Mr. Postman, Have You Got A Letter For Me?
By Gary Kevin Ware   
April 23, 2008
Problems shaped in letters have always had a special place for composers and solvers. They are so appropriate to express one's greetings or dedication to a friend, in a medium available for all languages. Legendary American composer Sam Loyd had a singular facility for turning out letter problems. He wrote that, "The redeeming trait of letter problems is that they are generally composed for some appropriate occasion, and in a spirit of humour and pleasantry that is calculated to extend courtesies and good feeling among our composers..." One of the first features introduced by Loyd into his department in the American Chess Journal was a "Letter B" competition, in which Loyd solicited composed problems shaped like "B's". This was a great success, producing a whole swarm of B's, and many puns as well. Our first problem was Loyd's first attempt in the Letter line and was the title page graphic for Harry Bird's book on Chess Openings.

Letter1.jpg
Sam Loyd "B-cause" Centennial Letter Tourney Amateur Chess Journal January, 1877
White to Mate in 4


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"The positions which complete the letters of Mr. Bird's name are more carefully elaborated for the purpose of showing the desirable features in problems of this kind. The letters are as perfectly formed as they can well be described upon the chess board, and there is not a dead-head, or idle piece, employed-all being required either to effect mate or to prevent other solutions. In this respect, they form a striking contrast to the "B" problem, wherein there are a number of Pawns more ornamental than useful, which could be dispensed with." Unfortunately, Loyd wasn't totally accurate in his assessment. Those of you who read the previous article, Fixing Sam, that I co-wrote with former problems columnist Steven Dowd , know that I found a number of cooks, multiple solutions, to Loyd's problems, and Dr.Dowd did most of the correcting of the problems, where possible. The "I" for Bird, is one that was cooked but didn't make it into our column. Dr. Dowd actually came up with two corrections to Loyd's original problem, both retaining the original shape. First, here is Loyd's original problem, can you find the two solutions?

Letter2.jpg
Sam Loyd "One More" Centennial Letter Tourney Scientific American 1877
White to Mate in 4

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Now here are Dr. Dowd's two corrections, the second of which retains Loyd's intended solution:
Letter3.jpg
Sam Loyd (Version: Steven Dowd 2007)
White to Mate in 4



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Letter4.jpg
Sam Loyd (Version: Steven Dowd 2007)
White to Mate in 4


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Now here is the remainder of Bird's name, the R and the D.

Letter5.jpg
Sam Loyd Letter Prize, Centennial Tourney American Chess Journal December, 1876
White to Mate in 4


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Letter6.jpg
Sam Loyd Letter Prize, Am. Ch. and Pr. Assn. Scientific American 1877
White to Mate in 3

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  In 1886, during the first official world championship match, held in New York, between Johannes Zuckertort, the "Z", and Wilhelm Steinitz, the "S", Loyd composed this problem which is two problems in one, whoever moves first can mate in two. Can you find both answers? Steinitz won 12 1/2-7 1/2 to become the first official World Champion. Throughout the contest, Loyd represented the score of the match with original problems, each diagram portraying a figure. Loyd never wanted to have preserved the so-called Numerical problems preserved , "An impromptu is well enough when there is some inspiration behind it; but that year I seemed to have neither time nor inspiration."

Letter7.jpg
"Zukertort and Steinitz" New York Evening Telegram 1886
White or Black to Mate in 2


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Loyd composed another problem with two letters, T and L, posed as a joke for his brother Thomas Loyd, also a composer of note, and sent it to him in print by way of a birthday card. White is unable to play Bh1 until he has sacrificed the knight for no apparent purpose.

