Chess in the War – Part II

2/24/2011 – Here’s a question which no chess magazine editor would ever want to face – what do you put in your magazine in the event of a world war? The November 2010 issue of CHESS looked back at how BH Wood coped with the onset of World War Two, and how difficult running a magazine became as the war escalated. Today John Saunders takes another look into chess in the war years.

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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

February 2010 issue

Please forgive the statement of the blindingly obvious, but the main content of a chess magazine has to be chess games. By early 1940 the dwindling supply of newly-played games was Wood’s most pressing problem. Following the 1939/40 Hastings Congress, held as usual but much reduced in size and scope, the nations of western Europe turned their attention to real war and top-level competitive chess took a back seat. This meant that the editor had to cast his net wider than before, turning to tournament chess in the Americas and Spain. For the early part of the war, chess in the USSR was largely unaffected, with bulletins and even radio programmes broadcasting news of Soviet chess. Later in the war BH Wood refers to Vasily Smyslov speaking in English on the radio and mentioning the deaths of some Soviet players. Somehow, despite the unprecedented scale of fighting on the eastern front, and the appalling civilian suffering in parts of the country, high-level chess continued to be played in the USSR almost for the entirety of the war.

War or no war, British amateur chess carried on in various shapes and forms. There was still club news, with the editor appealing for people to send in games and news. Foreign allied forces based in UK brought with them a number of chess players from France, Poland, Czechoslovakia and elsewhere. One of the most famous of these was 2nd Lieutenant Georges Cartier - the wartime rank and pseudonym of Saviely Tartakower, attached to the Free French forces in London. The pseudonym was evidently nothing to do with military secrecy as Tartakower’s real name was often referred to in the chess press. BHW said he used it because Tartakower “was too much of a mouthful” for his Free French colleagues. Tartakower played some club chess whilst in the country, including matches between British and Allied forces, in one of which he got the better of Bombardier Harry Golombek, as the future British IM was now known. It was the fashion for published games and match results to give the military rank of the player. Here is a game played on board six of the first British Forces versus Allied Forces match in November 1941, with Pilot Officer FG Tims Collins beating Private Wladislaw Prytys of the Polish forces (whilst the aforementioned ‘Cartier’ was beating Bombardier Golombek).

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

In 1944, BH Wood imparted some bad news about the winner of the above game. “According to Mr [Julius] du Mont, FG Tims Collins is reported missing from a bombing raid. How we hope that this genial and universally popular chess congress-ite managed to bale out!” Sadly, not so – Francis George Tims Collins, who played in three Varsity chess matches for Oxford in the 1930s and who won the Civil Service Championship in 1938 and 1939, was killed on the night of 27 November 1943 in a Lancaster bomber over Heuchelheim, Germany, aged 28. His name appears on a memorial in Balliol College chapel.

The first issue of the sixth volume of CHESS, published on 25 September 1940, was entitled ‘The Greatest Tragedy in Chess History’. BH Wood was referring to the complete and utter destruction, just two days before, of the National Chess Centre, housed on an upper floor at the John Lewis Partnership premises in London’s Oxford Street. In the conflagration were lost the best part of the British Chess Federation library, all the effects of the City of London Chess Club and the Southern Counties’ Chess Union and various other trophies and chess association property. The contemporary reader (who may argue that British chess has fared reasonably well without such an institution in place) might feel that the editor’s hyperbole was slightly misplaced but there is no doubt that it set chess in these islands back many years. It had opened only a year before, in September 1939, as war had started, amalgamating with the City of London Chess Club to form a well-equipped, modern centre for the playing of match and tournament chess for the entire metropolis. Managed by women’s world champion Vera Menchik, it had already attracted a membership of 700 and seemed certain to go from strength to strength before it became one of the many corporate victims of the London Blitz.

This wasn’t quite the end of the story. The National Chess Centre was reopened in 1952 on a site opposite the one destroyed in 1940. But, in truth, it didn’t last much longer the second time around. No bombs were involved this time: the reason for closure appears to have been the retirement in 1955 of the eponymous founder of the department store, John Spedan Lewis (1885-1963), who had been the driving force behind the NCC and without whose continuing generous patronage and influence it proved impossible to continue.

Chess as a Morale-Booster

BH Wood was quick to recognise one important function of a chess magazine in wartime - as a morale booster. To that end, the magazine was filled with short, upbeat examples of chessplayers’ adherence to the ‘spirit of the blitz’. More than once he used the sub-title ‘Business As Usual’ – the defiant claim of every bombed-out shop and institution the length and breadth of the beleaguered nation – before going on to describe how a chess club carried on regardless, despite bombardment or privation. There was also more than a hint of that other wartime slogan, ‘Make Do and Mend’, with soldiers or schoolboys shown fashioning chess sets out of all manner of improbable artefacts (one chess set allegedly featured light-coloured British bullet casings for the white pieces, and sinister dark-coloured German bullet casings for the black ones - prompting the 21st century notion that the British ones could somehow have been recycled and used against the enemy?!).

