Sunday, February 14, 2010

Solution to A Curiously Clever Chess Puzzle

In yesterday's post I asked two questions about the following chess position.

First, how is this a legal position, and second, how can white guarantee a checkmate in four moves or fewer?

This puzzle is much more commonly known as Lord Dunsany's Chess Problem, although he had several others. I first ran across this particular problem by Lord Dunsany in Martin Gardner's My Best Mathematical and Logic Puzzles.

I'll let Mr. Gardner explain the first part of the puzzle:
The key to Lord Dunsany's chess problem is the fact that the black queen is not on a black square as she must be at the start of a game. This means that the black king and queen have moved, and this could have happened only if some black pawns have moved. Pawns cannot move backward, so we are forced to conclude that the black pawns reached their present positions from the other side of the board! With this in mind, it is easy to discover that the white knight on the right has an easy mate in four moves.

If that seems like a dirty, dirty trick to you, that's because it is. Chess diagrams are traditionally drawn from the perspective of the white player (white pieces at the bottom of the diagram in the starting position), so this puzzle really forces you to check your assumptions and "think outside the box."

As Gardner mentioned, the mate in four is easy once you've mentally turned the board around. First, white moves his knight in front of his king, threatening mate in two more moves. Black can delay white's plan by one move by moving his own knight out into the bishop's file.

When white advances his knight on the bishop's file, black can protect the mating square with his own knight.

Next, white can capture the knight with his queen. After that, black is defenseless to stop the white knight from delivering checkmate on the fourth move. The black king is hemmed in by his own pieces.

All chess diagrams are courtesy of the Online Chess Diagram Editor.


William Shields said...

I think black can do better than that. Using the actual positions (black's queen is at d1) consider these moves by black:

NF3 b1=Q

Now if black moves the bishop on c1 the black king is no longer pinned and mate isn't possible. Plus that queen can menace white's king.

For one thing if it moves to b5 it checks white's kings and can take white's knight.

It's an interesting puzzle but I'm unconvinced that black can't avoid mate in 4.

Bill the Lizard said...


I'm not sure which position you're starting from. If we start from the beginning,
1. Nd7 Nf3
2. Nc5

If black advances his pawn at this point, white mates with Nd3, so he won't have time to clear space by moving the bishop.

2. ... b1=Q
3. Nd3#

Bill the Lizard said...

The algebraic notation is really confusing considering the nature of the problem. I did rotate the board 180 degrees before writing the notation in that last comment, so you'll have to do the same before reading it.