World War II and Chess

On August 23, 1939, the 8th Chess Olympiad in Buenos Aires was formerly opened.  Play began on August 24, 1939.  The world women’s chess championship also took place at the same time in Buenos Aires.

Due to political events, prominent Austrian players Erich Eliskases and Albert Becker were playing under the German flag.  The country of Czechoslovakia played under the team name of “Bohemia & Moravia.”

On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland to start World War II.  On the same day, the finals began at the Chess Olympiad for the Hamilton-Russell Trophy.

On the day Britain declared war on Nazi Germany, September 3rd, the British team withdrew from the Buenos Aires Chess Olympiad (The Tournament of the Nations) and returned home on the first ship back to Britain.  The team included Hugh Alexander, Harry Golombek, Stuart Milner-Barry, Sir George Thomas, and Barach Wood.  It was the only team of the 27 teams to withdraw due to war.

Germany won the Chess Olympiad only after the last game of the last round was finished.  Eliskases, former Viennese, drew in a 6-hour game with Van Scheltinga of Holland.  Poland, a half-point behind, took 2nd place.  Estonia took 3rd place.

All five members of the German team (Eliskases, Michel, Engels, Becker, Reinhardt) chose not to return to Nazi Germany. 

Most of the Jewish members did not return to Europe, which included Moshe Czerniak, Chris De Ronde, Movsas Feigins, Paulino Frydman, Sonja Graf, Aristide Gromer, Zelman Kleinstein, Markas Luckis, Mendel (later Miguel) Najdorf, John O’Donovan, Jiri Pelikan, Meir Rauch, Ilmar Raud, Pauletter Schwartsmann, Adolf Seitz, Karel Skalicka, Gideon Stahlberg, Franciszek Sulik, and Victor Winz.

Right after the start of World War II, FIDE headquarters were transferred to Argentina. On September 13, 1939, Augusto de Muro (?-1959), president of the Argentine Chess Federation, was elected president of FIDE. (source: Chess Review, Oct 1939, p. 198 and Chess Review, Nov 1940, p. 174)

Chess masters in England were recruited as code breakers to serve under Alan Turing at Bletchley Park, the British codebreaking center during World War II. The Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS) was also known as the Gold, Cheese and Chess Society. Harry Golombek, Stuart Milner-Berry, and C.H. O'D Alexander (promoted to Colonel) were on the team which broke the new German Enigma code.

In September 1939. Alekhine was in Buenos Aires when Germany invaded Poland. As team captain of the French team, he refused to play the German team. The score between France and Germany was marked as 2-2 draw without play. The Germans won the event. Alekhine was now a French citizen and changed his spelling from Aljechin to Alekhine when he became a French citizen.

In January, 1940 Alexander Alekhine was mobilized into the French army after returning from Buenos Aires, Argentina. He was the coach of the French olympic chess team and played board 1 for the French team. He was an interpreter and a sanitation officer for the French army. After the fall of France, he fled to Marseille. In October 1940, he sought permission to enter Cuba, promising to play a match with Capablanca. This request was denied. It took him a year to get permission to leave for Lisbon, Portugal. He had to write two chess articles for a German newspaper to get his exit visa.

In March 1940, David (Dawid) Przepiorka, famous Polish master and problem composer, was executed by the Germans.  During the Nazi invasion of Poland, his apartment was destroyed and he moved to share an apartments with another chess player.  A Gestapo raid on the apartment in January 1940, during a forbidden meeting of Warsaw Chess Circle, led to the arrest of all present.  The non-Jewish participants were released a week later.  Przepiorka and the other Jewish players were subsequently shot by the Germans in Palmiry, north of Warsaw.  His death was reported in Chess Review, Jan 1942, p. 17.

On September 23, 1940, the National Chess Centre, located in the Cavendish Square building on Oxford Street, was burnt down in London during The German Blitzkreig, which began on September 7, 1940 and lasted until May 21m 1941.  It had opened in September, 1939, with 360 members and expanded to over 700 members, despite wartime blackouts and rationing.  The Centre was managed by world women’s champion Vera Menchik.  It advertised “Large and well-appointed Air Raid Shelter on the premises.”  (source: Chess Review, March, 1940, p. 31).

