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Chess problem

A chess problem, also called a chess composition, is a puzzle set by somebody using chess pieces on a chess board, that presents 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 defense. A person who creates such problems is known as a composer. There is a good deal of specialized jargon used in connection with chess problems; see glossary of chess problems for a list.

The term "chess problem" is not sharply defined: there is no clear demarcation between chess compositions on the one hand and puzzles or tactical exercises on the other. In practice, however, the distinction is very clear. There are common characteristics shared by compositions in the problem section of chess magazines, in specialist chess problem magazines, and in collections of chess problems in book form. Not every chess problem has every one of these features, but most have several:

Problems can be contrasted with tactical puzzles often found in chess columns or magazines in which the task is to find the best move or sequence of moves (usually leading to mate or gain of material) from a given position. Such puzzles are often taken from actual games, or at least have positions which look as if they could have arisen during a game, and are used for instructional purposes. Most such puzzles fail to exhibit the above features.

Types of problem

Godfrey Heathcote
Hampstead and Highgate Express,
1905-06 (1st Prize)
a b c d e f g h
8
8
7 7
6 6
5 5
4 4
3 3
2 2
1 1
a b c d e f g h
White mates in two 

Solution: 1.Rcc7! (threatening 2.Nc3)

  • 1...Nxb3 2.Qd3#
  • 1...Nb5 2.Rc5#
  • 1...Nc6 2.Rcd7#
  • 1...Ne6 2.Red7#
  • 1...Nf5 2.Re5#
  • 1...Nf3 2.Qe4#
  • 1...Ne2 2.Qxh5#
  • 1...Nc2 2.b4#
  • 1...Rxa4 2.Rc5#
  • 1...Rc5 2.Rxc5#
When a black knight moves to the maximum number of eight squares like this, it is known as a knight wheel.

Lutz Neweklowsky, 2001
(after Ken Thompson
& Peter Karrer 2000)
a b c d e f g h
8
8
7 7
6 6
5 5
4 4
3 3
2 2
1 1
a b c d e f g h
Mate in 267 moves; the longest moremover without obtrusive units

There are various different types of chess problems:

Except for the directmates, the above are also considered forms of fairy chess insofar as they involve unorthodox rules.

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 legal, 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 fall into any of the above categories. Some of these are really coded mathematical problems, expressed using the geometry and pieces of the chessboard. A famous such problem is the knight's tour, in which one is to determine the path of a knight that visits each square of the board exactly once. Another is the eight queens problem, in which eight queens are to be placed on the board so that none is attacking any of the others.

Of far greater relation to standard chess problems, however, are the following, which have a rich history and have been revisited many times, with magazines, books and prizes dedicated to them:

Beauty in chess problems

The role of aesthetic evaluation in the appreciation of chess problems is very significant, and indeed most composers and solvers consider such compositions to be an art form. Vladimir Nabokov wrote about the "originality, invention, conciseness, harmony, complexity, and splendid insincerity" of creating chess problems and spent considerable time doing so. There are no official standards by which to distinguish a beautiful problem from a poor one and such judgments can vary from individual to individual as well as from generation to generation. Such variation is to be expected when it comes to aesthetic appraisal. Nevertheless, modern taste generally recognises the following elements to be important in the aesthetic evaluation of a problem:

Example problem

Thomas Taverner
Dubuque Chess Journal,
1889 (1st Prize)
a b c d e f g h
8
8
7 7
6 6
5 5
4 4
3 3
2 2
1 1
a b c d e f g h
White mates in two

To the right is a directmate problem composed by Thomas Taverner in 1881.

The key move is 1.Rh1!!. This is difficult to find because it makes no threat - instead, it puts Black in zugzwang, a situation in which every move leads to a disadvantage, yet the player must move. 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, Black blocks that escape square for his king allowing 2.Qg4#. If Black plays 1...Rf6, then 2.Rh4#. Yet if Black could only 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 to notice then 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 flight square for the black king, and once White has removed his rook from h2 White 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 rooks flanked by a pair of bishops, is known to problemists as Organ Pipes. This arrangement is designed to illustrate the effect of mutual Black interferences: 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, allowing White to mate with Nd5#. Mutual interferences like this, between two pieces on one square, are known as Grimshaw interferences. The theme this problem exhibits is precisely such Grimshaw interferences.

Abbreviations

For reasons of space and internationality, various abbreviations are often used in chess problem journals to indicate a problem's stipulation (whether it is a mate in two, helpmate in four, or whatever). The most common are:

These are combined with a number to indicate how many moves the goal must be achieved in. "#3", therefore, indicates a mate in three, while "ser-h=14" indicates a series help stalemate in 14 (i.e., Black makes 14 moves in a row such that White can subsequently make one move to deliver stalemate).

