Saturday, September 26, 2009

Hugh Alexander: Chess and the Cold War

I bought a copy of Standpoint today. I was pleased to find it had a chess column, but disappointed to find it was by Dominic Lawson. I know he used to be a county player, but - damn it - so did I, and you want to read someone who knows more about the game than you do.

But I take it all back because it was a fascinating piece. Lawson writes about Hugh Alexander who, like Harry Golombek, was a leading British player who worked at the code-breaking station Bletchley Park during World War II.

Lawson writes:
After the war, following a brief stint on civvy street, he returned to become the head of cryptanalysis at GCHQ, where he remained until his retirement in 1971, regularly refusing all promotions. On his retirement, he was offered a similar job at the NSA by the Americans, but he was already a sick man, dying in 1974 at the age of 64.
The remarkable thing was that, despite this career, Alexander represented Britain in six Chess Olympiads (the Olympiad is the world team tournament) between 1933 and 1958 and was, for much of that period, our top player.

He would have played in more Olympiads, writes Lawson:
were it not for the fact that Britain would not allow Alexander to play either behind or even anywhere near the Iron Curtain, so valuable did they believe the contents of his brains would be to our Cold War foes. 
Thus it was only when the leading Soviet and Eastern European players could be persuaded to play in the UK — or in matches conducted through the medium of the telegraph — that Alexander could match his chess skill against theirs. Yet on these rare occasions, Alexander — in an era when the Soviet chess players were generally regarded as unbeatable — proved himself able to win against the very best, something which no British player would be able to emulate until the arrival of Tony Miles in the 1980s.
I remember that Hugh Alexander wrote the chess column in the Sunday Times when I was first getting interested in the game in the early seventies. He appeared there under the impressive name C. H. O'D. Alexander as his full name was Conel Hugh O'Donel Alexander.

You can find Hugh Alexander's chess games on the excellent site.

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