The Adventure of the Strange Sound (223B Casebook)

Here’s another story from the archives, published in 1914 in “The Good Companion Chess Problem Club.”

Murray Marble

Murray Marble

The difficulty any writer of Holmes stories must overcome is to make the solution worthy of the master. This story succeeds by invoking a little-known subset of the pawn promotion rule. Non-chess players should understand that when a player’s pawn is moved to the farthest rank, as black’s pawn threaten to do in the story, it is exchanged for a queen, rook or knight (identified as S in the notation). What many people don’t know is that the piece can be white or black! A fuller explanation can be found at the end of the story, but chess fans might want to take a stab at it first.

The author, Murray Marble (1885-1919), was a lifelong invalid who devoted himself to chess, composing more than 300 problems.

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If you want to set up the problem yourself, here’s a larger version of the board.

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And now for the answer!

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Notes

In algebraic chess notation, K was reserved for the king, so another letter had to be found to represent knights. At the time, S is used because it came from the German word for springer, which can mean either knight and jumper. Later, N replaced S.

The idea behind the problem is that queen is threatening to move to c2 but can’t because the king would take the adjacent pawn, and the knight at d2 can’t move out of the way because that would reveal a discovered check by black’s bishop. Tappin let his animosity for his opponent overrule his intelligence and is is assuming that there’s a mistake in the setup, hence his suggestion of adding a blocking pawn at e7. But Holmes, aware of the promotion-to-any-color-piece rule, figures out that the correct answer is to move the white king out of the way, threatening Nd2-f1 mate. Black’s only chance is to promote his pawn to a white piece (which the white knight is not allowed to capture), and let white figure the rest out.

A black piece turned into a white piece? A strange “sound” indeed.