When it came to waging the propaganda war, BHW’s own favourite weapon was the cartoon. Flicking through the pages, it becomes clear that he scoured the country for chess-themed cartoons, reusing (with permission) those published in well-known magazines and newspapers (even from the previous world war) as well as commissioning them from artistically-inclined chessplayers. One such was WH Cozens, later to become known and loved for his splendid book The King Hunt as well as other books and articles for BCM after the war. Many of the cartoons used (we provide a selection here) have a similar underlying theme - that chess has the comforting power to distract the human mind and anaesthetise the brain against all manner of pain and suffering that might be happening all around.

So much for the propaganda, but few wartime issues of CHESS went by without reports of untimely deaths caused by war. One notable casualty was Arthur Reynolds, a strong Midlands player who gave his name to a variation of the Slav, became a prisoner of war in the East and was thought to have been killed in the aftermath of a naval incident in 1943.


Vera Menchik, with her husband RHS Stevenson

Perhaps the most tragic loss, from a purely British perspective, was that of women’s world champion Vera Menchik, who died along with her sister Olga and mother as a result of a V1 ‘flying bomb’ destroying their home in Clapham in 1944. Vera had been widowed the year before when her husband, the greatly respected chess administrator, RHS Stevenson, had died, and she had been the game editor of CHESS magazine for much of the war.

Wood goes to War

As editor, BH Wood well understood the power of controversy and its value to his publication. Even a world war could not distract British chessplayers from displaying their verbal pugnacity when debating the minutiae of chess and chessplaying.
One such spat was ignited by Lord Brabazon of Tara (1884-1964), an English aviation pioneer and wartime cabinet minister.

This distinguished peer was the UK’s answer to the Wright Brothers – he had been the first Englishman to pilot a heavier-than-air machine under power in England – but his well-meaning attempt to spice up the game of chess saw him crash to earth in a crumpled heap. His proposal? Like Bobby Fischer in his post-champion phase, Lord Brabazon thought opening theory was killing chess (with its reliance on “dead men’s brains”) and he thought that a small rearrangement of the pieces on the back rank was in order to refresh the game. He suggested that the first change should be the “quite trivial” one of reversing the starting positions of the white king and queen. Thinking further ahead, when that arrangement had been analysed to destruction, he suggested a further back rank rearrangement could be made.

“Really, Lord Brabazon!!” was the editor’s first reaction to this naivety, and he then invited readers to express their views. Which they did, quite forcibly in some cases. Truly, hell hath no fury like a chessplayer scorned, though, to be fair, a handful of subscribers seemed to like the idea. But reader G Soar of Enfield perhaps spoke for the silent majority when he responded: “Lord Brabazon says he is a keen lover of the game. If he is, then why does he want to wreck it?”.

BH Wood was in more serious vein when he blasted an annual report put out by the British Chess Federation in 1942/43 proposing a temporary curtailment of administrative activity, at a time when he thought the federation should have been doing the opposite, e.g. fostering forces’ chess and taking other active steps to invigorate the game. “The BCF is beginning to revolve round two or three rich and influential men, whose love of, and enthusiasm for chess, nobody could doubt. But if these few energetic minds are distracted for a moment, the barrenness of the back-benches becomes blatantly apparent. This disgraceful report reveals once again, in a blinding light, how far behind the times the Federation is falling: nine-tenths of it needs replacing by new blood.”

This stirred up much discussion, the majority of it chiming in with the editor’s own sentiments, but amongst the dissenters was the magazine’s very own Games Editress (as BHW sometimes styled her) – Vera (née Menchik) Stevenson. It is an intriguing letter, providing en passant an interesting insight into the women’s world champion’s early days in Moscow and her impression of the British attitude to chess as contrasted with that of Russia.

Dear Mr. Wood,

As one ponders over your recent attack on the B.C.F. one cannot help wondering what useful purpose has this outburst served? Surely the answer is in the negative. Such an attitude could not result in goodwill and co-operation and it most probably has resulted in prejudicing a number of your readers who. not having had personal acquaintance of chess organisers. may have taken you at your word and decided that the B.C.F. Committee is as lethargic as you say. Anyway this impression must have been still further strengthened when you took the trouble of publishing, and publishing uncommented, such remarks as: “That the backwardness and the standard of play are due to people seeking and retaining office who really do nothing beyond carrying on normal activities in a routine manner. But they feel important, and that is about. all that matters in most cases.”

