turton theme problem. The queen crosses over the critical square f2, which is then occupied by the bishop, so that the two pieces are lined up with the weaker one at the front. The bishop then moves along the line traversed by the queen, but in the opposite direction.

10 Jun. 2019 – Vladimir Nabokov in ‘The Problemist’

Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977) was one of the greatest novelists of the 20th century whose celebrated works include Lolita, Pale Fire, and Ada. Early in his career he wrote The Defense (1930), the story of a chess grandmaster named Luzhin whose obsession with the game ends tragically, and it was adapted to a film, The Luzhin Defence (2000). Nabokov’s involvement in chess goes beyond featuring the game in his fiction, though, for he was an accomplished chess problem composer. His collection of Poems and Problems (1969) showcases 18 of his chess compositions, mostly directmates (mates-in-2 and -3 moves) [1]. In his memoir Speak, Memory (1951), he eloquently describes the gratifying experience of constructing problems [2]. Nabokov compares chess compositions to other artforms, asserting in the former compilation, “Chess problems demand from the composer the same virtues that characterize all worthwhile art: originality, invention, conciseness, harmony, complexity, and splendid insincerity… Problems are the poetry of chess.”

Photo: Flickr

Much has already been written about Nabokov as a problem composer, by literary critics and chess aficionados alike. In this column, I turn to an original source and present some of his notable appearances in The Problemist. This prestigious journal, produced by the British Chess Problem Society, attracts the works of the world’s leading composers [3]. Nabokov submitted a good number of his small output of about 30 compositions to this periodical: five of the selections in Poems and Problems were Problemist originals, and subsequent to the anthology’s publication, five more of his works first appeared here. The clippings chosen below (click to open larger versions) include two of his most well-received problems, and in both cases we find curious allusions to his literary creations.

The Problemist May 1969
A perfunctory welcome to a famous new member of the Society. Though residing in Switzerland at the time, he identified as American, as the country given above his diagrams indicated.

Problem No.7 in Poems and Problems. The “I” in No. I.1004 refers to the Intermediate section of the magazine’s tourneys in which the position competed and gained two awards (a type of segregation that no longer exists).

Vladimir Nabokov
The Problemist 1969
2nd Prize, 3rd Place
Mate in 3

Key: 1.h3! (waiting). 1…h4 2.Rh7 hxg3 3.h4, 1…Kh6 2.h4 g5 3.hxg5, 1…Kh4 2.Rxg6 gxh3 3.Bf6.

The Problemist Mar. 1970
Solver J. Holtby’s piquant comment on this problem drew a response from Nabokov in the Nov. 1970 issue, which also featured two new three-movers by him.

Problems No.11 and No.17 in Poems and Problems.

The Problemist Mar.-May 1971
The unsound No.1065 was fixed by Nabokov, but alas it was too late for the publication of Poems and Problems, which reprinted the faulty position.

The Problemist Nov. 1971

The Problemist Sep. 1971
A short review by the then general editor of The Problemist, John Ling.

Post-Poems and Problems, Nabokov's five originals in The Problemist consist of three directmates (all mates-in-3) and two selfmates. While the three-movers are of middling quality only, one of the selfmates garnered a prize. In selfmate problems, White’s task is to force Black to deliver mate in the specified number of moves; Black doesn't cooperate and tries to avoid mating White. The prize-winner in question, published in Jul. 1973, was co-authored by Colin Flood, the selfmate sub-editor. Note his comment about how Nabokov was responsible for the 1…gxh6 variation; that’s relevant to how this composition evokes The Defense

Vladimir Nabokov &
Colin Flood

The Problemist 1973
3rd Prize
Selfmate in 5

Key: 1.Qh2! (waiting). 1…gxh6 2.Kd2 h5 3.Kc3 h4 4.Kxb2 h3 5.Ka1 b2, 1…gxf6 2.b8(B) f5 3.Bg3 f4 4.Bf2 f3 5.Bd2 fxe2.

