What do people really find attractive in chess problems?

by Azlan Iqbal
2/10/2020 – Chess compositions have been around for over a thousand years, and composers aim to tap not only the practical but also the aesthetic sense of solvers. Recently AZLAN IQBAL has investigated the potential of fully-computer-generated chess problems, and here he presents some conclusions about what passes the threshold of beauty.

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Beauty is in the eye of the beholder

Perhaps the earliest recorded chess problems were by al-‘Adli who was reputedly the author of the first book about chess (or rather, an earlier but still recognizable form of the game) and lived in the 9th century CE. He is also said to have played it in the presence of one named, al-Mutawakkil, and therefore was not likely just or even primarily a composer of problems [1]. In the 21st century, however, composing original chess problems is no longer something that only humans can do autonomously. Chesthetica, a program I developed, has been doing so for years now with no end in sight. It composes, quite literally, like a machine. Also, it does not use any kind of machine learning but a totally different approach I call the ‘Digital Synaptic Neural Substrate’ or DSNS, for short. There is, in fact, no ‘learning’ going on at all despite having the word ‘neural’ in it (related books on the subject can be found here).

The feedback I have received over the years about these compositions from the general chess-playing community has been largely positive. However, among master or even grandmaster composers, less so. This is despite some of Chesthetica’s compositions being intriguing enough for publication in a chess problem magazine [2]. Perhaps the first ever to publish compositions composed entirely and autonomously by a computer program.

Personally, I lack the necessary experience (and frankly interest or inclination) to be able to appreciate all the intricacies of traditional chess problems, which apparently put them on a ‘higher aesthetic level’ than anything Chesthetica has produced so far. I suppose the same could be said for other artificial intelligence (AI) systems — even with far more resources behind them — that generate things like paintings and music. The best human painters and musicians are still ‘better’. Perhaps they always will be as far as humans are concerned.

Chess eyes

Regardless, in this article I wanted to share with readers what the general global chess community, not just master players and composers, apparently find appealing when it comes to chess problems. For that purpose, I exported the ‘post data’ from the Chesthetica Facebook page between May 26th and November 21st 2019 (Facebook only allows up to the last 180 days). This showed various statistics regarding all the chess problems published there within that period. Pundits may prefer to just call them constructs, a type of chess problem, since the expression of themes (in particular) is not a critical component. I had been ‘sharing’ these problems composed by Chesthetica to a selection of large chess problem/puzzle communities that are also on Facebook. Each post there can potentially ‘reach’ tens of thousands of people. None of these posts were ever ‘boosted’ by me, by the way (e.g. with money to Facebook or requested assistance from anyone).

Since every few weeks Chesthetica composes far too many problems for any one person to go through in detail individually, for the purpose of online publication (and with the help of more filtering tools I have programmed into Chesthetica), I am able to choose some and reject others based on certain criteria. The process undoubtedly means I would have rejected some problems that others would likely have found appealing and this cannot be helped. To be fair, some problems are also just ‘bad’, ‘weak’, too weird or make no sense in my view and rejected for those reasons too. The information of primary interest to me in the exported data was what Facebook calls ‘lifetime engaged users’ which they define as, “the number of unique people who engaged in certain ways with your page post, for example by commenting on, liking, sharing, or clicking upon particular elements of the post.”

For the given period mentioned earlier there were 87 posts that included mates in 3, 4, 5, and study-like constructs. Even the main line of the solution was selected by Chesthetica. After ranking them in terms of ‘lifetime engaged users’, I could contrast the top 5 compositions by Chesthetica versus the bottom 5 which presumably reflects what most people like (and dislike) about these compositions. Here they are (with the Chesthetica version number that produced them):

Tip: You can play against each diagram to checkmate!

Top 5 Compositions


Bottom 5 Compositions


It should be noted that aesthetics is a significant but not the only aspect that attracts people to chess problems. My experience working in this area for over a decade (with chess as the primary domain of investigation) suggests that, rather obviously, different people tend to like different things. Even so, there are still clearly ‘bad’ compositions and clearly ‘good’ ones that most of us (i.e. with a working knowledge of the game or better) would generally agree on if we are not told in advance what to look for. Perhaps in a thousand years some of Chesthetica’s compositions would also have survived and be marvelled upon, if not for their aesthetics then maybe due to the fact that a computer program ‘back then’ could compose original chess problems autonomously at all.

