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I will preface this by saying that the following contains a spoiler for Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policeman's Union, so tread carefully.

Chess features heavily in the book and a major plot point is a seemingly in-progress game that a young man was playing while he was murdered. However, at the end, it turns out that it wasn't a game at all - it was a puzzle. Here are the details of the puzzle as it is described in the book.

  • White still has two knights on the board in the position.
  • White to move and mate in 2. (Not 3, see comments under answer below)
  • White can try by underpromoting the b-pawn to a third knight. (Tempting, but not the key, see comments under answer below)
  • Black has a pawn on d7 that he must move at this point, though it is unclear if it is because this is the only legal move, or if failing to do so would lead to a quicker checkmate.
  • White instead plays the move Bc2, a move described in the book as, "a dull move [that y]ou don't even notice it at first."
  • After White plays Bc2, Black is in zugzwang, and is compelled to move into their own eventual loss.
  • Had White not played 2.Bc2, then White would still have mate in 3, not mate in 2.

Is this a real, pre-existing puzzle that anyone is familiar with? It sounds an interesting, but I can't work the mechanics of it out in my head. Surely the Black king must be in a wildly precarious position for the move 1.b8=N to be necessary - the only way I can rationalize it is if it somehow leads to a mating net, necessitating the king to be in the general vicinity of, say, a5. I'd love to know if something real can be made out of this, or if it's possible at all.

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    There's also a mention in chapter 1 that the position had "black King under attack at the center of the board, and White having the advantage of a couple of pieces."
    – user30536
    Oct 6, 2023 at 5:16
  • General comment: It seems wrong to edit a question for corrections and comments on the contents, and looks very much like it would fall under the right of an author not to have his work defaced or mutilated. Why not keep such comments kept separate: either as comments, or as answers? -- In this case it seems they are all by the author of one of the answers, who then has an obvious place to put such comments.
    – user30536
    Oct 7, 2023 at 6:00
  • @user30536: That's why I asked in my comment below if it makes sense to edit out factual errors - I don't like this myself. But they would have been extremely confusing for anyone who reads question and answer(s) for the first time, so I declared it lesser evil. Methinks this calls for a discussion on Meta. Oct 9, 2023 at 7:41

2 Answers 2

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Now which chess problem author will "high literature" reference?

Nabokov. That's a no-brainer.

It's in the afterword of the book!

[FEN "3N3B/KP1p2r1/1Qp1N2b/4k1nR/4BR2/2p3P1/4n3/8 w - - 0 1"]
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    Wrong position? Mate in two as it is. Oct 4, 2023 at 9:58
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    Yes, it is a #2. But this is definitely the position Chabon referenced. (I blame it rather on the memory of the author.) Oct 5, 2023 at 7:07
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    A #2 indeed: yacpdb.org/#18121 It'd help to point all this stuff out in your answer. Oct 5, 2023 at 8:43
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    Just to confirm: the last chapter of the book states that the problem is a two mover, although one of the characters remarks that he has never been able to do better than three moves himself.
    – user30536
    Oct 6, 2023 at 4:19
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    The point of Nabokov's problem is that promoting to a third Knight looks like a spectacular solution -- Black is allowed three discovered checks by moving the Pd7, each of which allows a different cross-checking mate -- but Black spoils the fun with 1 . . . c2! The solution is 1 Bc2! and it is indeed Zugzwang. Oct 6, 2023 at 4:46
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I didn't find a problem for the original qualifications set in tbe question, so I created one.

[Title "me, chess.stackexchange.com 10/8/2023, Mate In 3"]
[FEN "8/1P1p4/1p3p2/1kn2Rp1/1B4K1/1P6/NN6/1B6 w - - 0 1"] 

1. b8=N! d5 2. Bc2 d4 3. Bd3#
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