Vladimir Nabokov in ‘The Problemist’

10 Jun. 2019 | by Peter Wong

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!