Chess in the War

2/17/2011 – Though chess is a war game, few things are more inimical to competitive chess than the advent of real war. Still worse is the threat posed to chess publications, as the populace lacks the time and money to spend on leisure activities, while vital resources have to diverted elsewhere. CHESS magazine has published a review of its survival in WWII. Here is part one of the harrowing story.

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CHESS Magazine was established in 1935 by B.H. Wood who ran it for over fifty years. It is published each month by the London Chess Centre and is edited by John Saunders. The Executive Editor is Malcolm Pein, who organised the London Chess Classic.

CHESS has just published its 75th anniversary edition and made a very interesting article on Chess in the War available to ChessBase.com readers. CHESS is one of most popular English language chess publications and one of the very few in A4 colour format.

ChessMagazine at War

A look into the magazine during the war years – by John Saunders

November 2010 issue

THOUGH CHESS is a war game, few things are more inimical to competitive chess than the advent of real war. Still worse is the threat posed to chess publications, as the populace lacks the time and money to spend on leisure activities, while vital resources have to diverted elsewhere.

CHESS magazine had only reached just completed its fourth year of existence when the Second World War broke out on 1 September 1939. The October 1939 issue struck a defiant tone but the founding editor, Baruch H Wood, must have known that there were dark days ahead. The headline was: CHESS AND THE WAR: WE CARRY ON – WITH YOUR HELP.

The first paragraph summarised the difficulties: “One month ago we forecast a brilliant year for British and International chess. [The] Bournemouth [BCF Congress] was in progress, [the] Buenos Aires [Olympiad] was about to begin, [the] Bath [Congress] was in the offing and, further ahead lay the opening of the National Chess Centre, the British Championship and many other events. Today we can count on none of these. The British team are on their way back from South America, sailing on a British ship which we trust will avoid the submarine menace; the congress at Bath has been cancelled; the opening of the Centre is still under consideration but, whatever the decision, it cannot find the same happy auspices as once seemed to assure its success. Chess, up and down the country, is temporarily disorganised.”

But what of CHESS magazine? The editorial went on: “One thing, however, is certain. Chess will be played whatever the conditions of war and we, on our part, are determined that CHESS shall be published as long as it is in our power to put pen to paper and paper to printer.”

One immediate problem was the absence of the editor at the start of the war. Baruch Wood had not been selected in the original British Chess Federation squad for the 1939 Buenos Aires Olympiad but had been brought in as a replacement when Edward G Sergeant had been forced to withdraw due to pressure of work. So the outbreak of war found him on the other side of the world.

The five-man team (Hugh Alexander, Sir George Thomas, Stuart Milner-Barry, Harry Golombek and BH Wood) had taken part in the Olympiad preliminaries, held from 21-31 August, and finished third in its group behind Czechoslovakia (competing under the official name ‘Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia’) and Poland. They had thus qualified for the top final group, to be held from 1-19 September, but, uniquely of the 27 teams, they took the decision to withdraw and return to Europe at that point. Somewhat bizarrely, the Olympiad went on without them despite the fact that a state of war existed between some of the competing nations. Six individual matches were not played (and scored 2-2) and eventually Germany finished first ahead of Poland and Estonia.

The first wartime CHESS editorial also reveals how the editor had coped despite his lengthy absence from his desk. He had left his wife in charge: “Already we have had very many letters from readers, the majority of them answering a circular letter by Mrs. Marjory Wood. They congratulate her on her determination to keep CHESS flourishing until, and after, Mr. B. H. Wood returns with the British team. We do not doubt our ability to do this. The present issue, limited to 24 pages, shows the first effect of the war. Just as war affects food prices, so it rules paper prices. Therefore 24 pages becomes a necessary economy.” The rest of the editorial consists of an appeal to readers to send in game scores and items of news.

BH Wood’s description of the cruise down to Rio, written before the outbreak of war, is a poignant glimpse of a carefree world prior to the conflagration. Here are the edited highlights of his entertaining narrative:

The weather has been excellent all the way. Miss Menchik has looked a little queer once or twice, as also did Golombek but the rest of the English team – including Milner-Barry, who considers himself a bad sailor – have not suffered a single qualm of sea-sickness. Milner-Barry spends most of his time working quietly on his forthcoming book about the Stock Exchange. He has not played a single game of chess; he has a theory that " skittles" are bad for one's play. It can hardly be said that the other members of the British team subscribe to this theory, for they have played hundreds of games with each other, usually at stakes of a Belgian franc (about three-halfpence) a time. There seems little between us in this department. When Alexander, our young British Champion, is not "skittling" or playing in one of the innumerable rubbers of bridge organised by Miss Menchik, he is swimming, playing table tennis or deck quoits or deck tennis or analysing openings with demoniacal energy. By the expenditure of intense enthusiasm and the shedding of pints of perspiration, he has succeeded in establishing his position as table tennis champion of the ship, his chief rivals being two boisterous Lithuanians named Vaitonis and Tautvaisas.

