Jacob Bronowski

Before you read on, here’s a problem for you. It’s White to play and force checkmate in 3 moves. You’ll find the solution at the end of the article, but you might want to solve it yourself first.

Last week’s obituary of the London Commercial Chess League touched briefly on Dr Bronowski.

Jacob Bronowski was born in Poland in 1908 to a Jewish family which fled to Germany during the Russian occupation of Poland in the First World War and moved to London in 1920.

He was a top mathematics scholar at Cambridge University, where he also played chess, but his talents and interests were not just in the realm of science (or STEM subjects as we’re expected to call them today). He also had a passion for literature, and, specifically, poetry.

Although Bronowski played mostly in club and county events, he was clearly a pretty useful competititor. He was active in Yorkshire chess circles between 1934 and the outbreak of the Second World War, when he was a lecturer in mathematics at University College, Hull. He played as high as Board 2 for the strong Yorkshire county team, which would suggest he was round about 2200 strength.

In 1936 he won the Brilliancy Prize for this game in the Yorkshire Championship.

White’s opening play was far from impressive, and, in the diagrammed position, Bronowski came up with an extraordinary idea: a passive exchange sacrifice involving a queen trade. The idea is that White will have grave problems trying to defend b2, after which his position will inevitably collapse.

The engines, with their cold iron logic, love the concept of the exchange sac, but consider Black’s attack is much stronger if he avoids the queen swap. Instead, they propose 14.. Qb6 15. Qc2 and, only now, 15.. Rab8 when, after 16. Bxb8 Rxb8 17. Rd2 Qa5 Black has a winning attack.

They add that White’s 20th move failed to meet Black’s threat of c4 followed by Nb3, and instead suggest that he could have lashed out with 20. b4, when Black is better, but not clearly winning. Not an easy move to find over the board, though.

In the next game, Bronowski beats a future British Champion who overlooks a tactical point.

White’s 22nd move was not best (b4!), but set a trap. Black must have overlooked White’s 25th move. Instead he had to play Bb5, deflecting the rook from f1.

These games, along with last week’s offering, suggest that Bronowski was a player of considerable creative imagination with a tricky, tactical style.

It may not be surprising, then, to learn that he was also a distinguished, but not prolific, problemist, his earliest composition having been published when he was still in his teens. Most of his problems were either direct mates or reflexmates (a form of selfmate where both sides have to deliver mate on the move if they can do so).

The problem at the head of this article was his last to be published in the British Chess Magazine, in 1970, four years before his relatively early death.

The key move is 1. Nb7!. The star variation is 1.. Kc5 2. Rh6! followed by a bishop mate. After 1.. Kc6, the more prosaic 2. Ra6+ leads to similar bishop mates. Finally, 1.. Kb6 is met by 2. c4 Kc6 3. Ra6#.

Finally I must acknowledge my sources for this article:

Edward Winter’s Chess History page on Bronowski
Steve Mann’s Yorkshire Chess History page on Bronowski

Richard James


Author: Richard James

Richard James is a professional chess teacher and writer living in Twickenham, and working mostly with younger children and beginners. He was the co-founder of Richmond Junior Chess Club in 1975 and its director until 2005. He is the webmaster of chessKIDS academy (www.chesskids.org.uk or www.chesskids.me.uk) and, most recently, the author of Chess for Kids and The Right Way to Teach Chess to Kids, both published by Right Way Books. Richard is currently the Curriculum Consultant for Chess in Schools and Communities (www.chessinschools.co.uk) as well as teaching chess in local schools and doing private tuition. He has been a member of Richmond & Twickenham Chess Club since 1966 and currently has an ECF grade of 177. Richard is a published author and his books can be found at Amazon.