Chess Problems: Excelsior Again

12/5/2013 – We recently published a very famous chess problem by the great Samuel Loyd, in which a pawn that moves from its original square all the way to promotion to deliver mate. This theme became known as an "Excelsior", and we asked our readers to provide other examples of the theme. Problem expert David Friedgood collected four examples and traces the full history of the Excelsior.

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Chess Problems: Excelsior Again

By David Friedgood

Soon after I began writing on chess problems for ChessBase I was contacted by a reader, Bob Banerian (USA). He was interested in the Excelsior theme and asked a number of questions about its origins and whether there was a problem showing a mate in five moves by a single pawn with promotion to a knight. I did some research with the aid of Michael McDowell and Pal Benko and answered some of Bob’s questions.

I was therefore quite intrigued when Frederic Friedel’s article recently reappeared, tracing the history of this entertaining theme. In fact, the original Excelsior problem was composed by the Englishman Robert B Wormald (1834–1876) and published in the Illustrated London News in 1857, the year before the great Sam Loyd is thought to have composed his version:

[Event "Illustrated London News"] [Site "?"] [Date "1857.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "Robert B Wormald"] [Black "Mate in 5"] [Result "*"] [Annotator "Friedgood,David"] [SetUp "1"] [FEN "Kn5n/p2b4/pr1N4/1prNkP2/P1R1P3/Bp3pp1/3P4/8 w - - 0 1"] [PlyCount "9"] [EventDate "1857.??.??"] 1. d4+ Kxd6 2. dxc5+ Kc6 (2... Ke5 3. Bb2#) 3. cxb6+ bxc4 4. bxa7 -- 5. axb8=N# {A very pretty mate - had Black played 4...Bxf5 then it would be a "model mate", as all the squares in the black king's field are guarded only once and all the white pieces are used (with the permissible exception of the king - which is well used here to guard b7 - and pawns - here guarding b5 and d5). Note the similarity in technique to Loyd's Excelsior problem: an immobile knight is captured giving mate.} *

This is an ingenious construction, typical of the earlier era when problems were glorified combinations containing lots of checks and sacrifices (although Wormald was a subtle, thematic composer, he evidently resorted to this approach as a means of achieving the Excelsior task). This answers Bob Banerian’s two main questions in one go! However, as Michael McDowell points out, even this achievement turns out to have been anticipated in 1850, as the next diagram shows, by a game:

[Event "Russia"] [Site "?"] [Date "1850.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "Ilia S Shumov"] [Black "Carl Friedrich von Jaenisch"] [Result "*"] [Annotator "Friedgood,David"] [SetUp "1"] [FEN "r1b1q3/ppp2k1p/2npr1p1/3Q2B1/3p4/8/PPP2PPP/RN3RK1 w - - 0 14"] [PlyCount "13"] [EventDate "1850.??.??"] {The moves leading up to this position were: 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 exd4 4.Bc4 Bc5 5.Ng5 Nh6 6.Nxf7 Nxf7 7.Bxf7+ Kxf7 8.Qh5+ g6 9.Qxc5 d6 10.Qb5 Re8 11.0-0 Rxe4 12.Qd5+ Re6 13.Bg5 Qe8 (The game is in the Big Database) Now comes the irresistible Excelsior:} 14. f4 $1 Kg7 15. f5 Re5 {Black defends poorly - or was he helping to compose the first Excelsior? Better was} (15... gxf5) 16. f6+ Kh8 (16... Kf8 17. Bh6#) 17. f7 {Threatening both king and queen - but Black continues to collaborate with the composition rather than resign:} Kg7 18. fxe8=N+ Rxe8 19. Qf7+ Kh8 20. Bf6# *

Pal Benko made me aware of the next problem, showing the Excelsior promotion to mate with a knight with utter simplicity:

[Event "Payne's Family Journal"] [Site "?"] [Date "1859.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "J Hendel"] [Black "Mate in 5"] [Result "*"] [SetUp "1"] [FEN "8/K1N1p3/2k1N3/4P3/8/8/1P6/8 w - - 0 1"] [PlyCount "9"] [EventDate "1859.??.??"] 1. b4 Kd7 2. b5 Kc8 3. b6 Kd7 4. b7 Kc6 5. b8=N# *

Of course such problems are hardly problems – they are much too easy. Yet this is surely a work of art – it has such precision in the ingenious interaction between white pawn and black king and most impressive economy; there is thus little wonder that modern composers still enjoy setting the Excelsior, usually adding a move to the solution length in order to introduce variety. It is quite a popular theme in helpmates, as the next example shows (remember in a helpmate Black moves first and helps White to mate in the stipulated number of moves):

[Event "Commended The Problemist"] [Site "?"] [Date "2007.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "J Pitkänen & Timo Koistinen"] [Black "Helpmate in 6 2 solutions"] [Result "*"] [Annotator "Friedgood,David"] [SetUp "1"] [FEN "4nbn1/4pkp1/5p2/5p2/8/1ppp4/2p4P/2K5 b - - 0 1"] [PlyCount "12"] [EventDate "2007.??.??"] {First solution:} 1... g5 ({Second solution:} 1... f4 2. h3 f3 3. h4 f2 4. h5 f1=B 5. h6 Bh3 6. h7 Be6 7. h8=N#) 2. h4 Kg7 3. hxg5 Kh8 4. gxf6 Bg7 5. f7 Nef6 6. f8=N Nh7 7. Ng6# *

By extending the solution to six moves the composer has been able to show a five-move Excelsior followed by the promoted piece giving mate on move six, and one six move Excelsior with the promotion to knight delivering immediate mate. This second type involves a “hesitating pawn”, which is necessary as a waiting move to give Black time to build the mating net. In the second solution, Black’s pawn carries out a “half-Excelsior” with promotion to a bishop, which subsequently creates a self-block.

Any queries or constructive comments can be addressed to the author at david.friedgood@gmail.com

Copyright in this article David Friedgood 2013/ChessBase


The British Chess Problem Society (BCPS), founded in 1918, is the world's oldest chess problem society. It exists to promote the knowledge and enjoyment of chess compositions, and membership is open to chess enthusiasts in all countries.

The Society produces two bi-monthly magazines, The Problemist and The Problemist Supplement (the latter catering for beginners), which are issued to all members. Composers from all over the world send their problems and studies to compete in the tourneys run by the society.

The BCPS also organises the annual British Chess Solving Championship, and selects the Great Britain squad for the World Chess Solving Championship. The Society holds an annual residential weekend, with a full programme of solving and composing tourneys and lectures; this event attracts an international participation. Members are also entitled to use the resources of the BCPS library, and the Society book service, which can provide new and second-hand publications.


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