Chess problem composers famous or distinguished in other fields
27 Oct. 2022 | by Peter Wong
Chess problemists, even the finest ones, generally have a “day job” because problem composing (unlike top-level chess playing) is not a professional activity. The question arises as to which problem composers have become so successful in their own professions that they are famous or eminent figures in their fields. I posed this question in the Mat Plus forum that’s frequented by problemists, naming a few examples (like the writer Vladimir Nabokov), and was amazed by the breadth of the responses. Some answers are well-known figures whom I did not realise have published chess problems; others are problem composers who have made remarkable achievements away from chess. Hence the following compilation of distinguished names is very much a group effort, and a big thank-you to my colleagues who gave suggestions.
A few notes on the criteria used in making this list of thirty composers. (1) The person should be sufficiently prominent to have their own Wikipedia article, which cites their non-chess related achievements. While the Wikipedia isn’t perfect, we need a basic test like this to exclude countless problemists who may have fruitful but more standard careers. (2) The “other field” in which a chess composer excels does not refer to chess playing. Exceptional masters of both the game and problems are another interesting topic, previously discussed in two blogs. (3) Some famous individuals, like Lewis Carroll and Marcel Duchamp, don’t make the cut because the chess positions they devised don’t seem to be “real” problems.
Assorted fields and some historic figures
Sam Loyd (1841-1911)
Known as “the Puzzle King”, Sam Loyd was a famous inventor and populariser of many kinds of recreational puzzles. He was a great chess composer who pioneered many areas of problems and played a significant role in the development of the field. His large output consists of orthodox directmates as well as less conventional types, such as retro-analytical problems.
Dmitry Ulyanov (1874-1943)
The younger brother of Vladimir Lenin, Dmitry Ulyanov was a doctor and Marxist activist who participated in the Russian revolutions of the early 20th century. He has a single entry in an online chess problem database, which quotes a letter from Lenin replying to his brother about this two-mover.
Aleister Crowley (1875-1947)
Aleister Crowley was a British occultist and prolific writer who founded a Western esoteric religion. Notorious in his lifetime, he retains influence as an anti-establishment figure. He was a keen chess player and occasional problemist who published some directmates and selfmates of reasonable quality.
Jeremy Morse (1928-2016)
Sir Jeremy Morse was a banker who served as a chairman in various financial institutions, including Lloyds Bank. The TV detective Inspector Morse is named after him. The author of Chess Problems: Tasks and Records, he was perhaps the world’s foremost expert on task problems. He composed mainly two-movers, besides venturing into record-length problems himself.
Jukka Tapanimäki (1961-2000)
Jukka Tapanimäki of Finland was a game programmer who in the 1980s wrote several successful games for the Commodore 64 computer. Only a small number of his chess problems are found online, but they tend to be sophisticated helpmates that include some prize-winners.
Alexander George is an American professor of philosophy at the Amherst College; he established the AskPhilosophers.org site that enables visitors to pose questions to a panel of philosophers. Although not prolific as a chess composer, he is versatile and has produced directmates, studies, retro-analytical and fairy problems.
Alfred de Musset (1810-1857)
Alfred de Musset was a French writer of the Romantic era, known for his poetry, plays and novels. He was an avid chess player who frequented the Café de la Régence, the Paris centre of European chess. It seems that he published only one chess problem, though various improved versions of it have appeared.
Lord Dunsany (1878-1957)
A famous writer of novels, short stories, plays, and essays, Lord Dunsany (real name Edward Plunkett) was especially notable for his influence on the fantasy genre. He composed many retro-analytical problems, one of which – anticipating Raymond Smullyan (see below) – was accompanied by a Sherlock Holmes story.
Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977)
Vladimir Nabokov was a Russian-American novelist and poet whose works, including Lolita and Speak, Memory, are viewed as among the greatest in English literature. The protagonist of his novel, The Gift, is a chess composer, like the author himself. Nabokov produced mostly two- and three-movers of a moderate quality.
Alexander Kazantsev (1906-2002)
A Russian writer of science fiction, Alexander Kazantsev also studied ufology and published popular non-fiction books on the subject. In problem composing, he gained the IM title on the basis of his first-rate endgame studies.
William K. Wimsatt (1907-1975)
William K. Wimsatt was an American professor of English and a literary theorist at Yale University. As a problemist himself, he was ideally qualified to co-write an article named “Vladimir Nabokov: More Chess Problems and the Novel”. He composed a fair number of directmates in the traditional style.
Tim Krabbé (1943-)
Tim Krabbé is a Dutch writer whose novels have been adapted into a number of films, including The Vanishing. He is a strong chess player, but is better known as the creator of the Chess Curiosities site, which often looks at unusual compositions. His own problems comprise directmates of various lengths and some helpmates.
Henry Dudeney (1857-1930)
A collaborator and rival of Sam Loyd, Henry Dudeney was a recreational mathematician who devised many popular puzzles, such as a classic example of verbal arithmetic. Only a casual chess composer, he produced mostly unconventional problems that involve retro-analysis or special conditions.
