The greatest masters of both the game and problems – Part 2

28 Jun. 2018 | by Peter Wong

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.