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While a chess puzzle is any puzzle involving aspects of chess, a chess problem is an orthodox puzzle in which one must play and win or draw a game, starting with a certain composition of pieces on the chessboard, and playing within the standard rules of chess.

There's this episode of Queen's Gambit where Beth says she doesn't do 'chess problems' because they don't come up in real games. Meanwhile, it appears Lichess gets all its 'puzzles' from games. Soon after Beth is enticed to a mate in X 'problem' (though described as a 'puzzle' here).

Is there any relevant difference between puzzle and 'problem' here?

I cannot imagine any chess player not doing puzzles if they want to increase their rating, except for my dad who once told my (paternal) cousin (who attended university on a chess scholarship) and me half-jokingly 'Stop doing those puzzles. You will never get into that position.' (My dad was and is nowhere near the level my cousin was at the time. He seemed to favour more learning from pro games than puzzles.)

Idk perhaps the show really means 'problems' as puzzles and then it's an exaggeration of players who prefer more to study openings, positions, strategy, etc. than tactics.

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The character, Beth, says she doesn't do chess problems because those situations don't come up in real games.

  1. She may be speaking in a more metaphorical sense, to say that chess problems don't come up in real games the same way that they happen as chess problems, so that training with them isn't useful (to her).

    1. Chess problems are always (supposed to be) solvable and often have "clever" solutions. In chess matches, there isn't guaranteed to be a solution, and sometimes moves that appear clever backfire.
    2. Chess problems usually come with a very limited, well defined task, e.g. "white to mate in four moves". Same as before, chess matches generally don't come with that.
  2. This is a reflection of the character, which may not be objectively true. The character has deliberate flaws and overconfidence or ignorance (of better methods of training) may be coming into play.

This is the same type of objection that some people have to "math problems" (of the type assigned as homework). If we consider a math problem:

Alex had two apples. Cameron gave Alex three more apples. How many apples does Alex have now?

It's surely true that people somewhere do have to occasionally solve a problem where they have two things, receive three more things, and have to know how many things they have. But they probably also don't get the problem this cleanly, it may not even be obvious what they need to calculate, and there may be a lot of other information provided that clutters up the problem. Someone who can look at a worksheet that's labeled "Addition Practice" and decide to add 2+3...may still have difficulties when faced with the more complicated, unlabeled real-world situation.

On the other hand, if this is part of the student's path to learning addition, then I think it's a reasonably useful tool.

But the general objection that chess problems aren't the same as chess matches, coupled with a flawed character, makes this statement coming from this character plausible as part of a narrative drama.

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  • There are plenty of novels which are about metaphor and this one certainly addresses character flaws but with respect I don’t think this point is an example of either. It’s hard enough to play chess well, and most players reasonably don’t want to be distracted by something which doesn’t help them
    – Laska
    Jan 25 at 23:31
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As a chess composer, seeing most problems being called puzzles is rather frustrating. A while ago, I personally revamped the problem and puzzles tags.

The problem tag says:

Chess problems consist of a board position and a task. Most ask for a line of play that mates black in a set amount of moves, or a combination that results in a winning position. Many other types exist, including, but not limited to, construction tasks for various positions and proof games that have numerous goals, selfmates, helpmates, and retrograde analysis. Tournaments and championships exist for composing of original problems and for speed-solving.

The puzzle tag says:

Often, a puzzle type of problem in which a tactical or positional solution is required, like White/Black to move and win”, in what is often a middlegame of endgame-esqe position. But a puzzle can also be a chess riddle, chess math. or any other non-normal chess problem. Questions about solving puzzle, puzzle apps and websites, how to understand the idea behind a puzzle, etc. are also on-topic.

To my knowledge, these are generally accepted definitions by the chess composing community. I expect @Laska to have more input here.

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    Thanks for improving the tags. There are also studies. Maybe there should be something in the text about the purpose of each? Problems are an art form that do not need a purpose besides being themselves, studies are an attempt to show some motif in its most distilled form, tactical puzzles are for training purposes for players? Jan 22 at 9:43
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tl;dr: Chess problems must meet defined quality standards. Chess puzzles need not. (Disclosure: I am a chess problemist.)


Chess problems are all subject to rigorous conventions that are not that widely known, even among experienced chess players. Off the top of my head, the most important are:

  • There must be a unique solution. For example, in a mate in 4 (white to move, by convention), in the intended variation, white will only have one correct move against black's replies at every step.
  • Every piece is necessary. (Not in the Codex, but a basic principle nevertheless.) On the board, every single piece and pawn has a role to play to make the solution unique. Pieces whose only role is to "confuse the solver" or "make it look realistic" are not accepted.

Of course there are further aesthetic conventions; I won't bore you with the details here. (Note to other problemists: I also simplified by saying "unique solution" since it's clearer than explaining twinning and "h#2 3.1.1.1" here.)

The result is that composing good chess problems is hard. A good mate-in-two, proof game, or endgame study is really hard to get working just right, so problemists tend to get a little miffed when their creations are referred to as "puzzles".


Chess puzzles, as a catch-all, are:

  • Everything else that is not a chess problem.

Chess tactics puzzles, like the lichess timed tactics, fall into this category. Nowadays these tend to be automatically generated or pulled from real games - relatively lower-effort (on the human side) than composing a problem. Problemists may sometimes also self-deprecatingly refer to their problems as "puzzles".

"Joke puzzles" may be those that involve giving an upside-down board or an en passant capture without justification (don't confuse those with "joke problems" that do the same things but follow the internationally accepted problem conventions for such - much harder to do, and infinitely more satisfying!)

