The greatest masters of both the game and problems – Part 1
27 May 2018 | by Peter Wong
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.