However, what I chiefly want to say is how it amazes me that a man of your international chess experience should attempt to draw comparison between chess-life in U.S.S.R. and in Britain?

If the Soviet Union can boast the strongest team of players in the world and the largest rank and file, it is not merely because of their superior chess organisation, but because of social conditions under which the whole nation lives and works. Millions of spectators do not go (in Russia) to football matches in the winter months; nor do they go to dog-racing or indulge in any shape of gambling; nor, I think, have they access to the world’s literature in the same way we have to the excellent series of the Penguin Books, etc.; and if the theatres and cinemas of Moscow are crowded every night, they are not nearly as numerous as the places of amusement in big cities in England, and few people have either the time or the means to frequent them as regularly as so many do here.

If, to-day, people in Russia continue to play chess in very strenuous and difficult conditions, it is because they are used to hard life and value comfort far less than we do. In the few years before the war the Soviet nation was fortunate to enjoy considerable prosperity, but the many years immediately succeeding the 1917 revolution had been very hard and trying, and few people could have forgotten them. For example, during the winter of 1919-20, the school I attended was for some time without water, heating or electric light, yet the classes went on and the students, clad in their fur-lined coats and hats, read by the light of a few flickering candles or an oil lamp, and then perhaps had an hour’s walk home through snow, for all traffic stopped after working hours. People also played chess in the same conditions, and they most likely still do, though we here prefer to forego our games of chess because of the inconvenience of the black-out. How understandable it all is, but can you really blame the B.C.F. that such vast differences should exist? There are many other important points which make comparison impossible, such as the average age of players here and in Russia - a difference perhaps of 20 years! Then again the actual attitude to chess: in Russia - serious and studious; here - often very light-hearted. Have you not met players who pride themselves on never having read a chess book in their lives; who regard all theory as the invention of the Evil One specially devised to spoil the enjoyment of their leisure hours? Have you never heard them say that they play chess just for pleasure? In Russia they would be officially and severely reprimanded, but do you think the B.C.F. can alter their outlook?

To finish up I should like to relate an experience I had regarding Army chess. A year ago I was working at a soldiers’ canteen run by the W.V.S. I volunteered to organize a chess section and to give lectures and displays. This suggestion was received quite enthusiastically and I was even asked to contribute a chess article for the weekly Gazette. I wrote an article of a very elementary kind, explaining how to read and record a game. accompanied by a short brilliancy to serve as an example. It had two diagrams and was easy enough for a child of nine to understand. Yet in the end it was turned down on the ground of being too difficult. and in fact the whole idea of chess fell through. Can you blame the B.C.F. for such lack of enterprise. and can you imagine this happening in U.S.S.R.?

Yours very sincerely,
Vera Stevenson

Thankfully, this public disagreement with the magazine editor had no repercussions: Mrs Stevenson continued with her game annotations for CHESS right up to her tragic death.

Chessplayers Win the War

BH Wood’s (wholly complimentary) reference to “two or three rich or influential men” at the helm of British chess must have included Stuart Milner-Barry and Hugh Alexander. Needless to say, the wartime activities of these gentlemen were not referred to in any detail at the time, though much later it transpired that their minds, and those of a number of other notable chessplayers, were “distracted for a moment” on the hugely important task of decrypting enemy codes, in particular those generated by the famous ‘Enigma’ machine, at Bletchley Park. By late 1944 one imagines that their job was nearly done and they could relax and play a bit of chess.

The February 1945 issue of the magazine carries a photo of the players from a match between Oxford University and Bletchley chess clubs. The names are given and seems probable that the Bletchley side consisted, possibly in its entirety, of British and American code-breakers who had worked on this operation, known by the codename ‘Ultra’. Winston Churchill is alleged to have told King George VI after World War Two: “It was thanks to ‘Ultra’ that we won the war.”

Youth was not quite so much to the fore in chess as it is today, with one notable exception. Elaine Saunders (later to become Mrs Elaine Pritchard and, incidentally, no relation of the current writer, though coincidentally my wife is called Elaine Saunders) had already made something of a name for herself as a child chess prodigy by the time war broke out. She won what was styled the World Girls’ Championship in 1936, aged only ten, and retained the title in 1937. Perhaps more impressively she had won the British Women’s Championship in 1939, aged 13. Here is a game she won against Vera Menchik. It wasn’t played as part of a formal competition but she demonstrates considerable skill to steer her formidable adversary into a lost position, though its formal nature leads to some inaccuracies on both sides of the board.

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

Here’s another game by Elaine Saunders, against a 71-year-old chess author of blessed memory - and, indeed, with a long memory.

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... we’ll have more from our back pages very soon..

In the next issue of CHESS John Saunders celebrates the 75th anniversary of the magazine and looks at the events it covered in the immediate post-war period.

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