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In February 1924 Laws gave a lecture to the BCPS consisting of his reminiscences of nearly
fifty years’ involvement in the chess problem world. The text of this lecture
Recollections 1877-1924. by B.G. Laws
In a fragmentary way I propose to relate approximately in order of date some of the
occurrences which have impressed me during that portion of my chess career which has been
devoted to what is so often termed the ‘Poetry of Chess’. In doing so, I shall
endeavour, as far as I can, to be anecdotal, but throughout I fear you may notice the
personal element somewhat pronounced, in which case, I crave your indulgence.
The problems I shall set will not, with perhaps a few exceptions, be exemplary models. In
some respects they have been landmarks which have helped me to retain in treasured memory a
few of the events I propose to refer to.
In the year 1877, a colleague and myself whilst “serving our time”, (not at the Country's
expense) had more leisure than perhaps was good for us during the daytime, the principal
work of the Office being done after the rising of the Courts. We agreed to learn the game
of chess and, knowing no-one who could teach us, we acquired the rudiments as best we could
from a short treatise contained in “The Boys' Treasury”. After a time we put up
what we considered some good fights but our playing strength may be estimated when I say
that if either one of us gave to the other the odds of the queen, the result would have
been in the balance – either might have won! Our struggles continued for some weeks
when a friend, some years our senior, called on business and on seeing us playing became
interested. Later on he gave us a few games, beating us unmercifully. We looked upon him as
a genius. After falling a victim to the “Scholar's Mate”, I tried the trick on
him which he met in an unorthodox way. This however gave me my first glimpse of chess
strategy. The moves were1.e4 e5 2.Bc4 Bc5 3.Qf3 Sh6(?). Now I saw that if I could
annihilate or dislodge this knight, I could mate; so it struck me that by opening my queen
bishop's diagonal I might have a chance and in order to take his attention from the attack
on the knight and direct it to the bishop, I played 4.d4 which at least ensured the winning
of a piece. It had the desired effect, and I brought off the mate! From this date I schemed
and my playing strength greatly improved.
In the same year a new London weekly was published: Brief, being a concise summary
of the week's news. In issue 12 of the paper (January 1878), a chess column was started by
F. C. Collins. Neither my colleague nor myself had seen a chess problem but Brief's
No. 1 by the Editor being only in two moves, we attempted to solve it and ultimately came
to the conclusion there was something wrong with the diagram.
We imagined Mr. Editor when the time came to print the solution would be profuse in
apology; but no, nothing of the sort, the problem was quite correct and we marvelled. To
move the knight, giving up a rook to the black king, seemed to indicate symptoms of
insanity, and we never gave that move a second thought. Obviously Collins could not have
been proud of the problem, as it does not appear in his collection published in 1880. We
were, however, so charmed with this position when we understood it that we sought for more
and shortly became passable solvers.
This problem by Collins in which we were so reluctant to give up a rook made me in my
innocence fancy that it might be puzzling to arrange a position with the rook unprotected
and left so by White's first move, because I argued that a solver would naturally remove
the rook to safety or support it. The result was my first problem, which appeared in Brief
I had not in those days the slightest notion of any rules connected with problems, but had
a consciousness that an alternative first move was wrong, moreover I did not realise that
multiple mates were damaging. I gradually got to know better as I consulted as many papers
as I could which catered for chess players, the chief at the period being besides
Brief, Illustrated London News, Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, Field, Land &
Water, London Figaro, English Mechanic, Design & Work, Royal Exchange, Holloway Press,
and a little later Leeds Mercury and Glasgow Weekly Herald.
It would probably be in the winter of 1879 that my old friend A. Tremaine Wright, who was
taking a fatherly interest in my chess and helping considerably in my small literary work,
persuaded me to accompany him to Gatti’s Adelaide Gallery. He had been accustomed to
dine or sup there and watched the games. He rather wanted to arrange for me to have a tilt
with an old stager, Drew by name. It was the first time I had entered a public place where
chess was an attraction. My friend sought out Drew and asked him to give me a game, which
he was willing to do so soon as he had disposed of the opponent with whom he was then
engaged. I crossed over to other tables and found several zealots congregated scanning a
problem. I enquired about the conditions and was informed it was a mate in seven.
As several readers have pointed out, there is a cook by 1 Nf7 Kd5 2 Rc7 Ke6 3 c4 Kf6 4 Ng5 (or
Nd8) Kg6 5 Rf7 Kh6 6 Kf5 Kh5 7 Rh7, or 5...Kh5 6 Rf6 Kh4 7Rh6. (Editor)
I viewed it from behind and hit on the solution (which is quite simple) and played it over.
The question immediately came: “You have seen it before?” I assured them I had
not but they were sceptical. One of the party (Reyner) said: “We will test him. I
have some problems he cannot have seen.” He set two or three up and I polished them
off without much effort. Planck, who was present, then produced a three-mover which no one
had set eyes on and I treated that in like manner. All this dissipated any doubt they may
have entertained as to my genuineness. After this I was always welcomed to their band. I
had to leave the solvers’ circle then, though I did so reluctantly, for my game with
Drew, which to my elation ended in my favour.
