Dark Doings problems – Part 1

24 Apr. 2024 | by Peter Wong

The name Dark Doings refers to composed problems in which the white force consists solely of the king and one other unit (if any), while Black possesses the full set of sixteen pieces. This maximum contrast in materials creates arresting diagram positions, and there’s a certain wit about such problems that seem to depict White prevailing against overwhelming odds. The Hungarian composer Ottó Bláthy originated the term Dark Doings in a 1922 Chess Amateur article, which includes many of his own renditions of the scheme. Some of these compositions have become classics, such as his oft-quoted mate-in-16 and mate-in-12. In the century since, problemists have continued to employ this special form of material to express a variety of themes in different genres. Here we shall look at a number of outstanding orthodox examples.

Rolf Uppström
Die Schwalbe 1996

Mate in 1

Our first selection I view as an ideal introduction to the field of retro-analytical problems. White apparently has two alternative mating moves, 1.Rf1 and 1.0-0, but is castling actually possible in this position? By problem convention, castling is permitted unless it can be proved by retro-analysis that the king or the rook must have moved previously. Since it’s White to play here, Black made the last move and if it wasn’t a capture, then just before that White must have moved the king or the rook, given the absence of other white units. Can we prove that Black’s last move wasn’t a capture? Yes, first by examining the black pawn structure, which could have arisen only if the pawns had made 14 captures (e.g. g7-g6xh5, f7-f6xg5xh4, e7-e6xf5xg4xh3, d7-d6xe5xf4xg3, c7-c5xd4xe3, b7-b6xc5xd4, a7xb6). Since these 14 captures account for all of White’s missing units, none of the other black pieces could have captured at all. Furthermore, no pawns in the diagram are able to take back an immediate capture, because such diagonal retractions are all currently blocked by other units (the exception c7xb6 would imply Black had made a total of 16 pawn captures, which is impossible). Therefore Black couldn’t have just captured and White’s previous move was made by the king or the rook. Hence castling is proved to be illegal and the unique solution is 1.Rf1.

Julius Buchwald
Die Schwalbe 1964, 7th Hon. Mention

Mate in 4

In this four-mover, the white king has three ways to unblock the b7-pawn. 1.Ka8? seems the strongest by keeping guard of a7, so as to threaten an immediate knight promotion mate, but the pinning 1…Be4! refutes. 1.Kc8? threatens 2.b8=Q followed by a queen mate on a8 or b7, and White isn’t bothered by 1…Bf5? 2.b8=Q d6+ 3.Kc7 Be4 4.Qxb6; but 1…Be4! 2.b8=Q Se3 3.Kc7 (4.Qxb6) Sd5+ and Black is covered. The key 1.Kc7! attacks b6 such that 1…Be4? becomes a weak defence against 2.b8=Q (3.Qxb6) Bb7 3.Qxb7. However, Black has a stronger defence 1…c2 which activates the b3-rook, and now 2.b8=Q? fails to 2…Rc3+ 3.Kd8 Rc8+/Rc7. The correct response is 2.Kb8!, paradoxically blocking the white pawn again; White exploits the fact that 1…c2 has trapped the b1-bishop, which can no longer stop the threat of 3.Ka8 and 4.b8=S. Black does have a substitute defence with the rook, but 2…Rc3 leads to 3.Ka8 Rc8+ 4.bxc8=Q. A subsidiary variation, 1…Se3 2.b8=Q Sd5+ 3.Kc8 (4.Qa8/Qb7) Sc7 4.Qb7, rounds off the solution.

Vladimir Janal & Grigory Popov
YouTube 2008
After Karl Fabel

Mate in 14

Both black knights are stuck defending against knight mates on d4 and e5. That means after the key 1.Kxc2!, Black is almost in zugzwang and has no choice but to shuffle the rook back-and-forth between h3 and h4. White’s plan consists of making a king trek to g5 in order to capture the rook, after which a knight mate is forced. This trek needs to be precise, given that the king should avoid most white squares – otherwise a black knight can check and gain a tempo, e.g. 1…Rh3 2.Kb3? Sc1+ and the black king escapes via e2. However, we note that White’s king may still access a white square when Black’s only checking reply is …Sd4+ or …Se5+, either of which is answerable by a mating capture.

