The Chess Project: Installment 2: A Chess Puzzle

A famous chess player–I forget which one–once said that even positions that look objectively hopeless often have hidden resources, if only one is persistent enough to find them.  That’s a nice line; it intimates the beauty and depth of the game, and also why creativity is as important as calculation (unless you’re a computer which just calculates the consequences of every legal move!).  Of course, it helps if you have talent, genius, and loads of experience, but the lesson is one that even hacks like me can learn from: if I look hard enough, I’ll rarely find a brilliant move (though I know they’re there!), but I’ll usually find a move I didn’t see upon my initial assessment of the position, and sometimes it’s a better move than the one I had initially decided on.

Here’s a nice illustration of this lesson, in the form of a chess puzzle.  First let’s take a look at the puzzle and then I’ll make a few comments.

White to move

A quick look at the material suggests that White is in a lot of trouble.  Black’s Queen and Knight are significantly more valuable than White’s rook and in most cases would dominate.  One’s hopes may be raised by the fact that Black’s King and Queen are on the same file, suggesting RxN and a double-threat on Black’s King and Queen, but that’s simply met by Queen takes Rook, and the end appears nigh….  White might sensibly play Kg3, hoping against hope that Black doesn’t see what he’s up to: with his King on g3 he could play RxN and Black’s recapture (which is forced, for he’ll lose his Queen regardless) would lead to a drawn position (RxN, QxR, KxQ).  But it’s generally bad if one’s plans can only succeed if one’s opponent blunders.  So perhaps White should just resign….

As it turns out, however, there are indeed hidden resources in this hopeless looking position!   To see the game-saving move, you need to be familiar with the concept of stalemate, which I mentioned in passing in the The Chess Project: Installment 1.  There I noted that when executing checkmate with King and Queen against a lone King you must be careful of creating stalemate.  Stalemate is reached when the King belonging to the player to move is (i) not in check, (ii) cannot move without putting itself in check, and (iii) no other pieces have legal moves, either because they’re off the board and out of the game or for other reasons (blocked pawns, for example). Stalemate is a draw, no matter what the other features of the game.  An experienced player will actively seek out stalemate possibilities when losing, and especially when he has few (or just one!) piece(s) left in play.  Armed with the concept of stalemate, look at the puzzle again:

White to move and at least draw!

Do you see it?  Isn’t that cool?

The point of this puzzle is not to prepare you for a similar position, which may never arise, but rather to illustrate the lesson I mentioned at the outset of this post: sometimes second-looks are rewarded.

Next Installment: Creating a passed pawn.

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3 Responses to The Chess Project: Installment 2: A Chess Puzzle

  1. Nates says:

    That’s pretty neat. But it took me longer than I’d care to admit to see the move. This was because I was mistakenly focused on somehow getting the black King into a stalemate situation.

    • David says:

      Yeah, Nates, a lot of chess moves are hard to see because they run counter to our standard presuppositions about a position. So, for example, when I first looked at this puzzle I just gave up on RxN since Black’s Queen recaptures. Then when I couldn’t find anything else I had to look again at RXN with a more ‘open mind.’ Strong players are really good, I think, at being ‘open’ to the positions in front of them.

  2. Nates says:

    Sounds like a feature of strong philosophers, too.

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