The Problemist Sep. 1973

The Garland Companion to Vladimir Nabokov (1995) contains a chapter titled, ‘Chess and Chess Problems’ by Janet Gezari [4]. She points out that Nabokov imagined Luzhin, the protagonist of The Defense who commits suicide, as the white king in a selfmate problem (selfmates were originally known as “sui-mates”). The novel’s parallel with this particular selfmate-in-5 goes deeper, as Gezari describes the last scene thus: “Luzhin has locked himself in the bathroom of his apartment, and his dinner guests have been transformed in his mind into a powerful attacking force made up of important fragments of his chess memories. The only exit available to him is the bathroom window, two squares that become the materialization of the larger board in his mind’s eye.” How reminiscent of Nabokov’s variation in which the white king deliberately walks into a corner square to set up his own demise!

The Problemist Nov. 1979
The belated announcement of Nabokov’s death was as simple as his welcome notice. Notwithstanding his status as a literary giant, there was no separate obituary because he wasn’t a major problemist. Still, many years later The Problemist reports on a memorial tourney that was held (elsewhere) in honour of him as a composer.

The Problemist Jan. 1996

References and Further Reading

[1] V. Nabokov, Poems and Problems (1969). A scan of the pages containing the 18 problems from this book, with Nabokov’s comments, is available for download from the ChessProblem.net site.

[2] V. Nabokov, Speak, Memory (1951). The section in which Nabokov discusses problem composing is also accessible via the ChessProblem.net link above.

[3] The British Chess Problem Society provides back issues of The Problemist for free. To subscribe to current issues, see this page of their site: Joining the BCPS. Also, check out my review of this publication in an earlier blog, ‘New digital subscription for The Problemist’ (Jan. 2018).

[4] J. Gezari, ‘Chess and Chess Problems’. In V.E. Alexandrov (ed.), The Garland Companion to Vladimir Nabokov (1995). Gezari’s excellent chapter is viewable in full on Google Books. The author is a literary academic, but her article reveals surprisingly in-depth knowledge of chess problems. The reason likely lies in the fact that in her other writings on Nabokov, she had collaborated with actual problemists!

9 Jul. 2019 – Circe: A fairy chess condition

The realm of fairy chess encompasses countless types of unorthodox rules and pieces, and in previous columns some accessible examples have been introduced, namely Kamikaze Chess and the Grasshopper and the Nightrider. This time we examine one of the most popular and fruitful of all fairy forms: Circe. The Circe condition has spawned many sub-variants but all are based on the idea of rebirth after a capture. Under the rules of standard Circe, a piece that gets captured is immediately reborn on its home square. Thus, a captured white queen instantly reappears on d1 and a black one on d8. A rook, bishop, or knight that’s taken returns to its home square that’s of the same colour as the capture square. A captured pawn is reborn on its original second rank, in the file where the capture occurred. For instance, in the first diagram, if the white queen captures the bishop, the latter (on a white square) reappears immediately on c8, and the move is written as Qxb1(c8). The black pawn on e2 returns to e7 when captured: Qxe2(e7). If the rebirth square of a captured piece is occupied, the unit disappears as in normal chess, so here Qxa3 is orthodox because h8 is blocked; a piece that’s taken on its own home square would also be removed.

Circe rules enable interesting effects that are not possible in orthodox compositions. An oft-seen motif is that of immunity from capture for a unit whose rebirth would place the capturer's king in check. Suppose the d1-square is vacant here, then 1…Bxd3(d1)?? is illegal as the reborn queen would be checking the black king on g1. This problem actually presents another special idea in Circe, one relating to underpromotion. In orthodox two-movers, black promotions to rook and bishop are generally ignored as defences since they can’t be preferable to a queen promotion (there’s no time for Black to concoct stalemate). But in a Circe two-mover, such black underpromotions could produce distinct play because the new piece and a queen will have different rebirth squares.

