Grandmaster explores chess combinatorics
Elkies presented a variety of chess problems, often incorporating combinatorial mathematics into his presentation. He began his talk with a move known as the “Horwitz maneuver” before discussing a problem he composed in 1994, which looked for the fewest number of moves needed to create an elaborate, unlikely arrangement of pieces — 19.
He then asked the audience how many knights could fit on a standard chessboard without attacking one another — which turns out to be 32 — before presenting a problem created in the year 2005, which he engineered to have 2,005 solutions.
Elkies cited his childhood in Israel as one of the major causes for his interest in the game. “It was in the air for me a lot sooner than most people learn to play,” he explained.
Although he has a master’s ranking in tournament games, Elkies no longer plays and said he is better suited to problem-solving. “Probably because of my mathematical bent, I found myself able to do that better than playing over-the-board,” he explained. He won a world championship in chess problem-solving in 1996.
At age 14, Elkies became the youngest student ever to receive a perfect score in the International Mathematical Olympiad. He then went on to study at Columbia University, where he won the prestigious Putnam Competition at age 16, one of the youngest Putnam Fellows in the competition’s history.
After winning the Putnam competition two more times, Elkies graduated valedictorian at the age of 18 and completed his Ph.D. at age 20 at Harvard. Six years later, he became the youngest tenured, full professor in Harvard’s history.
Elkies is known not only for composing chess problems but for musical compositions as well, double-majoring in music and math as an undergraduate. He has maintained his interest in music, composing a piece called Brandenburg Concerto No. 7 in 2003, a continuation of Bach’s famous series.
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