Written by Brian Stephenson

I think the best way for the player to begin to understand and enjoy problems is through using the chess skill he already possesses to solve them simply as chess puzzles. This will give him a sense of achievement and in the search for the answer he will have to examine what happens in the problem; as he does this – at least this was my experience – he will begin to appreciate the beauty of a good problem and to understand that although it is partly a puzzle (and can be enjoyed as such) it is also something deeper and more significant. While it is the struggle in a game of chess that is the central element, most players get pleasure from the ideas that occur in a game and not just from winning; so, although at first some may find problems rather bloodless, there are few who will not grow to enjoy them. In any event, I am sure that it is worth while at least making the attempt to widen one’s range of chess experience.

C. H. O’D. Alexander

(from the Foreword to Chess Problems: Introduction to an Art by Michael Lipton, R. C. O. Matthews and John M. Rice, published by Faber & Faber in 1963).

In the quotation above, Hugh Alexander mentions the puzzle element present in chess problems. Indeed, it is this element that many players think is the only thing present. As a result, if a problem is too easy they don't see the point, and if a problem is too difficult, they are discouraged. The fact is that there is much more than the puzzle element in a chess problem. This introduction will contain a few basic definitions and conventions, while the other articles in this section – see menu on the left – will investigate different types of chess composition in much greater detail.

The elements of a chess problem

In general, a good chess problem consists of six basic elements:-

  • a position
  • stipulation
  • one or more intended solutions
  • difficulty
  • a theme
  • originality

These are explained in the following paragraphs.


Chess problems do not use positions taken from games. A diagram inviting you to work out how a chess player overcame his opponent is hopefully interesting, intriguing and instructive, but it is not a chess problem. The position of a chess problem is created by a Composer (or Problemist). By convention the position should be legal, that is, it must be capable of arising in a game of chess, however unlikely the moves leading up to it may have been. Also by convention, White plays up the board in all positions.


The stipulation is a statement of the task that the solver has to achieve and, normally, the number of moves in which it is to be achieved. This may be as orthodox as White to play and mate in two, as off-beat as White retracts a move and mates in two; or as retrograde as asking the solver to discover the unique game leading up to the diagram position. These examples are just three of the many stipulations possible.


The solution is a statement of how the stipulation is reached, and is thus what the solver seeks. Unless otherwise stated there is only one solution, but certain types of problem, especially helpmates, have more than one intended solution. When the number of actual solutions exceeds the number of intended solutions, then the problem is said to be cooked. When the number of actual solutions is smaller than the number of intended solutions, then the problem is said to have no solution. In both of these cases of unsoundness the composer is said to be embarrassed.


The hardest element of a chess problem to judge, as difficulty is so relative. What is easy to an experienced solver is very mysterious to a weak player or to a strong player who is a novice solver. Most composers try to instil some difficulty into their creations so that the solver will get some enjoyment, but very few, unless they were composing specifically for a solving tournament, would sacrifice their intended theme just to make a problem more difficult.


The theme is the most important part of the problem, and a major criterion by which it is judged. It is the idea that the composer wished to illustrate and thus the reason why he composed the problem. This idea can be as strategic as showing a number of unpins of a white piece or as formal as a pattern contained in the moves of the solution.


A problem that has been wholly done before is said to be anticipated and is exempt from winning a place in a composing tournament. Of course, originality is a relative concept and most problems are anticipated to some degree, but what is important is that the thematic play and the matrix supporting it should be original. Due to the huge total of published problems, anticipations probably happen more often than we know about.

Problem conventions

Here is probably a good place to mention the various conventions that are generally followed by all problemists. But be warned, they are only conventions and some composers have been known to break them if they believe that they are justified in doing so.

Unless otherwise stated, the normal rules of chess apply, although the normal aims of the player may not.

Legality and economy of material

First, as mentioned above, the position should be legal. Further, the material on the board should not normally exceed that available at the beginning of a game of chess. So, for instance, neither side may have three knights, and bishops of the same side should be on different-coloured squares.

If it can be proved by retrograde analysis, in a problem where the solver is asked to discover the play forward from the diagram, that an apparently original piece in the position is in fact the result of a promotion in the proof game leading up to the diagram position, then that piece is said to be obtrusive, and this is considered a flaw.

