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P.O.W. CHESS

batgirl
Sep 18, 2010, 12:17 PM 2

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CHESS IN AN R.A.F. PRISONER OF WAR CAMP

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By  F. A. O'Malley

   The greatest of the very few pleasures left in life to the P.O.W. was in the form of sport, and it was this very important item which decided the make or break of the newly-arrived prisoner. In the early days of P.O.W. life, sporting activity was not organized; on the contrary, it was a very casual way of defeating acute boredom and the consequent breaking of morale.

   In R.A.F. P.O.W. camps this state of affairs did not last very long. First football, then rugby, theatricals, bridge, etc., became highly organized, as the master of each art arrived as a guest of the Third Reich.

   Chess enjoyed the most sensational transition of all, as before the master of this art arrived, chess was merely a means of passing the weary hours in locked barracks until lights out. When he did arrive in Stalag Luft I, I had the good fortune to come in immediate contact with him as he lived in the same barracks. He was by name Novotney, a Czech, and from the day of his arrival chess enjoyed a great boost in genuine popularity. The fascination for this game became one of Stalag's miracles as the general theory and more exacting features of the game were expounded in novel, excitable English by the Czech. His first lecture on the game was to a small group of fans in the barracks, and by introducing the mysteries of recording a game, as his first subject, he enslaved us to the game there and then.

   We were then encouraged to carry on playing chess in a casual way as before, but to record our games. This led to a systematic check on the amount of benefit we received from his lectures and on our progress as reasonable chessplayers. When our orders for Stalag-made chessmen were fulfilled by the camp craftsmen this system of chess education became widespread. A committee was eventually formed to control all chess matters such as tourneys, barracks matches, individual challenge matches, and playing rules.

   The blow to chess fell suddenly; Novotney was moved from the camp to Stalag Luft 3. Chess was not in danger of losing some of its previous vigor, but the keenness and hard work of a few chess enthusiasts did not allow this.

   The arrival of one by name Brunet, a Canadian, pushed the standard of chess quite out of our reach – he was the master of them all. The pioneer work of Novotney faded before the spectacular displays of this new prisoner. He became extremely popular in the chess world for his modesty and his charming manner. Notwithstanding his shabby treatment at the hands of the Gestapo, he commenced to work hard in the interest of chess; this included patient tuition and week-end simultaneous displays (16 boards). He gave me the honor of organizing and introducing the Stalag correspondence chess between compounds. This was carried out by inter-compound communication via the camp ration party. He also introduced a ladder tourney which became very popular; this was followed by the introduction of Kriegspiel, but it did not have a chance to flourish, as the cessation of hostilities rudely interrupted all further play.

   The high spot in the chess history was the important part it played in an escape bid.

   It happened one day in the Stalag workshop. The German interpreter, who was a keen chessplayer, was challenged to a game by a P.O.W.  The German accepted the challenge without any hesitation, as, no doubt, he wished to defend the Fatherland somehow, against this arrogant Englander. The game had not been in progress very long, when the German guard became an interested spectator, as, no doubt, he wishes to witness Sieg fur Deutschland at last, if only over the chessboard. The result was as expected, however, and quite fair – one British officer missing. So chess in a P.O.W. camp, whether played poorly or with skill, was in many ways a benefit to the P.O.W.

originally published in the BCM in 1947

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