Written by Michael McDowell

Fairy chess is a generic term which was introduced before the First World War to cover all problems which are not directmates. Over time, as selfmates and helpmates grew in popularity they became classed as orthodox, so nowadays the term fairy chess covers problems which contain one or more unorthodox features, usually a piece or condition, less frequently an unorthodox board.

Fairy chess is very popular with composers because of the unlimited scope offered for achieving originality. In other genres the risk of anticipation, especially for the inexperienced composer, is high, but in the realm of the unorthodox imagination has free rein. The danger for the composer is that he may produce a problem which is technically brilliant but too complicated to be entertaining for the solver. The best fairy problems feature strategy peculiar to the pieces and/or conditions employed, and do not simply repeat effects which could be achieved in an orthodox problem.

The genre is much too large to cover comprehensively in a short article, so I will give examples of some of the more popular fairy pieces and forms.


Fairy chess enthusiasts classify pieces into three groups: leapers, riders and hoppers (but be warned – some pieces do not fit into any of these categories!). Leapers are pieces which play a move of a specific length, ignoring any intervening piece. Taking the side of a square as one unit, the knight is a leaper whose move is length root 5 (think Pythagoras!). Riders is fairy terminology for line-pieces, such as queens, rooks and bishops. Hoppers can only move by jumping over an intervening piece, called a hurdle.

The Grasshopper moves on the same lines as a queen, but must jump over a hurdle to land on the square immediately beyond. Grasshoppers are shown as inverted queens and the letter G is used in notation.

(1) Brian Stephenson & Michael McDowell

Comm., StrateGems, 2001


Mate in 3
Grasshoppers c3, c8: e1 b7

The Nightrider plays one or more knight moves along a straight line as a single move. A nightrider at a1 on an empty board can move to b3, c5, d7, c2, e3 or g4. Nightriders are shown as inverted knights and the letter N is used in notation.

The convention regarding promotion in problems featuring unorthodox pieces is that promotion is possible to any piece present in the diagram.

(2) Pierre Monreal & Jean Oudot

2nd Prize, Themes-64, 1964


Mate in 2
Nightriders b7, g3, h7: b5

Chinese pieces are a family of pieces developed from Chinese Chess. The Mao and Pao have equivalents in the Chinese game, while the Leo and Vao are derived from the Pao. The Mao moves like a knight, but is not a leaper. It moves first one square laterally then one diagonally; if the lateral square is occupied the Mao cannot move. The Pao moves like a rook, but to capture must jump over a hurdle. A Pao standing at a1 with a piece (of either colour) at a5 could move along the rank or to a2, a3 or a4, and capture any enemy piece which stopped at a6, a7 or a8. The Leo and Vao are similar to the Pao, but move on queen and bishop lines respectively. Chinese pieces are shown rotated a quarter-turn to the left and the abbreviations used for them are M, P, Le and V.

(3) Brian Stephenson

The Problemist Supplement, 2001


Mate in 2
Leos g6; g1: Paos e1, f1
Maos d3; e2, f3


Cylinder boards were very popular in the first half of the 20th century. The vertical cylinder has the a and h-files joined, while the horizontal cylinder has the 1st and 8th ranks joined. The combination of both is called the anchor ring or torus.

(4) Artur Mandler

Prager Presse, 1928


Mate in 3: Vertical Cylinder

Unorthodox boards often feature in less serious problems. 5 is famously known as “The Space Queen”.

(5) Thomas R. Dawson

British Chess Magazine, 1943


Mate in 7


New fairy conditions are constantly being invented by creative composers. Many fail to catch on, some enjoy a short vogue then fade away, but others become firmly established.

One of the most successful novelties is Circe Chess. The basic premise is that a piece which is captured is replaced on its starting square. If the square is occupied then the piece is removed as in normal chess. There are a few rules governing replacement: a rook, bishop or knight returns to the starting square of the same colour as the square on which it is captured; a pawn returns to the starting square of the file on which it is captured. The king is exempt in ordinary Circe; if the king is also subject to the Circe condition the problem will be labelled “Circe Rex Inclusiv’.

(6) Norman A. Macleod

1st HM., Europe-Echecs, 1977


Mate in 2: Circe

In Madrasi Chess a piece when observed by a similar piece of the opposite colour is paralysed, and can neither move, capture nor check, but may paralyse in turn. As with Circe kings are exempt in the normal form, and any problem in which the king is also subject to the condition will be labelled ‘Madrasi Rex Inclusiv’.

(7) Norman A. Macleod

Springaren, 1984


Mate in 2: Madrasi

Seriesmovers are problems in which one side makes a unique sequence of uninterrupted moves after which the other makes a single move, fulfilling the stipulation. The most popular type of seriesmover is the serieshelpmate, in which Black makes n moves to reach a position where White can mate in 1. Black must not move into check, and may only deliver check on the last move of the sequence.

(8) Josif Krikheli

1st Prize, feenschach, 1966


Serieshelpmate in 25

Construction tasks are not strictly speaking problems, but positions which demonstrate some record feature. Many construction tasks involve one move, for example demonstrating the maximum number of possible moves, checks, or mates. Many such tasks come in two versions, featuring legal or illegal positions.

(9) G. Ponzetto

Torre i Cavallo, 1993


Construction task: 37 consecutive checks

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