What I love the most about Chess Composition is the social aspects and discovering myself. I have met so many composers from all around the world: different countries, different educations and fields of work, different ages and interests. Recently, I was awarded the title of FIDE Master for Chess Composition. This is a great achievement – I have to boast that I’m the first woman ever to get this title! So, this summer I have a double celebration: 10 years in composing, and the title of FM in composing.
My name is Julia Vysotska, and I’m a woman who has a magnetic chessboard in her bag! I live in a private house on the border of Riga (Latvia). I have two daughters, aged 13 and 17.
In 1995, I finished Riga Technical University with a Master’s degree in computer sciences, while already working at one of the first Internet companies in Riga, doing both customer support and programming. It happened that I changed my working career; since 1999, I’m in finance. Currently, I’m a financial manager in Proact IT Latvia, a part of Proact IT Group AB. I’m still in IT (still doing some programming for my own needs), but I miss real programming. However, it was inspiring too – to learn something new and to use my computer knowledge to be more efficient in finance and accounting.
Outside of work, I love Chess Composition. I have to mention, though, that I’m not a chess player. I learned to play chess at school when I was 7, but it was nothing more than playing at home with family members. So, I came to chess composition without any special background in chess!
It all started for me in autumn 2010, when one of my old friends, Iļja Ketris, occasionally mentioned he was preparing to go to Crete for the World Congress of Chess Composition (WCCC). Out of curiosity, I asked: “what’s that”? This clever man (a programmer, who always only gave laconic answers!) didn’t explain too much to me, but he offered to send me a chess problem to solve: mate in 2. To my shame, I couldn’t solve it for several hours. I asked for help, but then understood.
So, I asked for another problem – I had to prove that I was able to solve it! I came to realize that there are different genres (discovered a helpmate for myself – a partnership instead of a fight in chess!). I was fascinated by the play in helpmates, having usually several solutions, perfectly thematically matching. When you find one, you can practically “see” the other one – suddenly and surprisingly!
Up to the summer of 2011, I was solving chess problems found on the Internet. During that time, I had a feeling that chess composers are absolutely special people, almost like Gods who can produce such things!
It was a grey rainy day at the beginning of July when I was looking at one more chess problem to solve. But this one was so simple, having nothing special – even an amateur like me could compose such a problem! Or maybe better? Or maybe I should try? Yes, right away! And the idea (or the thematic content) of my first chess problem started to crystallize in my head …
But fate was even kinder to me! When I announced the idea to compose to the same friend, Iļja, he suggested looking at the official website of the upcoming WFCC Congress, where some thematic competitions for chess problems might be already announced. So, I did. Only one thematic competition was announced at that moment: helpmate but with Chameleon Pieces (later on, I got to know there’s a Fairy Chess genre in Chess composition, and that Chameleon Pieces belong to it. But at that time, I didn’t care – it was just the kind of trick to use another piece in addition to standard ones!). What to do? I had one month for my first try! And finally, the problem was composed and sent to the Congress in Jesi (Italy). It was the only composition from a woman composer, which earned me a Special Prize – it made me known so quickly and motivated me highly.
So, exactly 10 years ago, in the summer of 2011, I composed my first chess problem, a Fairy problem, as I was told later!
There are two main activities in Chess Composition: solving and composing chess problems. We say that solving chess problems is more of a sport, while composing is more of an art! In both fields, we have competitions and titles of different levels.
Chess Composition includes many genres, for all tastes! Direct mate (in two, in three, and more moves), helpmate, selfmate, endgame (closer to chess players), fairies (a separate group that uses fairy pieces or conditions in addition to orthodox ones). Being an art, composing chess problems involves our imagination, character, and tastes.
In simple words, a Chess problem is some position on the board which has only intended (author’s) solution(s). For instance, mate in 2 has only one correct first White move, after which whatever is Black’s move, White will give mate on its second move.
