This site now hosts a complete archive of PDF versions of The Problemist Supplement, from 1992 to the current year. This magazine is aimed mainly at newcomers to chess composition, so it is recommended for those who want to find out more about chess problems. You can find the archive here.
C.M. Fox, who died about 70 years ago, was an influential figure in the early development
of the BCPS, Britain’s leading helpmate composer and perhaps the second most
important British figure (after T. R. Dawson) in unorthodox composition at the time.
Therefore it seemed appropriate to me that he should feature on this BCPS web site.
However, it is impossible to write anything about him without its being overshadowed by
Dawson’s 1936 monograph C.M. Fox, His Problems, a comprehensive account
which may be consulted in the BCPS library and is also reprinted, along with four other
booklets by Dawson, in the 1973 Dover book Five Classics of Fairy Chess. This
reprint, indispensable to enthusiasts of the unorthodox, can sometimes still be found in
libraries and second-hand book shops.
I cannot do better than quote Dawson’s own tribute to Fox, incidentally a good
example of the writer’s sentimental, archaic style which was so much at variance with
the strongly experimental character of his chess composition. But first, a few words about
the label “fairy chess”, still in use in some circles to refer to unorthodox
problems, although that category no longer includes ordinary helpmates. Readers who are
uncomfortable with the “fairy” label may like to ascribe its use at least in
part to this curious style of Dawson’s, and it is true that he made widespread use of
the term. When he started a magazine devoted to the subject he made a choice among a number
of titles suggested by aficionados and settled on Fairy Chess Review. We should
perhaps be grateful for small mercies, though, since one of the rejected suggestions was
apparently The Chess Problemist’s Fairy. Anyhow, it appears that the term was
not originated by Dawson, but first used by the Australian Henry Tate in 1913. The German
word Märchenschach (“fairy-story chess”) seems slightly less
absurd, and may go back further in time. There is no shortage of alternative expressions
for current use (“unorthodox composition”, “experimental chess”,
“generalised chess”, or in German “Exo-Schach”) but despite my own
mild aversion to the term “fairy chess” I shall not go to great lengths to
avoid it in what follows.
Here is what Dawson wrote about Fox in 1936:
“Charles Masson Fox Nov.9 1866 – Oct.11 1935
The purpose of this booklet is to do justice to the genius of C.M.F. in a permanent collection of his best problems. There is little need, therefore, for the editor to intervene between the reader and the beautiful collection that follows.
Suffice it to recall that C.M.F., after many years solely as a chess player, took to Fairy Chess in 1921-22, took a first prize with his first published problem, and went on from strength to strength, entrancing every Fairy Chess devotee with the brilliance and power of his compositions.
He loved best the helpmate, and was ever fascinated by the Grasshopper possibilities, and many problems in each of these veins are given in this collection. But above all, he had an eye for the alternative possibilities in a position, which gave him extraordinary facility and skill in making problems in twin form, in groups, and in long sequences, and such “Fox Families” have become famous in Fairy Chess.
In 15 years, C.M.F. composed some 900 problems and captured many prizes and mentions in Tourneys.
C.M.F., who was a Vice-President of the British Chess Problem Society, was a generous benefactor to that body, presenting it with all the issues of the Problemist Fairy Chess Supplement and other gifts. There is no question that as a patron, he did invaluable service to the Fairy Chess cause which he loved so well.
More than all these things, C.M.F. was a friendly man, kind, mellow, lovable, bringing peace and comfort and serene joy with him. Fairy Chess lovers the world over mourned his loss. Now his work, his inspiration, his genius come back in this little volume alive, enthralling, the mind and deeds of a master.”
Dawson’s words may be somewhat cloying, but Fox’s compositions are not. He was
able to achieve a high standard of correctness in the helpmate, a notoriously difficult
field where cooks abound, and he seemed to know instinctively what appealed to solvers. The
“first published problem” mentioned by Dawson (see diagram A) is a good
example, with its paradoxical withdrawal of the white king. This was probably not the first
problem of Fox’s to be published, rather the first in order of composition among his
published problems. The tourney in question was only the second helpmate composing contest
ever held, and about 70% of the entries were unsound!
The theme of B, mate on a square initially vacated by Black, is just one of a number
of H#2 ideas which are still popular today and of which Fox made early examples. C
shows another, capture of white material on both black moves. Nowadays of course, despite
the paradoxical themes, such single-line helpmates would be considered too simple, but it
is to Fox’s credit that he also composed helpmates in more than one phase and (unlike
many of his contemporaries) made a point of showing a strong thematic connection between
the phases. Thus in D we have an early example of a full black halfpin and in
E a neat piece of dual avoidance. Both of these could be set as well or better with
two solutions, especially obviously in the case of E, where it suffices to move the
BQ to b7, but it was to take another thirty years before the understanding that this is the
most suitable form for helpmates became widespread. In this respect Fox never escaped from
the tyranny of Dawson, the main reactionary influence. I have documentary evidence of
Dawson’s taking a 2-solution problem by P. Sola, submitted to him for publication,
and rearranging it into a form with one solution and set play, without consulting the
composer! Why Dawson so objected to problems with more than one solution is not clear.
Fox may well have thought it best to humour him.
From problems with twin positions it is a short step to the “families” of
problems referred to by Dawson, which I will not illustrate here. These are essentially
series of approximate twins, problems with the same stipulation and using the same or very
similar material but often related by changes in the positions of several pieces, in a
manner which would be thought clumsy today. But we have computers to help us find neat
twinning, and we rarely attempt such extensive sets as Fox sometimes produced. Dawson
quotes an example with 16 related problems. This aspect of Fox’s work may have dated
more than others, but it remains a tribute to his analytical powers, for his standard of
accuracy in these problems is impressive.
In longer helpmates the main focus of interest in Fox’s work was promotions, and his
output includes some remarkable task problems. My favourites here are the witty F
and the elegant example, G, showing all four promotions in ascending order.
For a brief and rather inadequate glimpse into Fox’s fairy compositions I offer three
examples. First H, a selfmate with nightriders (N), pieces which move in straight
lines composed of knight moves. Thus for example on the line a2-d8 the moves Na2-b4, Na2-c6
or Na2-d8 are playable. This problem is based on the battery of the Nh8 which gives check
to the white king if the black pawn on g6 can be forced to move. In I, one of the
simplest of a long series of symmetrical problems with asymmetrical solutions, Fox uses the
grasshopper (G), his favourite fairy piece, which operates on queen lines but must hop over
one other unit to the square immediately beyond. Finally in J we have an example of
a genre whose development and popularity today (thanks to the computer) would have astounded
Fox. The paradoxical element (I shall say no more so as not to spoil potential solving
pleasure!) is here once again quite strong.
1st Prize, Chess Amateur, 1922
Chess Amateur, 1929
Falkirk Herald, 1931
1st Prize, Chess Amateur, 1930
H#2 (set play)
Set 1...gxf5 2.Rf2 Se3
Solution 1.Bc5 Sg5 2.Rd4 Se3