Letter8.jpg
Sam Loyd Texas Siftings c. 1888,
White to Mate in 3


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  In Chess Strategy, Loyd wrote, "The fact that problemists become so fascinated with their art, and take comparatively little interest in playing games, has given rise to the false impression that they are inferior players; which has become the general belief. The error is simply in discerning who are good problemists; for I can safely say that it is utterly impossible for a first-class problemist to be otherwise than a strong player; and I have often asserted that such is my confidence in the superiority of what I will term the analytical over the theoretical school, that I believe if a tournament was arranged, One Hundred Players versus One Hundred Problemists, the latter would win ninety percent of the games played."
After writing this, Loyd almost immediately entered a match with Eugene Delmar, the recognized champion of New York. Loyd had no serious practice in playing chess for ten years and the outcome was never in doubt, Delmar winning 5 to 1 with 2 draws. Loyd annotated the games for the American Chess Journal. The best result of the match from the point of view of posterity was the dedicatory three-mover which Loyd composed in honor of Delmar's victory.
Letter9.jpg
Sam Loyd American Chess Journal June, 1879 Dedicated to Eugene Delmar
White to Mate in 3


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  In the excellent book, Pal Benko: My Life, Games and Compositions by GM Pal Benko and IM Jeremy Silman , aside from Benko's 300 composed problems, which contain at least one for each letter of the alphabet, there are also 138 of Benko's annotated games, an Opening Survey by IM John Watson and interviews and lots of fascinating biographical information. I highly recommend it. The next two problems by Benko are discussed on the chapter on Letter Problems, "My favorite letter-problem memory took place on Max Euwe's seventy-seventh birthday in Brazil. The highlight of the party was a fancy cake that was topped with two frosting chessboards. The positions on the chessboards, made of chocolate pieces, featured Euwe's monogram (an "M-problem" and an "E-problem") in the form of two letter problems. The crowd loved the effect, but Euwe was put on the spot when my conditions were announced: he had to solve both problems before anyone could eat the cake. Max solved the "M" problem very quickly but, for whatever reason, he got stuck on the "E" problem which consists of two Queen sacrifices. After a while, I had to whisper the solutions so that he could avoid embarassment. Then we all devoured the cake! Can you solve them before the candles go out?!" 

Letter10.jpg
Pal Benko 1978
White to Mate in 3


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Letter11.jpg
Pal Benko 1978,
White to Mate in 3


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  For those of you out there who are feminists, here are a couple of problems by Edith Elina Helen Baird, otherwise known as Mrs. W. J. Baird. Baird composed more than 2,000 problems, which were not profound but were noted for their soundness; only a dozen or so were faulted. Her Seven Hundred Chess Problems was published in 1902. She was the best known and certainly the most prolific of the world's relatively few women composers. In an article in the December 9, 1894 edition of the New York Times, Notes About Women, it says, "Mrs. W.J. Baird, the famous chess-problem woman of London, recommends the game for women on the grounds that it is a useful corrective to the tendency to jump to conclusions, which most of the sex have. "Besides," she says, "it is a home accomplishment; no woman is compelled to leave her own fireside for the sake of chess; and lastly, it produces no flirting and general frivolity." Mrs. Baird is now able to turn out a chess problem in half an hour. Her first one, composed six years ago, took 100 hours to accomplish." She was known as the "Queen of Chess" and died on February 1, 1924. Coincidentally, this was the day after the suicide (by defenestration, or jumping out of a window) of Curt von Bardeleben. Von Bardeleben was most famous for his loss to Steinitz at the Hastings tournament in 1895, when at the culmination of his opponent's combination, he left the room and lost on time rather than resign. 

Letter12.jpg
Mrs. W. J. Baird 1907,
White to Mate in 2


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Letter13.jpg
Mrs. W. J. Baird 1907
 White to Mate in 2

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  Our final two problems come from Don French's website: http://www.geocities.com/bozito/myChessCompositions.html
There are 12 of his problems there and he doesn't give the solutions but offers you the chance to e-mail him your solutions. Besides these two letter problems, there are also two "Christmas trees", two problems that require retrograde analysis to solve, and two Double Indians, including one that stumped Walter Browne. For a definition of Double Indian, see my previous article, 64 Square Problem Tour.

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Don French,
White to Mate in 3

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For this final problem, since it is composed in the form of the letter "W", we can pretend that it was composed in honor of my last name, Ware!
Letter15.jpg
Don French,
White to Mate in 3


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My next article will be about composed problems in the form of other shapes, such as Christmas trees, crosses, Kilkenny Cats and many others. Post a comment or email me with comments, suggestions and questions at garykevinware@yahoo.com.