When I made Planck’s acquaintance he was a Cambridge undergraduate, but shortly after
he was appointed Professor of Mathematics at an important school in Surrey. He used to come
to town at weekends and many a Friday and Saturday was spent by us in company with other
congenial amateurs at Gatti’s and Café Monico. Our camaraderie strengthened to
lasting friendship. I have no hesitation in saying he was largely instrumental in directing
attention to the superiority of the methods practised and results obtained by the
Bohemians, but he contended that as the modus operandi was the ideal one, being the
logical application of sound principles, the Bohemians could not claim it as national,
since it was the result of that process of evolution which takes place in every sphere of
science and art, and not discovery or invention. Consequently he preferred the term
“Modern”. It was he who demonstrated the incongruities of the advertised
conditions of important tourneys which announced that the judges would allot points (up to
a maximum) for such qualities as neatness, symmetry, naturalness, variety and economy.
These are all comprised in economy of force. Tradition however clings like limpets to a
rock and this quality is not universally appreciated. Even today some composers consider
that they are exempt from the trammels imposed by the best modern practice.
In the days of my novitiate there were not so many composers as now and fewer publications
which encouraged chess. It was seldom in this country that we had the opportunity of
comparing products emanating from foreign lands with those of our own. In 1879 H. J. C.
Andrews reproduced in the Chess Players' Chronicle this three-mover by J.
The delicate setting with the purity of the mates (models were not appreciated then as they
were afterwards) made deep impressions. To this problem I attribute the birth of a campaign
having for its object the promotion of fine constructional work. It was a revelation and
from that time Planck, seconded by a few other admirers, endeavoured to inculcate in others
methods of artistic construction.
When I read the comments made on the late H. J. C. Andrews' prize two-mover in the
Lowenthal Tourney of 1878 which had special reference to the feat of allowing the black
king five flight squares with a corresponding number of distinct mating moves, I tried my
hand with six flights.
Soon after it was completed Design & Work announced an international tourney, and as
Andrews was appointed judge of the two-movers I entered my problem hopefully, as he had
expressed the opinion something to the effect that such an achievement would rank as a
master-stroke but he doubted its possibility. Alas! I placed one of the rooks on a square
which let in a cook. I had however the satisfaction of feeling I had been first in the
field to carry out the task. My prescience was correct as Andrews afterwards told me he
would unhesitatingly have awarded my entry first prize had it been sound.
In the three-move section of the tourney I was given first prize. I was delighted at the
success as several of the competitors were composers of standing. Viewed in the light of
modern proficiency the problem is no more than a fair specimen of the Transition period.
The judge (the late W. T. Pierce) rather suggested that the position was conceived on the
lines of a two-mover of his published in 1873 in the Westminster Papers which I had
not seen, but the resemblance was not sufficient to interfere with his real appreciation
of its originality.
This three-mover was widely circulated and brought me some popularity, several chess
editors inviting contributions to their columns. This was mere glamour and I am sorry to
admit I succumbed with the result that I gave more thought to quantity than quality. Many
of my problems now scoff me in their mediocrity and insignificance.
My name has been associated with reflex chess - a variant from the self-mate, and perhaps
it may not be uninteresting if I explain how the idea occurred. From 1880 onwards, I often
met the late Mr. Geary at Gatti’s. About 1882 we were looking over an ordinary
self-mate which I thought I had solved, but Black was not compelled to make the mating move
though it was open as an option. The play leading to this stage was pretty and I jestingly
said: “When Black can mate in such a position he ought to be compelled to do so.”
Before our next meeting a day or so after I composed a problem carrying out this apparent
obliquity which was published in the Brighton Guardian. Geary was responsible for
the name “Reflex”; he composed one or two little things on similar lines as
also did C. H. Coster, a young and promising composer. None of these was published as far
as I remember. The innovation however did not take the fancy of problem composers and
solvers in those days. Reflex chess makes a good game. Geary, Coster and myself often
revelled in the fantastic charms it produced. It was comical to see the expression of
bewilderment of on-lookers who were unaware of the motives of our moves. Some must have
thought it was time we were taken care of. No wonder with the kings in the middle of the
board and men massed around them aroused curiosity. Here is an illustrative problem: I
might mention that this diversion of chess is becoming quite popular on the Continent due
to the interest which our enthusiastic member T. R. Dawson has taken in it.
I was introduced to Frank Healey at Simpsons' Divan by the late Sir John Thursby and
Wilhelm Steinitz about 1881. I thought it was a great privilege to be allowed to enjoy the
personal acquaintance of the man who had up to that time stood in the foreground of the
English School. He took a genuine interest in me and I received much encouragement from
him. I fear I pestered him with many questions which with dry humour he satisfied. He
explained that in his young days he studied the long drawn out problems which came his
way, checks sacrifice, sacrifice checks were ubiquitous, and saw that many of the
strategems could be condensed by quiet moves. He admitted many of his problems were not
only inspired by but actually based upon the works of contemporaries and predecessors
showing however no traces of their origin.
