Attributions, anticipations, and plagiarism in chess compositions
11 Jun. 2023 | by Peter Wong
Composing chess problems is a creative art that takes skill, time, and effort, so it’s only natural that when an original work is published, it’s always accompanied by the author’s name. It’s also normal, when quoting a problem, to identify the composer and provide the source and date of first publication. These standard practices, however, are not always followed – whether by accident or intention – and the resulting difficulties are in various degrees the bane of the chess problem world. Let’s take an informal look at the three main types of incorrect attributions: (1) the lack of attribution at all when presenting a composed problem, (2) anticipation, where a composer unknowingly recreates another problemist’s work, and (3) plagiarism, where a person claims credit for a composition produced by someone else.
Attributions (lack of)
Such online content creators earn money by entertaining their followers with these chess positions, so it’s dubious not to acknowledge their real authors. Furthermore, the mass audiences of these platforms include plenty of newcomers who may falsely assume that the expert or titled player explaining a composition is responsible for making it. In other words, a sort of unintentional plagiarism could be occurring. Take the case, in the analogue world, of Chess: 5334 Problems, Combinations and Games, a popular book that includes hundreds of composed problems (apart from the tactics puzzles) with no indication of their sources. An average player picking up the book could be forgiven for believing that the person named on the cover, Laszlo Polgar, had devised these positions.
I think the most egregious instance of inappropriate attribution in chess compositions is the so-called “Plaskett’s Puzzle”. This is the brilliant endgame study by the Dutch problemist, Gijs van Breukelen (1946-2022), one that has captured the imaginations of chess players and garnered countless reposts and discussions. Absurdly, the study acquired its name simply because the GM James Plaskett posed it as a challenge to the competitors of a top-class tournament in 1987. Imagine a scenario where Plaskett has played a sensational game that ends with a terrific combination, and then van Breukelen showed it to his fellow problemists as a solving task. Does that mean Plaskett’s creation should become known as “van Breukelen’s Game”?
In brief, anticipations arise because problemists gravitate towards the same worthwhile themes and if they hit on similar initial matrices, a certain logic in the construction process can lead them to arrive at practically the same setting. Most established composers probably have been struck by this type of “misfortune” at some points. In this regard I may be typical in producing a few anticipated works in my formative years, and then with experience learned which ideas are well-worn and should be avoided. Nowadays, online problem databases make it easier to check for anticipations before publishing one’s works, though employing such tools doesn’t guarantee originality.
As illustrations, it’s not commonly known that the two most famous compositions by Raymond Smullyan (1919-2017) were anticipated. These are the retro-analytical problems featured on the covers of his books, The Chess Mysteries of Sherlock Holmes (1979) and The Chess Mysteries of the Arabian Knights (1981). Although Smullyan published the latter problem prior in Manchester Guardian 1957, that was still years after the appearance of a very similar work.
The Fairy Chess Review 1956
Black to play
What was the last move?
In the first case, it’s apparent that Smullyan’s position is merely a reflection (with a colour change) of Mortensen’s earlier problem, thus the anticipation is complete. The original’s solution is as follows. It’s stipulated that Black is to play, so White has just moved and the king came from a2 (not adjacent to the black king). However, on a2 the king would be in an impossible check by the black bishop, which couldn’t have just played to g8 because of the h7-pawn. The only way the position could have arisen is that the white king has just captured a black knight on a1, and prior to that (with the king on a2), Black made a discovered check, …Sb3-a1+. Therefore the last move was Ka2xSa1.
Sahovski Vjesnik 1950
What was the last move?
The second problem by Smullyan is substantially anticipated by Pavlovic’s, which features the same retro-play regardless of the different task specified. Here the white bishop on h4 is checking Black, but the blocking g5-rook means that White didn’t move the bishop directly. Rather, White must have checked by discovery with the king coming from g3. If the last move was simply Kg3-f3+, however, the king would've been in an impossible double-check by the black rook and bishop (neither of which could have discovered check). Such a double-check could in fact come about only by means of an en passant capture. White’s last move was Kg3xPf3+, and before that Black delivered the double-check by playing …g4xf3 e.p.+. Retracting further, White played f2-f4 in answer to a bishop check on e5. This gem of a retro problem conceals an e.p. capture in an economical pawnless setting. Smullyan’s version, instead of posing the standard retro task of finding the last move, asks the solver to replace the missing white king on the right square. It's delightful that there’s only one legally viable square (c3, generating the Pavlovic position reflected), so arguably this is a slight improvement on the original.
For another classic example, see the second position in this blog about the shortest possible games to stalemate. Here the best capture-free game is often misattributed to Sam Loyd, when he was anticipated by Charles Wheeler.
Many years ago I came across a Chess.com user who posted a dozen endgame studies on the Forum and claimed to have created them. It took me just a few minutes to find most of these studies in online databases, which provided illustrious names like Rinck and Troitsky as their real authors. When I pointed this out on the Forum, he promptly closed his account!
The most infamous plagiarist in chess problem history is Percy Wenman (1891-1972). He published numerous problem collections, some of which have proper attributions, but in others where he claimed authorship of all the cited positions, large portions of them were in fact lifted from other composers. Researchers who have exposed his offences include the late problemist Cyril Kipping (when Wenman was still active), and more recently the chess writer, Edward Winter. Refer to the latter’s Chess Notes 5641, P. Wenman and plagiarism. To finish on a lighter note, I’m reminded of a jocular literary competition run by British chess problemists, to write a two-line verse about someone in the composition field, starting with “I am the ghost of [insert name]:”. The winning entry by Michael McDowell was:
I am the ghost of Wenman P.:
Some of my problems were made by me.