The Icelanders are a fine set of men with the fair skins and pale blue eyes of the Vikings who founded their race. The Lithuanians are a bouncing, happy crowd who don't seem to allow Memel to get on their minds. The Poles, on the other hand, are a little preoccupied over the Danzig business. The Bulgarians are rather a disappointment to one's ideas of sturdy, war-like Balkan warriors, being rather a knock-kneed lot. At the ceremony of "crossing the line" when several dozen chess masters were daubed with paint and baptised with a hose-pipe wielded by Father Neptune's minions, the Bulgarians were nowhere to be found.

Sir George Thomas, our captain, who had travelled on ahead of us, greeted us in Buenos Aires... he had been down to the quay a few days before to enquire the time of arrival of our ship but through ignorance of Spanish wandered into the Immigration office. Here they took his passport from him and told him to return two days later. On returning, he was presented with a huge document to fill up. To his extreme annoyance, he found himself listed as a Turk! (He was born in Constantinople, during a cruise by his parents.)

On our arrival in Buenos Aires, I might mention, we were all assaulted by an official who twisted back our eyelids in a search for evidence of negro blood. I regret to say that the reactions of the various members of our team to this ordeal, which came without a moment's warning, are entirely unprintable.

Here we are accommodated for the duration of the tournament in a beautiful summer residence most generously loaned by Mr. Millington-Drake [the British minister to Uruguay from 1934-41, whom film buffs might remember being depicted as a leading character in the 1956 movie The Battle of the River Plate and played by the actor Anthony Bushell – ed]. The House stands some twelve miles out of the city, in beautiful grounds and a Diplomatic Service car is placed at the team's disposal. The food is plentiful and perfect. If we fail to do justice to ourselves under such ideal conditions, we never shall. Moreover, the manager of the Buenos Aires branch of Harrods has taken us under his wing and is doing everything in his power to make us comfortable – it is hardly possible to talk of such hospitality without "gushing."

Miss Menchik is expected to have another walk-over in the Women's World championship. She defeated her closest rival, Miss Sonia Graf, three years ago by nine games to two and there is little reason to suppose that their relative strengths have altered so fundamentally as to bridge the gap. One possibility must be borne in mind, however; the rest of the field is so very weak that a loss in her individual game with Fraulein Graf might decide the whole tournament.

Probably the only other people with an outside chance of the title are Miss May Karff, of New York, and Miss Lauberte, of Latvia, who swotted steadily throughout the whole of the voyage and had much gratuitous tuition. from her male colleagues. Taken as a whole, however, the entrants certainly fulfil woman's primeval task, to look beautiful. They are an astonishingly good looking collection of people to be competing in a world's chess championship. Ruth Bloch-Nakkerud, of Norway, with her Grecian profile; Ingeborg Anderson, of Sweden, tall and slim with golden hair; Ingrid Larsen, of Denmark, plump and comely; Mme. Rausch, of Palestine, with strikingly pale blue-green eyes; Milda Lauberte, earnest, petite; Mme. Janecek, from Czecho-Slovakia, ultra modern in the sheer effectiveness of her make-up.

It is inevitable that, 70 years later, some items in the foregoing should cause us to raise our eyebrows, for example Wood’s ‘non-PC’ references to the ‘knock-kneed’ Bulgarians and the physical attributes of the women competitors –- the adjective ‘plump’ used in such a context today would surely elicit a lawsuit – but perhaps his description of the Polish players being “a little preoccupied over the Danzig business” demonstrates the widespread lack of acceptance that the cataclysm was coming.

In December 1939, the editorial takes a more optimistic tone as the initial shock of war had given way to the ‘phoney war’. Bombs had not rained down upon the UK – yet. The National Chess Centre had opened and the Hastings Congress of 1939/40 was still scheduled to go ahead. As 1940 began, the editor repeated a slogan he had first used the previous year: “chess is beating the war”.

In February 1940, the editorial was headlined ‘British Championship Must Be Held’. The only reason that the British title had not been competed for in 1939 was because most leading contenders had been in Buenos Aires, but a BCF Congress with a strong international competition had been held then. Wood’s arguments for holding it in 1940 were reasonable enough (“cinemas are now open and football matches are played”) and backed up by readers’ letters. But Sir George Thomas was one of a number of major chess figures to sound a cautionary note: “it is rather early to decide... conditions may be very different in a few months’ time.” He was right. The so-called ‘phoney war’ soon gave way to the ‘real thing’ and major chess events were off the agenda.

