Wikipedia's article on Babson tasks says:

However, Yarosh's problem has a small flaw: the key is a capture, something which is generally frowned upon in problems.

(The "key" of a chess problem is the first move in the solution.)

Why is it frowned upon for the key move to be a capture?

4 Answers 4


I think that the feeling with regard to starting with a capture could expressed by saying that such a move is vulgar, This may or may not worry you


Well, it depends on what you think is the pupose of a problem. For some, rather dedicated people, it is an art form, and the composition must follow strict rules, rather like a sonnet. There is strictly no point to asking WHY a sonnet has to follow those rules, but if you don't follow them it isn't a sonnet. And enough people think that the rules are good, that the sonnet form persists. And perhaps you can understand how a purist might regard a "sonnet" that did not obey the rules as vulgar.

But in the case of a chess problem there are reasons for the rules. When playing the game it is useful to look first at forcing moves, checks and captures. Problemists like to make the key move as subtle (and hard to find) as possible and so avoid the sort of moves that a player would be attracted by. Solvers find satisfaction is overcoming that difficulty. In the case of the Babson task, matching underpomotions in attack and defence is so phenomenally difficult to achieve that starting with a capture is regarded as forgivable.

Surprising key moves were a feature of the early problemist Sam Loyd. If you Google his name you may find some entertainment.

On the other hand, if you think of chess problems just as amusing puzzles rather than a minor art form, there is no real reason to accept the artistic conventions.

  • 13
    That doesn't answer the question though - why is it vulgar? Commented Apr 14, 2022 at 21:47
  • 4
    Thanks. I wasn't objecting to the premise of there being aesthetic considerations, I was just looking for an explanation of what motivations might lie behind them - so thanks for the deeper explanation. Commented Apr 15, 2022 at 7:00
  • So, it's basically like if the key move in a problem is the move anyone would consider among the first at a casual glance, then the problem would be trivial? The most difficult mate-in-two problems take time to solve because the first move is among the least obvious ones, considered only after throwing away the more obvious and more aggressive ones, and have an "aha!" effect when found. Yet one could make a mate-in-ten problem which is easily solved by a complete beginner, because every move is either the only legal move, or the most obvious move. And that would be boring.
    – vsz
    Commented Apr 18, 2022 at 8:10
  • Thats is a good explanation of the basic idea, but there are many exceptions. I cant lay my hands on it right now, but somebody did compose a "problem" where every move was the only legal move, as a joke, and to show it could be done. Not an "aha!" effect, maybe an "oho!" effect
    – Philip Roe
    Commented Apr 18, 2022 at 14:29
  • @PhilipRoe : such "problems" are great at teaching about how important certain positions are and how vulnerable a king can be (for me this was hammered in by a ludicrous setup with a forced mate in 30 or so, but it was trivial to solve it), but are not interesting as puzzles.
    – vsz
    Commented Apr 22, 2022 at 6:22

One reason is that a capture limits Black counterplay. So, if White had captures as options, the solver might well consider them first.

Another is more aesthetic, that a capture increases White's material advantage, and thus makes it less surprising that White managed to checkmate Black. It's considered a good thing if White manages to checkmate from a position where this might at first seem unlikely.

  • 1
    What if the capture in question is a sacrifice? Does that negate the second consideration? Commented Apr 14, 2022 at 23:54
  • @SteveBennett: I'm not a problemist, so take this with a grain of salt, but IMHO, it only partially negates it. Material value is only half the equation; a knight in a far advanced outpost, or defending a key square near its friendly king, is arguably worth more than a rook on its own back rank.
    – Kevin
    Commented Apr 17, 2022 at 21:12

As an minor addition to the already accepted answer, it may be said that since the late 1860s or so 'it has always been that way'. The oldest 'rulebook' for chess problem composition that I know of is from 1878, and its second rule is:

  1. Capture of a man on the first move of white is not regarded as good unless intricate, beautiful, and numerous variations result from it.

(See http://www.anders.thulin.name/posts/the-art-of-problem-composition/ for the full text: the rules are at the end. It is quite dated.)

Earlier, in the 1850s, many 'good' problems were of the capture-early-and-often type, and were probably designed to show off a solver as someone who could find a forced mate in 18 moves or so. As taste changed towards more modern style (starting in the 1860s), this became old-fashioned and crude.

  • Ah, that's excellent - thanks so much for including a specific source. Amazing to think that formal chess problem setting goes back so far. Commented Apr 22, 2022 at 3:40

If you capture a piece as first move, that piece loses its significance. It could have been any piece, or at least one of several. Perhaps even a vacant square would have done. All other pieces are exactly the type they need to be for the puzzle to work.

This makes 1.XxY not exactly a cook, but akin.

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