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Vladimir Nabokov's 18 Chess Problems


For his love of intelligence, Nabokov dreamed up 18 chess problems that, due to their characteristics, resemble extensions of his literary works.

Among the various aspects that chess contains, its problems are among the most accessible ways of approaching it and training and entertaining yourself with the game. They also perhaps have a more privileged place in the essence of the game than the solutions themselves.

In the case of chess, the problems that can be posed have a certain similarity to those mental experiments that enable us to imagine, for example, what we would do if we were shipwrecked on a desert island, or what decisions we would make if tomorrow we found out that the human species had all died out except for us. For the chess player, problems are like that, in media res, and often even improbable. For that reason, it is no coincidence that artists and intellectuals have developed a taste for the game and its problems. As is well known, one of the most outstanding aficionados was Vladimir Nabokov, the great Russian writer who combined his literary life with chess. As well as his novel about chess, The Defense, Nabokov also published a book dedicated exclusively to chess problems that he himself dreamed up.

The book is called Poems and Problems and was originally published in 1969. In addition to 53 poetic compositions (39 poems written in Russian and translated by Nabokov into English, as well as 14 originally written in English), it also features 18 chess enigmas that, as well as offering an intellectual challenge, have a certain aesthetic attraction as a distinctive characteristic that makes them unique pieces.

As an example, this problem is the last one in the book:

chess problem

The board is made attractive by the layout of the pieces, which is characterized by symmetry and elegance. For the solution offered (and which we reveal at the end of the text), the problem is also a kind of short story, a fiction that, by not being instant, is less effective as we set ourselves in the short story that it tells.

In the world of chess the possibilities are almost endless, and a problem such as that set here, while improbable, is feasible. It happens sometimes, as in life, that the aesthetical assaults our daily actions, and suddenly something routine can become artistic. This is also what makes chess so attractive because it is fertile territory for surprises. Nabokov, who was always somehow an augur of the beautiful and the sublime, also encountered this in the unpredictable combinations of chess:

Chess problems demand from the composer the same virtues that characterize all worthwhile art: originality, invention, conciseness, harmony, complexity, and splendid insincerity.

Nabokov’s solution:

The white pawn on d7 had taken the black knight on c8, promoting a rook. Now white makes a move and takes the black rook on e8, promoting the knight that performs checkmate. There is something slightly magical in the retrospective transformation of the white rook into a black knight and the black rook into the white knight, conserving the symmetry (and the domination of c7 by white).

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