A White Christmas

by Siegfried Hornecker
12/29/2018 – The final "Study of the Month" examines the legacy of American composer Alain C. White. Our study guide and expert SIEGFRIED HORNECKER explains how White "was far ahead of his time — half a century or more". In fact, Hornecker is already looking ahead to 2022 when many of White's works are slated to enter the public domain, much to the benefit of chess study fans (and future Study of the Month columns) everywhere.

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Study of the Month: December 2018

The 25-year old man looked at the lines wishing a merry christmas. The print of the book, dedicated to his sister May, but also to the enthusiast all over the world, was finished, and as he took them, his notebook with the addresses of his friends, and enough money to mail the books, he thought about his life. Born on March 3rd, 1880, in Cannes to parents from the United States, he returned to their home country at the age of five. At 18 he studied at Harvard University, finishing in 1902. The Phi Beta Kappa and his magna cum laude for his graduation in Romance languages from there were fresh in his memory. Just last year, in 1904, he graduated as master from Columbia University. But what was most shaping his life was his father’s hobby. For hours his father would sit at a wooden board with 32 pieces, moving them around with friends. Eventually he also learnt that game, “chess”, a game coming from ancient times and enjoying a huge fellowship worldwide. At twelve years old, he inherited a collection of 5,000 chess puzzles, all with white to move and checkmate in three moves. White to move indeed, he thought and smiled.

This is one possibility of how a day shortly prior to Christmas 1905 might have been for one individual who eventually settled in Litchfield, Connecticut. Over a century later, chess composers still only hold the highest regards for the endeavour starting then and ending in 1936 after 44 books. This legendary exploration of chess composition themes is known as the “Christmas series” of his, the publisher, Alain C. White.

Alain C. White’s dedication “Wishing you a Merry Christmas” from the helpmate book “Conspiracy”, 1935

When I do some research on articles, I expect my sources to be reports in chess magazines, books, on websites, by people who are enthusiasts, who have had their own share of life experiences. What, however, is unique, is that this month I can quote from someone who despite being very young at the time of writing, and still very youthful now, has shown a great deal of research and enthusiasm. One is reminded of William Shatner who remarks in... not Star Trek, but another TV show he hosts: “It’s a weird world... and I love it!” 

It speaks a lot for White that, even as of 2010, there are articles about him, showing deep admiration for his work, even if outside of chess, one of which by Spencer Musselman in the Litchfield County Times (“Admiring Alain C. White”, 11 March 2010)[1] was written by a fifth-grader but filled with rich details not found in my other sources, starting with the line “The person, I admire most in Connecticut history is Mr. Alain C. White.” From what I can collect about the author of said admiration article, his love to the nature in Connecticut is unbroken, dedicating his spare time to preserve environmental and natural resources — a love shared by his family.

Indeed, the botanist, the park founder Alain C. White lives on in those deeds, as an inspiration still to today’s youth in Connecticut. Oh, but how much more was his chess work an inspiration also for me! How much more is it still regarded as maybe the most powerful series of chess composition books, annually bringing joy to his close friends — and of course the closest of all, his beloved sister — at first, but then to chess composers all over the world! May it be that I grew up in a time when protecting nature was shown to be an important thing in the comics around Donald Duck and his nephews I read, in one of them they even ventured into the very interior of a plant to keep the secret of chlorophyll production away from industrial use, but even without enjoying nature to me the importance of preserving it has become clear. Alain C. White in this regard was far ahead of his time — half a century or more.

Buying land from all around him, preserving it eventually with his sister May in 1913 into the still existing White Memorial Foundation — named in memory of their parents — White is widely thought to be the founder of the Connecticut State Park system. 4,000 acres of land to be preserved are in the proud possession of the foundation, serving as a wildlife sanctuary.

White Memorial Foundation

Photo: White Memorial Conservation Center

Not stopping there, he also donated land to many other parks. Maybe this love for nature stemmed from his father, owner of a Victorian mansion in Litchfield, where he moved to in 1863, and builder of lawns and gardens there. Following in those footsteps, May and Alain White bought land in the Bantam Lake and River area, saving the Wood Duck in the process of building their foundation’s area. And yet, this man hailed as the greatest individual in the preservation of wildlife in Connecticut by Donald Matthews, former Director of the Connecticut State Parks, had an even more important contribution to his second lifetime love: Chess. Watching his father play — and, as John Jay White also was an avid solver as White writes in Memories of My Chess Board (1909), likely solve problems — Alain developed a keen interest in the game and in building puzzles, chess problems, for it. Naturally, it helped him to break the German Naval Code in World War I which used chess problems in its code. At that time, his greatest contribution to chess was already in full force.

Chess Lyrics. A collection of chess problems by A. F. Mackenzie 1887-1905 and Roi acculé aux angles by A.C. White were the first two books to be featured in the Christmas Series, both being in time for Christmas 1905. Rare today, the books, sent annually, were a welcome present to White’s friends. Oftentimes featuring an assortment of chess problems with little commentary, their high production value (with the typical red covers) by today’s standard would not be mirrored by the content, but in the times when databases were not available and collections of chess problems were a rarity, those must have been of the highest value. Each of them featured a short note at the beginning, akin to “Wishing you a Merry Christmas. -A.C. White” (see the dedication above, taken from 1935’s Alain C. White book, edited by George Hume, Conspiracy. A Selection of Help-Mate Problems).

The 44 books, sent out until 1936, held a variety of themes, and soon turned into masterful anthologies, such as 1907’s Les mille et un mats inverses with a whopping 1001(!) selfmates, overshadowing the highly interesting 200 Bauernumwandlungs-Schachaufgaben in the same year, both compiled by White himself, the latter with his namesake Max Weiss (“Weiss” meaning “White” in German, the book’s language). There followed collections of works of single authors, and eventually in 1931 even a collection of problems by White’s friends. Many times, other authors joined the venture, sometimes creating full books of their own that they dedicated to the Christmas Series.

Sadly the 1936 book A Genius of the Two-Mover. A Selection of Problems by Comins Mansfield was the final one in this annual tradition, after half the years as squares on a chessboard — 32 — had been conquered. White by now lived with his sister on his mansion, staying unmarried, his life dedicated to chess and biology.

On 23 April 1951, Alain C. White died. That is, his physical hull died, but his spirit continued to live on in his numerous works, in his foundation, in his contributions to biology and chess, having left a mark on the world that still is shaping Connecticut today. The greatness of his work does not leave enough space to go into every single book of his Christmas Series in detail, but interested readers can find a list easily online. However, there is a final (late) Christmas gift coming up in 2021, or rather on January 1st 2022, with White’s books entering the Public Domain due to the expiration of their copyright in the Berne Agreement countries, which include Europe and the U.S.

For this time, our Christmas gift consists of five unrelated endgame studies which however all show neat geometrical motifs and are among the favourites of your author who repeats Alain C. White’s words: “Wishing you a Merry Christmas!”

[1] As your author is situated in Germany and the article stems from a now U.S. only website, for legal reasons no link is provided. Instead you can find an archived version to read the text worldwide.


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World Federation for Chess Composition

World Federation for Chess Composition (www.wfcc.ch)


Siegfried (*1986) is a German chess composer and member of the World Federation for Chess Composition, subcommitee for endgame studies. His autobiographical book "Weltenfern" (in English only) can be found on the ARVES website. He presents an interesting endgame study with detailed explanation each month.


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