Michel Caillaud
Boyer Memorial Tourney 1988
1st Prize
Mate in 2

Before analysing the main promotion variations, let’s consider a few non-thematic tries. Strong captures on e2 involving multiple threats are dealt with by plain black checks: 1.Qxe2(e7)? Bxf5(f2)+! and 1.Rxe2(e7)? Qxd4(c1)+! (all rebirths are incidental here). The e3-knight controls flights on f1 and g2, and if White opens the B + S battery prematurely, we find 1.Se~+? Kf1 2.Qxe2(e7), but 1…Kg2! refutes due to 2.Qxe2(e7)+ Bxf5(f2)+! when the queen check is intercepted by the reborn pawn. Using an opponent’s unit to block a check against oneself is another Circe-specific tactic, one that will be seen repeatedly in this and the next problem. The correction try 1.Sc2+? cuts off the black bishop for 1…Kg2 2.Qxe2(e7), but now 1…Kf1! defeats since the knight has also interfered with the b2-rook.

The thematic defences are prominent checks by the e2-pawn when it captures the knight and promotes to a queen or a bishop. Either move gives White access to d1 and opens white lines of guard to f1 and g2 (freeing up the e3-knight), and this results in two potential recapture mates by the queen and the knight. In the set play, 1…exd1(Q)+ allows 2.Qxd1(d8) but not 2.Sxd1(d8)+? because of 2…Qxd4(c1)+!, while 1…exd1(B)+ gives 2.Sxd1(c8) but not 2.Qxd1(c8)+? in view of 2…Bxe6(f1)! In both cases the wrong recapture enables the reborn black piece to counter the white check. The actual play begins with 1.Bd5!, which threatens 2.Rh1. Black’s only defences are the two promotion checks, which lead to remarkable changed mates brought about by the placement of the key-bishop. Now 1…exd1(Q)+ permits 2.Sxd1(d8) and not 2.Qxd1(d8)+? Qxd5(f1)!, while 1…exd1(B)+ admits 2.Qxd1(c8) and not 2.Sxd1(c8)+? Bxf5(f2)+! Again White has to recapture carefully to avoid spoiling defences by the reborn black pieces. Since White has reversed the replies to the two defences compared with the set play, this problem is an elaborate demonstration of the reciprocal change theme.

Uri Avner
Chess Compositions 1983
1st Prize
Helpmate in 2
Twin (b/c/d/e) Bd2 to e3/f4/g5/h6

In this helpmate position, White wants to deliver a rook mate that will cover the a1-flight, but with no direct way of moving either rook to the first rank, we expect Black to assist by capturing one on a white square to transfer it to h1. To avert the self-check such a black capture entails, White can first close the rank with the d2-bishop, which then forms a battery with the reborn rook. So let’s try 1.Qd6 Bc1 2.Qxa6(h1), but now it turns out that the bishop cannot execute a battery mate because wherever it goes, Black will be forced to capture the piece and bring it back to c1, e.g. 2…Bh6+ 3.Sxh6(c1). (There’s no difference had the d2-bishop moved to e1; and White could even try with the other bishop: 1.Qd6 Bd1 2.Qxa6(h1) Bb3+ compels 3.cxd2(c1).)

The solution involves a similar plan but begins with an immediate capture of the white bishop: 1.cxd2(c1), the advantage being that d2 is left unguarded by Black and hence it becomes a safe square for the battery-firing bishop. Now with this bishop already on c1, White has a spare move with which to shift either rook to a white square where it can be captured by the queen for rebirth on h1. However, the options for where to sacrifice the rook all seem to result in a disruptive black queen check, e.g. 1…Ra8 2.Qxa8(h1)+, or 1…Rxg8 2.Qxg8(h1)+. Only 1…Rc6! works because the check 2.Qxc6(h1)+ is answerable by 2…Bxd2(d7) – a Circe-specific kind of cross-check. For part (b), in which the white bishop is placed on e3, Black again starts by capturing the bishop, 1.dxe3(c1). Looking ahead at the mating capture on e3, we realise that the reborn pawn on e7 can be similarly used to neutralise a queen check; therefore 1…Re6! 2.Qxe6(h1)+ Bxe3(e7). The remaining twins show perfectly analogous play: (c) 1.exf4(c1) Rh5 2.Qxh5(h1)+ Bxf4(f7), (d) 1.Bxg5(c1) Rxg8 2.Qxg8(h1)+ Bxg5(f8), and (e) 1.Sxh6(c1) Ra8 2.Qxa8(h1)+ Bxh6(b8). In this top-notch battery creation problem, the black queen checks the king from five different directions, and every part shows a pair of reciprocal captures between the white bishop and a black unit.

