Nabokov's amazing synesthesic chess problem

Nabokov's amazing synesthesic chess problem

Oct 24, 2007, 8:53 PM |

Vladimir Nabokov (1899 - 1977) was a russian-born writer who wrote both in russian and, after emigrating to America, in english,  and is one of the great literary figures of the 20th century. He was known to be a great chess problemist (although not so good player, I do not know of any recorded games however), he even published a book containing both poems and chess problems. He wrote several books containing chess references, most notably The Defence (or The Luzhin Defence), the story of a chess genius descent into madness, which was adapted in a movie in 2000. His most famous novel is Lolita (later adapted into a movie by Stanley Kubrick), the story of a pedophile. He was also a lepidoptory specialist and has been curator of lepideptory at Harvard.

More information and complete bibliography :


White to move and mate in two:



















This problem is Nabokov's symbolic answer to the chess sequence forming the plot of Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll. Consult this website for the very interesting story and all the implications of the symbols:

(Note that this website gives a wrong solutiont to the problem, the rest of the solution is (highlight between brackets to see the answer):

[After 1. Bc2! ...

If 1. ...Nxf4 (or any other knight move)  2. Qd4#

If 1. ...c5 2. Rf5#

If 1. ...d6 2. Rf5#

if 1. ...d5 2. Qc7#

If 1. ...Kd5 2. Qc5#]


An interesting sidenote.

"In any case, whether it is exchanged for a knight or a queen, advancing the White Pawn to b8 (a ruse that is the equivalent of the 'irresistible try') is the wrong move to make. White cannot ensure check-mate in the prescribed two moves if it 'queens' the pawn on b8."

I put the position to Fritz to see how it would react, and it fell for the "irresistible try" with a mate in three!

Nabokov and his wife Vera