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Chess problems have been around for about as long as the game itself. Murray documents over three hundred chess problems (or, Shatranj problems) in various Persian and Islamic manuscripts dating from the sixth century.

The beauty of the game lies not only in its material properties—such as golden chessmen or ornately jeweled gaming boards—but also in the game’s complexity. With over 10^120 possible chess game variations, the game’s elegance also lies in its logic, geometry, and computation. For chess problems, the most aesthetic are also sometimes the most deceptive: a simple-looking problem can prove to be the most difficult, as in the case of Richard Réti’s famous end-game problem first published in 1921:

Richard Réti's Famous Endgame Problem

Richard Réti’s Famous Endgame Problem


Sometimes called “The Hunt of Two Hares,” this problem presents a chase scenario, where a king can make multiple threats and move in a variety of ways.1

Another example, and the one I shall begin my talk with next week, comes from Il Problema, a problem book published in 1932 (see here). While it is not a relatively difficult puzzle to solve—a mate in two moves using the knight and queen (hint, hint!)—the beauty comes from the fact that the solution (again, using the two pieces) works in all iterations. No matter where the king moves, no matter what scenario is played out, he is always mated.

Alfonso's Game of the Four Seasons, fol. 88v

Alfonso’s ‘Game of the Four Seasons,’ fol. 88v

I am not a chess expert or a grandmaster of any sort, but I am interested in the ways in which the beauty of chess changes over time (and I do love a good logic or chess puzzle). Chess in the Middle Ages was always a game in transition. Rules often adhered to regional locales—called assizes—and people continually experimented with the game in order to produce new versions of moves, pieces, and rules. The twelfth-century game ‘Courier Chess,’ for instance, has an extended board (8×12) and folks began developing visually representative chess pieces, such as the famous Lewis chessmen shown above, from the abstract Muslim pieces as early as the eleventh century. Our modern rules did not come into play until about 1475, when the Bishop changed from a leaping to a fluid piece (and extending his movement) and the Queen adopted the powers of the Rook and Bishop; the Queen also developed from one of the weakest pieces on the board to the strongest.2 What’s more, various four-player versions of chess sprang up round Europe throughout the later Middle Ages, likely inspired by earlier Muslim versions. In his encyclopedic magnum opus Libros de los juegos [The Book of Games], King Alfonso X describes a four-player version of chess, titled ‘The Game of the Four Seasons.’ I have also recently discovered in a manuscript an attempt in England at creating a four-player chess game (which I may discuss at a later date).

The aesthetics of the modern chess problem assume a number of conventions that were not necessarily the focus of medieval problem composers. Modern problems deem legal moves—that is, moves that occur in actual gameplay—the most elegant, with one key piece that will eventually lead to a mate (for endgame studies, anyway). Beautiful chess problems, such as the two I posted above, simultaneously display economy of moves and a complexity masked behind a veneer of a few pieces on the board. Often, the first move is an unlikely move, such as sacrificing a powerful piece or promoting a pawn to a knight instead of a queen.

For medieval chess players, aesthetics often came from a totality of experience. Although kings and merchants alike played at chess—whether in a palace garden or rowdy tavern—chess was often considered a game designated for the aristocracy and gentry. We find chess

Chess Problems, Royal 13 A XVIII, fol 161r

Chess Problems, Royal 13 A XVIII, fol 161r

problems most often in academic, household, and princely manuscripts. Among the manuscripts made for the aristocracy and gentry, the aesthetic moves beyond the  puzzle itself to encompass the layout, organization, illuminations, and descriptions. In MS Royal 13 A XVIII, which I had the pleasure to work with this week, a number of the Anglo-Norman problems not only focus on one-piece studies, but the scribe also arranges them in such a way to form overarching combinations and narratives. In an effort to educate the reader, the scribe-compiler begins the treatise with three ‘Knight’ problems: the famous ‘Knight’s Tour’ mathematical problem, a half-board problem, and an knight-only problem (see the image on the right to view all three problems in the manuscript)3

The text for the third problem reads:

Ceste giu de chiualers si ad noun.
E en ceo n’ad point de matesoun.
Mes en ceo est la mestrye.
Ore le entendez cum ieo le vus dye.
En la manere cum issy veyes.
Set chiualeres vs i mettres.
De deynes le noef poyns del echecker.
E tous par le tret de un chiualer.
Issi ke les noef poyns ne isses.
Mes ke deyns touziours treyes.
A iceo fere primes toches.
Quele point ke vus volies.
E de cel poynt a tret de chiualer.
Deuez le primer chiualer asseer.
Puys del secunte chiualer altre poynt tochaunt.
Sil asseez en poynt ke tochastes deuant.
E en mesme la manere les alters assees.
E iames salier ne porres.
(lines 49-66)