Having said all that, do you, dear reader, agree with the ranking of a sampling of the general global chess community as shown above or would you arrange the compositions in a different order?

Let us know in the comments!

Want to learn more?


  1. Sezgin, F. (Editor) (1986). Book on Chess (Kitāb al-Shatranj): Selected Texts from al-‘Adli, Abū Bakr al-Sūlī and Others; Series C, Volume 34, Institute for the History of Arabic-Islamic Science at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University, Frankfurt am Main (Reproduced from MS 560, Lala Ismail Collection, Sūleymaniye Library, Istanbul).
  2. Enemark, B. (2015). Computer-genererede Problemer, Problemskak, Denmark, Vol. 4, No. 31, July, pp. 1, 3-6. ISSN 1903-0169.  



The top 5 and bottom 5 problems shown above (click or tap a game in the list to switch)

Dr. Azlan Iqbal has a Ph.D. in artificial intelligence from the University of Malaya and is a senior lecturer at Universiti Tenaga Nasional, Malaysia, where he has worked since 2002. His research interests include computational aesthetics and computational creativity in games. He is a regular contributor at ChessBase News.


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azlan azlan 2/13/2020 02:14
@Timothy: Yes, Chesthetica, at present, composes mates in 3, 4, 5 and study-like constructs. I am fairly aware of the various esoteric requirements (professional or even hobbyist) problem composers tend to have. Again, personally, I don't find them very appealing and neither do most people in the global chess-playing community, in my experience. My "goal" was actually merely to demonstrate that computers or AI not only can play chess (which they now do very well after many decades and hundreds of millions of dollars of research funding globally) but can also simulate some level of creativity in the domain as demonstrated by these thousands of valid and autonomously-composed chess problems of various types. These are still quite functional to most people interested in chess in terms of being aesthetically-pleasing, entertaining and educational (e.g. for training purposes). Future research directions will depend, of course, on personal interest and funding opportunities. I'm sure, for example, with the kind of resources Google, Microsoft or IBM have for AI research, Chesthetica could do a whole lot better than it does now (which is basically just me and the few regular PCs I can dedicate to it).
Timothy Chow Timothy Chow 2/13/2020 01:52
Does Chessthetica have the ability to compose endgame studies? As others have mentioned, problem composers and the general chess-playing public have very different aesthetic standards when it comes to "mate in 3" problems. In contrast, the aesthetic standards are similar when it comes to endgame studies. Given the stated goals of Chessthetica, perhaps focusing on endgame studies would be better than focusing on "mate in n" problems.
Frits Fritschy Frits Fritschy 2/13/2020 12:05
I think chess composing software as presented here is still a very long way from passing the famous Turing test. If an evaluator cannot reliably tell the software from the human, the software is said to have passed the test. Of course that depends on the experience of the evaluator with chess problems; it might have to be an International Judge of Chess Compositions (an official FIDE title), but for the moment, a one-time composer and sporadic solver like me would have no problem with it.
For instance, in the first problem it doesn't matter what black plays. In a human problem, that would be seen as extremely dull. In the second problem, the key move takes away two flight squares of the black king. There is no surprise at all there. In the third problem, there is essentially no difference between white's first and second move. Making it a three-mover doesn’t add anything to the two-move problem. In the fourth problem, the first and second move take away flight squares, and the black defence is just prolonging things, it doesn't bring anything new. Moreover, using promoted pawns (the second white-squared white bishop) to present an idea would be condemned as lazyness with human composers if it doesn't bring anything extra. In the fifth problem, the march of the black b-pawn has no effect at all on the composition. Et cetera.
Beauty is not just in the eye of the beholder. It is a collection of concepts that have been developed in millions of human minds over many centuries. There are differences in appreciation, but for a human work to be recognized as beautiful, there must be a clear connection with these concepts. Some of these concepts will be programmable when it comes to composing chess problems, like the condition that there should be only one solution. As far as I can see, this has been met.
I think this study is interesting for the development of artificial intelligence, but the author should be (more) aware of the fact he only just has started.
azlan azlan 2/12/2020 11:56
@adbennet: Yes, here are some links where you may access Chesthetica-related content.

