C. M. Fox

Written by C. J. Feather

C. M. Fox

C.M. Fox, who died about 70 years ago, was an influential figure in the early development of the BCPS, Britain’s leading helpmate composer and perhaps the second most important British figure (after T. R. Dawson) in unorthodox composition at the time. Therefore it seemed appropriate to me that he should feature on this BCPS web site. However, it is impossible to write anything about him without its being overshadowed by Dawson’s 1936 monograph C.M. Fox, His Problems, a comprehensive account which may be consulted in the BCPS library and is also reprinted, along with four other booklets by Dawson, in the 1973 Dover book Five Classics of Fairy Chess. This reprint, indispensable to enthusiasts of the unorthodox, can sometimes still be found in libraries and second-hand book shops.

I cannot do better than quote Dawson’s own tribute to Fox, incidentally a good example of the writer’s sentimental, archaic style which was so much at variance with the strongly experimental character of his chess composition. But first, a few words about the label “fairy chess”, still in use in some circles to refer to unorthodox problems, although that category no longer includes ordinary helpmates. Readers who are uncomfortable with the “fairy” label may like to ascribe its use at least in part to this curious style of Dawson’s, and it is true that he made widespread use of the term. When he started a magazine devoted to the subject he made a choice among a number of titles suggested by aficionados and settled on Fairy Chess Review. We should perhaps be grateful for small mercies, though, since one of the rejected suggestions was apparently The Chess Problemist’s Fairy. Anyhow, it appears that the term was not originated by Dawson, but first used by the Australian Henry Tate in 1913. The German word M√§rchenschach (“fairy-story chess”) seems slightly less absurd, and may go back further in time. There is no shortage of alternative expressions for current use (“unorthodox composition”, “experimental chess”, “generalised chess”, or in German “Exo-Schach”) but despite my own mild aversion to the term “fairy chess” I shall not go to great lengths to avoid it in what follows.

Here is what Dawson wrote about Fox in 1936:

Charles Masson Fox Nov. 9 1866 – Oct. 11 1935

The purpose of this booklet is to do justice to the genius of C.M.F. in a permanent collection of his best problems. There is little need, therefore, for the editor to intervene between the reader and the beautiful collection that follows.

Suffice it to recall that C.M.F., after many years solely as a chess player, took to Fairy Chess in 1921-22, took a first prize with his first published problem, and went on from strength to strength, entrancing every Fairy Chess devotee with the brilliance and power of his compositions.

He loved best the helpmate, and was ever fascinated by the Grasshopper possibilities, and many problems in each of these veins are given in this collection. But above all, he had an eye for the alternative possibilities in a position, which gave him extraordinary facility and skill in making problems in twin form, in groups, and in long sequences, and such “Fox Families” have become famous in Fairy Chess.

In 15 years, C.M.F. composed some 900 problems and captured many prizes and mentions in Tourneys.

C.M.F., who was a Vice-President of the British Chess Problem Society, was a generous benefactor to that body, presenting it with all the issues of the Problemist Fairy Chess Supplement and other gifts. There is no question that as a patron, he did invaluable service to the Fairy Chess cause which he loved so well.

More than all these things, C.M.F. was a friendly man, kind, mellow, lovable, bringing peace and comfort and serene joy with him. Fairy Chess lovers the world over mourned his loss. Now his work, his inspiration, his genius come back in this little volume alive, enthralling, the mind and deeds of a master.

Dawson’s words may be somewhat cloying, but Fox’s compositions are not. He was able to achieve a high standard of correctness in the helpmate, a notoriously difficult field where cooks abound, and he seemed to know instinctively what appealed to solvers. The “first published problem” mentioned by Dawson (see diagram A) is a good example, with its paradoxical withdrawal of the white king. This was probably not the first problem of Fox’s to be published, rather the first in order of composition among his published problems. The tourney in question was only the second helpmate composing contest ever held, and about 70% of the entries were unsound!

The theme of B, mate on a square initially vacated by Black, is just one of a number of H#2 ideas which are still popular today and of which Fox made early examples. C shows another, capture of white material on both black moves. Nowadays of course, despite the paradoxical themes, such single-line helpmates would be considered too simple, but it is to Fox’s credit that he also composed helpmates in more than one phase and (unlike many of his contemporaries) made a point of showing a strong thematic connection between the phases. Thus in D we have an early example of a full black halfpin and in E a neat piece of dual avoidance. Both of these could be set as well or better with two solutions, especially obviously in the case of E, where it suffices to move the BQ to b7, but it was to take another thirty years before the understanding that this is the most suitable form for helpmates became widespread. In this respect Fox never escaped from the tyranny of Dawson, the main reactionary influence. I have documentary evidence of Dawson’s taking a 2-solution problem by P. Sola, submitted to him for publication, and rearranging it into a form with one solution and set play, without consulting the composer! Why Dawson so objected to problems with more than one solution is not clear. Fox may well have thought it best to humour him.

From problems with twin positions it is a short step to the “families” of problems referred to by Dawson, which I will not illustrate here. These are essentially series of approximate twins, problems with the same stipulation and using the same or very similar material but often related by changes in the positions of several pieces, in a manner which would be thought clumsy today. But we have computers to help us find neat twinning, and we rarely attempt such extensive sets as Fox sometimes produced. Dawson quotes an example with 16 related problems. This aspect of Fox’s work may have dated more than others, but it remains a tribute to his analytical powers, for his standard of accuracy in these problems is impressive.

In longer helpmates the main focus of interest in Fox’s work was promotions, and his output includes some remarkable task problems. My favourites here are the witty F and the elegant example, G, showing all four promotions in ascending order.

For a brief and rather inadequate glimpse into Fox’s fairy compositions I offer three examples. First H, a selfmate with nightriders (N), pieces which move in straight lines composed of knight moves. Thus for example on the line a2-d8 the moves Na2-b4, Na2-c6 or Na2-d8 are playable. This problem is based on the battery of the Nh8 which gives check to the white king if the black pawn on g6 can be forced to move. In I, one of the simplest of a long series of symmetrical problems with asymmetrical solutions, Fox uses the grasshopper (G), his favourite fairy piece, which operates on queen lines but must hop over one other unit to the square immediately beyond. Finally in J we have an example of a genre whose development and popularity today (thanks to the computer) would have astounded Fox. The paradoxical element (I shall say no more so as not to spoil potential solving pleasure!) is here once again quite strong.

(A) C. M. Fox

1st Prize, Chess Amateur, 1922



(B) C. M. Fox

Chess Amateur, 1929



(C) C. M. Fox

Falkirk Herald, 1931



(D) C. M. Fox

1st Prize, Chess Amateur, 1930


H#2 (set play)

(E) C. M. Fox

British Chess Magazine, 1935


H#2 (b) bQa8->b8

(F) C. M. Fox

Essener Anzeiger, 1931



(G) C. M. Fox

Deutsche Märchenshcachzeitung, 1932



(H) C. M. Fox

The Problemist Fairy Chess Supplement, 1931


S#4: Nightriders a2, c2; h8

(I) C. M. Fox

The Problemist Fairy Chess Supplement, 1933


Grasshoppers b5, b6, b7, h5, h6, h7

(I) C. M. Fox

The Problemist Fairy Chess Supplement, 1933


What is the shortest game
ending in this position?

Developed and maintained by Brian Stephenson.