The Queens of Problem Chess

by Satanick Mukhuty
4/12/2020 – For whatever reason, the majority of chess players are men. The same is true for chess composers. However, for more than 150 years women have composed chess problems and Satanick Mukhuty presents some of these composers and their creations.

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Women extraordinaire in chess composing

Until very recently, Edith Baird was the only prominent female composer I had a little knowledge about. But while researching for this article, I had the fortune to discover a number of them. I would like to begin with the following two-mover which was composed more than 150 years ago by Dora Nesbitt from America. Dora Nesbitt was most certainly the real name of the composer and not a pseudonym of a male composer and presumably this is the oldest problem by any female on record.


If you are an experienced problem solver you might frown upon the key move 1.Qf4+! that lacks subtlety because it comes with a check. But hey, this was 1868, a time when all these artistic principles weren't all that well established.


Before Edith Baird came to the scene, there was one more woman who graced the art of problems with her brilliance. Sophie Schett or Sophie Schett-Merfort (1836 - 1902) lived in Ebreichsdorf near Vienna and was born 23 years before Baird and is perhaps the first important female figure in chess composing. Very little is known about her life but according to the Austrian magazine Österreichische Lesehalle she was the daughter of Robert Merfort of Unterwaltersdorf and was married to Lieutenant Sigmund Schett who died in 1888.

Sophie composed over a hundred chess problems in her life and most of them were published in and international magazines. Her creations are marked by unusual sharpness and piquant wit. 96 of them are listed in the Yet Another Chess Problem database.


The solution here is typical of Schett's style. It is simple, and certainly lacks the sophistication of modern more-movers, ut it still is very well-hidden! It was Dr. Fritz Emil Giegold, the legendary Rätselonkel, who made such one-liners popular in the 1920s and 1930s.


I will show three more problems by Schett before moving onto our next composer.


Once again simple, but pleasant! The key is 1.Be4! Can you find the mating variations?


Now let's move to slightly more complex examples. In the position above, the queen is badly placed on a3. The most natural square for it seems to be b2 and 1.Qb2! is in fact the key-move.


White 2.Qh8# but how does White mate after 1...Kh3?

Well, after after 1...Kh3 White has 2.Nh2! to answer 2...g2 with 3.Qh8#


Of the four problems just quoted this one is by far my favourite. The key here is 1.Rd1! and now after 1...Ke4 comes the clever 2.d2 Kd4 3.Bf4# pin-mate! And, of course, 1...e4 is dealt with 2.Rc1 Kd3 3.Rc3#


Edith Elina Helen Baird (1859 - 1924), the next composer I want to introduce, is one of the greatest of 19th century. She was born at Hareston Manor near Plymouth in the United Kingdom as daughter of Thomas Winter-Wood, a writer, and Eliza Ann (Sole) Winter-Wood. Edith took to chess early in life as her father, her mother, and her older brothers Edward and Carslake were all amateurs or tournament-level chess players. In 1880 she married W. J. Baird, Deputy Inspector-General of Hospitals and Fleets for the Royal Navy. The couple settled in Brighton, where their only child, Lilian Edith, was born. Like her mother, Lilian showed a marked interest in chess and started composing at a very early age but then lost interest during her teens.

Edith Baird | Photo: Wikipedia

Edith produced about 2000 problems in varied genres and authored two texts: Seven Hundred Chess Problems (1902) and The Twentieth Century Retractor (1907).


If one has to single out one problem from Baird's rich oeuvre then it has to be this one. This little miniature won first prize in the prestigious Hackney Mercury three-mover tourney with a limit of six pieces, which featured all the great composers of the time, including all-time greats like  B. G. Laws, P. H. Williams and James Raynor. 

Let's now get into the solution of this masterpiece. The key move 1.Qg7! threatens 2.Qc7# but also concedes flight squares to the black king. The variations are 1...Kc6 2.c5 Kxc5 3.Qc7#; 1...Kxc4 2.Qd4+ Kb3 3.Qb4#; 1...Kb6 2.Nb5 (2...Ka6/a5 3.Qa7#, 2...Kc6/c5 3.Qc7#); 1...Kd6 2.Nb5+ (2...Ne6 3.Nd4#, 2...Kc6/c5 3.Qc7#)


Baird often composed problems with a very rich thematic content. The mate-in-2 above is a fine example where the first-rate key 1.Ne5! (active sacrifice) leads to pretty variations: 1...Kxe5 2.Bxc7#; 1...Kxg5 2.Qxe3#; 1...Ne1 2.Ng6#; 1...Nh4 2.Nd3#; 1...e2 2.Qg3#; 1...Nb5 (Nd5, Ne8, Na8) 2.Nxh3#; 1...Nxe6+ 2.Nxe6#


Let's end this section with a problem composed by Edith's daughter Lilian. She composed this when she was just ten years old and it also won a prize!


