I’ve played chess for decades, and during most of that time I’ve also enjoyed chess problems. Such puzzles, which chess players have constructed and enjoyed for centuries, present a chess position and task players to solve a particular problem related to it—white checkmates in four moves or black sacrifices a knight to win the queen. Sometimes these puzzles sharpen one’s chess game, as in Fred Reinfeld’s classic 1001 Winning Chess Sacrifices and Combinations, but more often they simply offer a pleasant diversion.
Over time chess problems migrated to forums beyond the pages of chess instruction books. Fiction writers, for example, often use chess problems, as well as chess games, for inspiration and setting, especially when their stories call for a bit of brain-puzzling play. Lewis Carroll built Through the Looking Glass around the conceit of a chess game, and much later J.K. Rowling included a chess game as one of the challenges in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
Game developers used chess problems in new ways when they created pen-and-paper role playing games like Dungeons and Dragons in the 1970s. Fantasy literature by authors such as J.R.R. Tolkien and H. Rider Haggard inspired the dungeon masters of these games to create campaigns in which players not only killed monsters but also uncovered traps, answered riddles, and solved problems. TSR’s Advanced Dungeons and Dragons module The Ghost Tower of Inverness (1980) forced players to cross a trap-filled room shaped like a chessboard. The rules and movements of chess pieces constricted how players traveled.
Later, when porting role-playing games to computers, programmers incorporated puzzles into the play, and not surprisingly chess became a common trope. Early puzzle games, such as Infocom’s Zork Zero (1998) and Trilobyte’s pioneering CD-ROM game The 7th Guest (1993), presented chess problems to the players. The 7th Guest challenged players to place eight queens on a chessboard so the pieces never touched each other when someone moved them. This problem would never occur in an actual chess game, but solving it demands a knowledge of chess pieces and how they move.
Programmers continue to use chess problems in puzzle games today. Resident Evil Zero (2002) features a chess problem. So does Professor Layton and the Curious Village (2007), the hit game for the Nintendo DS. Interestingly, the chess problems in Professor Layton are often old ones, including a version of the queens who can’t touch.
The chess problem is a cultural meme, a bit of ancient play DNA, that has found evolving uses in literature, pen-and-paper role playing games, the first computer puzzle games, and, most recently, modern video games. It’s a good reminder that our play today—even electronic game play—often evolves from the play of the past.
By Jon-Paul Dyson, Director, International Center for the History of Electronic Games and Vice President for Exhibits