Antarctica and Chess
by Bill Wall

During the winter, there are about 1,100 people in Antarctica. During the summer, there are about 5,000 people in Antarctica. It is estimated that 3% of these people play chess.

In 1898, Carsten Borchgrevink(1864-1934) led a British Antarctic Expedition. The men spent some of their idle time playing chess.

In 1902, Robert Falcon Scott (1868-1912) built Discovery Hut, located on Hut Point, Ross Island. It contained many artifacts, including a hand-made chess set. The chess pieces were carved from broom handles. The hut was to be protected as an historic site with no relic or artifact to be removed. Around 2003, it was discovered that the chess set was stolen.

In 1903, Jean-Baptiste Charcot led a French Antarctic Expedition. For entertainment, they played chess.

In 1908, Ernest Shackleton (1874-1922) led the Nimrod Expedition in Antarctica. His men, such as Alistair Mackay and Frank Wild, played chess during the expedition. The Chess Amateur magazine reported "Lieut. Shackleton, in his memorable Antarctic expedition, had on board, amongst other games and diversions, sets of chessmen, and no doubt many a tough fight took place in the solitudes of the Great Southern Unknown." (source: American Chess Bulletin, 1909, p. 255)

In 1911, biologist Chares Turnbull Harrison (1866-1914) was part of an Australasian Antarctic Expedition. He wrote in his diary that he played chess as much as possible while in Antarctica. He carved his own chess pieces out of wood. He couldn't find anything in Antarctica to use to make chess pieces. He described many of the men on the expedition playing chess during the idle hours. Chess was mentioned at least 53 times in his diary. (source: Charles Turnbull Harrison Diary, Dec 2, 1911 to Dec 31, 1912).

In 1911, some of the men in Robert Falcon Scott's race to the South Pole expedition played chess.

In 1914, Dr. Leonard Hussey (1891-1964) and Frank Hurley (1885-1962) played chess while on board the 'Endurance.' The ship was commanded by Ernest Shackleton during his imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914-1917. Endurance became beset in the ice of the Weddell Sea and drifted northward, held in the pack ice, throughout the Antarctic winter of 1915. Eventually the ship was crushed and sunk, stranding its 28-man complement on the ice.

In 1928, the first Byrd Antarctic expedition took place. He established camp championships at chess. Admiral Byrd (1888-1957) included chess in his four Antarctic expeditions. Byrd played chess but was not very good at it. (source: The Antarctican Society Newsletter, vol. 86-88, 1987, p. 11)

In 1929, Dr. Norman Shaw, a physicist at McGill University, Montreal issued a challenge to play a radio match with Frank T. Davies (1904-1981) , physicist of the Byrd Expedition in the Antarctic, a distance of 11,000 miles.Shaw sent his challenge over radio station KDKA. (source: Harrisburg Evening News, May 11, 1929)

In 1945, an inter-base radio chess match was being played at Port Lockroy, a British base on Goudier Island, Antarctica (Britain's first science base). However, the match has to be abandoned as a cat knocked over the chess board. (source:

In 1948, the first Polar radio chess game started between Australian scientists on Heard Island and South Africans on Marion Island, 1,400 miles away. The Australians are studying cosmic rays in the Antarctic, while the South Africans are maintaining a weather station in the Antarctic. (source: Winnipeg Tribune, Apr 26, 1948)

In 1950, members of the French Polar expedition in Adelie Land played chess by radio with the Australian Antarctic expedition at Macquarie Island. (source: The Mercury (Australia), July 22, 1950, p. 14)

In 1958, chess tournaments were being organized and played at the Soviet Mirny Station. This was the Soviet's first Antarctic science station, located in Queen Mary Land, on the Antarctic coast of the Davis Sea. The first chess tournament was organized by Igor Nikolaev. First prize was a chess set. (source: Rubin, The Mirny Diary, 1958-59)

In 1959, Australian players at Biscoe Hut at Horseshoe Harbour (Mawson station) played chess by radio with the Russians at Mirny and the French at Kerguelen.

