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Not "White to play and win"? Worthless?!

  • NM danheisman
  • | Nov 12, 2013

Occasionally I hear some intermediate level players protest that any problem that does not follow the normal "needs" of a chess game can't be helpful to your game. These "normal" concerns would include:

  • White (Black) to play and win (if you are not 100% sure what this, or any other "normal" requirement means, check out Understanding Chess Puzzles)
  • White to play and mate
  • White to play and mate in N
  • White to play and draw

Sometimes they even complain about "Mate in N", noting that any position where you can mate in N+1 in a game they would do so and not worry about Mate in N.

However, if we carry over this logic to other, physical, games that would similarly imply that anyone in a sport other than weightlifting (like American football) would never benefit from weight lifting, or any other training/exercise that is not directly their sport. That's nonsense of course, and the same applies to chess.

Everyone is different and, if a particular person has an aversion to "non-normal" chess problems and that aversion causes them to miss the benefits, so be it. If you are one of those, don't do these problems! But the average player, if he/she occasionally did such "board vision" problems, would probably benefit as I did when I was an improving player (for more on how I use the term "board vision" and its benefits, check out The Amazing Power of Board Vision).

At this point I need to clarify what type of problems I am discussing. For the moment, let's eliminate "fairy" problems where the pieces either move differently, or there are new pieces that move like a combination of knight-rook or knight-bishop, etc. But that still leaves a large class of problems where the pieces move exactly as they do in a regular chess game, but are now being asked to perform different tasks than the ones bulleted above. The possibilities are limitless and I am not an expert in this field, but this would include such problems as:

  • Help mates
  • Sui-mates
  • Mate-avoidance
  • Switcheroos (Coakley)
  • Double Whammies (Coakley)
  • Chess Mazes (Alberston & others - 350+ here)
  • Construction (and game proofs)
  • Retractors, etc.

Since in these problems the pieces move as they normally do in chess, you are strengthening one or more of your "chess muscles" when you do them, including your board vision, chess logic, tactical vision, etc. You are learning what the pieces can do, both individually and in concert.

For example, doing a knight tour, while not required in a real game, can help you spot how to get your knight from one place to another efficiently in a game, and more quickly spot possible knight forks. Similarly, practicing K&B&N vs. K (a problem which can occur in regular play) can clearly help your visualization and piece coordination skills even though that endgame is rare and may only occur once or twice in your lifetime, so getting a win in those situations instead of a draw would hardly affect your playing strength. But the point is that the side effects are clearly more beneficial than the direct effects of those one or two extra half points.

When I first started playing I did many of these "abnormal" problems. They were great challenges. One book that had some was Irving Chernev's interesting The Bright Side of Chess. Later non-trivial retrograde problems were popularized through Raymond Smullyan's The Chess Mysteries of Sherlock Holmes and Chess Mysteries of the Arabian Knights. Lately Jeff Coakley has introduced a whole new set of interesting puzzles for all ages and levels with Winning Chess Puzzles for Kids Vol 1 and especially Vol 2 (reviewed here, with some clever examples).

Here's a helpmate in 2 that GM Jonathan Rowson gives to his students to "help" them think outside the box. Helpmate: Black moves first; Black and White cooperate to mate Black in a specified number of moves. Solution at the end of this article:

So if you think those puzzles may not be for you or can't help you, that's probably a self-fulfilling prophecy - stay away! But if you believe they can't help anyone become a good player, that's clearly not true. They helped me and others in ways difficult to measure but easy to explain. Plus there's the added benefit: find some types of problems that you like and they can be loads of fun and challenge, and isn't that much of what we want from a game or puzzle? Try some and see your "chess logic" - and in the long run probably your results - improve Smile.

Solution to the Rowson help-mate: For Black to start by under-promoting to a knight or bishop to set up a White mate with the well-known pattern 2.Nf6 and 3.Qg8# doesn't work: 1...h1N 2.Nf6 and now both 2...Ng3 and 2...Nf2+ interfere with the mate. Ditto for 1...h1B 2.Nf6 and now 2...Bxg2 is the only legal move. So the solution is to abandon the Nf6/Qg8 pattern and go for 1...h1R+ 2.Qf1 Rxh7 3.Qf8# Cute!


  • 4 months ago


    This is my first post on Chess.com, so hopefully I've done it correctly. I've constructed this problem whose solution is dependent upon the same mate theme as the Rowson problem. The position is fairly gamelike and there is only one way for White to obtain a winning advantage. I suppose it could be argued that my problem is more "instructive", though frankly, I think that the solution to it is almost too easy, whereas the Rowson problem defnitely requires one to think a bit and therefore is a lot more "fun". I'm not sure if all the types of puzzles that Dan listed are helpful, but I do believe that some of them are and certainly none of them are harmful to one's playing strength.

  • 5 months ago


    I'm a devotee of chess problems of every type and am a published chess problem composer. I firmly believe they improve my game. Here's why.

    You have to use your imagination to solve a problem. Often a problem's theme is completely original or very cleverly hidden - meaning you have to draw upon all your powers of lateral thinking to solve it. What better practice is there for over the board play than that? I know of no other way to improve your ability to 'imagine' than solving chess problems. Imagination is after all what sets chess apart as a game and separates club players from grand masters.

    Incidentally I love the example problem given. The solution is rather mundane in itself of course; the beauty lies in why the tries h1B/N (or h1Q) don't work. One marvels at the composer's economical placing of White King and Queen to achieve only the one solution (not three). Problem composition at its best.

  • 5 months ago


    playing like that is like a movie betraying the black king though he already in losing ground. I don't like it because we always fight to win or defend and survive to draw.

  • 5 months ago


    I pretty much agree with everything said in this article. I want to add though that I don't like problems like "make the best move" when there are several winning moves, especially when racing against the clock. Since I'm human I evaluate mate in N and mate in N+1 equally good while the problem seem to disagree and think mate in N is the only right solution. If however it was specified "mate in N" I wouldn't mind at all.

  • 5 months ago

    FM chesskingdreamer

    h1=r,Qf1 Rxh7, Qf8 mate!

  • 5 months ago


    That "help-smother" was elusive!

  • 5 months ago

    NM danheisman

    ColoradoCowboy: Thanks. Good thinking "outside the box". So, to make Rowson's problem as he intended, I added the coordinates with White at the bottom, as intended. I don't normally do that since my students have a tendency to read the notation on the side of the board instead of figuring out the squares (not helpful in the long run for a variety of reasons) but, as you properly point out, necessary in this case Wink.

  • 5 months ago


    I totally understand your point about specific trainings focused on specific patterns or aspects of the game, otherwise the single best way to improve would be simply to play games all the time, but that certainly isn't the case.

    Thanks for the article and for suggesting conservative problem solvers like myself to give a second look to the "crazy stuff." Smile

  • 5 months ago

    NM danheisman

    Philidor_position. Thanks: you are correct; the problems you do are very helpful and the main ones I recommend for all my students. But to say "...even more helpful", then that depends on what skill aspect is being helped and whom you are trying to help. There are many problems that are not the type you like to do which are, possibly, even more helpful per unit time or problem (the math idea of "correlation"), in showing the average player certain aspects of what the pieces can do even in regular games. Of course, as I noted in the article, what may be "more helpful" for many people may not be more helpful for you, for a variety of reasons.

    The purpose of the article is not to convince players like you to try "crazy stuff"; it's to explain to people who are not familiar (or as familiar) with the "crazy stuff" that, in most cases, it's not too crazy after all, if their goal is maximum improvement per unit time (or even maximum fun and improvement per unit time). As you basically say, if you don't like it, don't do itSmile.

  • 5 months ago


    I'm a chess problem addict, and have solved around 32k problems now, and I'm one of those who find solving 1) help mates (or other kinds of crazy stuff) and 2) problems where white is like up a queen already but the problem demands you to find the mate in 3, rather as a loss of time. I'm like, "what's the point? I'll promote a pawn in 6 moves and gg."

    I'm sure they are helpful rather than detrimental, but spending time on white to win or white do defend type of positions taken from real human games (meaning reasonable positions) would be even more helpful imo.

    Especially the 2nd category is quite common unfortunately, and the problem with it is that you don't get to find out stuff like "oh wait I get a knight but she mates me in 3 then" in your calculations, and you can't have real patterns from real sharp positions feeded into your brain along the way. Any move you make is already winning. But this comes from a chess patzer, and the above article from a great teacher and a master, so... Smile

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