How to Solve Chess Problems

2016-2017 Winton British Chess Solving Champion Ian Watson presents a basic course in solving direct mate chess problems. Click on the headings below to read.


White to play and mate in two moves

Where would you start when faced with this diagram?

If you’re a player, rather than a problemist, you’ll probably look first at the checks. If you’re a problemist, the checks will probably be the last thing you’ll look at! Why? Because composed positions are supposed to be difficult and to be elegant, and the key move – white’s first move – is usually an unexpected one.

A problem-habitué would notice first of all that bishop in the corner, blocked by the rook. So he’d think of moving the g2 rook, but of course that gives stalemate. So he says to himself that the problem must be based on Black moving the knight and then the white rook giving a discovered mate. That doesn’t solve it, but it’s major progress. Suppose the black knight moves, what mates have I got? There’s a mate for every one. OK, so that means that if it were Black to move, I know what to do. All I need is to begin with a waiting move by White – one that doesn’t disturb anything. The solver looks at every possible move – how about 1.Ka6? Oops! Black goes 1...Sc5! and that’s check to the white king, so White can’t play the 2.d5 he wanted to. 1.c4? Nope – 1...Sc3: I need that pawn to stay on c3 so if black captures it I can play 2.Rc2 pinning. Must be 1.Rhg6?, then. That seems to do the job. Just check it one last time... dammit, if he goes 1...Sxf6! I can’t play the rook from g2 to g7 to guard d7. Wait... I could’ve guarded d7 with the other rook. Ah-hah! 1.Rh7 does it. I didn’t need that rook and knight battery pointing at the black king after all – it fooled me into not trying the right key move earlier. So it’s solved.

By the way, a top solver would have noticed that 1.Rhg6 Sxf6 would let White have multiple mating moves (here as many as 11 of them) – if he overlooked that d7 wouldn’t be guarded – and that is considered really inelegant, so he would have automatically rejected 1.Rhg6 as a candidate solution.

That problem was composed by Comins Mansfield, Britain’s first ever Grandmaster (he got his title for his composing); it was published in the Morning Post in 1933.

Another aspect of the problem is that it shows a complete knight wheel – Black’s knight moves to the maximum possible number of squares (8) in the solution, and each one is met by a different white reply. This problem is a splendidly efficient demonstration of a mate in two with a knight wheel – there are lots of such problems, but it’s very hard to compose one with as few pieces as Mansfield managed here.

(This was first published in The British Correspondence Chess Association magazine ‘Correspondence Chess’ in 2010. The BCCA site is www.bcca.info)

In Part 1, I showed you a problem by Mansfield which was what’s called a ‘complete block’ – there’s a mate set up for every black move if Black moves first. More common are problems in which there isn’t a mate already set for every black move, and in that case you need to find a ‘threat’ – a white first move that threatens a mate if Black were not to reply. Here’s one:


White to play and mate in two moves

This time you’ve learnt that the checks are unlikely to solve it! (Although just occasionally a composer will make a two-mover that does have a checking solution – it keeps skilled solvers on their toes!) It’s not a complete block, not least because Black has lots of neutral moves with his rook or bishop. So what could the threat be? What about 1.Rba1, intending 2.Ra5? Black has 1...c5!. 1.Ra4 perhaps, intending 2.Qb4 or 2.Bc2? Looks too crude, and indeed black has the defence 1...Rg4. So it has to be a queen move? Try them. Unfortunately, there are quite a few, but you work through them and after several false dawns you finally realise none of them work. The solution is instead the extraordinary 1.Kd6! which allows Black two checks. Both are met by unexpected cross-checks, which work because black’s rook, in giving the checks, has blocked the bishop from capturing the rook on b1.

Really hard for a problem newcomer to solve. Not too tough for a regular solver, however, because in problems the kings very often move – composers often like to have the white king playing a big role in the solution. I think that a top solving-grandmaster would take less than 15 seconds to solve this one! He’d see the interferences between the rook and the bishop, and immediately try 1.Kd6. For the rest of us, it’s a tough nut. Notice that white’s key move grants the black king two moves, whereas in the diagram it didn’t have any – the opposite of that (where the key move reduces the number of ‘flight squares’ the black king has) is very rare in problems, being considered a crude key. So a flight-taking key move is very unlikely to be a solution to a problem.

Gerry Anderson (not the one who wrote ‘Thunderbirds’!) composed this and it was first published in ‘Il Secolo’ in 1919. In the total trivia department, he was the last person to play chess against Alekhine.

