Puzzle artist Sam Loyd (January 30, 1841 to April 10, 1911)

by Johannes Fischer
1/31/2021 – Even passionate chess players often have difficulties to appreciate the beauty of chess problems. Bizarre positions and terms such as albion, aristocrat, dual, duplex, uncapture, or Zepler doubling, to name just a few, are just not very inviting. But Sam Loyd, perhaps the most famous chess composer and puzzle author of all times, had a knack to present his chess problems in an attractive way: with humour, wit, and embedded into stories. Sam Loyd was born 180 years ago, on January 30, 1841.

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One of Loyds most famous compositions is the so-called "Charles XII problem", published in 1859.


Loyd claimed that this position occurred in a game Charles XII played with his advisor Christian Albert Grosthusen when the Swedes were fighting the Turks at Bender in 1713. It's White to move and Charles announced a mate in three.


1.Rxg3 Bxg3 2.Nf3 Bxh2 3.g4#

A nice solution, but nothing special. However, Loyd continues:

Scarcely had he uttered the words, when a Turkish bullet, shattering the window, dashed the White knight off of the board in fragments. Grothusen started violently, but Charles, with utmost coolness, begged him to put back the other knight and work out the mate, observing that it was pretty enough. But another glance at the board made Charles smile. We do not need the knight. I can give it to you and still mate in four!



1.hxg3 Be3 2.Rg4 Bg5 3.Rh4+ Bxh4 4.g4#

Loyd goes on:

Who would believe it, he had scarcely spoken when another bullet flew across the room, and the pawn at h2 shared the fate of the knight. Grothusen turned pale. "You have our good friends the Turks with you," said the king unconcerned, "it can scarcely be expected that I should contend against such odds; but let me see if I can dispense with that unlucky pawn. I have it!" he shouted with a tremendous laugh, "I have great pleasure in informing you that there is undoubtedly a mate in 5."



1.Rb7 Be3 2.Rb1 Bg5 3.Rh1+ Bh4 4.Rh2 gxh2 5.g4#

A hidden joke of this story is that, according to legend, Charles XII actually had his ear shot off at Bender.

Sam Loyd was born in Philadelphia on 30 January 1841, the youngest of eight children. His parents were, as he himself once said, "wealthy but honest". His father was a land developer and investor.

However, Loyd did not grow up in Philadelphia, but in New York, where he and his brothers discovered chess. He was particularly taken by chess problems and had a talent for composing them. He published his first problem when he was just 14 years old – many more were to follow.

Loyd was also a strong practical player. According to Jeff Sonas' chessmetrics page, the famous composer had a historic Elo rating of 2445 in July 1870, which would have made him the world's number 15 at that time.

In 1867 he took part in the strong international tournament in Paris. With 6½/24 he finished tenth in a field of 13 but had the chance to compete against players such as Ignaz Kolisch, Gustav Neumann, Wilhelm Steinitz or Szymon Winawer, who belonged to the world's top players at that time.

But Loyd soon lost interest in chess and instead focused on inventing mathematical puzzles and games. He was extremely prolific and is still considered as one if not the greatest American author and creator of mathematical puzzles.

However, he sometimes seemed to have a peculiar understanding of truth. For instance, from 1891 until his death on 10 April 1911, Loyd claimed that he had invented the 15 puzzle. The object of this popular game is to place 15 tiles, numbered from 1 to 15, in the correct order on the 16 squares of a four-by-four square by moving the tiles.

15 puzzle | Photo: Micha L. Rieser

But this game, which Bobby Fischer also liked to play quickly and well, as he was able to demonstrate to an audience of millions on television on November 7, 1972 when he was a guest in Johnny Carson's Tonight Show, was invented by Noyes Palmer Chapman, who in 1880 had applied for a patent for it. It was only in 1896 that Loyd published his first article on the 15 puzzle, and his claim to be the inventor of that game is just false.

But Loyd undoubtedly composed the following chess problem. It is one of his most famous problems, and in allusion to the famous poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow he named it "Excelsior".


White to move and mate in five.

White would like to mate with 1.Rd5 followed by 2.Rd1. But 1.Rd5 fails to 1...Rc5 with an exchange of rooks. Therefore, White plays...


The Longfellow poem "Excelsior", to which Loyd's problem refers, tells the story of a young man who climbs further and further up into the snowy Alps, until he finally finds death. Here it is the white b-pawn who climbs up the board. Black must now sacrifice his rook to avert the threat of mate with Rd5-d1.

1...Rc5+ 2.bxc5

The Excelsior pawn takes the rook and advances further. White now threatens 3.Rb1#. Black has only one way to prevent that.


