St Louis Missouri, World chess hall of fame. Battle on the Board: Chess during World War II


The photograph on the cover of this issue of Chess Review illustrates the stakes of World War II using toys sold by F.A.O. Schwarz. The photograph includes leaders of the Allied powers: Joseph Stalin of the Soviet Union, Franklin D. Roosevelt of the United States, and Winston Churchill of the United Kingdom, along with soldiers in a variety of poses. A chessboard appears before a map of Europe, connecting the struggle to hold or conquer territory with the action of a game of chess. Chess Review was an American chess publication that included analysis and writings by top players. During the 1940s and 1950s, Chess Review distinguished itself from other chess publications by including photographs of the top players of the day.

World chess hall of fame

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Though chess is often perceived as a game of war, it also serves as a means of passing long hours or as an aid in recuperation for members of the military. Battle on the Board: Chess during World War II provides insight into how a game modeled upon battle can provide a sense of home and community as well as demonstrating the dramatic changes the war brought to the game.

The exhibition includes prisoner of war chess sets from the collections of the National Museum of the Marine Corps and National Museum of the United States Air Force, archival material from the John G. White Chess Collection at the Cleveland Public Library, and highlights from the collection of the World Chess Hall of Fame.

From the Curator

Though chess is often perceived as a game of war, it also serves as a means of passing long hours, a reminder of home, or as an aid in recuperation for members of the military. Battle on the Board: Chess during World War II includes artifacts related to aid efforts and how the war changed the game. Chess often played a part in philanthropic efforts that aimed to assist members of the military, whether in the United States, on the front, held in prisoner of war camps, or convalescing in hospitals. Chess played just one role in the larger aid efforts undertaken by American citizens, who according to a 1946 report of the President’s War Relief Committee, would ultimately donate over $1 billion to war charities between 1939 and 1945.

In 1929, the Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War established new regulations that aimed to ensure humane treatment of prisoners of war. These included rules about camp conditions, the rights of prisoners, and medical treatment. Among these articles was a stipulation that when possible, “belligerents shall encourage intellectual diversions and sports organized by POWs.”

The International Committee of the Red Cross acted to enforce these regulations by inspecting POW camps to evaluate adherence to these standards, keeping records of the locations of POWs, and facilitating the exchange of letters and packages between POWs and their families. In an August 7, 1940, New York Timesarticle, the Red Cross announced that relatives of POWs in European camps could send packages to them free of charge. Concerned not only with the physical well being of captured troops, but also their mental and emotional needs, the Red Cross’ original list of items that could be sent to POWs of European Axis powers included food, clothing, and toiletries as well as recreational items like books, footballs, playing cards, and chess and checkers sets. In 1942, the list of materials that could be mailed was greatly expanded, with baseball and softball equipment added to the list of permitted sporting goods.

Like other games and sports in POW camps, chess proved a means of fighting boredom and depression and provided a distraction from the fear and monotony of prison life. In November 1942, the New York Times reported that First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited St. James’s Palace, where the Red Cross’ Prisoner of War Department assembled parcels for captive troops. Upon learning that the favorite gifts of British POWs were chess and mahjong sets, she purchased a number of packages to send to them. In some camps, POWs organized their own chess tournaments as a means of passing time. At Stalag IIIB, the June 25, 1943, issue of the camp’s newsletter, titled POW-WOW, advertised a chess and checker tournament as a means of staving off becoming “Stalag-happy.” While captive at Stalag Luft I, 1st Lt. Harold L. Weachter, a navigator in the U.S. Army Air Forces, carved his own chess set. He even composed a poem about the experience, lamenting that after spending so much time and care in creating the set, the Red Cross sent Christmas care parcels with numerous sets.

Efforts to aid in recreation for troops also extended to camps in the United States and the European and Pacific Theaters. In 1941, the United Services Organization (USO) was formed in response to a call by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The USO coordinated the recreation and aid efforts of six organizations: the Jewish Welfare Board, National Catholic Community Service, the National Travelers Aid Association, Salvation Army, Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), and Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA). As part of their aid work, many of these organizations made gift kits for outgoing soldiers and those in hospitals, some of which included simple pocket chess sets stamped with the groups’ names.

