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I am interested in retrograde analysis problems, where the question usually is: 'What was the last move made?' or 'Where did the piece stand on the board before it fell from the table?' etc. Currently I know of only two occurrences of retrograde chess analysis to have found its way into fictional literature. One is Arturo Pérez-Reverte's "The Flanders Panel", the other is Raymond M. Smullyan's "Chess Mysteries of Sherlock Holmes". The latter is not even a real novel, but retrograde chess problems presented in story format, so I am not sure whether I should have included it in my list.

Do you know of any other fictional work using retrograde chess problems as an important element?

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    The two books you mentioned are the only ones I can think of... There's also a movie based on The Flanders Panel called Uncovered, but it's arguably not as good as the book. – Philip Seyfi May 3 '12 at 9:31
  • @Philip: A beautiful movie set in Barcelona but the plot and the chess are total nonsense. See my answer below for an analysis of the very different positions in both the book and the movie. – Laska Oct 13 '17 at 12:45
  • @PhilipSeyfi Uncovered may not have been as good as The Flanders Panel, but it does star Kate Beckinsale - which is worth something. – Ghotir Oct 13 '17 at 21:23
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There's also A Happy Solution by Raymond Allen. It's a short story (under 6000 words), but quaint. It appeared in The Strand Magazine in 1916.

The puzzle featured in Allen's tale was posted here in Chess.com's forums:

[FEN "2BK3N/NP1P1PPb/P4P2/3p1q2/1Q1P1b2/1pB1p1p1/p1p2pp1/1kr4r w - - 0 1"]

While Chess.com's puzzle is set up for Black to force mate, it is also the board that Kenneth Dale did a retrograde analysis on. The game was between Sir James Winslay and Lord Churt. When a banknote was found to have been pilfered, Churt's secretary Gornay was remembered to have been watching the game, but no one could vouch for how long. Gornay's innocence appeared inviolate, as he was also remembered to have made several remarks on some of the past moves of the game at its conclusion:

"If the play was rather eccentric sometimes, I must say it was bold and dashing enough on both sides," Gornay commented. "For instance, when Lord Churt gave up his knight for nothing, and when you gave him the choice of taking your queen with either of two pawns at your queen's knight's sixth." He turned to Churt. "Possibly you might have done better to take the queen with the bishop's pawn instead of with the rook's."

After this, the missing note was found in the wrong envelope, and Dale suspected that Gornay may have been the one who had moved the note, in order to frame Dale in case of the note's being found.

"Was he in the library all the time you were playing?" Kenneth asked.

"I can't say that," Churt replied. "I don't think he was. I didn't notice particularly. But I am positive that he did not enter or leave the room while I was standing looking at Winslade's move, and he must have been there when Winslade offered his queen and when I took it, because he was commenting on those very moves after the game was finished, and suggesting that I might have done better to take with the other pawn. You heard him yourself."

Dale later proved that Gornay could have figured out those previous moves simply by looking at the resigned game, and therefore had been free to leave the room and do his dirty work while the game was still underway.

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There is also 'The Chess Mysteries of the Arabian Knights' by Raymond Smullyan which you probably already know.

  • Yes, indeed, I already knew this book, but forgot to mention it. Thanks for adding it to the list! – Ray Jun 10 '12 at 19:55
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There is The Flanders Panel, a crime novel written in 1990 by best-selling Spanish author Arturo Pérez-Reverte.

The plot revolves around an old painting, where a chess position between two players appears incidentally in the background. Upon close inspection the position reveals mysterious things that I won't spoil.

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    Can someone please explain the downvote? The Flanders Panel really involves retrograde analysis. – phs Mar 19 '15 at 20:31
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    It wasn't me that down-voted, but the base post already mentioned The Flanders Panel. Perhaps that irked someone enough to spend a valuable reputation point? But maybe that mention was added in a later edit, and wasn't there when you made your post – Laska Oct 13 '17 at 12:21
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[TITLE "chess position from The Flanders Panel book"]
[FEN "1nb5/pp1p4/PRP5/pR6/k1K1P3/2P5/2qP1P2/1NrnQB2 w - - 0 1"]

For the retro logic in the "The Flanders Panel" to work, there are two assumptions required: (1) there were no promotions (2) the black queen was royal, i.e. could not have been left exposed to attack. The solvers also assume that it was Black who moved last: perhaps there is some clue mentioned in the painting (e.g. Ferdinand of Ostenburg pushing the chess clock :D). If you accept those conditions, then the retro logic works out OK, in what is a well-written & atmospheric historical thriller.

It is so much better than the corresponding composition in the movie of the book, renamed "Uncovered", and starring Kate Beckinsale. The diagram is:

[TITLE "chess position from Uncovered movie"]
[FEN "2n1r1k1/bQ2p1r1/p4p1q/6pp/1P5P/R5PK/2BR4/4N3 w - - 0 1"]

The retroanalysis is simply bonkers, but most of the analysis concerns the forward play, in what is initially a balanced position, but which is thrown away by the "expert" player representing White in a series of moves not much better than those in "Alice Through the Looking Glass".

The total blunder 1.Ra5? is played in the movie (Stockfish prefers 1.Qd7!) 1...g4+! 2.Kh2! Qxd2+! 3.Qg2? (3.Ng2!) 3...Qxb4? (3...Qxe1!) 4.Qc6? (4.Ra1!) and Stockfish rates the position -9.9.

In one of the chess scenes (in the park) the diagram position is actually wrong, with bKa8 instead of g8, and wQ missing!

Amazing that in a movie which is ostensibly about a chess position, that no-one bothered to invest $50 in a competent chess player to sort the thing out properly!

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