Tempo Play

No.20 | by Peter Wong

Tempo play is a paradoxical idea which, though appearing in many types of problems, is most richly expressed in the helpmate genre. In certain helpmate situations, a player who has the move is already positioned correctly, while the other side needs to arrange the pieces further. Since to pass on a turn is forbidden, the first player must use up the time somehow, without weakening the set-up. The precise way to accomplish this – how to purposefully “do nothing” in spite of the stipulated move limit – is known as tempo play. A pure tempo move or manoeuvre, then, entails no constructive effects and is motivated only by the compulsion to play.

115. Josif Kricheli
Shakhmaty 1964, 2nd Prize

Helpmate in 2, 2 solutions

Both White and Black carry out tempo play in Problem 115. The white knight is poised to give two indirect battery mates on e7 and f4. The first mate is currently stopped by the e5-rook, so Black plans to move that rook away and replace the self-block on e5 with the knight from c4. However, a ‘random’ placement of the rook such as 1.Rh5? would fail, because on White’s turn every possible move will disturb the scheme. In notation, this ‘try’ or near-solution is given as 1.Re~ ?? 2.Se5 Se7, where ‘??’ signifies White’s lack of a tempo move. The solution requires Black to play specifically to provide White with a tempo (marked by ‘!’), by freeing the king: 1.Re3 Kg1! 2.Se5 Se7. The second mate, …Sf4, does not protect the rook on c6, so White wants to shift that rook away to guard that square; any rook move along the c-file would in turn leave d6 unprotected, and this prompts Black to block that square with the knight. Now this plan runs into the problem of Black not having a waiting move: 1.Sd6 Rc~ 2.?? Sf4. The scheme will work only if White provides Black with a tempo, and this is done by using the rook to close the first rank, to enable the b1-bishop to move without giving a disruptive check: 1.Sd6 Rc1 2.Bd3! Sf4.

116. Almiro Zarur
Argentina-Brazil Composing Match 1989
1st Place

Helpmate in 2, 2 solutions

In Problem 116, the white tempo play is coupled with subtle line-opening strategy. Two immediate mates by the e4-knight are prevented solely by the pinning c2-bishop, which must stay put to block a flight. The incarcerated white king cannot unpin the knight directly, so one of the black knights has to arrange it by interposing on d3. These black knights have four ways to approach d3, two of which are thematic tries, and they fail due to the lack of a white tempo. The first try is 1.Sxf2 ?? 2.Sd3 Sc3, and not 2…Sed2?, because the removal of the f2-pawn has opened the 2nd rank and allowed the g2-rook to control d2. The second try is 1.Sxe5 ?? 2.Sd3 Sed2, and similarly not 2…Sc3?, because the e5-pawn’s removal has given the black queen access to c3. This try also involves a specific tempo attempt that falls short: 1…f3? would again open the 2nd rank for the black rook and so prevent the intended mate on d2. In the solutions, Black likewise captures a white pawn and opens a black line of defence, thereby eliminating one of the knight mates. Consequently, White has to choose carefully from the two tempo options, to ensure that the other knight mate remains viable. 1.Sxc5 e6! (not 1…f3?) 2.Sd3 Sed2 (not 2…Sc3?), and 1.Sxf4 f3! (not 1…e6?) 2.Sd3 Sc3 (not 2…Sed2?).

117. Jacques Rotenberg & Michel Caillaud
Phénix 1995, 1st Prize

Helpmate in 2, 2 solutions

In Problem 117, the black king initially has two flights on b3 and b4, which proved to be not controllable by the available pieces. The king therefore goes to another square to be mated, and if d5 or d4 were unguarded by White, Kd5 would permit …Qxe6 mate, and Kd4 would permit …Qxe4 mate. However, Black must begin and surprisingly all legal moves seem to ruin these intended lines. Thus, in the first tempo try 1.?? S~ 2.Kd5 Qxe6, any move by the e6-bishop would protect e6, and any move by the e4-rook move would create a flight on e4, stopping the queen mate in either case. And in the second try 1.?? B~ 2.Kd4 Qxe4, any initial rook move would guard e4, and any initial bishop move would pin the white bishop, spoiling White’s plan either way. The two solutions show how Black ‘conspires’ with White to deal with these difficulties, by playing a tempo move that has an additional paradoxical effect. 1.Bd5! obstructs the square meant for the black king, obliging White to clear the square again with a capture, 1…Sxd5 2.Kxd5 Qe6. The second solution also commences with a seemingly counter-productive tempo, 1.Rd4!, followed by similar sacrificial play, 1…Bxd4 2.Kxd4 Qe4.

118. Michel Caillaud
Olympic Tourney 1984, 1st Prize

Helpmate in 2, 2 solutions

Problem 118 demonstrates a curious form of tempo play in which the players do not make any actual tempo move. In this position, Black will take two moves to help prepare for either knight mate, …Sd4 or …Sf4. The first mate requires the black queen to unguard d4 and the e7-knight to self-block on d5, while the second mate necessitates the g4-rook to unguard f4 and the same knight to block f5. Meanwhile, White wants to make a non-disruptive move, but none is available, since the e8-bishop and g8-knight in particular have to maintain their control of the black king’s flights: 1.Q~ ?? 2.Sd5 Sd4, and 1.Rg~ ?? 2.Sf5 Sf4. Black therefore seeks to provide White with a first move. Unexpectedly, this is achieved only by capturing each of vital white pieces in question: 1.Qxe8 fxe8=B 2.Sd5 Sd4, and 1.Rxg8+ fxg8=S 2.Sf5 Sf4. White’s promotion moves are necessary to re-confine the black king, hence they cannot be regarded as pure tempo moves. Nevertheless, the problem overall depicts tempo play, given that the solutions are logically designed to overcome the tempo difficulties seen in the tries.

119. Janos Csak
idee & form 1991, 4th Hon. Mention

Helpmate in 3, 3 solutions

In Problem 119, Black’s pieces are already placed exactly where they are needed for White to give a knight mate on f4. Because the knight will take three moves to reach f4, a simple switchback by Black that wastes two moves would not work, e.g. 1.Sh2 Se3 2.Sf3 Sd5 3.?? Sf4. Instead, Black must ‘triangulate’ with a piece to use up precisely three moves. Three black pieces are capable of such a manoeuvre, and in each instance Black’s play forces the white knight to take a particular route. 1.Kd3 Sb6 2.Ke3 Sd5+ 3.Ke2 Sf4, 1.Rh1 Se3 2.Rhg1+ Sg2 3.Rgf1 Sf4, and 1.Bb3 Sb2 2.Bc2+ Sd3 3.Bd1 Sf4. The interplay between the two sides also ensures a single move order for each black tempo manoeuvre, e.g. not Rg1-h1-f1 because of the too early check.

120. Fadil Abdurahmanovic
Nepuzlan Memorial Tourney 1985

Helpmate in 2, 2 solutions

Problem 120, which blends tempo play with another well-known idea, is for you to solve.


1.a1=B g8=R! 2.Bf6 Sh6, and 1.Sh8 gxh8=Q 2.a1=S! Se5. Both White and Black play a tempo promotion move, as part of the Allumwandlung theme of four different promoted pieces. Note that in the first solution, even though the promoted white rook is required to guard the f8-flight, the promoting move is still a pure tempo, because the white pawn was already attacking f8 from its initial square.