Solutions to some two-mover chess problems by W T Pierce and J Pierce

Chess Problem Example
Chess Problem Example

My grandfather taught me how to play chess when I was very young. He made a huge, beautiful chess set out of wood in his basement, and over the course of my childhood, he gave me books with little mathematical puzzles and chess problems in them. Later on in life he denied having taught me how to play, and I don’t know if it was because of modesty or Alzheimer’s.

This past weekend, I found a book of public domain chess problems (download the PDF, not the epub, if you’re interested). It reminds me of Grandpa Searles. I’ve been working through them for pleasure. They are surprisingly challenging, and doubly so if you’re tired. I probably spent a solid two hours trying to figure out #4 on Sunday afternoon, without success. I must have been tired though—Monday morning on the metro, it took less than 5 minutes. In fact, the solution turned out to be one that I considered multiple times on Sunday. Go figure.

What are “chess problems?”

A chess problem is a puzzle, somewhat akin to a Sudoku. You are given a chess board illustrating a game already in progress—nearly done, even. You are told which side you are playing and you are told how many moves to checkmate. See the image attached at the beginning of this post for an example of a very difficult five-mover chess problem.

Why I like chess problems, but I’m not that good at chess

In a chess game, there is no easy way for you to tell how many moves you are away from checkmate. The only way to know is to think through all the possibilities. In some cases there will be constraints on the number of possible moves by a player which make it easier to calculate. In most cases, there will be a staggering number of possible moves, and depending on the other player’s actions, you might be further away from or closer to checkmate.

Why I am bad at chess
Why I am bad at chess

So faced with a complex problem with this, my brain usually resorts to the strategy as illustrated in the image attached to this paragraph. I probably use such a simplistic algorithm because for almost every move, the likelihood that I will notice that there is a way to force a checkmate more than one move in advance is vanishingly small, and so I focus on intermediate goals instead. I’m sure a real chess player has the goal of checkmate in mind from the first move. I don’t think about forcing a checkmate until it’s already inevitable.

This is why I suck at real chess games: My estimation of the value of forethought is outweighed by my pessimism regarding how much effort it would actually take to get anything meaningful out of it.

In a chess problem, on the other hand, I know there’s a solution to be had in a certain number of moves (unless there’s a typo or something), and so I will take the time to work through all the possibilities. It’s something both frustrating and satisfying. It is immensely gratifying when you find the solution, and the more frustrating it is to find it, the better it is when you write down the solution and get to smugly declare, “checkmate.”

When you “beat” a chess problem, it’s much better than beating a human opponent, because you know that the chess problem is not “having an off-day,” and it can’t say after the fact, “I let you win” or anything like that. I also like chess problems because you can feel really good about solving one. In a chess game, you have to be careful about taking too much pleasure in winning, or you come across as a jerk.

Solutions to some two-mover problems

As promised, here are some solutions to the problems in the book, Chess Problems, by W T Pierce and J Pierce. I’m not going to list all the solutions. That would ruin the fun for you! Also, I haven’t finished them all yet. I may or may not post more solutions when I have them. I’m pretty sure that these ones are correct, although when I copied #1 from my notebook to my blog, I noticed that it wasn’t correct. (I have since fixed it, I believe.)

  1. Ng3+ Kxe6; Bc8#
  2. Nc4+ Kxc6; b5#
  3. d3+ Kxd4; Rb3#

Let me know if you find problems with these solutions (very possible), or if you want to add your own solutions to later problems. Do you have other public domain collections of chess problems to share?

How to “castle” in chess

Red pieces on a chess board
Red pieces on a chess board

Unlike the en passant capture, this is a move in chess that I’ve known since I was a child. However, like the en passant capture, it has also caused me grief while playing against my iPod. I will explain why this move can be frustrating below in the “pro-tip.”

This is how to castle in chess: It is a move for your king and your rook at the same time, and it is a great way to develop your rook conservatively. This is a move that should be done early in the game.

It can only be done if neither the king nor the rook have been moved yet in the game. There can be no pieces on the board on the files between the king and the rook, and you cannot castle out of check. If you are doing a kingside castle, your king moves two files toward the rook, and the rook jumps over to the space just on the opposite side of where the king has moved to. A queenside castle is done exactly the same way (king moves two files toward the rook, rook jumps over king to the file immediately past him), but in the queenside case, the rook moves further.

Thanks again to Wikipedia, the abbreviations for queenside and kingside castling are O-O-O and O-O, respectively.