In 1959, two Soviet scientists were playing chess at the Vostok Station, a Soviet research station in Princess Elizabeth Land. When one of them lost the game, he became so enraged that he attacked the other with an ice axe. Supposedly afterwards, chess games were banned from Soviet Antarctic stations. (sources: Chopra & Joyner, The Antarctic Legal Regime, p. 67; Bennett, "How Antarctic Isolation Affects the Mind," Canadian Geographic, Sep 15, 2016; Barrett, Extreme: Why People Thrive at the Limits, p. 88; The Antarctic Legal Regime, p. 67; Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica; The Crystal Desert: Summers in Antarctica)

In 1960, Americans, Russians, and New Zealanders were playing chess with each other by radio in Antarctica. Men stationed at New Zealand's Scott Base in McMurdo Sound were playing chess with Russians at the Soviet station of Lazarev in Queen Maud Island, nearly 3,000 miles away. The Russians won, who sent a cordial message of appreciation and good wishes. Players at American bases on Ross Island in McMurdo Sound were playing with men at the main Russian base of Mirny on the Queen Mary coast in East Antarctica. The moves in the games were displayed on a large chessboard poster on the wall. (source: Brownsville Herald, Sep 8, 1960, p. 13 and Antarctic News Bulletin, Dec 1960, p. 296)

In 1960, Americans at McMurdo Station on Ross Island and New Zealanders at Scott Base on Ross Island teamed up to play the Russians at Mirny Station on Queen Mary Land in the Davis Sea in East Australia and Lazarev in Queen Maud Land. The distance between the American and New Zealand stations stations and the Russian stations is 1,600 miles. (source: Chess Review, Nov 1960, p. 323)

In 1960, a U.S. Naval officer at McMurdo Station played chess with a Mirny Station, Antarctica Soviet pilot. Other chess matches were being played by short wave radio among the other research stations in Antarctica. (source: Geyserville Press, Sep 23, 1960, p. 1)

In 1960, a Winter Indoor Olympics was organized at McMurdo Sound, with tournaments in chess, ping-pong, pool, darts, and shuffleboard. (source: Deepfreeze 1959-1960, Naval History and Heritage Command, p. 84)

In 1963, an inter-station Antarctic chess tournament was held. Moves were made daily via radio. (source: Bulletin of the U.S. Antarctic Projects, 1963, p. 3)

In 1964, a chess tournament by radio was held between Christchurch, New Zealand, players and Americans at McMurdo Sound, Antarctica. The game was tapped out on teleprinters in the communications room at the American base at Harewood and on teleprinters at McMurdo Station.

In 1964, a radio match between a South African Antarctic outpost and Radio Nederland had to be called off because Moscow radio was jamming their frequency. (source: Holland, Michigan Evening Sentinel, Sep 8, 1964, p. 3)

In 1964, Baden Norris (1927-2018), Canterbury Museum Emeritus Curator in England, traveled to Antarctica and recovered 10 wooden chess pieces used by Ernest Shackleton's men while on the 'Endurance.' He brought the pieces back and gave them to the Canterbury Museum for display.

In 1967, Soviet scientists were playing chess by radio with opponents in Moscow. (source: New York Times, Nov 12, 1967, p. 127)

In 1968, chess was popular at McMurdo base in Antarctica. From there, chess was played by radio with other U.S. and foreign Antarctic stations. The Canterbury Chess Club of Christchurch, New Zealand, contacted McMurdo Sound by short wave radio with a chess challenge match. At the time, the Soviet exchange scientist, Boris Lopatin, was the McMurdo chess champion. (source: Establishment of Operation Deep Freeze, Naval Institute Archives, Feb 1, 2012)

In 1968, scientists at Byrd Station played chess by radio against Soviet scientists at Vastov Station on the South Pole. The Soviets usually won the matches easily. (source: Mason, "Life in Antarctica," The Observer, Jan 20, 2012)

In 1968, Byrd Station played chess by radio with 8 other stations. (source: Antarctic Journal, 1968, p. 14)

In 1968, the 1968 winter party at Byrd Station issued the first Antarctic international chess tournament. Seven nations took part.

In 1969, the second Antarctic international chess tournament began. It consisted of 6 nations and 14 stations in Antarctica. Those participating included Mirny, Vostok, Bellingshausen, Molodezhnaya, Argentine Island, Halley Bay, Stonington Island, Scott Base, Vanda Station, South Pole, McMurdo Station, and Kerguelen. (source: Antarctic News Bulletin, June 1969, p. 257)

In 1973, L. A. Zhdanov was an exchange scientist with the U.S. McMurdo Station. He described a chess tournament by radio between teams at McMurdo and the Soviet Molodezhnaya research station. He described many evenings and sleepless nights spent on analyzing chess positions. (source: Zhdanov, "Meteorological Studies with the U.S. Antarctic Program, 1973-1974," Antarctic Journal of the United States, Mar-Apr 1975, pp. 45-48)

In 1974, the American McMurdo Station chess team, led by a Russian exchange scientist, played against chess teams in New Zealand, on Campbell Island, at the Amundsen-Scott Pole Station, Molodezhnaya, the main Soviet station, and Vostok, the only Russian inland station. (source: Antarctic News Bulletin, Sep 1974, p. 78)

In 1975, 68 teams from the Antarctic, the Arctic, and Moscow entered a radio chess match. The rules allowed 6 hours for each move. (source: Soviet Life, 1975, p. 53)

In 1979, Charlie Burton (1943-2002), who was part of the first circumnavigation of the world on its polar axis, arranged chess matches in Antarctica with the American, South African, and Russian stations by radio.

