May 252011
The Duchess is back!

Today I am delighted to welcome back to this blog our resident chess historian, Cynthia, the Duchess of Blunderboro. Readers may remember that on previous visits she has revealed who won the famous game between Lenin and Hitler as well as explaining the origins of the “hardest chess problem in the world”. After the success of that last post she e-mailed me saying:

“If you liked that one I have another, even older tale, from the life of my Great Grandfather that your readers are sure to enjoy”.

Of course I couldn’t resist such a tempting offer and immediately replied to confirm the commission of the post below. I leave it to the Lady Cynthia herself to explain further.

“Greetings chess fans. Let me start this column by asking you to consider the diagram position below. Some of you may be familiar with it as it is one of the few chess problems that has become so legendary that many chess players have heard of it by name. It’s called “Excelsior” and it was composed by the American problemist Sam Loyd and first published in 1861.

“Excelsior” by Sam Loyd, 1861

“What’s so special about this problem?” you may very well ask. In reply I will draw to your attention the fact that most chess problems are given names by their composers but there aren’t very many of those names that the average club player is likely to have heard mentioned before unless they have spent a lot of time studying chess problems. By contrast think about some of the famous chess games that have been given names such as “The Evergreen”, “The Immortal” and “The Game of the Century”. They are all renowned for their enduring beauty.

This is one of the few chess problems that could be considered to be an “immortal” and the tale I have to tell you today is the interesting and amusing story of its creation.

Let me begin my account in the school holidays of December 1935. I was 13 years old and passing some time studying a book of chess problems in the drawing room at Blunderboro Hall cosied up in front of an open fire. I think that the book may have contained some rather light-weight challenges for I recall that I was starting to feel like they were all a bit too easy when suddenly my Father burst into the room red-faced from his morning ride and chortling over some joke he had just shared with my elder brother who had accompanied him that day. When he saw me he stopped and afforded me one of his broadest smiles.

“Well, someone is taking their chess studies seriously I see.”

He ambled over, hands on hips and peered closely at the position I was studying. It was a mate in 3 puzzle.

“Chess problems today is it? What do you make of them?” he asked me, pointing at the book.

“To be honest Father, I’m beginning to think they are a little ho-hum” I sighed.

“Ho-hum!” He exclaimed and then laughed. “Why do you say that little one?”

“Well they just seem to me to be a little too contrived. The positions aren’t always natural and that can lead to a situation where the key suggests itself.”

As I said this my Father straightened and fixed me with a look that was a mixture of seriousness and surprise. He really hadn’t realised how seriously I was taking my studies.

“Go on,” he said “explain what you mean”.

“Well, in this position for example (see below) it seems obvious that the rook on f4 is the piece White must move first if he is to give check mate in three moves.”

White to play and mate in 3

 “Explain how you reached that conclusion,” my Father said as he pulled up a chair on the other side of the board from me.

“Well, first of all, it’s a mate in three puzzle so White doesn’t have much time. Because Black has threats of his own, such as Rxg2+, that rules out any sort of sneaky creeping moves such as 1.Kh2. That tells me that the solution must involve forcing moves, probably checks. Most of the checks in the position simply lose material and so already there are only two plausible candidate moves. 1.g4+ or 1.Rh4+.”

“That’s very good thinking” interjected my Father. “Keep going”.

“1.g4 looks tempting but then it is easy to see that the Black king will move to h4 and it will be impossible to mate him in 3 moves, if at all. No, the only way to achieve checkmate must be to use the White pieces to drive the enemy king towards the White king and pawns. So after 1.Rh4+ Kxh4 White can play 2.g3+ and now I can see that mate will be delivered by the White knight moving to f4 whether the Black king moves to h3 or h5. It’s a pretty solution but not that difficult.”

My Father sat silent for a moment looking at the board deep in thought and then he nodded as if he has just reached an important decision.

“Your solution is absolutely correct of course and much of your reasoning is also sound. Building up such reasoning skills is the main benefit of studying these kinds of problems. However, I’d advise you to be careful about jumping to hasty conclusions about thinking all chess problems contain the obvious signposts to their solutions. That isn’t always the case. In fact, your Great Grandfather once came to the same conclusion and it cost him a slap up dinner.”

“I should like to hear that story” I said enthusiastically. I loved hearing stories about my ancestors and Father was such an excellent raconteur.

“Then I shall tell it my darling” my Father beamed. Then he quickly cleared the chess board and set up a new position. The one I gave at the start of this post.

“It’s probably about time I gave you some more challenging problems to study and this one is certainly that. Before I ask you to try and solve it though, I’ll tell you about how your Great Grandfather was ensnared by it’s trickery.

