I’ve gotten really into chess during the pandemic. Holed up alone in my office, I’ve spent every lunch break for the past eighteen months watching recaps of grandmaster tournaments on YouTube. I love the game, and I love that the international stars of the game make nerdiness look so cool.
Meanwhile, between chess videos, I was researching and writing my new nonfiction book, Fallout, a Cold War thriller with lots of spying and science and high-stakes showdowns between the United States and Soviet Union. The chess analogies are inescapable, and I knew I wanted to get some of this sort of stuff into my story.
For instance, when describing Eisenhower’s lousy options after an American spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960, I was very excited to work in the chess term zugzwang. This is the unenviable situation in which a player has to move—but any move will weaken their position.
Then I thought: what about including a chess puzzle? There was a nice one in Trenton Lee Stewart’s The Mysterious Benedict Society, near the beginning, when the kids take those tests. One of the questions shows this position on a chess board and asks, “According to the rules of chess, is this position possible?”
The player with the white pieces always moves first. So at first glance the position doesn’t look possible, because only a black piece has moved from its starting place. What Reynie and Sticky realized was that white could have moved a knight, which can jump over other pieces, on move one. Then black moved its pawn forward. Then white moved the knight back to its starting square, resulting in the position shown.
I loved this kind of thing as a young reader, and I still do now. And in my Fallout research I came across a story about Edward Teller, a Hungarian-born physicist who would later emigrate to the U.S. and help develop the first hydrogen bomb. As a young man Teller was sitting on a train with a friend. He was bored and begged the friend to challenge him with some sort of puzzle. His friend came up with this:
Place eight queens on a chessboard so that no one queen can capture another.
It’s tricky. The queen is the most powerful piece, able to move horizontally, vertically, or diagonally across any number of open squares. Teller did it in his head, but I encourage my fellow chess fans to get out a board and give it try—or challenge students to find a solution. You probably don’t have eight queens lying around, so just use the pawns, imagining them as queens.
I should warn you, it’s easy to place the first few. You’ll even get the first six or seven pretty quickly. But that last one is tough, and, for me at least, took some thinking, and some trial and error. There’s more than one possible solution.
And now (spoiler alert), here’s one way to do it:
Did anyone come up with this—or a different solution? I’d love to hear how it goes!
Steve Sheinkin is the author of middle grade narrative nonfiction books, including Fallout, Bomb, Born to Fly, The Notorious Benedict Arnold, Lincoln’s Grave Robbers, and Undefeated. Lots more, and contact info, at www.stevesheinkin.com