On March 31st 1990 I mentioned to Byron Jacobs that a few years earlier I had read of the Dutch writer Tim Krabbé’s especial fascination with the Babson Task.
Composers of chess problems had been interested in the idea of multi-promotion of pawns for decades before this, the supreme challenge, was formally thrown down in 1913 by American problemist, C. Babson.
Whenever a pawn reaches the eighth rank a player usually chooses to promote it to a queen.
But he has the option of selecting a piece of lesser power, although such underpromotions occur only rarely in real games.
The Babson Task necessitated the composition of a forced checkmate in four moves involving both sides multi-promoting, as follows: White moves and Black responds with his best defence.
This will be the promotion of a pawn, in any way he chooses, i.e. to a Queen, Rook, Bishop or Knight.
In each case White has to respond by promoting a pawn to exactly the same piece as Black chose.
Black then moves and tries to set up a draw by stalemate, by deploying the newly-promoted piece.
White makes his third move, and using his new piece, prevents the threatened stalemate.
Black moves, and then White’s fourth move delivers checkmate.
In each instance the corresponding promotion must be the only way in which the mate in four could occur.
People all over the world tried to compose a problem that would satisfy the extraordinarily intricate demands of the Task, but none could.
In 1934, the French problem composer, Andre Cheron commented that the Babson Task was just impossible to solve.
In 1982 a French engineer, Pierre Drumare, wrote of his efforts.
He was born in the year that the challenge was formally thrown down, 1913, and since becoming aware of the Task, in 1960, had set his heart on finding a solution.
For one period of four years he had devoted four hours of each day to it!
He announced that
"After twenty-two years of exhausting labour I now have the certainty that the quadruple echo promotion will never be perfectly realised in a direct mate problem."
In March the next year a problem composed by Leonid Yarosh of Kazan appeared in the journal Chess in the U.S.S.R.
He was twenty-six, a soccer coach by profession, and unknown in the field of chess composition.
Yet he had achieved the impossible dream: he had solved the Babson Task.
So, to successfully execute the checkmate in four moves:
If Black promotes to a Queen, White must promote to a Queen.
If Black promotes to a Rook, White must promote to a Rook.
If Black promotes to a Bishop, White must promote to a Bishop.
If Black promotes to a Knight, White must promote to a Knight.
The Holy Grail of chess had been searched for in vain for over a century.
The greatest composers thought it would never be found.
The praise hurled upon him from his fellow problemists was only commensurate with his awe-inspiring creation.
"A flawless diamond of unique and unrivalled purity..." "The eighth wonder of the world", "De prijs van God", "L’impossible realisé."
Drumare wrote to Yarosh that far into the future people would be marvelling at this "the chess problem of the century."
(Before his death, a reinspired Drumare managed to construct his own Babson. Let us hope he died happy.)
The amazing Yarosh then went on to produce further solutions to the Babson Task.
Ralf Krätschmer, observed of it all,
"Never believe... that something can't be done. Never give up. Nothing is impossible. Believe in yourself".
Krabbé spoke of his own reaction to seeing the puzzle finally cracked.
It was, he wrote, as if he had opened a newspaper and found inside the headline -
Purpose Of Life Discovered.
I had found that admission of Krabbé’s very moving, and, although I had never made mention of it to anyone else before that, I told it to Byron.
I had not then even seen Yarosh’s problem, neither was I aware of the other tributes.
It was only Krabbé’s statement that had struck me so forcibly.
Later that day I read the current edition of The Guardian newspaper.
It contained a section headed The Guardian on Sunday.
But The Guardian does not appear on a Sunday.
The whole thing was an April Fool hoax.
I noticed this headline on the spoof’s front page -
Scientist Discovers Reason For Universe
Dr Seymour Matta, Professor of Mathematics at the Grampian University rocked the scientific world yesterday with claims that he had unravelled the equation that lies at the heart of existence...