In 1858 your Great Grandfather, Herbert, was in New York. For some time he had been involved in establishing new trade opportunities between the United States and Great Britain and he had spent a large portion of the previous few years in New York which was an essential trading hub at that time. New York at that time was an exciting place to be for a chess enthusiast. Just the year before this story takes place the First American Chess Congress had been held at the St. Julien Hotel on Broadway and the winner of the tournament was none other than Paul Morphy, one of the greatest players of all time. He had emerged from obscurity to become a great celebrity of the day and after winning that tournament he travelled on to Britain and France where he was hailed as the best player in the world.

Sam Loyd, 1841-1911

Morphy had spent some considerable period of time in New York before during and after that First American congress and as a result the already burgeoning chess scene enjoyed a real golden age. This was the era just before the New York Chess Clubs were founded and so the St. Julien was the place to meet and play chess at that time and many of the best players in the states as well as visiting European stars spent time there when they were in town. Your Great Grandfather spent a lot of his recreational time there and got to meet and know many of the important characters on the scene including Morphy himself and the owner of the hotel, a great patron for chess in New York, Denis Julien. He also befriended the man who composed this problem a young fellow called Samuel Loyd.”

“I know that name” I interjected.

“And well you might” my Father responded. “Sam Loyd became a famous puzzler and not just in chess circles. He also invented that puzzle I showed you last Christmas. ‘The Trick Donkeys Problem’.”

“I remember that”.

“Well, Loyd was still a youngster when your Great Grandfather met him. However, even at the age of 18 he was already a very successful composer of chess problems and a reasonably accomplished player. One night Loyd was playing, chatting and making merry at the St. Julien Hotel with a group of players of which your Great Grandfather was one. The topic of their conversation turned to problem composition and solving and Herbert said that he found most chess problems to be rather easy to solve. Sam asked him why he thought that was the case. In answer Herbert made a similar case to the one you gave a few minutes ago saying that it was usually all too easy to find the piece that was the key to the solution. Immediately Loyd offered to wager that he could design a problem in which Herbert could not pick the piece that was the key to the checkmate. Herbert readily agreed thinking that the task was an impossible one and the stakes were agreed as being the cost of a dinner at the hotel.

After that evening a few weeks passed by and Herbert didn’t see Sam at the hotel. He thought that he must have become engrossed in one of his many projects and had forgotten about the bet but then, three weeks later, as he played a friendly game in the hotel someone tapped him on the shoulder. He turned to see a beaming Sam Loyd who told him that, when he’d finished his game he had a present for him and that he hadn’t eaten all day and was starving! Your Great Grandfather quickly agreed a draw in the game he was playing and hurried across the room to another table were a gathering crowd of a dozen or so kibitzers parted to let him take a seat across the board from Loyd. On the board in front of him was this position.”

“Excelsior” by Sam Loyd
“White to play and mate in 5 with the least likely pawn or piece.”

“It’s White to play and give checkmate in five moves,” grinned Sam. “But my challenge to you Herbert is to pick a piece, any piece, that doesn’t give mate in the main line.

“So, now my girl. Can you meet Sam Loyd’s challenge and find a White piece that doesn’t give mate?” Chuckled my Father. “I’m going to go and bring myself some breakfast and so you have some time to think on it.” He stood and left the room leaving me rapt in thought.

After five or ten minutes he came back with a plate of eggs and bacon and a steaming cup of coffee.

“Pick your piece young lady” he said.

“I chose the pawn on b2,” I answered, “I’ve looked for tricks and traps but I can’t envisage how it can be involved in the solution in any way. Besides this to avoid being captured it would have to be the first piece to move and I can’t see how it contributes.” My Father’s laugh boomed out.

“Well, that’s exactly what your Great Grandfather Herbert thought and I’m afraid it cost him the price of that dinner. Not only does the b-pawn have a role to play in the solution, in the mainline it actually delivers checkmate!”

I could do nothing but stare at him in amazement.

“Let me show you how”, chortled Father.

I’ve never forgotten the feeling of total surprise and joy I felt when my Father revealed that solution to me. I’m sure that Herbert must have felt the same way back in 1858.

That then, is the story of how Sam Loyd won a splendid dinner at the St. Julien Hotel from my Great Grandfather. It is also the story of how a legendary chess problem was born. In fact the mystique of this puzzle has embedded itself so vividly into chess folklore that any chess problem which involves a pawn making consecutive moves from its home square to reach promotion is said to utilise the “Excelsior” theme. What a wonderful puzzle by one of the great puzzlers!

  4 Responses to “Pick a piece, any piece”

  1. I like it! I've done it with the g3 pawn; the others will be more tricky.

  2. OK, I have mated with all White's pieces: I need 5 moves with any of the three pawns or either knight, 4 with the king (which is a bit of a cheat, really, as the b5 rook actually does the mate, though the king moves. Quibble at that, though, and I'll point out that the b pawn isn't a pawn any more when it mates!), 3 with the e2 rook and 2 with the b5 rook.
    Can anyone do better, or am I the only one who needs to get a life? 😀

  3. Good work Pete! I don't think even I went through the problem to that extent 🙂

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