There should be no pieces or pawns on the board that are not necessary for either the intention of the problem or its soundness. Generally speaking, when a choice of pieces is possible the less powerful should be used, and when a choice of colour is possible a black unit should be chosen. In the 19th Century it was common for composers to dress the board with useless pieces in an attempt to both confuse the solver and to ensure soundness. That practice has long since been seriously deprecated.

Apparent weakness of key

I have heard many chess players say that the only thing that they understand about chess problems is that the first move (the key) is always the most unlikely move on the board, and not a check or a capture. Actually, the strength or otherwise of the key depends on at least two things; (1) the age of the problem and thus the conventions that were in operation in that era and (2) technical considerations to do with the construction of the problem. Generally speaking, composers try to give their problems the best keys that they can, but most would not sacrifice their intended themes for them.

In problems where White is to mate Black, (directmate problems) good keys decrease White's options and/or increase Black's and do not look like strong moves. So, checks are unlikely (but not impossible!) and captures of black pieces (apart from pawns) almost completely unknown and unanimously disliked. Captures of black pawns are thematically necessary for certain themes and are therefore accepted without question. Problemists are divided about the acceptability of non-thematic captures of black pawns on the first move, but in some cases they are unavoidable if soundness is to be achieved.

Uniqueness of play

Just as there is (normally!) only one key to a problem, there should also be only one continuation for White (the side that achieves the stipulation) at any stage in the solution up to and including the mate, stalemate or whatever. If there is a choice it is called a dual.

Problemists’ views on duals have changed over the years. At one time all variations of a problem had to be dual-free, but these days, duals after unintelligent black moves that don’t defend against any threat are considered unimportant by most problemists. Many problemists are also of the opinion that duals in the by-play are also unimportant because they do not affect the thematic content of the problem.

Economy of play

In a perfect problem the thematic play and only the thematic play should be present. But things are hardly ever that easy and most problems have to have a smaller or larger amount of by-play to make them work and/or make them sound. Pieces should never be added just to create an unimportant fringe variation. When by-play is present it should arise naturally from the matrix used to present the thematic play.

Economy of time

Never do in three moves what you can do in two. Problems should never be longer than their themes dictate. Lengthening a two-mover into a three-mover just by adding a non-thematic move on to the beginning of the solution to introduce the play (a practice called building up, much followed in the 19th century) is nowadays not popular.


Castling during the solution of a problem is considered legal unless it can be proved, by retrograde analysis, that it is illegal.

En passant

An en passant capture can occur during the course of a solution following the normal rules of chess; that is, it has to be preceded by the appropriate double-step pawn move by the other side. In the diagram position an en passant capture is considered illegal unless it can be proved, by retrograde analysis, that the last move leading up to the diagram position was the appropriate double-step pawn move.


In the English-speaking world, normal algebraic notation is used with one exception. The letter ‘S’ (from the German der Springer) is used for knight. This is because ‘N’ is reserved for one of the most popular unorthodox pieces, the Nightrider.

Ethical considerations

If you are a chess writer and want to publish a chess problem, feel free to do so. There is no copyright on chess problems. But do acknowledge its composer and where it was first published (its source). Writers never think of not publishing player and tournament details when they publish a game, but for some reason they often forget to give chess problems an equal consideration.

Never copy somebody else's problem and publish it as your own. This is the worst sin of which a composer can be guilty. These days such plagiarism is soon detected. If you think that you can improve somebody else's problem, do so and then publish it as a version by yourself acknowledging both the composer and source of the earlier work.

If you are a solver, don't use a computer to do your solving for you in a postal solving tourney. You’ll be watching paint dry and ultimately only fooling yourself.

Finally, problemists do not like their creations being called puzzles. That is because chess problems are more than mere puzzles, as I hope the pages on this website will show.

Types of composition

Directmates are problems in which White is to play and mate Black in the stipulated number of moves. Most problem sources separate directmates into three groups according to length, namely Two-movers, three-movers and more-movers.

Selfmates are problems in which White is to play and force Black to deliver mate in the stipulated number of moves. An offshoot of the selfmate is the reflexmate.

Helpmates are problems in which Black and White co-operate to reach a mate for White in the stipulated number of moves.

Fairy chess is a term covering problems which feature unorthodox pieces, boards, conditions or a combination of these.

Retrograde analyis is a branch of composition based on determining the play leading up to the given position.

Endgame studies are positions in which White (who usually plays first) has to reach a clearly won or drawn position following the best play of both sides.

Developed and maintained by Brian Stephenson.