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A Pawn Against an Army: Dr. Dowd on Minimals Print E-mail
By Dr. Steven Dowd   
December 26, 2011
Just as the world of "conventional" art and literature have their minimalists - individuals who seek to show the essence of a subject through eliminating what they see as non-essential forms, features or concepts  - so does chess art. A minimal is defined as a chess problem where one side - White if it is a directmate ("White to play and mate in n") - has only one piece, often against a large army on the other side. There are also problems known as Opferminimals (German for "sacrifice miniature") in which one side sacrifices almost all, or in some problems such as selfmates, all his pieces to achieve the aim.

The term minimal in relation to a chess problem was first used (probably!) by Joseph Halumbirek in 1929 in the Wiener Schachzeitung in his problem column. Since then, many problemists have devoted themselves to finding the expression of an idea in its most basic form - two pieces, including the king. We'll look mostly at directmates here, and classic ones at that, but also include some other problem types of more recent origin.

Directmate Minimals

The Lowly Pawn
Julius Buchwald was born in Vienna in 1909, but emigrated to the United States in 1945. He was not only a chess composer, but also composed music, having graduated from the Vienna Volkskonsortium. He supported himself first as a button-maker and then ran a store for philatelists in New York. You can find an mp3 of one of his songs at Here is a famous problem of his in which one pawn defeats the entire black army. The decision is of course, "which way does the white king go?"

Julius Buchwald
Die Schwalbe 1964

White to play and mate in four

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Promotional opportunities are of course the crux of White pawn minimals. The current move length record for a white pawn alone is 122 moves. I'll spare you that one since most records in problem chess end up losing their aesthetic value and those super long movers are no exception. I'll conclude with a snappy study-like end by the late German grandmaster Werner Speckmann:

Werner Speckmann
Deutsche Schachzeitung 1931


White to play and mate in five

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The Active Knight
As beginners, we were all enticed by the hopping ability of the knight, its ability to fork, and one of the first mates we all learned was the smothered mate, possible only with a knight, and Black's other pieces blocking him from escape.

Halumbirek may have been the first to coin the term, "minimal," but Ado Kramer was already composing such material studies before Halumbirek named the problem. As with most of these problems, "the key is key," that is, once you get past that, the rest of the problem usually flows nicely.

Ado Kramer
Ostdeutsche Morgenpost 1926

White to Move and Mate in Four

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Like most chess problemists, Otto Blathy had a "real" job, in his case as an electrical engineer. With two colleagues, he developed the first electrical transformer and was a prolific inventor - you can read his bio here. He is also known as a composer of very long chess problems and has the record for a single white knight against the entire black army. This record is worth looking at. Can you solve the below without a computer? (PS - don't worry about the normal problem convention of check as a key - here you have to check, check, check at first to reach the goal)

Otto Blathy
The Chess Amateur 1922

White to play and mate in twelve

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The Bishop - Danger on the Diagonals
This one was our preview problem, so if you read your Chess Life, you are a step ahead of the crowd. The sort of fight between pieces of differing types has the same nomenclature it does in "regular" chess - a duel. The most popular duel in minimal composition is between bishop and rook - the bishop seeking to prove its quick runs up and down diagonals beats the "clumsy" rook, which although it can sweep the board as well, is limited to a linear run along the ranks and files.

Jean Maurice Paradis
La Presse 1938

White to play and mate in six

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This problem is a logical problem, also sometimes called a roman, in which a foreplan must defeat Black's defense. Here White would like to play 1. Be2? (this is called the main plan), but that is refuted by 1. .. Rf4! So this is a tempo roman, where the black rook is lured to an inferior square (f6 as opposed to f4) when White plays Be2, as well as a capture roman, since White's goal is to capture the rook in order to deliver mate.

Logical problems can be fun to solve even by us who can't calculate out long variations, since you just have to realize that the main plan doesn't work at first and you have to find a short series of moves to make it work.

A duel between bishop and knight is also possible. Even bishop and knight(s).

Wladimir W. Nikitin
Sakkelet 1998

White to play and mate in seven.

