Petrov and the Mysterious Morphy Self-Mate

Petrov and the Mysterious Morphy Self-Mate

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Petrov’s Defense, 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nf6, is another one of those defenses whose creator was not the player honored with its name.  (Or is it the defense that is honored with the player’s name?)  The defense was known in Lucena’s time, which was hundreds of years before Petrov (1794 – 1867). 

Even though the second move by Black seems swashbuckling in nature, de Firmian describes the opening paradoxically as unglamorous, yet first-rate.  Perhaps this is why the opening was much studied by Petrov because he, too, was unglamorous, yet first-rate. 

Petrov was the first of many great chess masters to be born in Russia.   Unlike Alekhine, Petrov was likely a kindly man. He was described by a London Chess Club player who said that “goodness and sagacity dwelt on his face”. 

Petrov, who learned the game at age 4, conquered St. Petersburg’s chess scene while still a teenager, though he never played the best masters of Western Europe.  A diplomat by occupation, he served as Under-Secretary of State in Warsaw, having entered government service through the influence of his grandfather, Sokolov, who was a senator.

While Petrov wrote the second chess book in the Russian language, The Game of Chess (1824), it had little influence on the game, and only 300 copies were printed in his time.  One might think, therefore, that Petrov’s own play was perhaps unimaginative and not inspired.  After all, he was a man with two nicknames that were based on other famous masters’ names rather than his own – “the Russian Bourdonnais” and “the Northern Philidor”.

However, the following game, which is known as Petrov’s Immortal Game, belies any such naïve notion and demonstrates why he was the premier Russian player of his day.  The game is both exciting and imaginative, to say the least.  Petrov is Black against Hoffman and plays the Italian Game with a knight sacrifice on his 7th move and ignoring an attack against his queen on his 12th.

Since Petrov is known for the opening that bears his name, I would be negligent if I did not show Petrov playing the Petrov.  In the next game, Petrov wins as White against his collaborator and friend Carl Friedrich von Jänisch.  The game is all the more interesting because it was both Petrov and Jänisch who studied and developed this opening together.

Let me end this discussion of Petrov with a historical mystery that involves none other than the great Paul Morphy, who co-edited “The Chess Monthly” with Daniel Fiske.  On page 207 of the July, 1859 edition of this publication, there appears a self-mate problem submitted by Petrov.  If you are not familiar with self-mates, they are a special kind of problem whereby one side’s moves force the other side to mate the  first side.  Thus, the losing side essentially commits suicide.

Petrov accompanied the problem with the following letter in French.

J’ai l’honneur de vous offrir, comme marque de ma grande admiration pour votre talent, le qui perd gagne ci-joint, de ma composition.  La situation des pieces blanches figure la lettre M, initiale de votre nom.  La solution annexée est en quarante coups.  Durant tout le jeu, les noirs n’ont qu’un seul coup forcé à jouer, sans aucun choix.  Je saisis cette occasion pour vous presenter mes respects.

A. Petrow
Amateur du jeu des Echecs.

My own translation of this letter follows.  Notice how humbly the greatest chess master of Russia signs his name.

It is my honor to offer you, as a token of my great respect for your talent, which in losing gains herewith, my composition.  The position of the white pieces form the letter 'M',  the initial of your name.  The attached solution is in 40 moves.  Throughout the game, black has only one move that is forced, with no other choice.  I take this occasion to give you my regards.
A. Petrov
Amateur at the game of chess. 

[eric-B points out in private communication that the French 'amateur' may have been used by Petrov in the sense of 'enthusiast', which is a legitimate translation of the French.-kg]

I believe that the phrase “which in losing gains herewith” is simply a reference to the problem where the White pieces represent Morphy, although they force themselves to lose the game.

Of course, White could have simply mated Black with the move Rf8#.  However, that would not be nearly as interesting as a self-mate that requires a breathtaking 40 moves!  I have described this as a mystery because Morphy and Fiske promised the reader that the solution would appear in the September issue of their publication.  The readers of 1859 were probably as disturbed as myself when the September issue was published and no such solution appeared!

I am afraid that my own chess skills are not up to determining the 40 moves required to solve the riddle.   However, I suspect I know how it was created.  The mate likely occurs in some position where the White king is hemmed in by his own pieces, and White then checks the Black king where the only legal move is to block the check by interposing the knight, and in doing so, the knight delivers mate to the hapless White king. [This is incorrect as pastoryoshi points out in the very first comment below. -KG]

I am guessing that Petrov began with the final mate position, and worked backward for 40 moves.  To work forward using deductive reasoning is beyond my abilities.  If any reader has the solution, please post it as a comment.

The dead souls of the 19th century wait patiently in their graves for the answer.


Note to the gentle reader:  This blog is one of a continuing series that discusses the players whose names grace many openings.  Here are the links to these blogs published to date:

The Names behind the Openings, Part 1
Bird to Bogo
Caro, Kann and Chigorin – Openings Players
Evans and Göring: Gambiteers
Who was Giuoco Piano?
A Greenfield Opening
Who Suggested 1. b3 ??
Nimzowitsch (in 4 syllables)