A somewhat grey area are problems/puzzles of a more mathematical bent. "Place all 32 standard pieces on the board such that none are attacking each other," would be an example of a construction task that could be called a problem or a puzzle. "Find the unique game ending with 3...Qd4#" is sometimes called a synthetic game. These have been referred to as both problems and puzzles.


EDIT to address the show referenced: When Beth Harmon says "problems", she means problems as I have explained above. Not chess tactics, not the lichess puzzles, but composed problems. "Problems" is a precise term, used correctly in the show.

There is an impression among chessplayers that composed problems can be useless for improvement, as the positions may be unrealistic. To some extent this is true; complex directmates aim to show particular themes, and no problem aims to be "realistic" with respect to played games. Helpmates, reflexmates and other stipulations are also at odds with the goal of "standard" chess games.

However, doing such problems can improve your board vision (it would have to, as regular pattern recognition might not apply because the positions aren't "realistic") and your creativity (seeing the coordination of different pieces in ways that you might not have come across before).

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  • Nice answer. Does the unique solution part sometimes apply only partially? Like only the hard part has unique solution, but otherwise, you can promote to either rook or queen to mate, for example.
    – justhalf
    Jul 30 at 6:48
  • @justhalf It depends. If at any point there is more than one move that still satisfies the stipulation, it is called a dual, which detracts from the quality of the problem. Duals are sometimes tolerated in certain genres of problem, usually in non-thematic variations. The example you give of promotion choice to rook/queen is sometimes tolerated: e.g. tolerated in studies and directmates, but not in proof games.
    – Remellion
    Jul 30 at 7:07
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What is a chess problem?

The wikipedia definition is pretty good:

A chess problem, also called a chess composition, is a puzzle set by the composer using chess pieces on a chess board, which presents the solver with a particular task.

In constrast, problemists use the term “tactical puzzle" to describe the kinds of realistic positional chess challenges that you can find in chess.com, lichess.com etc. Some top chess coaches argue that endgame studies & directmates are also excellent to improve over the board skills. Endgame studies in particular are a cross-over, relevant to the game but also can be regarded as chess artistry of the highest order.

However, I want to explain why chess problems can be fascinating in their own terms. From this perspective, any relevance to over-the-board play is only a happy side-effect. This reply complements other excellent answers here, which give more of a taxonomy of chess problems.

Swimming races and high-diving are both Olympic sports conducted in a swimming pool. Similarly. over the board play, problem composition and problem solving are all FIDE sports conducted over a chess board (and in all three cases, FM, IM & GM titles are awarded).

The Queen's Wombat

Probably the best known chess problem today, is alas the one shown in episode 6 of The Queen's Gambit" Netflix TV series. I loved the original book by Walter R. Tevis, and thought the TV series succeeding in creating something even better. In almost every dimension, the series developers hit the ball out of the park: casting, acting, sets, music, direction, lighting, and of course the wonderful chess itself. Hurray! Most importantly, they got the chess games right.

However there was a problem scene, and they got it wrong, in my opinion. Problemists didn't expect to be centre-stage in this series, or even mentioned: obviously our hobby is a minor interest. But the chess advisors (Pandolfini & Kasparov) are swimmers not divers. They don't understand what problems are all about. Beth quickly solves a bland mate in 3. Beth’s reaction is in character: she is a "Spike" in Magic the Gathering lingo: she just wants to win. But it’s jarring that the character Wexler (a "Johnny" in MtG parlance) says "this is my favourite". While this is reasonable for the apparently stupendous problem described in the book, the one in the TV show couldn't be anyone’s favourite. In the Netflix scene, Wexler is also being talked down to, talked over, has unsexy haircut etc.

If chess problems are irrelevant, then so are novels and TV series.

So what are problemists trying to do?

The wikipedia definition goes on to say:

A chess problem fundamentally differs from over-the-board play in that the latter involves a struggle between black and white, whereas the former involves a competition between the composer and the solver.

The word "competition" does not really capture the dynamic, which is in many ways co-operative, and more like the relationship between writer and reader.

As a composer, I am throwing a ball to the solver. If I manage to throw the ball fast, or high, it may be harder for the solver to catch, and it's more satisfying for both of us when they do. However solving difficulty is not the primary objective.

As a composer, I try to crystalize a vague idea into a coherent form, and then interest a solver into looking at it. A composer's relationship with the solver is synergistic and most of us play both roles.

Composers struggle with the recalcitrant chess pieces, which wilfully refuse to be herded. Why do we persist? Why don’t just make easier problems, rather than pushing these poor pieces to their limits? It’s not that all composers are competitive-minded (though some are) the point is that a problem must be essentially original. If I make a problem and it turns out to have been done before by someone else, then they have priority - all my effort is wasted!

Originality

Being anticipated by another composer is the worst feeling in the chess problem world. If my problem is merely found to not work properly (e.g. there’s a second solution that I didn’t spot) then that’s bad but usually it’s fixable in some way, sometimes it even becomes even better than the original version in other ways. But with anticipation there is nothing that can be done. To have built on another composer's ideas is great: that's often how things move forwards - but there must be original content in some way.

Composers are like songbirds in a wood listening to the other birds and chirping out new variants. And we can still hear their songs of deceased composers even 100 years ago; in a curious way they are still alive to us creatively.

This absolute requirement for originality is is what drives us all outwards to search for new fertile design space, into new kinds of stipulation (co-operative play, play to lose, even beyond the regular bounds of chess rules into fairy chess). And it pushes us to try to create the most elaborate and difficult houses of cards, which require extreme ingenuity, strategy and patience.

Perhaps the best way to be distinctive is through artistry. It is said that: "Style is the feather in the arrow, not the feather in the cap." Composers try to show grace like a high-diver: to demonstrate what mastery we have, if we are occasionally able to plunge from high into the water with hardly a ripple.

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