8

The "Fireside Book of Chess" by I. Chernev and F. Reinfeld includes the following diagram

[fen "3nk3/3NN3/3PP3/3BB3/3PP3/3PP3/3PP3/2RQKR2 w - - 0 1"]

Composed by J.N. Babson for Bretano's Chess Monthly in 1882. Mate on the 1220th move, after compelling Black to make three successive and complete Knight's tours.

(Note that there is a mate in one. The problem asks for something more specific.)

Facts:

  • Babson is a real composer, famous for long mate problems.
  • Bretano's Chess Monthly was a real publication from 1880 to 1882, and Babson did have problems published there.
  • A FIDE page that lists people with FIDE titles has a biographical sketch of Babson citing a 1220 move problem, and a 1990 move problem on a 10x10 board.

Issues:

  • I can't find any reference to this problem on the web, other than the above mentioned book.
  • Nobody ever mentions any problem with this many moves... anywhere!
  • A knight tour is the motion of a knight through all the board squares. Three of these would mean only 192 moves.

So here are my questions:

  1. Is the problem for real?
  2. How should one interpret the knight tour condition? Probably the knight will capture most of the central pieces, but do the other pieces have to move aside to let the knight through?
  3. What is the solution?
  4. Why is this not more widely known?
  • 3
    Interesting question, +1. But I'm not sure why you compare this to the 517-mover of Konoval and Bourzutschky (chess.stackexchange.com/a/674/167). For that position, it is optimal play by both sides that results in conversion to a won 6-piece endgame after 517 moves. The purported 1220 moves for this position has nothing to do with optimal play, of course, as it's noted in the question that White's best play is simply mate in one: 1.Rf8#. – ETD Sep 8 '13 at 14:27
  • @Ed Dean: The instructions of a problem tell you what your goal is. In the 517-mover the goal is to reach a theoretically won position through optimal play n both sides. In this other problem the instructions say nothing about optimal play; the mate in 1 is irrelevant because it does not fulfill the goal. I compare them both because they both need a huge number of plays to reach the requested goal. – yrodro Sep 8 '13 at 16:29
  • 1
    Oh, I understand that these problems have very different goals. Indeed, that was exactly my point: it just struck me as uninformative to compare the numbers involved, since it's 517 apples and 1220 oranges, precisely because the stated goals are different. (Just to emphasize: I consider this only a minor quibble, and won't harp on it any further. I very much like the question, and hope to see an answer that touches on the intended solution.) – ETD Sep 8 '13 at 16:56
  • Do you know if Chernev and Reinfeld said anything further about this problem in their book? I went looking for whether Babson himself offered commentary in the original source, but can't locate it. I did find an archive of some volumes of Brentano's Chess Monthly: chessarch.com/excavations/…. Sadly, this doesn't include anything from 1882; but at least it seems the rest of Brentano's should be obtainable somehow. – ETD Sep 8 '13 at 17:00
  • 1
    Sidenote: This should be termed a "fairy chess problem", due to the side conditions. And when it comes to fairy chess, ~1000 moves are nothing, if my memory serves me well. (I dimly remember one with ~10000.) – Hauke Reddmann Aug 28 '16 at 20:45
5

Yes, this is very much a real chess problem. Interestingly, it seems that the name for it is 'The Obelisk."

I have found mention of it in a Google scanned book. The piece of literature is called "American Chess Review, Volume 1, Issues 1-6" and it can be read in it's entirety for free here on Google as an eBook.

The book is from 1886, just four years after the mentioned publication in Bretano's Chess Monthly. On page 99 it reads, as quoted, : "and the “Obelisk' (mate in 1,220 moves, compelling three successive knight's tours!) contributed by the genius of Mr. J. N. Babson to the late Brentano's Chess Monthly." It is listed with a few other mysterious longmovers that I am yet to do any research on.

The set up of the postion, which is descriptive notation (Wikipedia article) matches up with what you have shown. Here is the quote: "THE OBELISK: White—K at Ki Q at Q; R at Q B, KB: B at Q 6, K 6: S at Q 7, K 7; Pat Q 2, 3, 4, 6, K2, 3, 4, 6. Black—K at K, S at Q. White to play and mate in 1220 moves, after compelling black to make three complete and successive tours."

Here is a nice little picture of it all.

enter image description here

Note that the 'S' stands for Knight: this is the German notation, and German culture has had an impact on American culture. It lines up exactly with your diagram, except that the bishops are listed one square as the pawns are listed. I take this as a printing mistake.

[Title "The Obelisk, Mr. J. N. Babson, 1882"]
[FEN "3nk3/3NN3/3PP3/3BB3/3PP3/3PP3/3PP3/2RQKR2 w KQ - 0 1"]

So it is very much a real chess problem. A couple of other places I find it mentioned in (albeit in book previews) are on page 205 of Wonders and Curiosities of Chess, Irving Chernev, 1974: Wonders and Curiosities (the link is to Google Books.) There is also the claim of it appearing in "The Complete Chess Addict" and ""The Even More Complete Chess Addict" on this ChessChat Forums page. I'll go indepth on that soon. Rosie F, in a helpful comment, says that as well: "Mike Fox & Richard James copied it in their The Complete Chess Addict (pub.Faber 1987), p.174, but don't give any clue as to a solution."

However, no where at all, it there a mention of a solution. Unless somebody can get their hands on a original/reprint, several of which can be found for sale around the Internet with a quick search, their is officially no known one.

Something I believe that may confirm is something very small that I noticed. Here is a link to the problem on Yet Another Chess Problem Database. It is called yacpdb for short. There, two sources for the problem are listed (which I will track down soon if I can), one of which is the Problemiste PBM Collections.

The interesting fact is that if actually a collection made by The Problemist, a famous chess column or whatever it is called. The yacpdb references section lists these words from the Problemist: "Remark text: Note de Le Lionnais : "Nous n'avons pas pu découvrir la solution de ce problème ni même nous assurer qu'elle n'a pas été démolie."

Translated, it means this: "Remark text: Note from Le Lionnais: "We have not been able to discover the solution of this problem nor even convince ourselves that it is not cooked.

So, while the problem is real, there is no known solution.

As for your other two questions, it does seem to be somewhat widely known. It is on this chess.com page in the comments on a forum post there.

I have no answer for your second question, unfortunately.

I think that there is a small possibility that there actually IS NO SOLUTION, and that this is Babson's greatest ever JOKE PROBLEM.

3

To force the knight into a corner a piece must be sacrificed. 3 knight tours, 4 corners per tour, so that's 12 White pieces that must be lost. And none of the lost pieces can be knights (from where did it get there to give check?).

  • 1
    So White starts Nf6+ (else Nxe6 is annoying, making it KNN vs KN after the tours), Black is forced to play Kf8. Then I think Rc8 forcing Kg7. – Post-It-Note Aug 5 '16 at 23:23
2

Looking at the position and the phrasing of the question, I would have to say that the problem is flawed. The directions are far too restrictive - how can white compel black to make three knight tours? If this was defined as a helpmate that's solvable in 1220 moves, then the problem would make more sense. However, even in this case, I cannot fathom how that would be possible as the number of moves that a three knight tours sum to is far less than 1220.

  • 6
    I think the idea is probably to force and trap the black king somewhere that a check can only be escaped by moving the knight to the next square on the tour (either interposing or capturing the piece there). The knight would thus move exactly 192 times, but there would be a lot of moves by the black king. – supercat Mar 18 '14 at 1:59

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