The key here is the waiting move 1.f5! The variations are as follows: 1...e3 2.Ne6#; 1...Kc5 2.Ne6#; 1...Kd5 2.Nxc6#; 1...Ke5 2.Nxc6#; 1...e5 2.Nxc6#; 1...e6 2.Nxc6#

Odette Vollenweider, the next composer I want to introduce, is arguably the most prominent female composer of the modern era. Born in Zurich June 30, 1933, Odette published her first problem at the age of 25 under the pseudonym of Gabriel Baumgartner. Now, at the age of 86, she is an Honorary Master of chess composition and for more than thirty years she has been the editor of the chess problem section of the high-quality German language daily Swiss newspaper  Neue Zürcher Zeitung. She has also published a number of theoretical articles in Die Schwalbe, a German magazine focusing on chess problems.


Odette Vollenweider

Odette is also famous for writing the Israel Schiffmann anthology, Faszinierendes Schachproblem and Kostbarkeiten der Problemkunst, a text on Hans Johner.


This can be thought of as a nice exercise in Grimshaw or Novotny. 1.Rc6 (2.Re4#), 1.Nf6 (2.Ne6#, 2.Be5#), and 1.Rf6 (2.Ne6#, 2.Be5#) are three potential Novotny sacrifices but which one actually works? Well, the key is 1.Rf6! The other two are tries that fail to 1...Rhxc6 and 1...Re7 respectively. The variations are 1...Bxf6 2.Ne6#; 1...Rxf6 2.Be5#; 1...Nc4 or Nd3 2.Rd3#; 1...Rc4 2.Qe5#; 1...Bxf3+ 2.Nxf3#


The next problem offers the squares b2 and g6 for possible Novotny sacrifices. But the key is the unlikely 1.Qg6! which comes with a quadruple threat of 2.Ne4#, 2.Ne6#, 2.Rxc6# and 2.Nd3#. But the variations are striking because each defense parries three of the four threats but still leads to a unique mate. For example 1...Qe8 parries 2.Ne4#, 2.Ne6#, and 2.Rxc6# but allows 2.Nd3#. Similarly, 1...bxa3 defends against three possible mates but allows 2.Nd3#. The other thematic variations 1...Qxd6/Rxg6 2.Ne4#; 1...bxa5/b5 2.Rxc6#; and 1...Nxd6/Bxg6 2.Ne6# follow this theme. A key containing multiple (three or more) threats is usually considered weak but this remarkable feature in which the defenses separate the mate threats and induce them uniquely is termed Fleck theme and is certainly seen as a merit. Lastly, note that the other Novotny try in the position 1.Bb2, threatening 2.Qd4# and Nb3#, is simply refuted by 1...b3!


Odette with Vlaicu Crisan | Photo:

Odette with Klaus Wenda and Reto Aschwanden | Photo: chess composers blog


I will conclude this section on Odette Vollenweider with a three-mover. The solution begins with a simple battery creation 1.Re8! and then enters into a cascade of nice variations: 1...Qxd4 2.Bc4+ Qe5 3.Nd6#; 1...Bxd4 2.Bc4+ Be5 3.Nfg3#; 1...fxg2 2.Bd5+ Kxd5 3.Nf4#; 1...Bg3 2.Bd5+ Kxd5 3.Ne3#. Notice, how in the first two lines Black's queen and bishop are first pinned on d4, only to be unpinned and then be pinned once again on e5!

The above problem was composed in memory of Hans Johner. Hans was the younger brother of Paul Johner, an accomplished musician and International Master from Switzerland, and Odette's book Kostbarkeiten der Problemkunst (1966) includes twenty games by Hans Johner and a selection of his compositions.

A picture of Johner from Odette's book

I would like to finish this article by talking about Julia Vysotska from Latvia, who is undoubtedly a star in today's problem community. Julia is not only an extremely talented composer but she is also doing some excellent work in popularizing the art of chess compositions. She dwells mostly in fairy problems these days but also has a few orthodox helpmates to her name.

Julia is an Editor of WFCC | Photo: Julia's Fairies

Julia runs the informative website Julia's Fairies that is dedicated to fairy chess.

Julia directed the 4th Youth Chess Composing Challenge at Vilnius, Lithuania | Photo: WFCC

Since fairies, Julia's main area of interest, are beyond the scope of this article I will just show two of her orthodox helpmates!


The problem above shows a special line opening and closing effect, known as the bivalve where the move of one piece closes the line of another piece but opens the line of a third piece. 1...Ne2 obstructs the path of Black's rook on a2 but clears the way for the white rook g4 and thus one of the solutions is 2.Re4 Kc6 3.Rb4#. The other solution 1...Ne6 2.Be5 Kc5 3.Bc7# is similar. Notice how the strategic bivalve effect in the two solutions takes place on orthogonal lines – a picturesque theme framework known as Orthogonal Diagonal Transformation.


The final problem is more complex. Here are the solutions: 1...Nf3 2.Nce3 Ne1 opens the line of the white rook and closes the line of the black queen, allowing 3.Nf1# and 1...Bxc4 2.Bxd4 Bf7 allows 3.Bf2#


Julia's website offers more information about her and her work, including a brief biography. Diyan Kostadinov of KobulChess offers a list of other female composers of today.

Satanick Mukhuty has a background in Mathematics. He is an avid enthusiast of composition chess and is sincerely committed to promoting it around the world. He works for ChessBase India.


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