My favorite Helpmates often have several solutions, but are thematically connected. Economy, originality, paradox (or surprise) are the criteria we are looking for in Chess problems.
On my first steps of chess composition, I was helped a lot by other experienced composers, particularly by Petko A. Petkov, Bulgarian Grandmaster of Chess Composition. In 2012, he pushed me to create my own Fairy Chess website. The main idea at that time was to use my computer skills to provide some help to other composers (beginners or older composers) about the modern solving/testing programs, explanations, and detailed manuals about the installation, usage, etc (also, to show my own problems). I have to admit that at the time, I had no idea how to create websites. But in the eyes of the Grandmaster, my teacher, I couldn’t be seen as unable to make it (with my education, even 20 years ago!), so I had to jump into it.
In April 2012, I launched my website: juliafairies.com. And in a month, a new section was announced: regular competitions for the original problems, first published on JF (this is a common name of my website already for many years). It asked for publishing problems by other composers, appointing judges for each period, and publishing awards. To compare with the printed magazines, it allows for much faster publication (sometimes the same day or the next day after I get the problem), and the possibilities to comment, to correct and improve the originals, and to keep track of all of it.
I’ll always be grateful to the judge of my first JF tournament, Narayanan Shankar Ram (India), who accepted the invitation to judge it before getting to know me. Here are Shankar’s words from the Award: “Some words about the Julia’s Fairies phenomenon … Within a short span of time, this website has evolved from being a novice composer’s space for publishing her own problems to a very professionally managed fairy chess problem resource. Along the way, Julia has also evolved … as a composer and editor. Of course, her energy and passion is boundless … and infectious … as seen in the enthusiastic participation of so many composers … not only in the originals, but also in the comments and discussion about the published problems. Something heartening is the support and encouragement offered to new composers. Indeed, a ‘miraculously friendly garden’ (Marjan Kovačević)!” (https://juliasfairies.com/tournaments/awards/award-jf-2012/).
In the spring of 2013, the president of the World Federation of Chess Composition (WFCC), Harry Fougiaxis, invited me to become a webmaster of the official website of our Federation. I was a bit afraid to become involved in another job, but I felt it was a great honor, so I accepted.
My version of the wfcc.ch website was announced in June 2013. This website made me learn PHP, and use MySQL (for the tables and queries for rating lists). I was happy with it because SQL was among my favorites during the time of my education: https://www.wfcc.ch/competitions/solving/solvers-ratings/.
There are a lot of things that I love about Chess Composition:
- Similarities to Programming: First, Chess Composition replaced the programming I missed. They both have so much in common – the same creative and algorithmic thinking. The idea of the problem: first a workable version, testing and improving, almost the same as testing a program. Getting rid of unintended solutions is similar to seeing that your program works correctly. Making the chess problem look better (some aesthetic criteria) is about the same as improving your program code.
- Creativity: The idea which suddenly comes, and the exciting process of making it work.
- Ambition: While I enjoy the process of composing very much, I’m still not deprived of a competitive feeling: trembling while waiting for the awards, hoping to be in!
- Discovering Myself: This is what I like most of all at the moment, after 10 years. In my “previous life”, I was mostly in accounting, and my social life was limited mostly to 15 people in my office. Now, I’m not only a chess composer: I compose chess problems, I’m an editor of a famous fairy website, and webmaster of the official one.
In 2015, I met a soul-mate, Serbian GM in chess composition Marjan Kovačević. He not only helped me to develop my skills in composing, but also pushed me into some more social activities, turning my enthusiasm into the general development of chess composition. We both share the same wish to popularize chess composition and to develop it among new generations. So, since 2016, I have organized regular solving competitions in Latvia; in 2019 and 2020, I took part in organizing a very ambitious solving tournament in UAE; in 2019, I became a delegate of Latvia in WFCC. With all of it, I’m learning to be different, active in the fields of life I never was before, discovering the abilities I didn’t know about.
