This is the first of what I hope to make a regular feature here at EvolutionBlog: A chess problem for Sunday. By “chess problem” I do not mean the sort of thing where I show you a position from an actual game and ask you to find the best line of play for one side or the other. Those are fun too, but that is not what I will be showing here. Rather, I have in mind composed positions that illustrate an attractive and pretty idea. Chess composition is an art form that uses the rules of chess as its medium.
Many chess players are disdainful of composition, since it has little to do with practical play. They are right about that, but if that is meant as a criticism it misses the point. For the most part, chess compositions are meant simply to be enjoyed, or, in some cases, to be marveled at. To complain that a composed chess problem will not help you improve your play is like complaining that enjoying a great painting will not help you get a job.
I discovered chess composition as a high school student, and I have dabbled in it ever since. I’ve had about thirty-five problems published to date in various chess magazines. It is not a substitute for practical play, it is merely another way of enjoying the game. I realize, of course, that many of my readers do not play chess. On the other hand, I will try to present these problems with enough diagrams so that if you are generally familiar with the rules you should be able to follow the action.
For my inaugural entry I have chosen composition by Leonid Kubbel. I found it in the book Secrets of Spectacular Chess, by Jonathan Levitt and David Friedgood. No chess library should be without this book!
This problem is an endgame study, which is the genre of chess problem that comes closest to simulating actual play. The challenge is for white to play and draw from the position below:
Keep in mind that white is moving up the board and black is moving down the board. Also, if you are unfamiliar with chess notation, here’s how it works: The vertical files are labeled with the letters a through h, with a on the left and h on the right. The horizontal ranks are numbered from 1 through 8, with 1 on the bottom and 8 on the top. So, in the starting diagram, the white king is on a2, the white rook is e3, the white knight is on b3 and the white pawn is on e2. The black king, queen and bishop are on a6, b6 and h8 respectively. To write down a move, you simply indicate the piece to be moved and the square it is moving to. Captures will be denoted by an “x,” while checks will be indicate by a plus sign. Exclamation points after a move indicates that it is very strong and surprising. The main line of play will be indicated in bold face type.
Now, let’s get down to business. Things look bleak for white. Black has a big lead in material, and in most cases this lead alone would bring him the win. So white has his work cut out for him!
Things only get worse when you spot the tactical idea 1. Re6, pinning the black queen to the king. The idea is that if black now takes the rook with 1. … Qxe6, white will play 2. Nc5+, forking the black queen and king. Clever! But the joke’s on white, because, as you can see in the diagram below, after black takes the rook the white knight is pinned to the king.
Drat! But maybe white has another idea. He can try 1. Nc5+, the main point of which is to get the knight out of the way of its own rook. Black will presumably capture the knight with 1. … Qxc5. White will now check the black king with his rook, along the a and b files. The only way for black to get out of these checks is for him to cross the c-file. So play might now proceed with 2. Ra3+ Kb6 3. Rb3+ Kc6:
And now white expects to play 4. Rc3, pinning the black queen to the king and taking it on the next move. (Notice that the white rook is protected by the white pawn, so it will do black no good to play queen takes rook.) But this is all nonsense, since the black bishop has c3 covered.
So now things look really bleak for white. Seriously, what can he do?
Well, the key move is the stunning 1. Nd4!!
This looks like madness, since black can simply take the knight with either of two different pieces. But one of the points of the move becomes clear if black plays the natural 1. … Bxd4. White will now play 2. Ra3+, and after the black king moves to the b file white will win the queen with 3. Rb3.
The other point of white’s move is that now he is threatening 2. Re6! which will win the black queen. What are black’s options? Sliding the queen along the sixth rank does nothing to address the threat. Moving the queen along the b-file falls prey to white’s trick with the checks along the a and b file. Moving the queen to c5 fails to the trick we saw before, because the white knight now blocks the black bishop. Moving the queen to a7 fails to the check along the a file.
That only leaves two options. The first is 1. … Qd8:
White will start checking along the a, b and c files. Black can only avoid these checks by crossing over the d-file. But he has to be careful! The white squares b5 and c6 are covered by the white knight, meaning the black king cannot move there. But the dark squares c5 and c7 are also taboo, since the moment black king steps on one of them, white will bang out Ne6+ which will fork the queen and king.
That means play would have to unfold like this: 2. Ra3+ Kb7 3. Rb3+ Kc8:
And now 4. Rb8+:
And after 4. … Kxb8 5. Nc6+ is yet another king queen fork. So black will have to do better.
This is all just the appetizer. The main course is still to come! You see, we have not yet considered black’s most obvious defense 1. … Qxd4, bringing about this position:
White will now execute his plan of checking along the a, b and c files. Black will have to cross over to the d-file to get out of these checks. It seems like this will work, since white will not then be able to pin the queen to the king with Rd3, on account of the rook not being protected by anything. Black will simply take the rook with his queen and win. Or will he?
Play will continue 2. Ra3+ Kb5 3. Rb3+
3. … Kc5 4. Rc3+ Kd5:
It looks like black has escaped. But look again! 5. Rd3 Qxd3:
Incredibly, white is stalemated. And that’s a draw!
Clever stuff, wouldn’t you say? All those players who scoff at composition are missing out on a lot of great stuff.