8 Aug. 2019 – ‘Problem World’ introduction to selfmates

Selfmates represent one of the three major forms of orthodox chess problems, along with directmates and helpmates. While not as intuitive as the other types, selfmate compositions are rewarding in their own way, displaying strategies that cannot be produced elsewhere. The importance of this genre – which dates from medieval times – hasn’t really been reflected in its coverage on this site, though. To rectify that somewhat, I have expanded the Problem World article on the subject, adding four more examples to the original two (the series-movers now appear separately). Six quality selfmates-in-two-moves are thus discussed and analysed, of which one is diagrammed below. When inspiration strikes, I may attempt a second part that examines lengthier samples! Here is a link to the updated article: Selfmates.

Luigi Ceriani
Die Schwalbe 1932
Selfmate in 2

11 Sep. 2019 – A tribute to Pal Benko (1928-2019)

The legendary grandmaster and problemist Pal Benko has passed away on August 26, at the age of 91. He was one of the very few world-class players who also excelled at chess composition, adept in devising problems and endgame studies alike. Indeed, he held the unique distinction of acquiring both the titles of GM for the over-the-board game and IM for problem composing. Thus not too surprisingly, he was my No.1 pick in an earlier post, The greatest masters of both the game and problems – Part 1. Additionally, Benko did much to popularise the art of composed problems through his long-running columns, “Endgame Lab” and “Benko's Bafflers,” in the U.S. magazine, Chess Life. His book, My Life, Games and Compositions (2004), likewise must have introduced many chess players to the world of directmates, helpmates, and studies.

Photo: YouTube

For this tribute to Benko as a composer, I have selected three of his works from different genres. Besides the orthodox types represented here, he also delved into unconventional forms, such as letter-shape and retro-analytical problems. Notwithstanding his versatility, he was most proficient in the field of endgame studies. His specialty was miniature studies employing no more than seven pieces that, contrary to their simple appearances, involve dense and difficult play. Benko created such compositions before the arrival of strong engines and endgame tablebases, a fact that only makes it even more impressive when such devices confirm the perfect accuracy of his analysis.

Pal Benko
Chess Life 1981
Mate in 2

We start with a traditional two-mover that is solved by an excellent waiting key, 1.Qb4! The queen surprisingly unguards both white knights and so grants two flights to the black king. If Black accepts the sacrifices, each king move self-pins one black knight on a diagonal, allowing the other to be captured by the queen with impunity: 1…Kxd5 2.Qxd6 and 1…Kxe5 2.Qxe4 – two fine matching variations showing pin-mates. Any move by the d6-knight enables the queen to control e7 (besides letting the b8-bishop cover e5) and frees the d5-knight to mate: 1…Sd~ 2.Sf4. If Black moves the other knight, a random placement results in a dual, 1…Se~ 2.Qxd6/Rf6, but two specific defences separate these mates: 1…Sf2 2.Qxd6 and 1…Sc5 2.Rf6.