The basic idea is to move the knights around the board using their specific L-shaped movement in order to keep all knights touching and united. The composer of this piece is interested in teaching the reader the basic moves of a given piece rather than the intricacies of the game itself. As the composer states, “E en ceo n’ad point de matesoun. / Mes en ceo est la mestrye,” which roughly translates to the idea that this problem does not end in a mate, but to help the reader gain mastery of the game.

Two problems focusing on the movement of the queen piece immediately follow those of the knight. While the first contains sixteen queens, the second focuses on pawn promotion to a queen, rook, or knight and the subsequent chasing of the king to ‘mate:’ “E pur l’amour qe a eus ay. . .E mater deyt le vermeil rey” (89,109).4 According to the scribe, such a problem is a ‘requis,’ or demand, from ‘les damoisseles’, but it more likely offers symmetry to the movements of the knight described earlier. In later problems in the manuscript, the pieces take to chasing the king around the board; problem thirty, for instance, provides an example wherein the Queen and Knight cannot mate the King no matter what sequence or variation the player decides to play. Since the goal of this manuscript is to increase one’s skill at chess, the problems are overwhelmingly in favour of demonstrating piece combinations and movements. The white king, in other words, is often the sole white piece on the problem board (out of the fifty-five chess problems in MS Royal 13 A XVIII twenty only have one white king on the board).

Most of the problems in MS Royal A 13 XVIII are puzzles that, for obvious reasons, do not adhere to modern composition conventions; and yet, it is within these conventions that some scholars and chessplayers have labeled them as problems without much value. The large jeu-partiz encyclopedias, such as Nicolas de Nicolai’s Bonus Socius (c. 1275), do contain more difficult problems, but the problem manuscripts produced in England seemed to target gentry and aristocratic households in order to teach them the basics of chess-playing. Viewed in this way, the problems are not only useful, but also clever as pedagogical tools. A number of the problems offer mates between four and twelve moves, and I will be solving them all within the weeks to come in an attempt to better analyze the strategies involved in their composition (and to check Murray’s solutions and analysis).

Mirror-case with a lady and gentleman playing at chess, c. 1325-50, Paris

Mirror-case with a lady and gentleman playing at chess, c. 1325-50, Paris (V&A Museum, London)

In medieval manuscripts, the chess aesthetic also extends beyond the problems themselves; manuscripts offer the ability to produce a designed experience. As we have seen, the juxtaposition of the knight and lady problems—in verse—is no accident. The composer also includes references to the ‘amour’ taking place on the board and to romance figures such as Tristram and Isolde. Coupled with lavish board illustrations, which are often quite carefully illuminated and decorated, the elevation of chess problems into poetry and illustration not only displays the reader’s status in court culture, but also their familiarity and indulgences in other entertainments. Chess, as we know, was often a motif for the ‘game of love’ in medieval romances and on love tokens, such as caskets and mirrors (see the image of the mirror-case on the left, for example). The experience of learning chess within the world of romance, poetry, and luxury enables the reader to become a participant of this culture, adding yet another skill to win favour of lords and ladies at court.5

Insular medieval chess problems composed in England may not explicate the complexities of the game from a surprise key move or sacrifice, but their production does give us insight into how people may have learned to play, how composers thought of the game, and the ways in which players strategized. This is just a brief exploration into medieval chess problems (and occasional snippet of my talk next week). Please do try out the chess problems above (medieval and modern) and let me know what you think!

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  1. This problem has been published numerous times in problem book and is, arguably, the most famous chess problem. []
  2. For an interesting discussion on how the Queen and Bishop may have acquired their modern, post-1475 movements, see Mark Taylor, “How Did the Queen Go Mad?” Chess in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Age: A Fundamental Thought Paradigm of the Premodern World, ed. Daniel O’Sullivan (Boston: De Gruyter, 2012), 169-84. []
  3. The photo belongs to the British Library and is viewable here. []
  4. If the king captures even one pawn, then the game is over. []
  5. I should note here that none of the manuscripts I have consulted have included any instructions for gambling or chess problems with dice []