On Chess: Connection to the Greatest Generation

Jul 1, 2015

Mention World War II to Americans of a certain age and memories of major events like the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the flag raising on Iwo Jima, and the D-Day invasion of Europe come immediately to mind. But this great global conflict was not always constant action: there was often downtime, even for soldiers waiting for combat, more so for those captured or seriously injured.

How was the time passed in an age before television, when the internet was not even a dream? One major diversion was the game of chess.

The role this ancient board game played in World War II is explained in the new exhibit Battle on the Board: Chess during World War II, which recently opened at the World Chess Hall of Fame.

Although chess is often considered a “war game” by the general public, its practitioners are rarely viewed as real life warriors. This was not the case during World War II. Chess players served with honor and distinction in a variety of positions from combat soldiers to intelligence officers.

Several British chess masters, including Conel Hugh O’Donel Alexander, Harry Golombek and Stuart Milner-Barry, played critical roles in helping break the German “Enigma” code, one of the key events leading to the defeat of the Nazis. Alexander, a two-time chess champion of Great Britain, was featured in last year’s movie The Imitation Game where he played a supporting role to Alan Turing.

A POW chess set used by a Marine
Credit Michael DeFilippo | World Chess Hall of Fame

Arguably even more significant than the contribution of chess players toward the war effort was the therapeutic role the game provided in fighting boredom and depression. Chess offered a much needed distraction from the fear and monotony of prison life. Tournaments were held, some with hundreds of prisoners competing, which allowed the participants to temporarily forget their plight.

Chess sets were initially not easy to find in prisoner-of-war camps, and prisoners exhibited considerable ingenuity in fashioning equipment from materials on hand. Several of these “homemade” sets, on loan from the National Museum of the Marine Corps and the National Museum of the United States Air Force, are on display in Battle on the Board. Chess sets, along with checkers and playing cards, were among the first recreational items that could be sent to POWs. The exhibit includes one pocket set produced by the American Red Cross and owned by Staff Sgt. Arthur D. Williams, a POW at Stalag Luft IV prisoner-of-war camp.

Credit Michael DeFilippo | World Chess Hall of Fame

POWs and active duty soldiers were not the only members of the military to discover what a comfort chess could be. The injured also found the royal game a great way to take their mind off their troubles. Those convalescing stateside found members of local chess clubs eager to play with them, while nationally, the United States Chess Federation partnered with the periodical Chess Review to found the organization Chess for the Wounded. Artifacts related to these efforts, on loan from the John G. White Chess Collection at the Cleveland Public Library, are also on view in the exhibit.

Battle on the Board: Chess during World War II, curated by Emily Allred, is open Tuesday through Sunday through Jan. 17, 2016. Admission is free but donations are appreciated.

John Donaldson is an International master and chess historian. On Chess columns come from the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis.