The term ‘motif’ implies both form and content

(Original Slovak version of an article appeared in the March 2005 issue of Pat a Mat, No 48. Written by Juraj Brabec, translated to English by Juraj Lörinc, English checked and corrected by Chris Feather.)

Today nobody doubts that chess composition is an artistic activity. It aims to provoke an emotional response in the spectator, using a combination of the chess elements. These elements are material (the playing units K,Q,B,R,S & P), spatial (the board and its unit squares), temporal (the moves in their sequence) and ideal (the motifs which appear in the play). But few realise that, as in every artistic work, the basic ideal element in chess composition (the motif) has both form and content. And this is true for both positive motifs (those working towards the accomplishment of the stipulation) and negative ones (those tending to hinder the accomplishment of the stipulation), as it is also for both motifs in the white moves (attacking and weakening) and those in the black moves (defensive and harmful).

[Remark: In the above context “ideal” means related to ideas, in the same way as “spatial” relates to space and “temporal” to time.]

Every move of a unit to a square has its own meaning relating to what motivates it. The notion of “motif” implies consideration of why the unit moves to the square and how the move supports the fulfilment of the stipulation; the answer to this forms the content of the motif. Only then does the next stage follow, namely consideration of the way in which the content is conveyed, i.e. of the form in which the content of the motif is presented.


In this position White threatens 2.e4#. What does (or what can) Black do to parry the threat?

  • Prevent the pawn's move to e4.
  • Let the pawn move to e4, but liquidate the pawn's attack from e4 on the BK.
  • Let the pawn move to e4, but prepare an escape for the BK.
  • Lay aside the threat and attack the WK.
These possibilities in fact comprise the content of a range of defensive motifs which may be described as follows:
  • preventing the threat unit’s move,
  • guarding the mating square or line,
  • creating a flight,
  • attacking the WK (checking).

#2 after the key (7+10)

If we look at the forms which may be taken by the content of the above defensive motifs we discover the following: It is possible to show the same content with varying form and, vice versa, the same form can be used to show various kinds of content. Both the content and the form of a motif have their antiforms: preventing/allowing, guarding/unguarding, creating a flight/removing a flight, checking/unchecking, or arrival/departure, opening/closing, blocking/unblocking, pinning/unpinning, etc. Using various fairy elements, a much wider and more varied range of effects than the above becomes possible, e.g. creation/removal of a hurdle (e.g. for grasshopper-like pieces), paralysis and its removal (e.g. in Madrasi), change of unit's colour (e.g. in Andernach chess) etc..

The same analysis (separation of form and content) as for defensive motifs (negative motifs in black moves) can be applied to attacking motifs (positive motifs in white moves), to weakening motifs (negative motifs in white moves) and to harmful motifs (positive motifs in the black moves). Thus we can conclude that every motif has two distinct properties – form and content. That is why it is appropriate to distinguish between these two properties and to recognise that when we use the term “motif” we are acknowledging the presence of both.

The full descriptions of the defensive motifs of the specific defences in the scheme are thus as follows:

Comments to Juraj Lörinc.
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