From about 150 composed problems, I mostly remember those connected to some events or emotions. Initially, I was mostly fascinated by thematically connected solutions in helpmates: helpmate is a type of chess problem in which both sides cooperate to achieve the goal of checkmating Black. In a helpmate in n moves, Black moves first, then White, each side moving n times, to culminate in White’s nth move checkmating Black.
So, I’ll show it on the example of one of my first composed problems, the one I still like not only because of the content, but because of all memories around it. It was autumn of 2011, right after my first success during the Congress time in August. There is a forest park close to where I live – one evening, I was riding on roller skates, smelling autumn’s wood, and planning my chess problem.
I had an unclear idea and needed it to settle in my mind. My first tries in composing were mostly intuitive, without any theory. After my 9 months of solving chess problems, I had some idea of what was a good chess problem.
This time, I had read some theory and wanted to try all I had read about, one by one. Battery mate was my first one on the list. And I was thinking about a combination of Bishop/Rook and Rook/Bishop (2 thematically connected solutions). From the solving experience, I also knew that the problem becomes more complicated for solving if a King makes some move. So, I had to have it!
I knew that after coming home, I would put the pieces on the board and see the details. It was several weeks of composing and riding – every time when I was afraid it will never work, after some time in the forest, it was getting better. This was the problem with the smell of falling leaves …
I sent it to the famous society magazine of British Chess Problems, The Problemist Supplement, in October 2011, and it appeared in March 2012. It was nice to get the magazine with my own problem by postal mail:
I jumped into composing Fairy problems almost right from the beginning, so I had only several orthodox helpmates in 2012. Later on, most of my compositions were Fairies (but always with a help-play).
What are the Fairies? In addition, to normal chess pieces, we have hundreds of other pieces and conditions, changing moves, colours, and types of pieces! Those fairy elements are not to scare you but to allow you to open your mind, to have a wider space for creativity, originality, and for expressing yourself. Nobody knows all of them! But most composers have their favourites.
Let me give you some examples of my favourite Fairy elements and motives in the problems. I like horses. And on the board, I always had some special feelings about Knights (the figurine is a horse). And here appears the Nightrider! On a dark night, under a bright moon, a black silhouette of a rider on the horse. The Nightrider is more powerful than an ordinary Knight; its move is jumping along the line of Knight’s moves, like repeating several of Knight’s moves in a row. The line of Nightrider can be closed by the piece staying on the square of Knight’s landing (i.e. from a1 it can move to d7 by the trajectory a1-b3-c5-d7, and pieces on b3 or c5 can close Nightrider’s line). This is my favourite dynamic Knight!
Chameleon piece was my first fairy experience. On each move, it changes its type. You have a Chameleon Knight on the board. If you move it, after a move, it becomes Bishop. On the next move. it is already Rook, and later Queen. But why is Chameleon Queen a weak piece on the board? Because on the next move, it turns back from Queen to the Knight’s stage. As a Cinderella in the midnight!
One of the most dynamic conditions (which grew in popularity exactly during my time in chess composition) is called Take & Make. If a piece captures another piece, then it makes one more half-move as a continuation of its move, the way captured piece would move. For example, if Knight is capturing Queen, then it makes one more move as a Queen (remaining to be Knight!). Your one move turns into 2!
But if you compose with Fairy elements, you have to find some paradoxical or non-standard idea, something special that couldn’t be done in orthodox play. My problems are help-play problems. Instead of the fight, there’s a partnership to create some surprising mates. My favourite approach is inventing some mating positions, and then I think how it can be shown twice in thematically connected solutions, and what might be the play before the mate in both. Later on, I started to like some surprising introductory moves, seemingly not having any “improving” effect on the position. Only on the mating moves, it becomes visible how without them, the mates would be avoided.
At the beginning of 2014, this problem took me about a month of moving pieces on the board, writing down on the paper all possible combinations of moves on each step, comparing and changing again and again. Three fairy conditions make it challenging to understand, even for experienced composers. You have just to trust me that in both solutions, the play goes absolutely with the same “rules”. As in the dance when the pairs are staying in the cycle, and the partners make a step along the cycle to change the place, and now we have a new pair, but dancing the same dance.
