History of chess problems

A chess problem, also called a chess composition, is a puzzle set by somebody using chess pieces on a chess board, that presents the solver with a particular task to be achieved.

Caliph al-Mutasim Billah, caliph of Baghdad from 833 to 842, perhaps composed the earliest chess problem on record.  He was the third son of Harum (Haroun) al-Rashid who is supposed to have played an early form of chess.  His problem can be found from folio 29B of the Asiatic Society’s manuscript of chess problems.  The problem is for White to move and give checkmate in 9 moves.  The pieces do not move the same way as today.  In the problem, the queen could only move one square and the bishop could give check, even if something was in front of it.  The queen was called the firzan and the bishop was called the fils.

Around 840 A.D., al-Adli ar-Rumi (800-870) wrote Kitab ash-shatranj (Book of the chess) in Arabic. This is a lost manuscript, but referenced in later works. It was considered the first comprehensive book dealing with chess. We know of it through referring manuscripts that preserved some of its texts and chess problems. The text included chess history, openings, endings and mansubat (chess problems). The collection had hundreds of chess problems. He also classified chess players into five distinct classes. He also found a system for sorting out the openings into positions, which he called Tabiya.  He was the first compiler of a collection of chess (shatranj) problems.  He divided his collection into won endings, drawn endings, and undecided games.


Around 845, an Arabic manuscript of mansubat was written by ar-Razi, called Latif fi-sh shatranj (Elegance in Chess). He also wrote Kitab ash-shatranj, which has since been lost. All that has survived in ar-Razi's book is a few opinions on the endgame and a couple of chess problems.


Around 890 Abu-Bakr Muhammad ben Yahya as-Suli (854-946) co-authored a book of problems (mansubat) and a book of openings (ta-biyat) for Shatranj, called Kitab-ash-shatranj (Book of Chess), volume one and two. He was assisted by Abu l-Abbas Ahmad ibn Muhammad as-Sarakhsi, a physician. One of as-Suli's book was a critique on al-Adli's book.  He was the author of the first book describing a systematic way of playing shatranj.  He wrote two textbooks on chess, now lost.  His book on chess are only known to us through extracts in later works.  His principle contribution to the strategy of shatranj was his advocacy of flank openings.    As-Suli first came into notice by defeating Almawardi, the caliph Almuktafi’s best player.  After Almuktafi’s death in 908, he remained in the service of his successor Almuktadir (908-932), and was tutor to his successor Arradi Billah (934-940).


Around 930 Abu'l-Faraj ibn al-Muzaffar ibn Sa'id al-Lajlaj (900-970) wrote Kitab mansubat ash-shatranj (book of chess problems). It is another lost chess book. Manuscripts containing some of its contents have survived. He may have been the first person to analyze and publish chess openings. The oldest chess game comes from a match between as-Suli and al-Lajlaj.


The library of Caliph Hakam II of Cordova (961-976) contained an Arabic manuscript on chess problems.


In 1140, an incomplete manuscript called the Abdul Hamid (Abd-al-Hamid I or Abdalhamid I) Arabic collection (known as AH) was written (copied) by Abu Ishaq Ibrahim b. al-Mubarek b. Ali al-Madhahhab al Baghdadi.  It is also called Risala fi’sh-shatranj by Abu’l-Abbas Ahmad al-Adli.  It has nearly 200 problems.  It contains problems composed by Muslim composers such as al-Aldi in 840 and as-Suli in 940. The manuscript contains a short treatise on chess principles by al-Lajlaj.


In the 12th century Abu ‘l-fath Ahmad as-Sinjari was a player and author.  Three copies of his manuscript was discovered in 1951, the earliest dating from 1665.  The original was written 500 years earlier.  The contents contain 10 opening system and 287 mansubat (problems).  Three of his problems were based on the work of as-Suli.  A mansuba is an Arabic term for a composed middle game or endgame position that is set for instruction or for solving.


The first European reference to chess problems was during the reign of Richard 1 (1189-1199), when Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales) wrote Gemma Ecclesiastica (Jewel of the Church) and mentioned chess problems.


In 1221, a manuscript of mansubat, claimed to have used the original collections of ar-Razi, al-Adli, and as-Suli.