But White now renews the threat of Rd5–Rd1# – of course, by advancing the former b-pawn further up the board.


White now threatens not only Rd5–Rd1 mate, but also Rf5–Rf1 mate.


If White now plays 4.Rd5, Black has 4...Bxg3, and after 5.Rd1+ he then delays the mate with 5...Be1. After 4.Rf5 Black delays the mate with 4...Bf4. But of course White's b-pawn takes another step ahead.


No matter, what Black now plays, White will mate with 5.bxa8Q# or 5.bxa8B#. Excelsior!

When Loyd published this problem in the London Era on 13 January 1861, he accompanied it, as he often did, with a little story. According to Loyd, he composed the problem after a bet with a gentleman named Dennis Julien. Julien, according to Loyd, had claimed to be able to tell which piece or pawn would mate in any given chess problem. When Loyd presented him with the Excelsior problem and said that Julien only had to indicate which piece would not give mate, Julien pointed to the pawn on b2 – which, of course, is the very piece that will mate in the end.

And whether this story is true or whether Loyd made it up, the Excelsior problem remains an impressive example of Loyd's wit and creativity.


More about problem chess

Johannes Fischer was born in 1963 in Hamburg and studied English and German literature in Frankfurt. He now lives as a writer and translator in Nürnberg. He is a FIDE-Master and regularly writes for KARL, a German chess magazine focusing on the links between culture and chess. On his own blog he regularly publishes notes on "Film, Literature and Chess".
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brian8871 brian8871 2/4/2021 03:02
Hello again, Frederic. I'm the same Brian who wrote to you in '03 about the other puzzle here. And yes, my 50th birthday is in August.
Frederic Frederic 2/3/2021 05:31
Yes brian8871 (49, born in August?), Black can play different lines to defend for five moves, e.g.:
1.b4 Rc6 2.Rd5 Rh6+ 3.Kxh6 Bg5+ 4.Nxg5 Nc7 5.Rd1#; or
1...Rxc2 2.Nxc2 Bc7 3.Rd5 Bxg3 4.Rd1+ Be1 5.Rdxe1#; or
1...Bc7 2.Rf5 Bf4 3. Rxf4 Rc5+ 4. bxc5 Nc7 5. Rf1#).
But 2.bxc5 a2 3.c6 Bc7 4.cxb7 ~ 5.bxa8Q# is the most plausible and attractive. I have written about Loyd's famous Excelsior this in these articles:
Turm_Eric Turm_Eric 1/31/2021 10:57
The puzzle shown in the photo is NOT Sam Loyd's version. He claimed to have launched the game with blocks 14 and 15 inverted (an original idea of his). This eliminates the introductory phase of shuffling the blocks - so the puzzle is quite different from the others that already existed - although it uses the same platform. The point of Loyd's idea is that with blocks 14 and 15 inverted, the problem is insoluble. Someone with a very well-trained mind in mathematics will discover this feature without resorting to the trial and error method, but ordinary people will spend many hours trying to solve the puzzle. Another point that still seems to me not well researched, is that the patent applied for in 1880 for that other gentleman would have been denied because there was already a very similar game patented previously. (Supposing that this was the conventional version - the one shown in the photo that illustrates this article).
brian8871 brian8871 1/31/2021 07:05
Unfortunately, there's an alternate path for Black in the Excelsior problem that ruins the idea of the b-pawn giving mate. 1. b4 Rxc2 2. Nxc2 Bc7 3. Rd5 Bxg3 4. Rd1+ Be1 5. Rxe1#.
Frederic Frederic 1/30/2021 11:19
The wonderful little Charles XII problem has an interesting composition history. The editor of the magazine "Chess Monthly", thought up the story and asked Loyd to compose a chess position to suit it. Loyd did so in less than a day. In 1900 the Baltic German composer Friedrich Amelung added a new twist: The general, his nerves completely frayed, watched his monarch execute the mates. With a wry smile he said, "What a pity, your majesty, that the first bullet didn't remove your rook instead of the knight." "Ahh," said the King, "then I would simply have delivered mate in six!"

In 2003 Brian Stewart drew my attention to the fact that if the second bullet had struck the g-pawn instead of the h-pawn then the king would also have been able to win.
danthop danthop 1/30/2021 11:14
When Sam Loyd's life is discussed, it is rarely mentioned that he was 20 years old when the U.S. Civil War began, and I wonder if he served--I've seen no mention of whether or not he did. If he did serve, as most who were his age did, my guess is we would have heard about it. Loyd was born in the North, in Philadelphia. Someone with the same name who was born in the South and wasn't our composer, served in the Confederate Army. Loyd's contemporary, the promising problem composer George N. Cheney, died at 24, in the First Battle of Bull Run.