Walter W. Jacobs (1914-1982)
The many achievements of Walter W. Jacobs – a professor of mathematics, cryptologist, and Bletchley Park code-breaker – are examined in this article. He was a prominent American problem composer who worked in all orthodox genres and has a theme named after him.
Richard K. Guy (1916-2020)
Richard K. Guy was a British professor of mathematics at the University of Calgary, best known for co-writing Winning Ways for your Mathematical Plays. He attributed his graduating with second-class honours, rather than first-class, to his obsession with chess! Specifically, he was a proficient composer of many endgame studies.
Raymond Smullyan (1919-2017)
An American polymath, Raymond Smullyan was a mathematician, logician, pianist, magician and philosopher. He wrote prolifically on subjects ranging from logical puzzles to Eastern spirituality. His collections of retros, The Chess Mysteries of Sherlock Holmes and The Chess Mysteries of the Arabian Knights, are perhaps the most popular chess problem books ever written.
Richard P. Stanley (1944-)
Richard P. Stanley is an American professor of mathematics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He mainly composes retro-analytical problems, including proof games – a genre in which he has collaborated with his fellow mathematician, Noam Elkies (see below). Some of his compositions are an exotic blend of chess and mathematics.
Piotr Ruszczyński (1951-)
Andrzej Piotr Ruszczyński is a Polish-American applied mathematician and a professor at Princeton University among other institutes. He is a versatile IM of chess composition, accomplished in all orthodox types, namely directmates of various lengths, helpmates, selfmates, and endgame studies.
Jonathan Mestel (1957-)
Jonathan Mestel is a British professor of applied mathematics at Imperial College London. In chess he is well known as a GM player, but in the problem field he’s also a GM solver. As a composer, he favours helpmates and proof games while also devising some selfmates and studies.
Noam Elkies (1966-)
The American Noam Elkies is a mathematician who at the age of 26 became the youngest ever professor at Harvard University. In chess composition, he works in many genres including proof games, helpmates, and selfmates, but his endgame studies are especially impressive.
Robin Matthews (1927-2010)
Robin Matthews was a British professor of political economy at both Oxford and Cambridge University. An IM of chess composition, he was renowned for his top-class three-movers. He collaborated with his fellow economist and problemist Michael Lipton (see below) in writing Chess Problems: Introduction to an Art.
Emilian Dobrescu (1933-)
A member of the Romanian Academy, Emilian Dobrescu is an influential economist who helped to shape his government’s economic policies. He achieved the GM title in chess composition in 1989. While he has made some directmates, he is primarily known for his outstanding endgame studies.
Michael Lipton (1937-)
A British professor of economics at the University of Sussex, Michael Lipton has also contributed his studies on developing countries to the World Bank. As a problemist, he creates mostly modern-style two-movers and also some three-movers. He became an IM of chess composition in 1976.
Frederick Esling (1860-1955)
Frederick Esling was an Australian railway engineer responsible for many major projects in Melbourne, Victoria. He won the first official chess championship of Australia. A regular composer, he produced mostly traditional three- and four-movers with complex play.
Ottó Bláthy (1860-1939)
The Hungarian Ottó Bláthy was an electrical engineer who co-invented many essential devices, such as the modern electric transformer. He composed all types of orthodox problems, but is famous for his extremely lengthy directmates and selfmates. Jeremy Morse (see above) called him a pioneering genius in these types of record problems.
Alain C. White (1880-1951)
Alain C. White was an American botanist who established the White-Sloane Collection of plants and wrote several books on the subject. A prolific composer who was most adept at two- and three-movers, he’s considered a giant in chess problem history for publishing the classic Christmas Series of books.
Thomas R. Dawson (1889-1951)
Thomas R. Dawson was an English chemist who held various prominent positions in the rubber industry and authored reference texts on the substance. Regarded as “the father of fairy chess”, he invented many unorthodox problem forms and pieces that remain popular today. Besides his numerous books, he produced more than 6000 (!) compositions in many genres.
Erich Zepler (1898-1980)
Erich Zepler was a German-English professor of electronics at the University of Southampton; his radio design was apparently the basis of many built during World War II. He was an IM of chess composition who focused on three-movers and longer directmates. The Zepler doubling is a problem manoeuvre named after him.
Lionel Penrose (1898-1972)
Lionel Penrose was an English professor of human genetics at the University College London, and also a psychiatrist and mathematician. His famous family includes sons Jonathan Penrose, a GM chess player, and Roger Penrose, a philosopher who has used chess problems to illustrate his arguments. Best at composing was the father, whose many two-movers include some prize-winners.
Milan Vukčević (1937-2003)
Milan Vukčević was a Yugo-American chemist and professor of metallurgy. An expert on incandescent lighting, he was nominated for the Nobel Prize in chemistry. His remarkable versatility as a great chess player, problem solver and composer is covered in this blog. He was a GM of composition, proficient in all types of problems.