An elegant sufficiency of cooks

by Jonathan Speelman
2/7/2021 – “The 8x8 board allied with the rules of chess is an amazing canvas. Much of the time the pictures it paints are fairly mundane, but occasionally it creates something extraordinary”, writes Jon Speelman to conclude this week’s article. In it, you will find helpmates, cooks and a surprising move out of a Catalan. | Photo: Anna Barnett website

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Helpmates, cooks, beauty

[Note that Jon Speelman also looks at the content of the article in video format, here embedded at the end of the article.]

A few weeks ago, Luke McShane sent me a helpmate he’d composed aided by an online helpmate tool — a nice graphical front end for the Popeye problem-solving engine. And using it you can check ideas with a speed and accuracy which was unheard of in the times when real men created helpmates through their sweat: hoping against hope that their beautiful ideas wouldn’t be polluted by unwelcome extra solutions — cooks.

In helpmates Black moves first and conspires with White to get himself checkmated. Luke’s appears below, and it also includes set play — a solution half a move shorter in which White moves first.


Once he gave me the address I couldn’t resist playing with the toy myself. The procedure, which is probably not all that different from what the real men used to do, is to set up an idea and then look for cooks — or rather, in this case, use the engine to do so for you. You then add pieces to try to eliminate them and more often than not create some other cooks instead. But given the 100% accuracy of the error-checking it should take only hours to get something sound — a task which would once have taken weeks or months.

John NunnHaving got one of my ideas to work but in a pretty ugly setting (#3) I sent it to Luke, and he later managed to zap some of my material creating a rather beautiful setting (#4). However, when he entered it into the engine it came back with a second solution — a cook which is of Michelin-star quality, except that sadly it bears no relation at all to the thematic intended solution. Luke also pointed out that with a small adjustment you could lose that cook (#5).

I sent it to John Nunn [pictured], who as you may know is a former world champion problem solver, and he got the thematic solution in less than a minute! However, it took him more than 15 minutes to find the pretty cook. His aesthetic opinion — and I’m sure he’s right — is that rather than this being an elegant sufficiency, too many cooks spoil the broth. But I’m a little sad to lose the outlier, so I’ve included both versions.

[Photo: Franziska Iseli]


Once you’ve seen the theme then you might, by analogy, be able to solve this one reasonably quickly — John said it took him almost no time at all and Jonathan Mestel, also a former world champion problem solver, was the same.  


Chess problems are about making aesthetic and often surprising ideas work. Of course this sometimes happens over the board too, and Tim Krabbe famously created a list of the 100 most amazing chess moves — for his top ten follow this link

I’ve taken his #1 to use here and also added something I found recently. I was looking at the Catalan Accepted with a very strong pupil, and at some stage we got onto a4 in the old main line. Using a database, I filtered for top players and came up with a blitz game between Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Hikaru Nakamura.

It certainly isn’t the most important game ever played in the Catalan, but I was flicking through in a fairly desultory sort of way when I glanced at a side line and my engine suddenly went ping — and not just ping but PING! The move it found in a split second is amazing, and I doubt whether, had I reached the position, I would have found it at a normal time limit, let alone at blitz.

The 8x8 board allied with the rules of chess is an amazing canvas. Much of the time the pictures it paints are fairly mundane, but occasionally it creates something extraordinary. 


Boris Spassky

Boris Spassky

How I became World Champion Vol.1 1973-1985

Garry Kasparov's rise to the top was meteoric and at his very first attempt he managed to become World Champion, the youngest of all time. In over six hours of video, he gives a first hand account of crucial events from recent chess history, you can improve your chess understanding and enjoy explanations and comments from a unique and outstanding personality on and off the chess board.


Jonathan Speelman, born in 1956, studied mathematics but became a professional chess player in 1977. He was a member of the English Olympic team from 1980–2006 and three times British Champion. He played twice in Candidates Tournaments, reaching the semi-final in 1989. He twice seconded a World Championship challenger: Nigel Short and then Viswanathan Anand against Garry Kasparov in London 1993 and New York 1995.


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