From March 18-23, 1941 Alexander Alekhine wrote six Nazi articles which first appeared in the Paris newspaper Pariser Zeitung. He wrote a series of articles for Die Deutsche Zeitung in den Niederlanden called "Jewish and Aryan Chess." The articles were reproduced in Deutsch Schachzeitung.   The articles tried to show proof that Jews played defensive, cowardly chess and the Aryan chessplayers played attacking chess that was aggressive and brave. He had hoped that after the death of Lasker, Lasker would be the last Jewish chess champion of the world. (Lasker's sister died in a gas chamber at a Nazi concentration camp).   Alekhine defined Jewish chess as material profit at all costs. It was opportunism at its best. It was defend at all costs. He claimed that there had never been a real chess artist of Jewish origin. He mentioned that the representatives of Aryan chess included Philidor, Labourdonnais, Anderssen, Morphy, Tchigorin, Pillsbury, Marshall, Capablanca, Bogoljubov, Euwe, Eliskases, and Keres. For Jewish players, there was only Steinitz and Lasker.

The finals for the 13th Soviet Championship was set for the fall of 1941. In June, 1941, one of the semi-finals was being held at Rostov-on-Don. During the 9th round, the Germans attacked the Soviet Union. Moscow officials wanted the tournament to continue, but some of the players left for home and others were ordered to induction centers.

On August 17, 1941, Mikhail Botvinnik left Leningrad just two days before the Germans cut off all rail transport out of the city.  He spent the rest of the war in the Urals.

On September 3, 1941, Alexander Ilyin-Genevsky (1894-1941) was killed during the siege of Leningrad. He was on a barge on Lake Ladoga, east of Leningrad, when a German aircraft bombed the barge. He was the only one killed on the barge, which was displaying Red Cross flags.

On October 2, 1941, Dr. Karel Treybal (born Feb 2, 1885), famous Czech chess master, died during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia (Bohemia-Moravia).  On May 30, 1941, he was arrested, imprisoned and later charged with concealing weapons for use by resistance forces and the illegal possession of a pistol.  He was condemned to death and shot on October 2 in Prague.  (source: Chess Review, Nov 1941, p.194 and New York Times, Oct 3, 1941)


In November, 1941, Viktor Korchnoi's father was killed in battle east of Leningrad. He was part of a volunteer defense unit.

In 1941, the British Red Cross issued an appeal for chess sets to be given to wounded men in convalescent homes and sent to British war prisoners in Germany.  (source: Chess Review, Dec 1941, p. 232)

Dr. Savielly Tartakower (1887-1956) served in the Free French Army under General Charles de Gaulle.  His French colleagues found his name too difficult to pronounce, so he changed it to Lieutenant Dr. Georges Cartier.  (source: Chess Review, Feb 1942, p. 46).

In 1942, Ilya Rabinovich died of starvation during the siege of Leningrad.


On March 7, 1942, Sergey Belavenets died in action in Novgorod, Russia.  He was Moscow champion in 1932, 1937, and 1938.


On April 18, 1942, Leonid Kubbel died in the siege of Leningrad.


From June 9-19, 1942, a tournament was held in Salzburg, Austria, organized by Ehrhardt Post, the Chief Executive of Nazi Grossdeutscher Schachbund.  It was intended to bring together the six strongest players in Germany, the occupied and neutral European countries.  The players included world champion Alexcander Alekhine, Paul Keres of Estonia, Gosta Stoltz of Sseden, and Paul Felix Schmidt, Klaus Junge, and Efim Bogoljuov of Germany.  Max Euwe was invited by withdrew due to “illness.”  The winner was Alekhine.  The tournament took place in the Mirabell Palace (the Sound of Music was filmed there). It was close to the summer residence of Hitler who may have stopped in for a visit.


In August 1942, Alexei Troitzky died of starvation in Leningrad.

An article called “Chess in the Armed Forces,” appeared in the August-September, 1943, issue of Chess Review.  It stated that the value of chess as an aid to the morale of men in the U.S. armed forces was at last being recognized.


In March 1944, chess as banned by trans-Atlantic mail.  It was explained this was done to prevent enemy agents from employing such mediums to get code messages across the Atlantic.  (source: The Troy Record, March 31, 1944)  Censors searched letters for discussions of chess because enemies would often hide codes in chess symbols and moves. (source: Freedom of Press and National Security in Four Wars, D. Smyth, 2007)


On June 26, 1944, female world chess champion Mrs.Vera Menchik Stevenson, age 38, her sister, Olga Rubery, and her mother, died in a V1 bombing raid after their home at 47 Gauden Road in the Clapham area of South London was hit by a German V-1 bomb.  (source: Chess Review, June-July 1944, p. 8).


