USCF Home arrow Chess Life Online arrow 2011 arrow May arrow Unusual Chess Problems: Part I
Unusual Chess Problems: Part I Print E-mail
By Dr. Steven B. Dowd   
May 20, 2011
One thing I have noticed in my career in the chess problem arena is that chessplayers complain often that chess problems "aren't natural,  and the positions could never arise in a chess game." That's true, and some problemists claim that this is exactly what makes chess problems so compelling - they are artificial constructs, fantasies, more akin to a science fiction novel than a biography. Chess problems are a search for absolute beauty on the chessboard, a search forthe unusual, the fantastic - precisely things that often fail in the practical game.

Yet for all their complaints, I have noticed one dichotomy here - you can set up a nice practical study on the board at your club and want to show it to your friends, and the complaining starts - "How did the king get there?" "Heck, I would just shove my pawns and hope for the best," and so on. But show them a weird retro, a "how can white mate with the pawn in exactly sixmoves?" etc. and they are mesmerized. I think it is the puzzle instinct - the more odd and difficult the task (and the further removed from the practical game) the more the problem calls to you for a solution. I also think it is the fact that many of these problems are easily remembered, once you see the point, and it is then easy to plague your friends at the club with them.

Recently "mainstream" chess authors such as Lubomir Kavalek and Andy Soltis have been looking at these unusual problems, see for example,Kavalek's column on "King Tut" chess problems at: I am going to present a number of unusual chess problems here and start witha few fun oldies but goodies to get you warmed up. To discover the answers, just click on the "Solution" text underneath each problem. But don't feel bad if you click right away. Some people enjoy solving; others just prefer to see the solution.

Construction Problems
Construction problems give you a set of pieces, and ask you to do something. For example, let's warm up with Sam Loyd, still America's most famous problem composer. Remember that "ole Sam" didn't care much for conventionality, legality and other little details, so consider this first problem a little bit of a trick:

Sam Loyd, date unknown

Place the black king on d4. Then add two white rooks and a knight to place that black king in checkmate.

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Here is one in which there are no tricks.

Karl Fabel

Die Schwalbe 1937

Take two white rooks and the two kings and construct a position in which White can mate four ways in one move.


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We'll look at a few more of these with retroanalytic content in the next section.

Retroanalytic Problems

Don't be put off by the name and think this means something extraordinarily complex. In such problems, you have to look into the past of the game, a past that is obscured from you because you have no scoresheet to go by. When I was teaching full-time, I used similar methods to get students to learn anything that is linear in nature by making them look back - it is easy to memorize the components of machine, for example, if you memorize them in order. But can you do it backwards? That really tests the old noodle.

I don't intend to cover proof games here in any detail; two of my favorite authors, Andy Soltis and John Nunn have covered this topic recently. Last year, in the June 2010 Chess Life, Soltis covered proof games, calling them the chess problems "for those who hate chess problems." Nunn's excellent little introduction can be found at

Here is a simple example for one, very famous, and you may have seen it before:

Tibor Orbán

Die Schwalbe 1976
Achieve this position in exactly four moves!

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If you like this, go to  and see how player/composer Mark Thornton has expanded on this simple idea.

There is a specific type of proof game I like favored by the Israeli supercomposer Y'aacov Mintz. Mr. Mintz also composes all kinds of chess problems, very deep analytical things like "Selfmate in 80" with Queen and pawn versus queen... he's awesome. But I really enjoy his short proof games that end in mate.

The basic idea behind a shortest proof game is similar to the idea behind the old quiz show, "Name that Tune," where contestants tried toname a tune in as few notes as possible. A shortest proof game is the same for chess, come to a certain position in the least number of moves. Here are my two recent favorites by Mr. Mintz:

Yaa'cov Mintz

feenschach 2011

Proof game in 16 half-moves (Black mates on his 8th move)


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Yaa'cov Mintz

feenschach 2011

Proof game in 17 half-moves (White mates on his 9th move)



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In the first problem, we see Black mating with R+P, in the second, White mating in a similar manner. Can you find the solution within the stipulation given?

Add one (or more!) pieces

We'll move to construction problems where we add one or more pieces to the board.

P. Pitton
Phénix 2010

Add pieces to the squares a1, b1, b2, and c1 so that White can mate in the shortest time possible.

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The following is my favorite problem with retroanalytical content. All retroanalytical content means is that you must know at least something that went on in the game before the problem occurred. This means counting captures, looking at possible promotions

Alexander Yarosh

Schachmatnaja komposizija 2007

Add one piece!

The position as set is illegal, of course (both kings in check) so it must be made legal, and the stipulation means you must place one piece so that the position then becomes legal. If you count all the captures made by the black pawns, you will note that every missing white piece had to be captured by black pawns, else the position would be illegal even beyond the missing piece.  Since both kings cannot be in check, and black pawn b3 has to stay, it must be a black piece on a2 that completes the problem, giving a legal position. A black rook or queen would shield the black king from check but place white in an illegal double check from pawn and heavy piece. So the piece must be a black knight or a black bishop, but it can be only one of those. Which one?  

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Last move? is one of the more popular types of retro problem. The first two are warm-ups:

H. August, O.Brennert, T.R. Dawson, N. Hoeg, V. Onitiu

Skakbladet 1924
Last move?

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Similar is Hoeg's effort in the same magazine and year.

Niels Hoeg

Last move?

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This next one is more difficult.

Werner Keym

Die Schwalbe 1980
Last move?


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Werner Keym

Die Schwalbe 1979
Last move?

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Something's wrong here.....

Karl Fabel assigned this name to problems in which you have to look carefully at the diagram.

H. Fischer

White mates in one

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A Rules-based problem

One of my latest interest is in problems based on the rules of chess and those that could have arisen in a tournament game. Here is a classic using the en passant stipulation, which we will discuss a bit more later as well. It is also based on touch move rules.

J. Trillon

Themes 64 1969
The last move must be retracted. Who wins?

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Now Trillon didn't make it that easy on us. He made the twin - Wpc5 to e5 and asks the question again, who wins?

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Part II of this article will include a many fathers position in honor of Father's Day and a series of underpromotion problems. Look for it next month!

May - Chess Life Online 2011

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