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.
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.)
- Ng3+ Kxe6; Bc8#
- Nc4+ Kxc6; b5#
- 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?