Pal Benko
Magyar Sakkélet 1974
Hon. Mention
Helpmate in 2
2 solutions

The helpmate presents a well-known promotion idea with great economy. The first pair of solutions sees White promoting the pawn to different pieces to guard the black king’s flights, in support of the queen which executes both mates. 1.Re5 g8(Q) 2.Kf5 Qf3 and 1.Kf5 g8(S) 2.Kg6 Qh7. The duplex condition reverses the two players’ roles, so that in a second pair of solutions, White plays first and helps Black to deliver mate in two moves. Now the white pawn promotes in order to block the king’s flight on g8, and in each part White chooses a promotee that will avoid interfering with the eventual mate. Another flight-square is blocked by the queen, which must be pinned by one black piece while the other mates. 1.g8(R) Be5+ 2.Qg7 Rh5 and 1.g8(B) Rh5+ 2.Qh7 Be5. Since White makes all four possible kinds of promotion during the course of play, the Allumwandlung theme is effected.

Pal Benko
Chess Life 1981
White to play and win

One of Benko’s less demanding studies, this position provides an exception to the adage that two connected passed pawns on the sixth rank defeat a rook. White can win here because the black king in the corner is vulnerable to mating threats; hence White starts aggressively with 1.Ke7!, aiming to trap the black piece. White avoids 1.Rg4?, losing to either 1…c3/d2; and 1.Ke6? d2! also fails because the rook cannot reach d6. 1…d2. If 1…Kg8 then 2.Rd6 stops the pawns in time. 2.Rd6 c3 3.Kf7 Kh7. Or 3…c2 4.Rd3 d1(Q) 5.Rh3+ and mates next move. 4.g4! Not 4.Rd3? Kh6! and Black wins as the king escapes. 4…c2. Or 4…g6 5.g5 c2 6.Rxd2 and then mates. 5.g5. Not 5.Rxd2? c1(Q) 6.Rh2+ Qh6 7.Rxh6+ Kxh6, drawing only. 5…d1(Q) 6.Rh6+! gxh6 7.g6+ Kh8 8.g7+ Kh7 9.g8(Q) mate. The outlying white pawn in the diagram position turns out to be the star as it performs an Excelsior (i.e. it promotes after trekking from its starting rank), facilitated by a sparkling rook sacrifice.

16 Oct. 2019 – A heraldic endgame-tablebase composition

Last year my Adventures series of blogs examined endgame tablebases, software that provides perfect play information for any positions with up to seven pieces. I reviewed the remarkable capabilities of these programs – they play as God effectively – and gave some links to access them for free. We discussed in particular how they have impacted on the field of chess composition, including their applications for testing endgame studies and for generating new positions with striking play. In the second part of that series, I also quoted a special study that makes explicit use of tablebase data and exemplifies a novel form of composition. The author of that work, Andrew Buchanan, has sent me a brand-new problem of this type, which I am delighted to present here. The problem exhibits an intriguing aspect of heraldry as well and that will be disclosed by Andrew after its solution.

As in the earlier example, this study follows a chess problem convention relating to the 50-move draw rule. The official rules of problems are maintained by the World Federation for Chess Composition, and Article 17 of its Codex states: “Unless expressly stipulated, the 50 moves-rule does not apply to the solution of chess compositions except for retro-problems.” That means in any study position, if tablebases prove that a winning white move would require more than 50 turns to force a capture or a pawn move, there’s no draw claim and that white move is still a win. Except, that is, in the cases of problems involving retro-analysis (backward reasoning about the play leading up to the diagram).

A second important problem convention is relevant here, about the legality of castling moves when a king and a rook are on their initial squares. Article 16 of the Codex indicates: “Castling is permitted unless it can be proved that it is not permissible.” So the default assumption is that castling is legal, unless it can be shown by retro-analysis that the king or the rook must have moved previously in a hypothetical game. The situation in tablebases is quite the opposite: all castling moves are disregarded and effectively deemed illegal. That’s an understandable decision on the part of the programmers, given how unlikely in a practical game that the right to castle would remain in an ending position (besides any technical reasons). But, ideally, users should be able to select either option. A choice would not only suit composed problems but also make the tablebases genuinely complete, since chess with seven units isn’t strictly solved when positions with active castling rights are omitted.

In any case, with these considerations in mind (they are significant clues!), plus the actual tablebase results for the diagram, we are ready to tackle the study. Click this link to the Syzygy tablebases that will open with the correct position. White is a knight ahead here and that seems to be a decisive material advantage according to Syzygy, since almost every legal white move is marked as a win. But is that really true, or is there just one winning move?

