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World War II and Chess

  • billwall
  • | Jun 30, 2007

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.

A prisoner at Auschwitz made a chess set out of rye bread for an SS guard. The King piece on the brown German side was crafted to resemble Hitler.

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

During World War II, no postal chess play was allowed between civilians and servicemen in the United States and Canada. Soldiers overseas were not allowed to play postal chess due to censorship restrictions.

During World War II, FIDE headquarters were transferred to Argentina. During that time, Augusto de Muro, president of the Argentine Chess Federation, became president of FIDE.

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

International Master Harry Golombek was a pilot in the Royal Air Force during World War II.

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."

Chess masters in England were recruited as code breakers. 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 German Enigma code.

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.  Durine 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 familty that he was alive in Argentina by giving large chess simultaneous exhibitions for publicity.

During World War II, Savielly Tartakover 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.

World women's chess champion Vera Menchik died in 1944 at the age of 38 during a German V2 bombing raid on the city of London. Her sister Olga also died from the bombing raid.

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.

Alexander Ilyin-Genevsky (1894-1941) was killed on September 3, 1941, 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.

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

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.

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.

Klaus Junge was an officer in 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.

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).



  • 6 years ago


    War is never good. Hate it with all of who I am! Postal chess was NOT allowed? Wonder if codes were transmitted.

  • 6 years ago


    ty for sharing !

  • 8 years ago


    this take me very long to read.
  • 8 years ago


    bill! this is a BOOK, not an article! wow! thank you so much for sharing...
  • 8 years ago


    great article although a bit hard to understand but great
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