Mikhail Chigorin, the lover of chess problems
Mikhail Chigorin at St. Petersburg Chess Club on April 8, 1893 (detail of public-domain photograph in the collection of the Hermitage)

Mikhail Chigorin, the lover of chess problems


Everyone who plays chess seriously recognizes Mikhail Chigorin (Михаи́л Ива́нович Чиго́рин) as one of the greatest players the game has known. Most attention is given to Chigorin's brilliant games and justly so. 

What has received little, if any, attention is Chigorin's love for chess problems. Throughout his career, Chigorin placed particular importance on chess compositions. 

To start with, Chigorin solved problems himself. In 1876, his name appeared in the St. Petersburg-based weekly magazine, World Illustration (Всемирной иллюстрации), as being among its readers who correctly completed a chess problem

Chigorin thought about chess positions and problems all the time. In the remarkable remembrance she wrote to mark the 50th anniversary of her father's death, Chigorin's daughter Olga M Kusakova-Chigorina recalled how even when he would have guests over for dinner, Chigorin, if a combination occurred to him, would suddenly get up, leaving his guests at the table, so he could go off to his study to set up the arrangement of the pieces on the chess board. "We ended up having to apologize to our guests, but the majority of them were chess players and admirers of my father, so it was taken with good grace and not held against him." (Hat tip to Chess in Translation and Alexander Kentler, who writes a chess column for sportsdaily.ru, for posting the remembrance.)

In 1886, Chigorin revived St. Petersburg's chess club. As the club's president, he organized twice monthly competitions where members met to solve chess problems.   

Chigorin edited two chess magazines — Shakhmatny Listok (Chess Leaflet), which he edited between 1876 and 1881, and Shakhmatny Vestnik (Chess Herald), which ran from 1885 to 1887. In each issue, Chigorin devoted considerable attention and space to problems by the leading composers of his day. Since Chigorin did all of the work alone, we can be confident that when a chess problem appeared on the pages of his magazines, it was because he personally selected it.

In 1877, as a self-described lover of chess problems (любитель задач), Chigorin, in the pages of Shakhmatny Listok, sponsored and judged Russia's first contest for chess problem composers.

Chigorin also published "The Theory of Chess Problems" (ТЕОРІЯ ШАХМАТНЫХЪ ЗАДАЧЪ), a multi-part series by the Russian chess player and composer M.K. Gonyayeva (М. К. Гоняева) devoted entirely to the importance of chess problems. 

So it's entirely fair to recognize Mikhail Ivanovich as a devoted lover of chess problems. Chigorin loved chess problems so much that he left his own mark on the Russian language. In Russian, a chess problem is often called an Этюд. That's thanks to Chigorin, who is credited for calling a chess problem an etude, a word that he borrowed from the French. 


Mikhail Chigorin

Now imagine that your favorite super-GM of today approached you out of the blue and offered to send you each month a package of chess problems that he or she personally selected. Better yet the GM tells you that this generous offer is being extended to only 100 students. Best of all, it's absolutely free!

Would you take the super-GM up on this amazing offer and devote some time each month to working on the problems that he or she selected for you?

That's exactly the opportunity that Chigorin has given us. Every month for years he picked out what he believed were the best problems for his readers to work on. He did so solely out of a love of the game. He never made anything from his magazines and incurred debt to keep them going. His base of roughly 120 subscribers for Shakhmatny Vestnik wasn't even enough to pay for the paper, ink and postage to put out the magazine. 

The problems that Chigorin has selected for us are well worth looking at. As IM Cyrus Lakdawala (@lakofdawalapment) writes in Clinch it!: How to Convert an Advantage into a Win in Chess, Chigorin was a pure tactician who sought out and excelled in complex positions. In his post How Past Masters Can Help Your Game, IM Gregory Silman concurs, observing that very complicated tactical positions were Chigorin's strength and If you gave Chigorin a complex position, "you were likely to watch as your side of the board went down in flames." In keeping with his aggressive Romantic style of play (hat tip to GM @bryansmith for his linked articles on Chigorin), Chigorin picked complicated chess problems that revealed an overwhelming mating attack. 

Yet, as far as I can tell, the problems that Chigorin published have never been collected before, whether in Russian, English or any other language. From my research, it appears that many, if not almost all, of these problems have lain undiscovered for over a century, without being reprinted in any anthologies of chess problems.

Accordingly, I've decided that it's time to start a new series of posts looking back at the problems that Chigorin published each month in Shakhmatny Listok and Shakhmatny Vestnik. In this initial post, I'm starting at the beginning with the first problem from the first issue of Shakhmatny Listok, which came out in September 1876.

Sam Loyd

Problem no. 1

White to move and mate in 2

The first problem that Chigorin selected for his new magazine is by Sam Loyd, the Puzzle King himself. Since this problem doesn't appear in Die Schwalbe's excellent chess problem database and since I can't find it in any collections of Loyd's chess problems, I presume that it has never been reprinted before now. 

As you'll see as soon as you solve it, it's easy to understand why Chigorin selected this problem as the first to feature in his new magazine. Chigorin was famous for playing offensively. He always thought about what he could do to his opponent and paid far less attention to what his opponent might do to him, an approach that enabled him to discover brilliant combinations others might miss but also on occasion led him to blunder in a winning position. I'm confident that the reason that Chigorin chose to lead with Loyd's etude was not merely that the key move is stunning, but also that the problem rewards White for insouciantly dismissing Black's seeming "threat" of promoting its pawn.

This is exactly the type of complex position that Chigorin prefers. The trick that Chigorin wants to teach us is to find the best move, often a counter-intuitive one, towards the quickest mate.  

Like future problems we'll look at, this position doesn't constrain Black to a single forced move. At first glance, Black seemingly has many candidate moves from which to choose; however, once White finds the correct first move, then however Black responds, White can meet it with an overwhelming reply.

In the puzzle above, I've picked out a single line. Once you've solved this line, I encourage you to go back to the puzzle and to figure out White's reply to each of Black's other candidate moves.

Assuming you liked this post, please click the button above to follow me. In my next post in this series, we'll look at other problems that Chigorin selected for us in the first issue of Shakhmatny Listok.



Here's a table of contents for this series so far:

Shakhmatny Listok, Vol 1, No. 1 (September 1876)

I'll update this list as I add more posts in this series

To learn more about Chigorin, I recommend A Short Look At The Great Mikhail Chigorin by IM Jeremy Silman @Silman