Petrov and the Mysterious Morphy Self-Mate

Petrov’s Defense, 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nf6, is another one of those defenses whose creator was not the player honored with its name.  (Or is it the defense that is honored with the player’s name?)  The defense was known in Lucena’s time, which was hundreds of years before Petrov (1794 – 1867). 

Even though the second move by Black seems swashbuckling in nature, de Firmian describes the opening paradoxically as unglamorous, yet first-rate.  Perhaps this is why the opening was much studied by Petrov because he, too, was unglamorous, yet first-rate. 

Petrov was the first of many great chess masters to be born in Russia.   Unlike Alekhine, Petrov was likely a kindly man. He was described by a London Chess Club player who said that “goodness and sagacity dwelt on his face”. 

Petrov, who learned the game at age 4, conquered St. Petersburg’s chess scene while still a teenager, though he never played the best masters of Western Europe.  A diplomat by occupation, he served as Under-Secretary of State in Warsaw, having entered government service through the influence of his grandfather, Sokolov, who was a senator.

While Petrov wrote the second chess book in the Russian language, The Game of Chess (1824), it had little influence on the game, and only 300 copies were printed in his time.  One might think, therefore, that Petrov’s own play was perhaps unimaginative and not inspired.  After all, he was a man with two nicknames that were based on other famous masters’ names rather than his own – “the Russian Bourdonnais” and “the Northern Philidor”.

However, the following game, which is known as Petrov’s Immortal Game, belies any such naïve notion and demonstrates why he was the premier Russian player of his day.  The game is both exciting and imaginative, to say the least.  Petrov is Black against Hoffman and plays the Italian Game with a knight sacrifice on his 7th move and ignoring an attack against his queen on his 12th.

Since Petrov is known for the opening that bears his name, I would be negligent if I did not show Petrov playing the Petrov.  In the next game, Petrov wins as White against his collaborator and friend Carl Friedrich von Jänisch.  The game is all the more interesting because it was both Petrov and Jänisch who studied and developed this opening together.

Let me end this discussion of Petrov with a historical mystery that involves none other than the great Paul Morphy, who co-edited “The Chess Monthly” with Daniel Fiske.  On page 207 of the July, 1859 edition of this publication, there appears a self-mate problem submitted by Petrov.  If you are not familiar with self-mates, they are a special kind of problem whereby one side’s moves force the other side to mate the  first side.  Thus, the losing side essentially commits suicide.

Petrov accompanied the problem with the following letter in French.

J’ai l’honneur de vous offrir, comme marque de ma grande admiration pour votre talent, le qui perd gagne ci-joint, de ma composition.  La situation des pieces blanches figure la lettre M, initiale de votre nom.  La solution annexée est en quarante coups.  Durant tout le jeu, les noirs n’ont qu’un seul coup forcé à jouer, sans aucun choix.  Je saisis cette occasion pour vous presenter mes respects.

A. Petrow
Amateur du jeu des Echecs.

My own translation of this letter follows.  Notice how humbly the greatest chess master of Russia signs his name.

It is my honor to offer you, as a token of my great respect for your talent, which in losing gains herewith, my composition.  The position of the white pieces form the letter 'M',  the initial of your name.  The attached solution is in 40 moves.  Throughout the game, black has only one move that is forced, with no other choice.  I take this occasion to give you my regards.
A. Petrov
Amateur at the game of chess. 

[eric-B points out in private communication that the French 'amateur' may have been used by Petrov in the sense of 'enthusiast', which is a legitimate translation of the French.-kg]

I believe that the phrase “which in losing gains herewith” is simply a reference to the problem where the White pieces represent Morphy, although they force themselves to lose the game.

Of course, White could have simply mated Black with the move Rf8#.  However, that would not be nearly as interesting as a self-mate that requires a breathtaking 40 moves!  I have described this as a mystery because Morphy and Fiske promised the reader that the solution would appear in the September issue of their publication.  The readers of 1859 were probably as disturbed as myself when the September issue was published and no such solution appeared!

I am afraid that my own chess skills are not up to determining the 40 moves required to solve the riddle.   However, I suspect I know how it was created.  The mate likely occurs in some position where the White king is hemmed in by his own pieces, and White then checks the Black king where the only legal move is to block the check by interposing the knight, and in doing so, the knight delivers mate to the hapless White king. [This is incorrect as pastoryoshi points out in the very first comment below. -KG]

I am guessing that Petrov began with the final mate position, and worked backward for 40 moves.  To work forward using deductive reasoning is beyond my abilities.  If any reader has the solution, please post it as a comment.

The dead souls of the 19th century wait patiently in their graves for the answer.


Note to the gentle reader:  This blog is one of a continuing series that discusses the players whose names grace many openings.  Here are the links to these blogs published to date:

The Names behind the Openings, Part 1
Bird to Bogo
Caro, Kann and Chigorin – Openings Players
Evans and Göring: Gambiteers
Who was Giuoco Piano?
A Greenfield Opening
Who Suggested 1. b3 ??
Nimzowitsch (in 4 syllables)


  • 7 years ago


    Lets do a Petroff

  • 7 years ago


    I'd like to note that in Russian chess literature it's called "Russian Defense".

    It's more correct because Yanish and others also played and developed this opening.

  • 7 years ago


    wow that that was some puzzle.

  • 7 years ago


    Ooooooh, pretty.

  • 7 years ago


    I found this 32 moves solution on Internet.

  • 7 years ago


    What a puzzle. Definitely an interesting concept for problems, and new to me, just because it takes away the whole "figure-out-how-to-win!" ideal, and it's truly just a 3D puzzle, set within the rules and regulations of the chess realm. :)

  • 7 years ago



    "Since this is a helpmate puzzle, the issue of white forcing black to mate him doesn't matter, does it?"

    Uhm... yeah it does.

    The point of a self-mate is that one side forces the opponent to mate him. If white plays Nf6+, black is forced to play Nxf6# (because it is the only legal move). So, in that position, Nf6+ would be a perfectly fine conclusion to a self mate puzzle.

    Nd6 is just a move that white shouldn't play.

  • 7 years ago


    Since this is a helpmate puzzle, the issue of white forcing black to mate him doesn't matter, does it? For example, in the diagram you made, white could have played something like Nd6 and Black would still be able to checkmate White; in other words Nf6# does not have to be the only legal move by Black so fulfil the requirements of this puzzle.

  • 7 years ago


    Ok here is what i believe could be the final move, now i just need to figure out how to force it with 40 moves

  • 7 years ago


    I am not a supper brilliant player and i have not yet figured out the puzzle, perhaps i never will but i will certainly try for a while, but i can say that i know for sure that the 40th move by white is NOT a check that is blocked by the black knight because under no circumstance could a check be blocked by the BLACK knight in a way that mates the WHITE king because white would then be FORCED to TAKE the BLACK night with the CHECKING piece that is being blocked or another piece. Therefore the 40th move by white cannot be a blockable check. I have not yet deduced whether or not the 40th move by white is a check but i am suspecting that it is not a check at all. This is the first of my deductions and i will try some other deductions that will narrow it down, then when i find a position where it can be accomplished then i may be able to deduce how the pieces can be forced into that position.

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