Pro-tip: If you are trying to castle while playing against a video game, computer or iPod, do not move your rook first and then try to move your king. The iPod will think that you are moving your rook in the normal sort of way that rooks move, and it will not think that you are trying to castle. What you need to do is move your king first, and then the computer will automatically realise that because a king can’t normally move two files, you are attempting to castle, and then it will automatically move your rook for you. Just trust me on this one.

How to do an “en passant” capture in chess

Chess board
Chess board

Every once in a while, I play a game of chess against my computer or iPod. Sometimes I win—sometimes I lose, but the most frustrating thing that happens to me every once in a while is when the iPod does an en passant capture of one of my pawns.

This is frustrating, I think, because I never see it coming. That’s mostly because it’s an obscure move that I never took the time to learn how to do. I learned about it for the first time in elementary school, so I could always identify it when it happened, but I never knew what it was well enough to be able to pull it off myself or anticipate it. So, this week, I finally looked it up.

This is how it works: On its first move, a pawn can advance one rank or two. (Don’t worry—I already knew that.) If a pawn has been advanced two ranks in its first turn, an opposing pawn can capture it by moving diagonally into the space where the first pawn would have been, had it only moved ahead one rank.

Note that this can only be done in the turn immediately following the two-rank move of the first pawn.

According to Wikipedia, this “prevents a pawn from using the two-square move to pass another pawn without the risk of being captured”

This time, I’ll be ready for you, iPod!

Grandpa Searles

Some of my most enduring memories from when I was a child are of my grandfather.

When I was younger, he had a house on Delatre Street in Woodstock and I always loved to go visit him. He had a great sense of humour and a very laissez-faire attitude toward caring for his grandchildren. He was a very intelligent and loving man, and I miss him very much.

The house on Delatre Street was set on a very long piece of property, with a big sloping driveway along the one side of the house that went into a big garage in front of the vegetable garden. My grandfather was very good at gardening and caring for fruit trees. There was a gigantic pear tree in his back yard and every year he would come to visit us with bushels full of the biggest, most melting, yellow pears you can imagine. I still can’t eat pears from a grocery store, because every time I tried, they tasted like cardboard by comparison.

He also had a mulberry tree in his back yard, and for a few years, we would come to visit him and he would lay out a gigantic tarp underneath it, and we would take an elongated wooden beam and shake parts of the tree, so that the mulberries would fall onto the tarp underneath. At that point, we could just pick them up off the ground. In preparation for this, for the week beforehand, he would sit in the back yard with a couple pieces of wood joined by a hinge and fend the squirrels off. He would slap the pieces of wood together, and it sounded enough like a gunshot to work very effectively. Later on, as I recall, he got a water gun for the same purpose. I wonder which he liked better.

My grandfather was very clever about making things in his basement workshop. First off all, a lot of the woodworking tools that he kept in his workshop were things he made himself. And he used these tools to make all manner of wonderful, useful and beautiful things.

Even now, my apartment is full of a great many things that my grandfather made. He made my bed, my dresser, a full-length mirror. Pretty much everything that’s wooden and beautiful that’s in my home was made by my grandfather.

When I was very young, and I liked to collect coins, he made me a wooden box and engraved “Benjamin’s Treasure Chest” on the top of it. My grandfather was always very supportive of what I found to be interesting, no matter how strange he thought it was. And he had no problem telling me how strange he thought some of my interests to be.

He used to drive a big blue classic automobile, the make and model of which I have forgotten. I want to say it was a Plymouth Fury II, but I could be wrong. It was the kind of car that you would expect to see in a car show. It was made in the 1960’s, back when seat-belts were optional. The one that he owned had seat-belts, though. My little sister loved it, and was very disappointed when he sold it, later in life. My mother told me that one summer he took it apart to its component parts in his driveway and the neighbours were taking bets as to whether or not he would be able to put it back together again. Of course, he had no problem doing so.

I’m glad that I wasn’t there to see the house of Delatre Street after grandpa moved out of it, so I remember it the way it was. The house itself was full of dozens of clocks, all of which chimed on the hour. There was a wooden spinning wheel in the front room, and a grandfather clock. There was a huge chess set in the living room that, of course, grandpa made, and I remember playing chess with him when I was very young. The house was full of furniture, cabinets, old family photographs and Wallace Nutting prints.

For Christmas, we always went to visit. Every Christmas, all the grandchildren would mark off our heights against a doorframe in the kitchen. In the summer, we had a family reunion and barbecue, and my grandpa loved it.

I remember one day being called out of class because of one of my dad’s psychotic episodes. My sisters, my mother and I left our home and went to stay with my grandfather, where it was safe. The rest of the world could fly out of control, but when I was at grandpa’s, I was safe.