Andrew Buchanan
OzProblems.com 16 Oct. 2019
White to play and win

Here is the solution as explained by the composer himself:

Apparently, any move by White wins, except for the blundering 1.Sa2?, which only draws. But let’s try White’s apparently quickest route to victory, 1.Sd3. Of course, the tablebase strategy is not necessarily to checkmate directly, but instead to find a capture, pawn move (or indeed mate itself!) to reach a simpler but still winning position which will reset the 50-move clock. DTZ shown in Syzygy stands for distance-to-zero in this sense.

Syzygy counts in single moves so 90 means 45 moves by White and 45 by Black. Any win or loss in more than 100 single moves is shaded to show that they would be draws if the 50-move rule applied, which by default it doesn’t.

So it looks as if White just wins, as 1.Sd3! achieves DTZ in 90 single moves? But Syzygy doesn't understand castling, and if you manually shift the two black pieces, and make sure that the “White to move” button is clicked, then you can see that after 1…0-0-0! White cannot win, with or without the 50-move rule. Black has two threats: to simply capture the knight on d3 or to skewer the white king, setting up a trade of rooks. Indeed 2.Sc1? even loses for White.

However, if you look at the position, you can see that Black’s last move must have been with king or rook. If the knight has just moved, it would have been illegally checking the white king. Therefore we can conclude that Black is not allowed to castle. 1.Sd3! does win.

And the point of the problem is that because retro reasoning is a critical element to the solution, this is a “retro problem” and the 50-move rule switches on, which does not normally apply to endgame studies. Thus all the other candidate first moves for White cannot win. For example, 1.Sc3? and 1.Se3?, which both have DTZ101, i.e. they are just too slow. So the first move is unique. If castling did not threaten to defeat the key, then it wouldn’t be relevant to go through the retro reasoning, so you couldn’t say it’s genuinely a retro problem.

This splendid piece of work is likely a unique find, considering the many twists and turns displayed in its logical solution. Somehow the composer has uncovered a tablebase set-up with these features: (1) White has multiple winning moves but only one below DTZ100, (2) this white move is refuted solely by black castling, (3) the castling move turns out to be illegal due to retro-analysis, and (4) the need for retro-analysis ensures that the white move below DTZ100 is the only viable win. The problem – a great example of a “tablebase retro-study” – demonstrates how this curious genre of composition is unlike anything else!

Andrew then mentioned how the composition was suggested by the logo of his old school, a heraldic shield that contains three chess figurines. Below he described how this led to a startling coincidence with the finished diagram position:

A few days ago I was emailing a problemist who happens to have attended the same school as me, the Royal Grammar School in Newcastle (UK). The school shield shows two white knights and a rook, and I mentioned I wanted to compose a problem featuring these units. I had no thought how I might achieve this, but amazingly this composition then popped up. The three black units kind of echo the three “charges” in the “chief” of the shield, to use what I hope is the right heraldic terminology. It is odd how similar the board and the shield are, given that as far as I can see I have no choice at all in the position.

So why does the shield show chess pieces? According to David Goldwater of RGS (whose friendly explanations of their historical research is gratefully acknowledged), quoting an earlier history, and using heraldic terminology redolent of Game of Thrones:

This shield of arms symbolises the name, founder and place of the school. The chief bears a leopard of England (lion passant guardant) between two of the lilies of France, referring to the title, royal when the royal arms as borne by the House of Tudor were France and England quarterly. The horses’ heads are taken from the canting [= visually punning] shield of Thomas Horsley, the founder of the school, which bore gules three horses’ heads erased argent. The triple-towered silver castle in base is part of the arms of the city and county of Newcastle upon Tyne, whose “most ancient armes” are three gules three castles triple towered argent.

So here you have it: the first heraldic chess problem, and perhaps the only one ever.

