How Chess Puzzles Work

By: Jane McGrath

Want to practice your chess moves?
Want to practice your chess moves?
Brand X Pictures/Thinkstock

The human mind craves games and puzzles. Throughout history and across cultures, people have developed games as though they were fundamental to life. Chess is one of world's most enduring games, with early versions dating back to sixth-century India. Over the next several centuries, the game gradually spread through Persia and southern Europe, and later, by means of the Vikings to England. Chess exploded in popularity and eventually received standardized rules in the 19th century.

Today, chess enthusiasts tout the educational value of the game, with some studies claiming that learning the skills involved helps students develop academically [source: Smith]. This is understandable, as chess challenges players to think ahead, considering multiple possibilities and consequences of their actions as well as anticipating others' actions. Chess is also deceptively accessible: Although it's easy enough for young children to learn and even compete against adults, it's challenging and complicated enough to become a lifelong study -- and a lifelong love. Chess enthusiasts are captivated by the beauty of the game's simplicity and strategies.


Those who can't get enough of the game -- and have a passion for it that goes beyond simple one-on-one competition -- also play chess puzzles. Unlike playing out a whole game with a competitor, a chess puzzle will present a particular scenario on a chess board and challenge a player to perform a particular task with it. This task is often to play as one side (usually white) and try to win the game in a certain number of moves (usually two or three). But there are also other types of chess puzzles that require a player to perform very different kinds of tasks. Remarkably, chess puzzles are about as old as chess itself. Early chess masters of the eighth and ninth centuries composed their own challenges.

Chess puzzles are great for developing competitive skills. Some experts say that studying endgame scenarios is the best way for beginners to advance their knowledge of strategy. But other, more advanced puzzles pose scenarios that are statistically improbable -- that is, an average game with competent players would never produce them. People play such puzzles not so much to become better competitors, but rather to be challenged in a new way, requiring strategy that's often counterintuitive and relies on surprising sacrifices. One such ninth-century puzzle supposedly took more than a thousand years to solve [source: Shenk].

So, what types of chess puzzles can you play if you want to shape up your brain?


Types of Chess Puzzles

Traditionally, chess puzzles have been published in newspapers, and you'll even find compilations of them in books. Today, Web sites offer chess puzzles for the casual beginner, intermediate or advanced player to stretch his or her mental muscles.

The most common puzzles, directmates, ask an individual to win in a certain number of moves. Two-movers require you to win in two moves, three-movers require a win in three moves, and those that require more moves are called more-movers. A well-composed puzzle of this kind will only have one possible solution in the expressed number of moves. It will also be a foolproof solution that assumes the other side will play its best defense.


A puzzle will usually have you play as the white side, which customarily plays from bottom to top on a two-dimensional page. This also makes it easier to read solutions written in algebraic chess notation, which is a system of describing chess moves in letters and numbers and is interpreted easily from white's perspective.

A chess problem is a particular kind of directmate puzzle that is unlikely to occur in a real game, but rather composed in order to be difficult, original or even beautiful in its theme. And while problems require players to win within a certain number of moves, studies are yet another kind of chess puzzle that asks a player to win or draw, but with no restrictions on the number of moves.

If you like the idea of chess problems for their own sake and not necessarily to improve your playing skills, you might also try heterodox puzzles (also known as fairy chess). Consider the selfmate, where white tries to force black to deliver checkmate in a certain number of moves, while black resists. The helpmate is similar, but black cooperates with white. A reflexmate is a selfmate with the additional rule that if either side can deliver checkmate, it must.

But puzzles can get even odder. The selfmate being four centuries old, some consider it downright orthodox. Today, fairy chess more commonly refers to puzzles with stranger conditions or even unorthodox pieces (the nightrider or the grasshopper are common examples). With endless possibilities, chess puzzles themselves can easily become a lifelong study.


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Related Articles

  • Encyclopædia Britannica. "Chess." Encyclopædia Britannica Online Academic Edition. Encyclopædia Britannica. 2011. (Aug. 18, 2011)
  • Fisher, Wendi. "Educational Value of Chess." Johns Hopkins University School of Education. (Aug. 18, 2011)
  • McDowell, Michael. "Retrograde Analysis." The British Chess Problem Society. (Aug. 18, 2011)
  • Smith, James P, Bob N. Cage. "The Effects of Chess Instruction on the Mathematics Achievement of Southern, Rural, Black Secondary Students." Research in the Schools, Vol. 7, No. 1. Spring 2000. Education Resources Information Center. (Aug. 18, 2011)
  • Shenk, David. "The Immortal Game." Random House Digital, Inc. 2007. (Aug. 18, 2011)
  • Stephenson, B.D. "Chess Problems: An Introduction." The British Chess Problem Society. (Aug. 18, 2011)