In studies, the symbols "+" and "=" are used to indicate "White to play and win" and "White to play and draw" respectively.

Tournaments

Various tournaments (or tourneys) exist for both the composition and solving of chess problems.

Composition tournaments

Composition tourneys may be formal or informal. In formal tourneys, the competing problems are not published before they are judged, while in informal tourneys they are. Informal tourneys are often run by problem magazines and other publications with a regular problem section; it is common for every problem to have been published in a particular magazine within a particular year to be eligible for an informal award. Formal tourneys are often held to commemorate a particular event or person. The World Chess Composing Tournament (WCCT) is a formal tourney for national teams organised by the Permanent Commission of the FIDE for Chess Compositions (PCCC).

In both formal and informal tourneys, entries will normally be limited to a particular genre of problem (for example, mate in twos, moremovers, helpmates) and may or may not have additional restrictions (for example, problems in patrol chess, problems showing the Lacny theme, problems using fewer than nine units). Honours are usually awarded in three grades: these are, in descending order of merit, prizes, honourable mentions, and commendations. As many problems as the judge sees fit may be placed in each grade, and the problems within each grade may or may not be ranked (so an award may include a 1st Honourable Mention, a 2nd Honourable Mention, and a 3rd Honourable Mention, or just three unranked Honourable Mentions).

After an award is published, there is a period (typically around three months) in which individuals may claim honoured problems are anticipated (that is, that an identical problem, or nearly so, had been published at an earlier date) or unsound (i.e., that a problem has cooks or no solution). If such claims are upheld, the award may be adjusted accordingly. At the end of this period, the award becomes final. It is normal to indicate any honour a problem has received when it is republished.

Solving tournaments

Solving tournaments also fall into two main types. In tourneys conducted by correspondence, the participants send their entries by post or e-mail. These are often run on similar terms to informal composition tourneys; indeed, the same problems which are entries in the informal composition tourney are often also set in the solving tourney. It is impossible to eliminate the use of computers in such tournaments, though some problems, such as those with particularly long solutions, will not be well-suited to solution by computer.

Other solving tourneys are held with all participants present at a particular time and place. They have only a limited amount of time to solve the problems, and the use of any solving aid other than a chess set is prohibited. The most notable tournament of this type is the World Chess Solving Championship, organised by the PCCC.

In both types of tourney, each problem is worth a specified number of points, often with bonus points for finding cooks or correctly claiming no solution. Incomplete solutions are awarded an appropriate proportion of the points available. The solver amassing the most points is the winner.

Titles

Just as in over-the-board play, the titles International Grandmaster, International Master and FIDE Master are awarded by FIDE via the Permanent Commission of the FIDE for Chess Compositions (PCCC) for especially distinguished problem and study composers and solvers (unlike over-the-board chess, however, there are no women-only equivalents to these titles in problem chess).

For composition, the International Master title was established in 1959, with André Chéron, Arnoldo Ellerman, Alexander Gerbstmann, Jan Hartong, Cyril Kipping and Marian Wróbel being the first honorary recipients. In subsequent years, qualification for the IM title, as well as for the GM title (first awarded in 1972 to Genrikh Kasparyan, Lev Loshinsky, Comins Mansfield, and Eeltje Visserman) and the FM title (first awarded 1990) has been determined on the basis of the number of problems or studies a composer had selected for publication in the FIDE Albums. These albums are collections of the best problems and studies composed in a particular three-year period, as selected by FIDE-appointed judges from submitted entries. Each problem published in an album is worth 1 point; each study is worth 1⅔; joint compositions are worth the same divided by the number of composers. For the FIDE Master title, a composer must accumulate 12 points; for the International Master title, 25 points are needed; and for the Grandmaster title, a composer must have 70 points.

For solvers, the GM and IM titles were both first awarded in 1982; the FM title followed in 1997. GM and IM titles can only be gained by participating in the official World Chess Solving Championship (WCSC): to become a GM, a solver must score at least 90 percent of the winner's points and on each occasion finish in at least tenth place three times within ten successive WCSCs. For the IM title they must score at least 80 percent of the winner's points and each time finish in at least fifteenth place twice within five successive WCSCs; alternatively, winning a single WCSC or scoring as many points as the winner in a single WCSC will earn the IM title. For the FM title, the solver must score at least 75 percent of the winners points and each time finish within the top 40 percent of participants in any two PCCC-approved solving competitions.

The title International Judge of Chess Compositions is given to individuals considered capable of judging composing tourneys at the highest level.

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