There is an Arabic manuscript (No. 7515) in the British Museum written (copied) in 1257 attributed to Hasan of Basra (who died in 728).  It gives the relative value of the various pieces.  There are 200 diagrams in this manuscript, containing openings of the writer’s time and problems that lead to mate or draw.  All the problems are accompanied with a solution. It is a copy of a work written between 1150 and 1250.  It made liberal use of al-Adli’s work and quotes from al-Lajlaj. 


In 1273, the earliest known English source of chess problems, the Cotton Manuscript, was written.  It was followed by the King’s Library manuscript and a manuscript in Trinity College Library, Cambridge.  They were written by Benedictine monks from Dorset.


In 1283, the Alfonso manuscript was completed.  It is an important historical source of information about chess and other indoor diversions.  It was completed by order of Alfonso the Wise (1221-1284).  It contained  98 pages and 103 problems in both Arabic (mansubat) and European.  The principal European innovation was the requirement to give mate in a set number of moves (mate in 2, mate in 3, etc).  The manuscript was written by the monks of the St. Lorenzo del Escorial monastery, near Madrid, Spain.


Around 1295, Nicholas de Saint-Nicholai from Lombardy, Italy, wrote the Bonus Socius (Good Companion), the first great compilation of chess problems from medieval Europe. It contained 194 chess positions or problems of the old game, some Arabic, some European.


Of the 30 or more surviving medieval European problem collections, the earliest date from the second half of the 13th century, when problems of European origin seem to have become more established.


In 1370, an incomplete manuscript, found in the Khedivial Library in Cairo (Mustafa Pasha, 8201) was written.  It belonged to Qaitbai (1468-1496) a sultan of Egypt.  It seems to be a copy of earlier manuscripts on chess problems.


Chess problems were constructed by Khwaja ‘Ali Shatranji (Master Ali the chessplayer) who resided in the court of Timur (died in 1405) at the end of the 14th century.  There have been 18 chess problems associated with Khwaja.


Around 1440, an anonymous writer, Civis Bononiae (Citizen of Bologna), wrote a manuscript collection of 288 problems.  He included 191 problems from the Bonus Socius.   The introduction lists several ways to trick your opponent with a chess problem.  It stated, “Again, you ought to appear cautious in wagering and to not carefully whether he takes the problem with a tremulous voice, or after a moderate amount of consideration, or whether he is ready to wager large sums, or whether he wished to take other problems which have been set up, for all these things show whether he knows the problem or not.”


Chess problems became popular in the 15th century because there was a demand for a quick, decisive ending adaptable to gambling purposes.


Around 1475, the fers was displaced by the queen, the aufin by the bishop, and the pace of the game was quickened.  All of the older problems became obsolete after the introduction of the modern game of chess and the new moves of the bishop and queen, and the promotion of a pawn to a queen.


In 1495 Libre dels jochs partits dels schacs en nombre de 100 from Francesch Vicent was published in Valencia. It is a lost book. The last known copy was seen in 1811. It mentioned the first modern move of the Queen and Bishop and was a book of chess openings. It was the first treatise on modern chess.


In 1503, Firdewsi at-Tahihal (b. 1453) wrote the world’s longest poem after working on it for almost 50 years.  He decided to use in a story a famous 10th century problem attributed to as-Suli.  Unfortunately, he copied the position incorrectly.  A prince wagered and lost his fortune to another prince during a chess match.  In desperation, he offered as stake his favorite wife, Dilaram.  When he seemed lost, she gave him a hint on how to win.


In 1737, Stamma published his 100 positions (modern mansubat, not problems), called Essai sur le Jeu des Echecs.  In some cases he added extra pieces to original mansubat to make the solution seem more difficult to discover.


Das Erste Jartausend der Schachlitteratur (850-1880) by Antonius van der Linde and published in 1881, listed 3,362 articles comprising all known ancient and modern manuscripts that mention chess or its derivatives.


Murray examined over 1,600 mansubat from Persian and Arabic sources and identified 553 distinctly different positions.  He believed that about 200 were composed before 1000 A.D.


One of the first chess problems to be published in a newspaper was called the “Indian problem.”  It was printed in The Chess Player’s Chronicle in 1845.