On seeking information regarding the famous “Bristol” problem, he told me that
the idea occurred to him that as solvers were getting so alive to sacrificial devices, it
might prove puzzling if instead of placing an important piece at the mercy of the defence
and getting rid of it as a superfluity in this way, it was removed to the remotest square
available and there remained dead. Of course the moves of the attack which followed the key
move had to dovetail with the far away exile. This explanation rather tends to support
A. C. White's term “passive sacrifice” as applied to the “Bristol”
and other clearance schemes.
One Saturday afternoon at Simpsons' I set up a little three-mover, quite a bagatelle, just
composed; it pleased him.
After a little while Horwitz (the end-game specialist) came in and Healey asked me to put
this problem up again, remarking to Horwitz that it would make him think. This appeared to
me to be banter. The latter soon made the key move (1.Rf1). When Healey promptly replied
1...f3+, Horwitz followed with 2.Kxf3, but 2...g4+ came as a shock. “I never saw
that”, said Horwitz, and at once replaced the men, starting afresh much to the glee
of Healey and myself. Of course it was not long before the solution came, with feigned
disgust at being eluded.
I often saw Horwitz about this period and as the question regarding the origin of the term
“Cook” was then being discussed in problem circles, I asked him if he could
throw any light on the subject. He corroborated the statement which had been made that
Kling (who had frequently collaborated with him in end-game and problem study) would on
Horwitz greeting him with: “I have a raw idea,” ironically reply “Well, I
will cook your raw idea.” If Horwitz's account can be relied upon, this should settle
a debated point.
One evening in 1883 I dropped into Gatti’s for refreshment before going to Toole's
Theatre which was hard by. I had just composed this two-mover, and so set it up and left it
for the entertainment of the few solvers present.
(11) B. G. Laws
Croydon Guardian, 24th November 1883 (published without bPb6)
Returning about 11p.m., I was amused to see the position still on the board being tackled
by a fresh set of solvers, quite strangers to me. One however ejaculated “Here is
Laws, he will solve it for us.” I glanced at the board with an assumed air and
pointed out that the black pawn at b6 was not wanted. Off it came and someone found the
key move in a few minutes. I had placed this unnecessary pawn on the board intentionally to
make the problem more difficult to solve and though this was not a proper thing to do, it
effected its purpose. A case of giving the quality of difficulty preferential
One Saturday afternoon I strolled into Gatti’s and found a few enthusiasts studying a
three-mover by Walter Grimshaw from the current issue of the Illustrated London News,
among them being the late J. Graham Campbell, one of the finest composers and players of
his time. I had not met him before.
1.Sf5 (2.Qe4 or Qd3 or Bc2 mate)
1...Bxf5 2.Qe6 (3.Bxa2 or Qxf5 mate) Bxe6 3.Bc2
He was pointing out the beauty of the solution commencing with 1.Sf5. I had previously
solved the problem by 1.Qg5, being helped by having made the acquaintance of a four-mover
by the same composer, published in 1868. When I suggested the queen key move, Campbell
said it was absurd and resented my interference. Others in the group saw with surprise that
the move was effective. Campbell however expressed the opinion that the solution he had
found was the author's. Strange to say the knight move solution appeared in the
I.L.N. as the only one a fortnight later. I wrote to the chess editor (P. T. Duffy)
as well as to Grimshaw. The latter replied that he was unaware the position yielded to
1.Sf5 and that 1.Qg5 was his intention. The position is quoted by L. Hoffer in his article
on chess in Encyclopaedia Britannica. It can be put right by adding a black knight
at a6 when the black pawn at a4 becomes unnecessary.
For reasons which I do not now remember, the problem habitués of Gatti’s changed
their rendezvous to Café Monico. We certainly were more secluded, but the chess room was
not too well ventilated; still this was compensated for by our ventilation of ideas! I look
back with pleasure on those evenings and recall many of the old frequenters who were ardent
composers and keen solvers. A few come to mind: Barbier, Bedell, Brockelbank, Coster,
Enderle, Geary, Guest, Piercher, Planck, Reyner and Rosenbaum. Sometimes Blackburne and
Zukertort would honour us by their presence both at Café Monico and Gatti’s. This
arrangement of meeting at a convenient resort was the best which could be suggested. Friday
and Saturday were the most popular evenings. Chess, literature, drama, music, mathematics,
athletics and politics were among the subjects discussed, and when the party dispersed it
was with feelings that the time had not been ill-spent. On one of these occasions
Brockelbank was challenged to compose a three-mover without the sight of board and men. He
was known to enjoy the uncommon facility of playing the game sans voir. Before our usual
hour for breaking up was reached, he produced this problem, explaining he had built around
a powerful threat on a constrained king, the better to control things and thus render the
task lighter. Seeing the peculiar subtleness of the play after the two principal defences
of the black queen it was a notable accomplishment.
(13) C. H. Brockelbank
Mate in 3
1.Qf3 (threats 2.cxd4+ Kxd4 3.Qxe3
and 2.Qxe3+ followed by 3.Sg6)
1...Qe4 2.Ke7 threat 3.Sf7 2...Qxf3 3.Sg6 2...Qf5 3.Qxf5
1...Qd3 2.Qxe3+ Qxe3 3.Sg6