(This was first published in The British Correspondence Chess Association magazine ‘Correspondence Chess’ in 2010. The BCCA site is www.bcca.info)

‘Tries’ are white first moves that very nearly solve, but fail to only one black reply. Composers love tries, because they make the solver think he’s done the job when he hasn’t. This one is a hornet’s nest of tries:


White to play and mate in two moves

This is a ‘miniature’, meaning that the total number of men is less than eight. Should be easier? Not always, as fewer pieces means more scope for each one! It’s soon clear here that you need to move the knight on e4 to be able to mate against moves by the black king, but where to? The tries are 1 Sxg3? Kf4!; 1 Sf2? gxf2!; 1 Sd2? Ke6!; 1 Sc3? Kd4!; 1 Sc5? dxc5!; 1 Sxd6? g2!; and 1 Sf6? d5! So the solution is 1 Sg5!

here’s little you can do with a problem like this other than carefully work through all the tries until you have eliminated all but one, although capturing key-moves are rarely correct, so at least you can guess that Sxd6 and Sxg3 are probably wrong. Notice that in this one the white knight visits all its eight squares between the tries and the solution. This is a knight tour. White knights tour and black knights wheel – as in the Mansfield problem in Part 1. This problem is by G. Latzel and appeared in a well-known solvers’ magazine, ‘Die Schwalbe’, in 1956.

(This was first published in The British Correspondence Chess Association magazine ‘Correspondence Chess’ in 2010. The BCCA site is www.bcca.info)

Three-movers – white to play and mate in three – are usually much harder than two-movers, but, surprisingly, longer problems, such as mates in four, five or even more, are often easier than three movers. That’s because they usually have a single main line and frequently a recognisable theme, and although it may be tricky to find the key or the threat the subsequent play is often straightforward. Three-movers, however, can be really nasty. Here’s a not-too-hard three mover:


>White to play and mate in three moves

This is a famous problem by Otto Würzburg, from the ‘American Chess Bulletin’ of 1947. It looks clear that there are going to be mates by the bishop and rook, but 1 Qxb7 is met by 1...Rbxb7. What will the threat be? 1 Rxg7 would work if black had to move his b8 rook and didn’t have the pass move 1...c4, so that explains what the c-pawn is there for. So what about 1 Rd6? (intending 2 Qxb7) It’s a good try, met only by 1...Se6! It’s hard to see the key, but you can get there by eliminating any other plausible key moves. 1 Rc6! threatens 2 Qxb7 – a tough threat to visualise – with the lines 1...bxc6 2 Qxc6, 1...Rbany 2 Qc8, and 1...b6 2 Rxb6.

Notice that the white king is on a5 because it needs to guard b6 in the threat line 2 Qxb7 Kxb7 3 Rxc5. The mates are elegant and economical; most three-movers have unusual and pleasing keys and mates and so looking for the obvious is not likely to get you far. If, however, you happen to spot an unusual and pleasant mate you are almost certainly on the right track and only need to fine-tune your proposed solution.

(This was first published in The British Correspondence Chess Association magazine ‘Correspondence Chess’ in 2010. The BCCA site is www.bcca.info)

One of the most useful things that help you solve problems is that all the pieces are relevant – they all have to have a role. If they don’t, then the composer doesn’t include them – there are no superfluous pieces in a composed problem. That isn’t always useful, but very often is: suppose there’s a pawn a long way from the action – ask yourself how it could possibly be needed. Take this example, composed by Cyril Kipping and first published in the Manchester City News in 1911:


White to play and mate in three moves

White can’t mate without bringing his king nearer, so the pawn on e2 must be there to prevent 1 Ka5 because then black queens with check. So the solution must be 1 Kb5? Obvious – trivial, even. (Unfortunately, you haven’t yet realised that the composer has set you a demonic trap! That idea of using the apparently irrelevant pieces as the guide to the solution does usually work well, but not here!) 1 Kb5 threatens both 2 Ne7 and 2 Kb6 and the defences 1... Rg5 and 1... Rg6 are both met by the second of those two threats. Quite easy, wasn’t it? You check your solution, because it seemed a little too simple, and suddenly you notice that 1... Rg8 2 Kb6 Rc8 defends cleverly. The white king blocks the b5 square that he would need for his knight in the line 1... Rg8 2 Nd4. Still, your logic was impeccable and you go through that several times before being convinced that it doesn’t work.

What now? You try all sorts of futile ideas, before looking in desperation at 1 Ka5! which you know allows black to queen with check. It works however! 1... e1Q 2 Kb6 and you slowly realise that every black check can be handled by the knight giving discovered check. Barely credible, and with no superfluous material on the board. There is a wonderful satisfaction from solving a problem of this quality.

(This was first published in The British Correspondence Chess Association magazine ‘Correspondence Chess’ in 2010. The BCCA site is www.bcca.info)

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