Emil and the Detectives

by ChessBase
3/16/2021 – Capablanca was twelve when he played his first famous game, Fischer, Kasparov, and Carlsen were teenagers. Of course, they stand out with the benefit of hindsight. It is impossible to predict the future, but in his article, study composer Gady Costeff presents some of the first notable work of six promising teenagers, taking their first steps in chess composition.

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I just reread Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kästner. Emil, a young boy, is sent by his single mother to Berlin with her meagre savings to support his grandmother. A thief steals the money and Emil manages to follow him off the train. While watching the thief Emil is befriended by a boy his age, who quickly summons an army of children. They coordinate in recovering the money and restoring justice. The inventiveness and joy with which the children pursue their goal is most enjoyable. Many people retain this enthusiasm into adulthood, but there is an undeniable pleasure in witnessing the young take their first steps. The same is true for chess composition.

The path composers typically travel is player → solver → composer. We all start by learning the moves and playing, some of us are serious enough to solve tactics, puzzles, and eventually problems and studies. The final step into composition is the most difficult, as it requires both setting aside the game, and engaging fundamentally new aspects of thinking and techniques. Every year new composers travel this path and here we will meet a small number of those who are still teenagers.

Note that the solutions to all the following problems are given at the bottom of this page. The replayer has a built-in engine which allows you to answer any "why-not" and "what-if" questions that might arise. But please first try to solve the examples yourself from the live diagrams, on which you can move pieces around.

James Malcom is a prolific young composer at home in various genres. Much of his work can be seen on Facebook and MatPlus. His castling in 76 problem is delightful. I have slightly modified his setting to reach 100 moves. Such length records are typically driven by a systematic manoeuvre, here the nine move long bishop round trip from f7 and back. Every round trip concludes with passing the move back to black, who counters with a pawn move to pass the move back to white. White repeats the round trip until all the available black moves have been exhausted. At that point Nb2 must move, and the black defense collapses. After the systematic manoeuvre aspect has been optimized, the length can often be extended through a thematically unrelated introduction.


In 2016, renowned grandmaster of composition Marjan Kovačević started organizing chess problem solving and composition tourneys for young chess players. Ilija Serafimović, (* 7.2004), won the 2018 study edition with this sparkling miniature. For some reason chess composition glorifies special numbers. A miniature is a problem with at most seven pieces, a baby has at most five, and a Meredith has at most twelve. Recently some study tourneys limited studies to ten pieces, or two babies.


Ben Smolkin from Canada, (* 3.2006), is another of Marjan’s online students. His YouTube channel contains a mix of puzzles and some of his work. His prize-winning study combines a mix of dramatic sacrifices and quiet moves, which, I think, elevates the experience.

In a series of YouTube lectures Ben speaks very nicely on a number of subjects ("Don't forget a king can attack!" or "How to beat a fortress!").

Here's a list of all his videos.


Itay Richardson, (* 9.2006), started composing last year, and is improving with every study. In his latest success, white sacrifices four pieces, including an underpromoted bishop, to overcome black’s counterplay. On a personal note, the greatest compliment I received was when he cut school to meet me. I doubt that meeting helped much, as aside from his own hard work, Itay’s grandfather is the outstanding composer Yehuda Hoch.


Christopher Yoo (12.2006 – photo courtesy SLCC) is an over the board IM, with a win against a 2700 grandmaster and his sights set squarely on a grandmaster title.

Christopher is also an excellent study composer, winning third place in the prestigious FIDE Cup of 2019. There are many grandmasters who juggle the game and composition. Hopefully Christopher will be the next one.


To conclude, here is an attractive mate in three by another teenager.


Here are the solutions to all the above problems:


About the author

Gady Costeff has been a study composer since 1977. He writes a regular column in the Israeli composition magazine Variantim. Together with Lewis Stiller he created Chess Query Language (CQL), for defining and finding any pattern in chess games or compositions. A native of Israel, he lives in San Francisco.


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