Philanthropic efforts to create connections with civilian life were complemented by the activities of corporations of the era. The Drueke Company, a renowned American manufacturer of games, began production of pocket games, including chess. These could easily be shipped to soldiers due to their small sizes. The Coca-Cola Company donated game sets to military camps in addition to their shipment of ten complete bottling plants to the European Theater.

Unlike many federations in occupied territories abroad, the United States Chess Federation (USCF) was able to continue to conduct national chess championships through the course of the war. However, many of the nation’s top chess talents also chose to turn energies to aid efforts on the homefront. Observing that the Red Cross provided chess sets at its recreation halls and hospitals and that members of many individual chess clubs across the country had initiated efforts to play chess with veterans in hospitals, the USCF partnered with the periodical Chess Reviewto found the organization Chess for the Wounded in 1945. They aimed to unite these disparate efforts through a national organization with five sections reflecting the regional structure of the Red Cross. Future U.S. Women’s Chess Champion Mary Bain was the Southeast’s Area Director, and the group’s board included future 1992 U.S. Chess Hall of Fame inductees Arnold Denker and Gisela Gresser. The activities of the new organization were reported in chess periodicals of the time as well as the USCF’s annual yearbook.

The May 1945 issue of Chess Review announced the new organization with an article illustrating how the game assisted wounded veterans in their recovery. During the war, it had reported stories about chess tournaments organized by members of the military and chess-related aid efforts. Though many players assisted in the project, Gisela Gresser’s work earned the attention of both the chess periodicals and national press. Gresser used her talents as the 1944 U.S. Women’s Chess Champion to organize simultaneous exhibitions for the benefit of the Red Cross and the American Society for Russian Relief, Inc., which provided humanitarian aid to Soviet citizens affected by the war. She also taught chess in hospitals through the Red Cross and in the hall of the National Maritime Union as a volunteer for the United Seamen’s Service.

While some aid efforts ended with the September 1945 conclusion of the war, many others that focused upon assisting wounded veterans and war refugees continued. Chess for the Wounded sustained its work through at least 1948, and some of its volunteers maintained or renewed their efforts after the outbreak of the Korean War. Their endeavors showed the human side of a game often associated with pure logic or competition, revealing how it could be used as a comfort in difficult times.

 —Emily Allred, Assistant Curator


chess 2

In this chess set, the leaders of the Allied and Axis powers, supported by members of their militaries, meet over the board. Dr. George Dean, a noted collector of chess sets whose pieces have been exhibited at the World Chess Hall of Fame, commissioned the set from artist David Warther Stevens.


chess 3

Both the editors of Chess Review and the leaders of the newly-formed United States Chess Federation (USCF) used military chess clubs and aid efforts aimed at injured veterans to promote the game. Here, Chess Review illustrated readers’ accounts of starting their own chess clubs. One of these includes Olaf Ulvestad, who enlisted in 1941. After the war’s end, he would participate in the 1946 U.S.A.-U.S.S.R. team match as well as numerous U.S. Open Chess Championships and U.S. Chess Championships.


chess 4

During World War II, the Red Cross assisted prisoners of war (POWs) by checking the conditions of camps, sending aid parcels, and facilitating mail between POWs and their families. The Red Cross also provided compact and lightweight pocket sets like this for entertainment. This one was owned by Staff Sergeant Arthur D. Williams, whose Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress was shot down on October 5, 1944. After being captured by German forces, Williams was taken to Stalag Luft IV, a POW camp in what is now Poland, which became infamous for its poor conditions, harsh treatment of prisoners, and an 86-day forced march after Soviet forces approached the position of the camp in 1945. At the beginning of the
march, soldiers subsisted on the contents of the remaining Red Cross parcels at the camp, which they carried with them. Williams survived the war along with the set, and his daughter later donated it to the World Chess Hall of Fame.


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