In 1991, a Soviet research ship, Mikhail Somov, became stuck in ice. 241 crew members had to wait a month before rescue. Many of them spent their time playing chess until rescued by plane. It was the first time the Soviets had landed a plane in winter in Antarctica. 174 crew members were flown out, while the rest stayed on board the ship. (source: AP News, Aug 22, 1991)

In 2006, an Antarctic Chess championship between research stations was held. It was organized by the French scientific station Dumont d'Urville. The games were played by email. The teams were from Byrd Island (UK), Amundsen-Scott (USA), Dumont d'Urville (France), Belgrano (Argentina), Halley (UK), Esperanza (Argentina), Rothera (UK), Palmer (USA), and Casey (Australia). It was won by the Belgrano team.

In 2008, British Antarctic Survey scientistIan MacNab, stationed at the Rothera Research Station on Adelaide Island, Antarctica, played chess online with Boris Spassky and got a draw. Spassky played 20 people simultaneously, with 19 opponents in Wales and MacNab in Antarctica. MacNab was 8,000 miles away when he took on Spassky. (source: BBC News, May 26, 2008)

In 2011, a Chinese icebreaker headed for Antarctica for its 28th scientific expedition. One of its main activates wee regular chess tournaments on the icebreaker to help crew members keep mentally healthy. (source: Beijing Review, Nov 4, 2011)

In 2014, Jagdish Repaswal, a renowned entrepreneur, and Robert Swan, first person to walk to the North Pole and the South Pole, played chess during their 2014 Antarctica expedition.

In May 2014, ChessBase ran a contest for readers to guess the location of a masked chess player holding up a ChessBase logo with a building and snow in the background. The location was the South Pole. A picture shows astrophysicist Robert Schwarz at the geographic South Pole where the temperatures was -85 degrees Fahrenheit (which could sink to -116 degrees Fahrenheit). (source: ChessBase News, May 26, 2014)

In February 2016, top female chess player GM Hou Yifan played Chile's top players, GM Cristobal Henriquez in a match which was partly to take place at a Chilean research base in Antarctica. This would have been the first time an international chess match took place on Antarctica. They started their match in Punta Arenas, Chilean Patagonia. The event was timed to the 500th anniversary of the opening of the Strait of Magellan. However, due to inclement weather, they were unable to play in Antarctica.

In December 2018, two American chess players, James Van Steenkiste and Peter Horvath, played a chess match in Antarctica. They played at the Union Glacier expedition camp, 600 miles from the South Pole. They played their game outside, where the temperature was minus 10 degrees Celsius.

Other Antarctic incidents besides getting axed while playing chess include the following.

In 1948, a fire broke out at Esperanza Base on Graham Land in Antarctica, killing 2.

In 1961, Roger Filer, a scientist, slipped from a 20-foot cliff on Signy Island while tagging birds. His body was buried on the island.

In 1965, a Musgeg tractor and its sledges fell into a crevasse and three men died.

In 1976, 3 climbers died in an avalanche while climbing Mount Peary. Their bodies were never recovered.

In 1979, Air New Zealand Flight 901 crashed into Mount Erebus on Ross Island, killing all 257 aboard.

In 1983, a Chilean medical doctor burned down his research station rather than face another winter on the ice.

In 1996, two cooks at McMurdo Station in Antarctica got in a fight and one attacked the other with the claw-end of a hammer. A third cook was also injured in the fight. The victims received several stitches and the assailant was arrested.

In 1996, 15 people rebelled at Australia's Casey Station in Antarctica and a relief ship had to be sent.

In May 2000, Australian astrophysicist Rodney Marks was poisoned while in Antarctica. He was poisoned by a fatal dose of methanol.

In 2008, fire broke out at the Russian research facility Progress Station in East Antarctica, killing 1.

In 2010, a South Korean trawler fell into a crevasse, killing 22 people.

In 2012, a fire broke out at the Portuguese Comandante Ferraz Antarctic Base in Admiralty Bay, killing 2.

In 2018, two American fire technicians died at McMurdo station while working on a fire-suppression system.

In 2018, a Soviet scientist, Sergey Savitsky, at Russia's Bellinghausen Station on King George Island in Antarctica, stabbed one of his colleagues multiple times because his colleague was giving away the endings of books that Sergey was reading. He was charged with attempted murder.

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