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Chess problem

A chess problem is a puzzle set by a composer using chess pieces on a chess board, presenting the solver with a particular task to be achieved. For instance, a position might be given with the instruction that white is to move first, and checkmate black in two moves against any possible defence. There is a good deal of specialised jargon used in chess problems; see chess problem terminology for a list.

Exactly what constitutes a chess problem, is, to a degree, open to debate. However, the kinds of things published in the problem section of chess magazines, in specialist chess problem magazines, and in collections of chess problems in book form, tend to have certain common characteristics:

  1. The position is composed - that is, it has not been taken from an actual game, but has been invented for the specific purpose of providing a problem.

  2. There is a specific aim, for example, to checkmate black within a specified number of moves. This distinguishes problems from positions taken from games or game-like positions where the task is simply to find the best move.

  3. There is a theme and the problem is aesthetically pleasing. A problem's theme is an underlying idea, giving coherence and beauty to its solution. It is this aesthetic element, as much as the challenge of actually solving the problem, which makes chess problems attractive to many people.

Table of contents
1 Types of problem
2 Beauty in chess problems
3 Example problem
4 Further reading
5 External links

Types of problem

There are various different types of chess problem:

All the above may also be found in forms of fairy chess - chess played with unorthodox rules, possibly using fairy pieces (unorthodox pieces).

In addition, there is the study, in which the stipulation is that white to play must win or draw. Almost all studies are endgame positions. Because the study is composed it is related to the problem, but because the stipulation is open-ended (the win or draw does not have to be achieved within any particular number of moves) it is usually thought of as separate from the problem. However, particularly long more-movers sometimes have the character of a study - there is no clear dividing line between the two.

In all the above types of problem, castling is assumed to be allowed unless it can be proved by retrograde analysis (see below) that the rook in question or king must have previously moved. En passant captures, on the other hand, are assumed not to be allowed, unless it can be proved that the pawn in question must have moved two squares on the previous move.

There are several other types of chess problem which do not follow the usual chess pattern of two sides playing moves towards checkmate. Some of these, like the knight's tour are essentially one-offs, but other types have been revisited many times, with magazines, books and prizes being dedicated to them:

Beauty in chess problems

There are no official standards by which to distinguish a beautiful problem from a poor one, and judgement varies from individual to individual as well as from generation to generation, but modern taste generally recognizes the following elements as being important if a problem is to be regarded as beautiful:

Example problem

The following is a problem composed by T. Taverner in 1881. It is a directmate, with white to move and mate in 2:


The key move is Rh1. The key difficult to find, because it makes no threat -- instead, it put black in zugzwang, a situation where every move is worse than no move, but move he must! Each of black's nineteen legal replies allows an immediate mate. For example, if black defends with 1...Bxh7, the d5 square is no longer guarded, and white mates with 2.Nd5#. Or if black plays 1...Re5, he blocks that escape square for his king allowing 2.Qg4#. Yet if black could pass (i.e. make no move at all) white would have no way to mate on his second move.

The thematic approach to solving is then to notice that in the original position, black is already almost in zugzwang. If black were compelled to play first, only Re3 and Bg5 would not allow immediate mate. However, each of those two moves blocks a critical escape square for the black king (a flight square), and once white has removed his rook from h2 he can put some other piece on that square to deliver mate: 1...Re3 2. Bh2# and 1...Bg5 2.Qh2#.

The arrangement of the black rooks and bishops, with a pair of adjacent rook flanked by a pair of bishops, is known to problemists as Organ Pipes. This arrangement means the black pieces get in the way of each other: for example, consider what happens after the key if black plays 1...Bf7. White now mates with 2.Qf5#, a move which is only possible because the bishop black moved has got in the way of the rook's guard of f5 - this is known as a self-interference. Similarly, if black tries 1...Rf7, this interferes with the bishop's guard of d5, meaning white can mate with Nd5#. Mutual interferences like this, between two pieces on one square, are known as Grimshaw interferences. There are several Grimshaw interferences in this problem.

Further reading

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