19 Nov. 2019 – Modern themes rendered in pre-modern times

The 1950s was a fecund period in chess problem history, one that saw the conceptions of many modern themes. Eponymous problems such as those originating the Zagoruiko and Rukhlis themes (complex elaboration of changed play) were published in this decade. Likewise many reversal themes, including the Dombrovskis and le Grand (where certain moves recur with new functions), began to flourish around this time. However, many of these sophisticated ideas turned out to have appeared in earlier problems, some even dating to the 19th century. The composers of these precursors were unlikely to have been consciously arranging the themes, but that hardly negates the quality of the works. Here I cite three instances of such “prescient” compositions, all from the 1870s and thus some 80 years ahead of their time.

J. G. De Montauban
La Stratégie 1877
Mate in 2

The idea of mate changes between set and actual play is of course very old, but the advent of virtual play gave rise to another form of changed mates, based on variations following white tries. The Zagoruiko theme specifies that (at least) two black defences have their mating replies changed across three phases of play, e.g. two virtual (post-tries) and one actual (post-key). In the example above, though the black king has three diagonal flights initially, the focus is on the non-capturing moves to c4 and e6. The first try 1.Qd8+? triggers 1…Kc4 2.Qd3 and 1…Ke6 2.Qd7, but there’s no mate after 1…Kxe4! The second try 1.Qf8? (waiting) produces a new pair of queen mates, 1…Kc4 2.Qc5 and 1…Ke6 2.Qf7, but again 1…Kxe4! refutes. After the key 1.Rf7! (waiting), the mates are changed once more to 1…Kc4 2.Qb3 and 1…Ke6 2.Qb3. This repeated queen move is a flaw, but the problem has more than enough good features to compensate. The key unguards c6 to complete the star-flights: 1…Kxc6 2.Qb7 and 1…Kxe4 2.Qxe5. The hyperactive queen executes all of the mates, and for each of the two thematic defences, there are no concurrent changes, i.e. the queen mates are never merely delivered from different squares along the same line. All of this is achieved in a miniature setting.

Joseph Finlinson
Huddersfield College Magazine 1878
Mate in 2

The Rukhlis theme blends changed mates and mate transference in the following way. Two thematic black defences are provided with set mates in the diagram position. When the key is played, these defences are answered by new mates, and further, the original mating moves in the set play become the correct responses to another pair of black moves. Here the main defences are 1…Rd8 and a random move by the c5-knight, 1…S5~ (not 1…S5xe6). As set, these moves act as simple unguards: 1…Rd8 2.Sxc7 and 1…S5~ 2.Be4. The excellent key 1.Sc6! concedes two flights to the black king and brings about zugzwang. Now 1…Rd8 opens a queen line to the flight on e6 and permits 2.Sb4, while 1…S5~ opens a rook line to the other flight on c6 and allows 2.Re5. The initial mating moves for these defences are transferred to the new flight-captures: 1…Kxe6 2.Sxc7 and 1…Kxc6 2.Be4. Remarkably, the former is a pin-mate with respect to the d7-rook, and the latter is a triple pin-mate with respect to the c5-knight, c7-knight, and d6-rook. The by-play consists of 1…S7~/Rxc6/bxc6 2.Re5 and 1…S5xe6/S7xe6/Rxe6 2.Sb4.