1…Rh3 2.Kb2 Rh4 3.Ka3 Rh3 4.Kb4 Rh4 5.Kc5 Rh3 6.Kd6 Rh4. At this point, it seems natural to continue with 7.Ke7? Rh3 8.Kf8 (8.Kf7? Sh6+) Rh4 9.Kg7 Rh3 10.Kg6 Rh4 (10…Se5+? 11.Sxe5) 11.Kg5, but the timing is off and the rook eludes capture with 11…Rh3, after which White lacks a waiting move (12.Kf5 or an earlier 11.Kf5 still fails against …Sh6+). Instead, White must lose a tempo and this is the right moment to do so with 7.Ke6! Since 7…Sd4+ loses to 8.Sxd4, Black must continue with 7…Rh3 8.Ke7 Rh4 9.Kf8 Rh3 10.Kg7 Rh4 11.Kg6 Rh3 12.Kg5 h4 – saving but also imprisoning the rook (12…Rh4 13.Kxh4). Then 13.Kg6  puts Black in zugzwang at last: 13…Se~ 14.Sd4 or 13…Sg~ 14.Se5. A fantastic composition; it’s remarkable how the white king has just one viable square, e6, to lose a tempo during the whole journey. Not c4, for instance, because of a discovered check from the f1-bishop.

Boris Sidorov
64 1981

White to play and draw

This “Light Doings” diagram seems out-of-place for our topic, but it makes a fascinating couplet with the Dark Doings problem below by the same author – the two are equivalent positions that are colour-reversed. In the first study, White is playing to draw despite having an enormous material advantage, because of Black’s deadly mating threat, …Bxc7. White needs to prevent that mate at every step of the solution, while also preparing to shift the b5-rook away to allow the permanent defence, Sb5. After 1.Bh2 Bxh2, the d5-pawn obstructs 2.Re5, and 2.d6? is ineffective against 2…Bxd6 3.R~ Bxc7. Before the d6-advance, White must be ready to defend c7 with the queen on h2, and this tactic requires two more sacrifices to clear the second rank, 2.g3 Bxg3 3.Rf4 Bxf4. Then 4.d6 Bxd6 is safe for White in view of 5.Qh2. Once the bishop is lured back across the e5-square with 5…Bxh2, White is finally able to play 6.Re5 Bxe5 7.Sb5. Black now makes a waiting move, 7…Bh2 (or 7…Bg3/Bf4), which leaves White almost paralysed because the b5-knight can’t move without allowing mate (8.Sd6? Bxd6 9.f6 Bxc7). But 8.f6 is possible with a strong promotion threat, which Black cannot handle without releasing the crushing white force; hence Black’s best reply is to force stalemate with 8…Bxc7+ 9.Sxc7.

Boris Sidorov
Sahs/Schachmaty 1985, 2nd Hon. Mention

White to play and draw

Except for the placement of the lone bishop, this study position simply switches the pieces’ colours of the previous one (with a board rotation). Indeed, after the correct start 1.Be3, the two positions are exactly equivalent. But oddly enough, the task of the problem doesn’t get switched: it’s still White to draw. This is in effect a duplex study, meaning that either diagram would work as a two-in-one problem where the solver must fulfil the same goal twice, once for each side. The idea of a duplex Draw study normally makes little sense, because if the same position is played from the opponent’s perspective, their apparent advantage (which requires precise play to overcome) should lead to multiple ways to force a draw, resulting in a hopelessly unsound problem. In this case, however, not only is the duplex or switched position sound, but amusingly, its solution is exactly the same as that for the original study.

White has to keep threatening a bishop mate on f2, otherwise Black’s material advantage is decisive. 1…Ba7 2.Bxa7 b6 3.Bxb6 Rc5 4.Bxc5 e3 5.Bxe3 Qa7 6.Bxa7 Rd4 7.Bxd4 Sg4. Now the waiting move 8.Ba7 (the dual 8.Bb6/Bc5 is a flaw) puts Black in zugzwang and induces 8…c3. After this pawn move, which inadvertently guards d2 and traps the king, White can bring about stalemate with 9.Bxf2+ Sxf2. The original humour of this pair of studies lies in the different motivations behind the very same moves played by the two sides. In a regular study where your goal is to force a draw, the opponent must be aiming to win, otherwise there’s no conflict. Yet here, when the position is reversed and you’re playing the opponent’s side, you are prudently given the task to draw. In each study position, who exactly is fighting for a draw?