B. G. Laws

Biography – written by Michael McDowell

B. G. Laws

Benjamin Glover Laws (6.2.1861-21.9.1931) was one of the great composers from the heyday of the English School of composition. He began composing in the late 1870s and became a recognised authority on the English School, especially after the publication of The Chess Problem: Text-book with illustrations (1887), on which he collaborated with H. J. C. Andrews, E. N. Frankenstein and C. Planck. His services as a judge were greatly in demand, and from 1898 he used his position as problem editor of the British Chess Magazine to disseminate his views. On the formation of the BCPS in 1918 he was elected President, and held that post until his death. His other published works were an introductory volume, The Two-move chess problem (1890) and Chess problems and how to solve them (1923). A memorial volume entitled An English Bohemian, compiled by John Keeble, was published as the 1933 volume of the A. C. White Christmas Series.

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 follows:

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.

(1) F. C. Collins

Brief, 19th January 1878


Mate in 2

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 in 1878.

(2) B. G. Laws

Brief, 7th June 1878


Mate in 2

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.

(3) H. Bolton

Chess Player’s Chronicle, 31st July 1841


Mate in 7

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 CafĂ© 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. Chocholous.

(4) J. Chocholous


Mate in 3

(5) H. J. C. Andrews

1st Prize, Lowenthal Memorial Tourney, 1878


Mate in 2

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.

(6) B. G. Laws


Mate in 2

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.

(7) B. G. Laws

1st Prize, Design and Work, 1881


Mate in 3

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.

(8) W. T. Pierce

Westminster Papers, 1873


Mate in 2

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.

(9) B. G. Laws

Schack Kurios


Reflexmate in 2

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