Modern themes rendered in pre-modern times

19 Nov. 2019 | by Peter Wong

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: