Composing chess problems

by Frederic Friedel
12/27/2023 – Let's say you find an interesting mating motif. Now you want to use it as the final position of a chess problem you will compose. The moves leading to it must be imaginative, clever and not very easy to find. But they must also be unique. There mustn't be alternative sets of move that lead to the final (or any) mate. For amateur composers, here's an example of a fellow amateur making a valid problem out of the position displayed.

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Chess is all about mate. It would seem logical that the ultimate goal of the game should receive its share of attention. The only problem is that mates never actually occur. Virtually never. Sometimes at an open or in a blitz game a grandmaster will actually deliver mate; and many amateurs have done so in their early tournaments. But even when they mate it is usually a very mundane affair, with a protected queen slamming itself onto a square next to the enemy king, or one of those perennial back rank mates. This is natural, because each side is trying to prevent the other from executing a brilliant checkmate.

All this is a real shame, because the game of chess contains a vast treasure-trove of extraordinarily beautiful mating motifs. There are thousands and thousands of checkmate positions which we normal human beings playing in regular chess tournaments will never see.

One reaction to this unfortunate situation was the chess problem. Here an artificial situation is constructed where one side can deliver a very difficult (actually hard-to-see) mate in a specific number of moves. "Mate problems" have been around since the invention of chess. They can probably show us an additional few percent of the checkmates that exist with the 32 pieces of a chess set.

In 1860 one of the greatest composers of chess problems, Samuel Loyd, had an idea. "The most suggestive field for a new school of problems that has ever occurred to me," he wrote, "one which would open up a new line of wonderfully intricate combinations, is shown in this position, where the query is merely: 'How could it possibly happen that White effected a mate in three moves?' This it will be observed necessitates an active participation on the part of the Black forces, for both parties enter into a friendly alliance to effect the mate."

This was the first full-fledged genuine helpmate ever published, and it introduced a new era into chess problem composition which has resulted in tens of thousands of exceptionally beautiful and fascinating problems. After the direct mate the helpmate is the second most popular type of chess problem.

Are you able to solve this historical first helpmate ever composed? Finding a way in which the rook and bishop can mate, even with Black cooperation, seems quite impossible. Remember, all the moves must be legal. The main problem is the black queen, which is such a powerful defensive piece. I urge you to try to solve this problem, which you can do by moving the pieces on the diagram above. Remember, Black makes the first move.

Composing a helpmate

At some stage, I became enamoured with helpmates. I solved countless problems in this category, and was egged on by John Nunn, who is also a virtuoso helpmate composer. One day I decided to try composing a helpmate myself. I will describe the process here.

The idea I had was to find a helpmate that resulted in the pretty mating position shown here – a variation of the famous "epaulette mate". My first attempt was the following starting position:

You can follow the intended solution by entering the following moves on the above diagram: 1.Rc5 h5 2.Re6 h6 3.Rcc6 h7 4.Kc5 h8=Q 5.Kd6 Qd4#. Bingo, we have my envisioned mate! I was really pleased and contemplated submitting the problem for publication. But you have to look at the position carefully before you do this. Chess engines were of no use in checking, so I had to do it manually (using Brain 2.0, which I keep installed in my head). I started to look for cooks. It took some hours, but this is what I found:

If you play through the alternate lines you will see how they spoil the composition. Helpmate problems are very strict about purity: there must be no deviations – a single unique line of play must solve the problem.

So I got back to work looking for a version that was sound. I don't recall how long it took, but I finally came up with the following position:

Would you like to try your hand at composing a chess problem? It can be a direct or a helpmate. For the best submissions by an amateur reader we have special prizes. Submissions must be accompanied by a statement assuring us you have never published a helpmate before. Use "feedback to the editors" below to send us your compositions.

Solution to Loyd's historical helpmate: Mating Black requires a double-check in which the queen cannot cover both lines of attack. So Black starts with 1.Kf6 (in helpmates the black move is written like white moves in normal chess) Ra8! 2.Kg7 Bb8! (allowing the black king access to the corner square) 3.Kh8 Be5#.

Now the challenge is yours! Make a chess problem in similar fashion with any theme you may come up with. We will evaluate your efforts and award prizes for the best problems.

Please submit your compositions here

The prizes are products in the brand-new and exciting ChessBase interactive book format. Details will be specified at the end of the week. 

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Editor-in-Chief emeritus of the ChessBase News page. Studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford, graduating with a thesis on speech act theory and moral language. He started a university career but switched to science journalism, producing documentaries for German TV. In 1986 he co-founded ChessBase.


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