In 1945, Vladimir Petrov died in a prison camp.  He was Latvian champion in 1934, 1935, and 1937.


On April 17, 1945, Klaus Junge was killed in action after refusing to surrender.  He was lieutenant of the 12th SS Battalion defending Hamburg.  When he was asked to surrender, he stood up, shouted "Sieg Heil!" and was shot just 3 weeks before the end of World War II.



The formal surrender of Japan occurred on September 2, 1945.


Almost all the U.S. military hospitals had a chess set in its wards.


During World War II, Stalin was described as a man with kindly mouth, uproarious laugh, smokes pipe and cigarettes, likes to hunt, drive a car, and play chess. (source: The Gettysburg Times, Jan 5, 1944)


Japanese prisoner of war camps had indoor recreational facilities for card games, chess, and checkers. 


Chess players were recruited in the United Kingdom during World War II to be code breakers.  Among them was C.H. O’D. Hugh Alexander (1909-1974), Stuart Milner-Barry, and Henry Golombek.  (source: Scientific Research in World War II: What Scientists Did in War, Maas and Hooijmaijers, 2009)


The American Red Cross provided board games like checkers and chess to German prisoner of war camps.


The museum of World War II in Boston has a display of a chess set made from rye bread by a prisoner at Auschwitz concentration camp for an SS guard.  The King piece on the brown German side was crafted to resemble Hitler. (source:


During World War II, German prisoners of war spent much of their time playing chess.

Prisoners in German concentration camps made chess sets out of candle wax and wood.

Chess was very popular in the air raid shelters during the Blitz against Britain.

Reuben Fine spent World War II as a translater (he spoke 7 languages) and worked on mathematical models to predict movements of enemy submarines.

Sonja Graf was the ladies woman champion of Germany, but she was not allowed to play on the German chess olympic team by a Nazi edict. She went on to play at large under the banner of "Liberty."

After World War II, world champion Alexander Alekhine was not invited to chess tournaments because of his Nazi affiliation.

During World War II, Alexander Alekhine served briefly as an interpreter in the French army.

Alekhine was supposed to play a title match with Paul Keres, but World War II broke out.

Alekhine played in Nazi chess tournaments in Munich, Salzburg, Warsaw, and Prague.

Ossip Weinstein was a top Russian master and editor of the Soviet chess magazine Shakmatny Listok before World War II. He became a civilian casualty of the German bombardment of Leningrad during World War II.

The first sporting event after World War II was the USA vs USSR radio chess match in September, 1945. The Russians won.

One of the world's strongest chess players was a Latvian named Vladimir Petrov. After World War II, the Soviets occupied Latvia. The Soviets suspected that Petrov collaborated with the Nazis. Petrov was sent to Siberia and never returned.

During World War II, Paul Keres of Estonia particpated in several German and German-sponsored chess tournaments. When the Red Army liberated his country, Soviet authorities planned to execute Keres. Mikhail Botvinnik interceded by talking to Stalin, and Keres was spared.  During World War II, it was rumored that Keres was killed.  This was reported in Chess Review.

The Latvian master Karlis Ozols was accused to have taken part in atrocities during World War II. After the war, he fled to Australia. He became Australian champion in 1958. Ozols was a senior officer in the pro-Nazi Latvian militia who carried out mass executions of Jews in Latvia.

Akiba Rubinstein was put in an insane asylum during World War II to protect him from the Germans.

Miguel (Mendel) Najdorf's entire Polish family died in German concentration camps during World War II.  Najdorf tried to communicate to his family that he was alive in Argentina by giving large chess simultaneous exhibitions for publicity.

During World War II, Savielly Tartakower escaped the German occupation in France and served as a Lieutenant Colonel (Cartier) under Charles de Gaulle. After World War II, he was granted French citizenship.

During World War II, Svetozar Gligoric saw action as a Yugoslav partisan against the Germans. He was considered a war hero.

During World War II, Arnold Denker gave simultaneous exhibitions at military bases and aboard aircraft carriers.

Top Hungarian chess master Bora Kostic spent some time in a German concentration camp.

When World War II broke out, George Koltamowski of Belgium was in Central America. He then came to the US and became a US citizen. Many of his family members died in concentration camps.

Rashid Nezhmetdinov was a decorated veteran of World War II and grandmaster strength.