1940 was a grim year in British history and the editor keeps quiet on the details for the most part, but his ebullient tone soon returns during 1941/42 as the tide of the war gradually turned. His life must have been very difficult as he juggled his wartime work as a chemist with his magazine responsibilities. He found a good solution to paper rationing by changing the print face to a smaller font, and one which would be familiar to readers much later in the magazine’s history. Lack of top-level competition in Europe (though there was some) was made up for by inclusion of material from North and South America, where major chess tournaments were still being played.

Many of the 1939 Buenos Aires Olympiad competitors had stayed on in Argentina for various reasons, and for many of them, particularly the Polish and/or Jewish players, it was to prove a life or death decision. However, a story in the October 1941 issue showed that life in South America was not without its perils...

RAUD, THE YOUNG ESTHONIAN MASTER, STARVES TO DEATH.

At third board of the Estonian team [in the 1939 Buenos Aires Olympiad] was Ilmar Raud. Estonian champion in 1934, [his] performances for his native country had been little inferior to those of his distinguished friends Keres and Schmidt. English chess followers had met him in Margate, the Easter before, where he took fourth place in an exceptionally strong Reserves tournament.

During the Buenos Aires tournament, the war broke out... Raud remained behind with many others... Of these masters, Najdorf, Eliskases and Stahlberg are experts of the topmost calibre, who could be relied on to make their way in any community with a pretension to civilisation. Najdorf's success has been scintillating; as one of the greatest lightning players of all time, he has been able, through whirlwind simultaneous displays, to make money – and spend it – like water.

But what of those not quite top-notchers? The history of chess is studded with miserable stories of near-success, and now Ilmar Raud, in dying, has given us another. His play had always shown flashes of brilliance but that solidity essential for a consistent record was not there. It is said that his mother begged him to return home and that one of his brothers was killed when the Soviets annexed Estonia.

The long-awaited tournament at Mar del Plata gave the many European masters their chance. Stahlberg's triumph was Raud's failure: he could only finish fourteenth out of eighteen players, with four of the five Argentine players above him. That meant that whilst Stahlberg would be offered many and many an engagement and be welcomed as tutor in many a rich home, Raud would be unwanted. There is not even a bare subsistence in Argentine café chess.

Soon after, came Raud's last tournament, an event staged by the Círcolo Argentino. His principal competitors were Frydman, who finished first, and Grau and Luckis who tied for second place. Raud led the tournament for several rounds, but then began to slip back. He refused to participate in the supper offered by the officials of the organising body. In the final score-table he finished fourth.

Conditions in South America's chess world are extraordinary. Grau has achieved a position of extraordinary power and influence and is virtually dictator of Argentine chess; it is authentically stated that his chess organising activities have netted him at least £5,000 in two years. Yet tournament after tournament goes through in the most haphazard and unsatisfactory fashion. Dates and venues are altered at random; even at Mar del Plata, the masters' accommodation was very unsatisfactory and the bonus per point, originally announced as ten pesos (roughly 10/- or $2.50), turned out finally to be eight only. Sometimes no prize-money is paid until weeks after the tournament is over.

Though the Círcolo Argentino's tournament (which Grau organised) finished in April, the prize distribution did not take place until June 29th (a personal telephone call by Luckis to Palau, Grau's right-hand man achieved this!).

Raud's prize was only a few shillings. At 10 a.m. on that very June 29th, he left his poor lodging-house never to return. He was found wandering in the streets and was arrested by the police. It is said there was a fight, and visitors subsequently observed obvious evidence of blows. He spent a bitterly cold night in the police yard, and the next day was sent to a lunatic asylum, where he died at 2am, on July 13th [1941], at the early age of 27. The doctor's certificate gave, as cause of death, general debility and typhoid fever, but the general verdict is – starvation! His body was cremated, and the ashes have been conveyed by the Esthonian consulate to Europe.

Note that in the replay windows below you can click on the notation to follow the game.

It is strange to think that Elaine Saunders, who is alive today, should have played with someone whose chess career went back to the 1890s. Whilst on the subject, the July 1945 issue celebrated the 100th birthday of one Henry Hudson of Canterbury. He was a well-known player in his day, we were told, and at the age of eight had drawn a game with Howard Staunton at the odds of a rook. Chessplayers never die, their ratings simply become inactive...

By late 1943, and the Axis powers on the run, the editor could redirect his artillery on a home target – the British Chess Federation. Under the heading “A Disgraceful Report”, he fulminated against their inactivity as regards the fostering of chess in the forces in February 1943: “The BCF has done not one iota of work in this field... BCF’s shamefully shirked work... this disgraceful report reveals once again... how far behind the times the federation is falling.”

You can download the full article in PDF here


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