Cold War – Chess And Espionage

The close affinity between chess and code breaking also led Alastair Denniston, directory of Bletchley Park, to recruit chess players to decode the German Enigma machine during World War II.

Chess masters Harry Golombek, Hugh Alexander, and Sir Philip Stuart Milner-Berry immediately withdrew from the 1939 Chess Olympiad to report to Bletchley Park. The most prominent member of the code breaking team, mathematician Alan Turing, later created a chess program . . . years before the necessary computers to run such a program even existed.

Chess And Espionage
For the USSR, chess had always been a key weapon in the Cold War. Even more than sport, the cerebral character of chess gave it added significance in asserting Soviet superiority over the West.

The KGB was created in 1954 to serve as the “sword and shield of the Communist Party.” The new security service, which played a major role in the purge of Beria’s supporters, was designed to be carefully controlled by senior Communist Party officials. It was divided into approximately 20 directorates, the most important of which were those responsible for foreign intelligence, domestic counterintelligence, technical intelligence, protection of the political leadership, and the security of the country’s frontiers

It is not strange that the KGB would be so involved in chess. The game lends itself perfectly to cloak-and-dagger operations. And since the USSR was a chess-crazy country, disguising communications as chess moves was an ideal cover. The KGB actually had a section on chess in its handbooks. In the ’60s and ’70s, the Soviet embassy in Washington kept a chess expert on staff who was also a KGB agent. According to defector Lev Alburt, many of his fellow Soviet grand masters were “KGB infiltrators.”

In 2009, a number of postcards surfaced, all addressed to Graham Mitchell. Mitchell was a deputy director general of the British MI5 during the 1950s. As for the cryptic notes, they all discussed chess games, and experts suspect they were some kind of code. The postcards are thought to have been sent by an undercover agent from Frankfurt, a hub of espionage activity during the Cold War. They contain chess notations to describe various moves. However, they’re probably ciphers with secret information. Hidden messages could also have been couched within the suspicious-sounding text. For example, the agent writes:

Americans vs Soviets

Without against Dr Balogh I always have now hard fights in my games.

Against Collins I have been fallen into a variation of the Nimzowich-defense who surely should be lost!

I shall try to find a new idea for defending. But only a little hope. But all my games go forward in a quick way.

Have I sent to you any games from me? And what happened in your games?

9. . . 5435 10. 1432 12.-16./6. 16./6. = od

It is not known if the agent was working for MI5, as Mitchell was suspected of being a Soviet spy at the time. As head of counterespionage, Mitchell could have been recruiting double agents for the KGB. No evidence of treason was ever found, however, and Mitchell retired in 1963.