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The Clumsy but Powerful Rook
I've tried to compose directmate rook minimals, but never could get one to work the way I wanted. One of my favorite themes is the four-corner theme, where a piece comes to all four corners in the solution. The first problem is the one I wish I had composed myself and it contains that theme. The main plan try is 1. Rh5?, which doesn't work here because of 1. .. Bg1! and now if 2. Ra5? Ba7! With that in mind, try to solve this one.

Josef Sutara
Die Schwalbe 1973

White to play and mate in five

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This next one you can look up and play through on the Nalimov database, and in fact I recommend you do that to see all the various tricks and traps that can befall White in this duel of rook versus knight. I also suggest you consider that when it was composed, there was no such database, and it could take a solving program weeks to find the solution. It's record for this material that can't be surpassed, but the solution is anything but boring. The composer, perhaps unsurprisingly, is also a German champion in bridge, and has written a book about the game.

Ulrich Auhagen
Schach 1999

White to play and mate in 11

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The Queen - True Ruler of the Board
There are too many really good queen minimal problems to give a good representation here. But I'll try and maybe I'll visit that topic alone in a future article. Here is my sampling.

The first is by the great Wolfgang Pauly. He had few equals in his day in composing problems of great beauty and powerful ideas. Look closely at this one. If it were Black's turn to move here, he would have to place his king on b3 and be mated by Qd3. So is there any way to get this position with Black to move?

Wolfgang Pauly
Wiener Schachzeitung 1930

White to play and mate in six

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The next problem is by two very talented composers active today well known for tasks and aesthetic value. This problem features a chameleon echo - two mates that are nearly identical, with changed colors.

Bosko Miloseski and Zlatko Mihajloski
First prize, Olympia Tournament, 1983-84

Mate in Nine

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The King Rules Alone?
How can a king alone mate? Well he can't of course, but there are Rex Solus problems (Latin for "the lone king") in which the king can force a stalemate or selfmate. I'll give just one fun example, from the great Blathy again. Remember, in a selfmate, White wants to force Black to mate him!

Otto Blathy
Wiener Schachzeitung 1906

White to play and selfmate in two

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One Last Selfmate
I know they are an acquired taste, but I have liked selfmates from the beginning of my interest in problems. You are simply turning the goal of a game on its ear - the French call it Mat de Inverses - by forcing Black to mate you with the same kind of preponderance of force, space or combinations you use in mating your opponent in the game. And since one piece alone can mate, minimals are exceptionally popular in the self- and helpmate genres.

Using your own problems in an article is a bit like using your own games - you can always be accused of trumpeting your own horn - and here I am! I was very happy to be fortunate enough to take third place in the prestigious Swedish problem magazine Springaren with the following selfmate minimal:

Steven B. Dowd
Springaren 2010

White to play and selfmate in nine

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Sacrifice Minimals
You may have seen this one before. It pops up quite often in problem articles. It is known as the Immortal Problem - yes, just as chess competition has its own "Immortal Game," chess composition has its immortal as well.

Konrad Bayer
Leipziger Illustrierte Zeitung 1855

White to play and mate in nine

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If you've skipped over this one in the past, resist the urge now, as this is the final position.

Who can help snickering a bit when you see the black king mated by one lone pawn? Willard Fiske, in his book, Chess In Iceland And In Icelandic Literature, noted that a pawn mate was considered by Icelanders to be an ignominious end and an insult. The problem also illustrates the theme of Allentschlag (all these German words! This one means "captures all) where at least one piece of each type is captured by the other side.

Here another immortal by the great composer Herbert Grasemann. White would like to mate with the knight on g3, but how?

Herbert Grasemann
Deutsche Schachblaetter 1959

White to play and mate in six

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We'll conclude this one with a familiar face for those who are still mad that I stuck two selfmates in the article. This is Herr Auhagen again, with a game/study-like problem.

Ulrich Auhagen
Probleemblad 2000


White to play and mate in twelve

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And with that, I'll wish all my chess friends out there, everywhere in the world, Happy Holidays and Happy New Year!