Chess, Code-Breaking and Spies
In August 1939, the British Government Code and Cypher
School (GSSC) moved to Bletchley Park (B.P.) in Buckinghamshire, and became
known as the Golf Club and Chess Society.
was fenced in and huts were completed for cryptographers to work
in. The guards were told their purpose
was to keep the “inmates” of this purported lunatic asylum from wandering
Park was chosen because it was halfway
between Cambridge and Oxford, the two universities that would
server as the primary sources of cryptoanalytic trainees.
The GCSS was directed by Commander Alastair Denniston, who
was convinced of the inevitability of war with Germany. His mission was to decode the German ENIGMA
messages. The team created the world’s
first electronic computer, which was kept secret until the 1970s. Denniston believed that chess players had an
aptitude for cryptanalysis and tried to recruit chess players and
Sir Philip Stuart Milner-Berry (1906-1995) was a strong
international chess player and was hired to be a code breaker when World War II
broke out. Milner-Berry was the first to
be recruited by Bletchley
Park. He then recruited Hugh Alexander and Harry
Golombek. Milner-Berry was head of “Hut
6,” a section responsible for deciphering messages which had been encrypted
using the German enigma machine.
Milner-Berry expressed the intensity of code-breaking in terms of
chess. “It was rather like playing a
tournament game (sometimes several games) every day for five and a half years.”
One of the members of the Golf Club and Chess Society was
Jack Good (1916-2009). He was considered
a mathematical genius and the Cambridgeshire chess champion. He was later the technical and scientific
advisor for Stanley Kubrick for the film 2001: A Space
Odyssey. Good was recruited by
Hugh Alexander, the reigning British chess champion (British champion in 1938
and 1956), to work at Bletchley
Park. Good found himself working for Alan Turing
deciphering German naval codes. Good and
Turing also worked together in Manchester
on the first ever computer controlled by an internally stored program.
Harry Golombek, another top British chess player, was hired
to work at Bletchley
Park as a code breaker. Golombek, Alexander, and Miler-Berry all
abandoned the 1939 Chess Olympiad in Buenos Aires
to return to Britain
and became code breakers.
Another chess player hired to work at Bletchley Park
was James McRae Aitken, 10-time Scottish chess champion. He worked in Hut 6.
Another chess player at Bletchley included Donald Michie,
who later became involved in artificial intelligence and chess computers.
Shaun Wylie was another strong chess player and
mathematician that worked at Bletchley
In view of the chess talent at Bletchley Park,
newcomers were advised not to play chess for money with any of the staff.
In December 1944, the Bletchley Chess Society played a chess
match with Oxford
University and won the
match 8-4. C.H.O’D Alexander played
board 1 and Harry Golombek played board 2.
In the United States,
Reuben Fine, one of America’s
top chess players, worked for the Navy plotting out
possible enemy submarine (U boats) routes.
During World War II, one of the top Swedish code breakers
was Ake Lundqvist (1913-2000), a strong chess player.. He later became a correspondence chess
grandmaster and was Swedish correspondence champion in 1945. He played in three world correspondence championships, placing as high as 3rd
During World War II intercepted communiqués called the
Venona files were used to find a pattern of espionage and betrayal in the United States. One of the agents who was
later arrested in 1944 was a chess player who’s cover name was Chess
Knight. He was a KGB officer in Mexico City.
After the war, Cold War spies in Germany sent postcards back to MI5
containing coded messages written in cryptic text base around a series of
postal chess games. Gordon Thomas,
historian for MI5 and MI6, said that chess moves were a common way of communicating
during the Cold War. He also said the
Russians in particular favored using chess as a method of communicating. It was their great national pastime and
information would often be disguised as chess moves.
In a KGB handbook, a section described how to use chess
moves when communicating. For example,
one move could ascertain what was happening and another could give
instructions. Agents would be trained to
understand chess moves.
D.C. during the 1950s and 1960s,
the Soviet embassy had a resident chess master on staff that was later
identified as a KGB agent.
In the 1970s, V.D. Baturinsky, head of the Soviet delegation
for Karpov in his world championship matches, was a KGB colonel.
In the 1970s, preventing dissident Soviet chess players from
winning matches and tournaments was a priority of KGB foreign operations.
In 1972, the Soviets accused the CIA of bugging Boris Spassky’s chair during
the Fischer-Spassky world chess championship match in Iceland. Both chairs were later x-rayed and no electronic
bugs were found.
After Bobby Fischer won the world chess championship in
1972, he stated that he feared assassination by the KGB, which was one of the
reasons why he refused to play chess after his match with Boris Spassky.
In 1979, Grandmaster Lev Alburt defected from the USSR. Speaking at Harvard’s Russian Research
Center, Alburt said some
Soviet grandmasters were “used as KGB infiltrators.”
In 2008, Roustan Kamsky, father of Gata Kamsky, wrote an
article on how the KGB influenced the world of chess and politics thru
advertising and the press.
In 2009, a book was published in Russia called The KGB Plays Chess. The
authors are a Russian-American historian, a former KGB lieutenant colonel,
Viktor Korchnoi, and Boris Gulko. The
book describes the interferences of the Russian KGB in the course of world