This problem was published on 14 February 2014, on my own website, juliasfairies.com, with a nice number 500 (https://juliasfairies.com/problems/no-500/). The only white piece is white King, plus 5 black pieces, and … mate to the Black in 2 solutions! It got the 1st Prize in the informal competition of the site and was later selected for the FIDE Album 2013-2015 (a heavy book of 692 pages!):
Or finally, something different and relatively new: a problem with the idea to present in a help-selfmate problem a check to Black and mate to White with the same neutral piece. See the dance of Chameleon pieces showing the full cycle of changes and three cross-checks in each solution!
This problem includes it all:
- One of my favourite fairy kinds – Neutral pieces
- One of my favourite help-play genres – help-selfmate
- A favourite man, my co-author, Marjan Kovačević (GM, Serbia)
- And the Chameleons in the memory of my very first problem
This was 3rd Prize winner in JF’s informal tournament in 2019, JF-1414: https://juliasfairies.com/problems/no-1414/. The publication offers animated solutions; use it to understand the idea better!
I have had some brilliant experiences with Chess Composition (particularly the FIDE Master for Chess Composition mentioned in the opening paragraph). Next spring, juliasfairies.com will celebrate 10 years! For many years, nobody mentions the full name of the site anymore: it is just JF, and it’s already a sign of a great popularity! When I see composers writing in different forums something like “No.1500 on JF” or Petko’s article on JF, it feels special! As of today, I have 1627 original problems (plus some versions) published on JF.
I have also been webmaster of wfcc.ch for 8 years. The position is a bit tiring with the time spent on it, but it helped me to get to know all the different activities of WFCC, the key members, and important processes. I get to know things from the inside, as well as a wish to improve them!
One of my future goals with Chess Composition is to receive the next title in composing: International Master (in 5-10 years, hopefully!). I also want to help the development of chess composition in Latvia, as well as improvements in our Federation. For now, I’m trying to push the society into online life, in addition to our yearly live meetings.
My education and different abilities from my “IT life” helped me a lot to come to the position I have now in Chess Composition. I was told it is not so common for a chess player to jump so easily into Fairy chess. The ability to run websites, publish problems, manage the databases, test problems with different software, etc. made me known and appreciated very quickly. And it gave me a nice feeling of being important and useful to the chess composition society.
Progressing in chess composition quickly made me more self-assured and active in my private life and career as well. Many international contacts in chess composition improved my English. This is also a benefit for my primary work in an international company, taking me out of the borders of financial terms to the wider scope. After all, my experience in Finance gives me a better vision about the management of the WFCC, and possible future improvements in it.
My advice to anyone interested in Chess Composition is that you might be a chess player, or not at all! Your style of composing or preferred genres might be different, but if you have an algorithmic (or logical, or abstract) and creative mind and would like to try our art, please do! And start from solving a chess problem – mate in 2, or helpmate in 2, or an endgame. I believe that only after you’ve solved some problems, you can start feeling what it is about, what are the problems you would praise, and what you would want to create.
I’ll also say that girls are missed in our community! Chess composers are all different. Some might be too self-oriented, but many are really very much helpful and appreciate newcomers, especially girls who are so unique here! So, for sure, you’d get our support!
There is always more than tech. In our days, technologies improve our every step. And on our every step, in any activity, we can apply our technological knowledge to develop the field of our interest, to be more successful, and to have more joy in life!
Julia’s Fairies Chess Composition Website: https://juliasfairies.com/
World Federation of Chess Composition Website: https://www.wfcc.ch/
Julia’s Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/julia.vysotska
The Queen of Chess Problems article (written by Satanick Mukhuty, and featuring Julia): https://chessbase.in/news/Women-in-the-world-of-chess-composition