Jesse Taylor
Ladies’ Treasury 1879
Mate in 2

The Dombrovskis theme involves virtual and actual play where certain moves in the former phase recur in the latter, but with their functions changed in a paradoxical way. A white try threatens the mating move [A] and is refuted by the black defence [a]; in the actual play, however, it is this vey defence [a] that provokes the mating move [A]. Such a pattern must occur at least twice for the named theme to be achieved. In the diagram, the black king has two possible moves and the tries will attempt to remove one of these flights. The first try is 1.Kb4? which threatens 2.Bf3 [A], but it’s defeated by 1…Kd5! [a]. A symmetrical try 1.Kd4? threatens 2.Ba4 [B] and now 1…Kb5! [b] refutes. There’s a third try 1.Rb7? which again threatens 2.Bf3 [A], but it entails a different refutation, 1…Kxb7! [c]. The key 1.Ra8! (waiting) is also great here and (like the first example) leads to star-flights. Now the king defences ironically incite the mates they had stopped in the virtual play: 1…Kd5 [a] 2.Bf3 [A], 1…Kb5 [b] 2.Ba4 [B], and 1…Kb7 [c] 2.Bf3 [A], plus 1…Kd7 2.Ba4. Besides the repeated mating moves, a minor disadvantage here is that the refutation of a try is not very convincing when it’s the only legal move. Still, this Dombrovskis problem is noteworthy not only for its early date but for demonstrating the paradox three times, rather than the typical two.

Further examples of early problems effecting modern themes:
• Arthur Ford Mackenzie, The Sydney Morning Herald 1899 – Zagoruiko; Weekly Problem No.284.
• Arthur Mosely, Good Companions 1914 – Ideal Rukhlis; Weekly Problem No.338.
• Octave Chatillon, La Presse 1900 – Le Grand; Walkabout 8 Oct. 2017.

20 Dec. 2019 – Christmas problem-solving competition

The festive season is upon us, so let’s celebrate with a fun problem-solving contest with prizes! It’s something of a Christmas tradition for chess problemists to send one another greeting cards diagrammed with their own compositions – often of the unconventional variety. In keeping with that custom, here are three problems I’ve devised that may involve some thinking outside the box. Solve at least one of these positions for the chance to win one of two Redbubble.com gift certificates; more details are found at the end of this blog.

1. Miraculous setup
Helpmate in 2

We start with a quirky setup where a white piece and a black one are swapped in the initial array. Yes, it’s an illegal position but hey, it’s Christmas and anything is possible! Other than that, this solves as a standard helpmate-in-2 problem with the duplex condition, i.e. there’s a second solution in which White moves first and is mated by Black.

(Incidentally, this problem came about as a response to a construction challenge – create a sound helpmate-in-2 setting by making a single change to the initial array. The task wasn’t that simple, partly because of the need to eliminate the Fool’s mate, which is effectively the solution of an unsound helpmate-in-2 in the normal array. Hence in the diagram, for the Black-to-move part, 1.f6 e4 2.g5 Qh5 fails only because the black queen no longer blocks d8.)

2. Shuffling pieces
Is mate-in-1 legal?

In the popular Chess960 variant (aka Fischer random chess), the two players start the game with the main pieces randomly placed (and mirrored) on their first ranks. Suppose that the above position arose in such a game, where each player’s bishop-and-knight pairs were originally interchanged. Now apparently there is a mate-in-1 for Black, but is it actually a legal move? In other words, is it really possible that it’s Black to play in the diagram? To solve this one, put on your detective’s hat and work out what could have occurred in the game, regardless of how unlikely any moves may have been. Provide a short explanation or proof for your answer, whether it’s “yes” or “no”.

3. Festive jest
Joke problem
Mate in 1

Joke problems usually employ some kind of unorthodox idea or rule, without specifying what that condition could be. Solving them thus requires some lateral thinking; familiarity with classic examples of the genre could also help as the same rule may be in effect! The only other hint for No.3 is that it’s trickier than it may appear at first. Again, you have to supply a short explanation of why your mate-in-1 solution works.

To enter this competition, send your solutions to peterwong@virtualpieces.net. A correct solution to each problem earns one point, and your total number of points determines how many times you go in the draw for one of the prizes. So cracking all three problems will give you more chances, but you can still win by solving any one of them. The prizes are two Redbubble.com gift certificates, each to the value of 45 AUD. All sorts of merchandise are available from that site, including some with chess designs made by yours truly.

Be sure to mention your full name in your entry and use an email address that would be appropriate for receiving an online gift certificate, should you win. To be fair to all entrants, I won’t comment on the correctness of your answers while the competition is still open. The closing date is Jan. 5, 2020, and good luck!