Walter Korn fled Czechoslovakia during World War II, and came to the USA.

During World War II, Joseph Goebbels, German Minister of Propoganda, ordered German chess masters to visit hospitals and barracks to play exhibition chess matches. The same thing was happening with chess masters in the Soviet Union.

During World War II, the Japanese confiscated chess books from prisoners, thinking they were military code.

During World War II, Alexander Kotov was made a chief engineer and created the first breech-loading mortar. He was awarded the Order of Lenin at a Kremlin ceremony for his work.

Hungarian champion Laszlo Szabo was in a Hungarian Forced Labor unit where he was captured by the Russian army. He was a prisoner of war until after the end of World War II.

Larry Evans learned chess from his older brother. His brother was later killed in action as a bomber crew member during World War II.

Moizhem Lowtzky (1881-1940), a Kiev master, fled to Poland after the start of World War II, and died there after the Nazi invasion.

Genrikh Kasparyan spent the first year of the war on the Crimean front in some of the heaviest fighting.

In November, 1941, Viktor Korchnoi's father was killed in battle east of Leningrad. He was part of a volunteer defense unit.

Soviet master Georgy Schneiderman-Stepanov was shot just after World War II began for the Soviets. He was shot on suspicion of being a German spy only because there was a German general named Schneiderman.

Arvid Kubbel was a noted chess problemist. For over 30 years, the Soviets said he died in the siege of Leningrad. Instead, he died of nephritis in a Soviet gulag.

David Przepiorka, a Polish master, died in a mass execution outside Warsaw.

In 1941 Karel Treybal, one of the strongest Czech players of his period, was executed by the Nazis in Prague.

In 1942 Ilya Rabinovich, Leonid Kubbel, Mikhail Kogan (chess historian), Samuil Vainshtein (chief arbiter), and Alexei Troitzky starved to death during the siege of Leningrad.

During the seige of Leningrad, officials ordered the evacuation of all children, which included four-year-old Boris Spassky.

Prominent chess players lost during World War II included Polish master Isaak Appel (1905-1941), Hungarian master Zoltan Balla (1883-1945), Moscow chess champion Sergey Belavenets (1910-1942), Russian master Fyodor Fogelevich (1909-1941), Henryk Friedman (1903-1943), Polish master Achilles Frydman (1905-1940), Polish champion Eduard Gerstenfeld (1915-1943), Alexander Ilyin-Genevsky (1894-1941), Klaus Junge (1924-1945, Lev Kaiev (1913-1942), Mikhail Kogan (1898-1942), Josek Kolski (1900-1941), Plish master Leon Kremer (1901-1940), Arvid Kubbel (1889-1942), Leonid Kubbel (1892-1942), Salo Landau (1903-1943), Benjamin Levin ( -1942), Moishe Lowekl (1881-1940), Kiev master Moizhem Lowtzky (1881-1940), Moscow Champion Isaak Maisel ( -1943, Mikhail Makogonov (1900-1943), Olga Menchik (1908-1944), Vera Menchik (1906-1944), Latvian champion Vladimir Petrov (1907-1945), Mikhail Platov (1883-1940), David Przepiorka (1880-1940), Ilya Rabinovich (1878-1943), Vesevold Rauzer (1908-1941), Nikolai Riumin (1908-1942), Georgy Schneiderman-Stepanov ( -1941), Byelorussian champion Vladimir Silich (1906-1943), Vasily Solkov ( -1944), Endre Steiner (1901-1944), Mark Stolberg (1922-1943), Polish master Abram Szpiro (1910-1941), Karel Treybal (1885-1941), Alexei Troitzky (1866-1942), Samuil Vainstein (1894-1942), Boris Vaksberg ( -1942), Otaker Votruba (1894-1943), Heinrich Wolf (1875-1943), and Lazar Zalkind (1886-1945).

During World War II, prominent chess players that died included Emanuel Lasker (1868-1941), Jose Capablanca (1888-1942), Rudolf Spielmann (1883-1942), and Frank Marshall (1877-1944).

Chess masters that served in the military during World War II include: Herbert Avram, Hans Berliner, Arthur Dake, Jeremiah Donovan, Nate, Halper, Milton Hanauer, Louis Levy, Jack Moskowitz, Neckerman, Carl Pilnick, Schmidt, Herbert Seidman, George Shainswit, Albert Simonson, Jack Soudakoff, Olaf Ulvestad, and S. Weinstein