Chesthetica's YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/c/Chesthetica

Chess Intelligence YouTube channel (selected Chesthetica's compositions explained): https://www.youtube.com/c/AzlanIqbal

Steemit: https://steemit.com/@chesthetica

WordPress: https://chesthetica.wordpress.com/

Reddit: https://www.reddit.com/r/ChessCPPS/

Official Website: http://chesthetica.com/
satman satman 2/11/2020 05:10
It's true that problemists and chessplayers have gone their separate ways, but unfortunately, given the nature of Chess, it was inevitable.
As was pointed out above, not only Chess, but chess problems go back many centuries, but it's only in the middle of the 19th century when we pick up on the ideas of modern chess, and it was around the same period that chess problems came into their own.
From that time there was a very thorough exploration and investigation of the possible mechanisms and tactical strategems that Chess had to offer.
Chess is rich but it's not infinite, and by the middle of the 20th century there was nothing more to be found.

So what were problemists to do? They could quit, or they could carry on serving up the same old ideas over and over - not a very exciting prospect.
But maybe there was another way, a different approach, where the emphasis was not so much on the moves themselves, but on the relationships between the moves and how those relationships changed through different phases of the problem.
Unfortunately these 'virtual' ideas have little to do with Chess, and so the chessplayers drifted away.
This new direction not only turned off the solvers, but also many composers, as producing good examples of this type requires a high level of technique which not everybody in the composing community has.
And of course many were still interested in making 'chess' problems, and so they turned to helpmates where the interest is still on the interactions between the pieces - the actual moves!
This was facilitated by the arrival of computers and programs which could test problems for correctness - helpmates are notoriously difficult to get sound.

So if you want to have a fun solving experience featuring interesting Chess content I recommend checking out helpmates, or you could just go out and watch the grass grow - either of these options would be better than studying the Ruy Lopez.
adbennet adbennet 2/10/2020 06:29
Just visually, without even looking at the solutions, I would have ranked your top-5 above your bottom-5. Modern problem composers are making problems for which I have no interest. Other players I talk to share my disinterest. (Some players are so turned off by problems that they also avoid studies, not realizing there is a difference.) I would go so far as to say the master/GM human composers are composing only for other composers, not for the general chess public.

I do look at problems, but very selectively, skipping right over most of them. I don't care about themes, tries, set play, etc. The only things I care about are a simple, game-like setting, a moderately difficult key (difficult for me, not necessarily for a composer), and bonus points for any humor in the solution. (If it's humorous enough, the key could even be trivial.) As for "records", these might be interesting to glance at in a book, but I would not dream of trying to solve them. (Similar to the unreal-world Guiness records. Most hot dogs consumed in 3 minutes? Freakish, but not genuinely interesting.) Back to studying the Ruy Lopez.

I don't know if Chesthetica is actually "composing" at all, but I might find its compositions more appealing than modern ones I see in books and magazines. Are they available anywhere besides Facebook? I don't go near Facebook.
Timothy Chow Timothy Chow 2/10/2020 03:33
Although it may not be possible to completely nail down all the characteristics that human experts find aesthetic, some of them should be relatively easy to program. You have already identified the importance of a quiet key move. I'd suggest that the next step would be to strive for many defenses; e.g., maybe Black has 8 different ways to defend, each of which requires a different White move in response. It's even better if the different defenses are thematically related (e.g., a knight wheel). Another plus is to have tries: attempted key moves that fail for subtle reasons. Again it is a plus if the key moves are thematically related to the actual play. I'd recommend that you look at some of the classical themes in chess composition: Plachutta, Grimshaw, Novotny, Bristol, Indian, Mutate, White/Black correction, Zagorouiko, Schiffman, Zilahi, Fleck, etc. Many of these are not too hard to "explain" to a computer. Also take a look at Jeremy Morse's book "Chess Problems: Tasks and Records." I would not be surprised if a computer breaks some of the records in that book (but note that the book is already slightly out of date, so if you think you've broken a record, you need to check with an expert first).