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  • Glenn Julich

Created with Crello. Used with permission.

I have never been so happy to ring in a new year as I have this year. What an absolute mess 2020 was. As I write this my arm is still sore from my recent COVID vaccine, which I am very thankful for. Unfortunately, it arrived a little too late for several of my friends and coworkers who are battling this terrible disease.

Overall, 2020 was miserable for many of us. That said, however, there were some glimmers of light in the otherwise dark year that 2020 was.

First, 2020 did bring back a resurgence in chess interest that the world hasn't seen since the time of Bobby Fischer. Many of us re-activated old accounts and brought our old chessboard and books out of the closet.

This past year also brought us a great Netflix series, the Queen's Gambit which added immensely to the interest in chess. Just take a look at this graph from that shows server load over time in 2020.


So I joined at around the red arrow when the COVID-19 mayhem started. And then the second spike is around the time the Queen's Gambit dropped on Netflix. Wow!

For me, putting my mind into the 64 squares was just a wonderful and healthy place to put my mind while chaos happened all around me. At lunch, I could sit someone in silence, pull out my phone, and check the status of the games I have been playing with many of you. I suspect many of you feel the same way.

The greater chess interest is better for all of us. The more money that comes into the various chess services that we all utilize, the better those resources will become for all of us.

I look forward to seeing how this increased interest translates into over-the-board play. I hope that once this horrendous pandemic is behind us, that maybe chess clubs around the world will see an influx of both players and revenue.

. . .

So 2020, good riddance you fuming, dumpster fire! Welcome, 2021! I hope you will be a better year. The bar is set pretty low, so don't blow it!

I look forward to a year filled (hopefully) with plentiful checkmates, and fewer blunders! Oh yeah, and NO PANDEMICS!

What are you looking forward to most in regards to chess and 2021? Let me know in the comments below!

  • Glenn Julich

Image created with Crello using public domain imagery. Used with permission.

"Senator Ely, sir, c'mon now!" your aide shouts to you. "We're going to be late!"

You arise from the desk in your capitol office and wipe the sweat from your brow on this hot July morning of 1861.

You gather your top hat and scamper out of the capitol with your aides and climb into the waiting carriage outside.

Senator Alfred Ely of the New York 29th district. Public domain image.

"To Manassas, my good man," you order your driver. And with a crack of the reins, you and your aides race towards Virginia for what promises to be a truly splendid picnic. The trip is slow, however as the roads are congested today with hundreds of other carriages racing in the same direction.

"I hope we can get there before the parade starts," your aide says to you. You reply with a nod.

After a long and bumpy carriage ride, you arrive in Virginia and your carriage driver drops you and your aide off to join the swarms of other picnickers spreading blankets and unfurling their umbrellas to shield themselves from the blazing sun.

"Oh, this is just grand!" your aide says as she hurries to claim a spot on the small hill overlooking the beautiful Virginia landscape.

Your aide spreads the picnic blanket out on the hill and you ease yourself down and begin to lounge while surveying the open land before you, peppered with thousands of American soldiers, horses, and some nearby cannons.

After a few minutes of relaxing and enjoying your Champagne, the peaceful picnic is interrupted by the distant booms of cannons firing in perfect succession, then a whistling sound begins to grow closer before landing amongst the soldiers on the field. The impact is horrific as the projectiles traumatically amputate limbs and split open previously healthy bodies. Now, the nearby cannons of your side begin to answer in reply!

The deafening cannon exchanges continue, followed by the sounds of bugles, drums, and the shouts of men as they start running towards each other. Soon the sound of crackling rifle fire joins the symphony of destruction.

As the battle rages, you can no longer distinguish one side's army from the other. The soldiers are all wearing different uniforms; some blue, some grey, some red. You even see groups of soldiers flying the same flags but wearing different colors start to open fire on each other!

As the mayhem heightens, what was initially orderly lines of men parading upon the grounds has now become a spectacle of broken, bleeding, and shouting men lost in the choking clouds of smoke.

Hundreds upon hundreds of men start running towards you, some with arms or hands missing, shouting for everyone to run. Now the bullets begin bouncing upon the ground around you as the affluent men and women at the picnic begin to flee screaming from battle.

As more and more bullets impact the earth and trees around you, you scurry behind a tree for cover and hope the chaos ends soon.

Finally, the sounds of rifle fire become more and more distant and you hear the sounds of approaching horses. And... just your luck! They see you.

"Welllll," an officer approaching you on horseback says in a Southern twang. "Who do we have here?"

"Senator Alfred Ely, sir," you reply. "Of New York's 29th district."

"Oh ain't that a shame," he says as he pulls his revolver from his holster and levels the sights on you. "I am Colonel Cash of the 8th South Carolina. And we just whooped ya!" He cocks the hammer!

Your heart pounds in your chest as you stare into the barrel of the Colonel's pistol.

As the tension in the colonel's trigger finger tightens, one of his nearby subordinates reaches out and places his hand on the colonel's arm. "Sir," he says. "He might could be useful to us... alive, that is."

The colonel eases the hammer down and re-holsters his pistol.

"Senator," the colonel says to you. "You are now a prisoner of the Confederate States of America."

Shackled, you are marched to Richmond, Virginia to begin your days as a prisoner of war.

. . .

The coming months would be punctuated with soul-crushing boredom. Thankfully, your captors gave you a chess set. So you could at least spend time improving your game and playing against your fellow captives.

A few months into your captivity, a Confederate guard calls to you.

"Senator Ely," he says. "You have a visitor. Bring the chessboard."

He escorts you to a table where a visitor awaits.

"Good afternoon, Senator," the visitor says arising from his chair and extending his hand. "I'm Paul. Paul Morphy."

. . .

Senator Alfred Ely published a journal of his experiences in the Confederate Prison. In his journal, he wrote that the general public thought that the opening battle of the American Civil War (the Battle of Bull Run, or the Battle of Manassas) would be more of a parade and quick victory, rather than the bloody route that ensued.

He further wrote that the tedium of prison life was frequently broken up by captives playing games of chess.

Upon learning of the senator's imprisonment and, always searching out worthy opponents, Ameican chess prodigy and master Paul Morphy wasted no time planning a visit to the senator in prison. Sadly, there is no record of the actual games played between the senator and the chess master. But given that Morphy was lightyears ahead of even the best masters of his day, I imagine the poor senator was dealt yet another defeat. This time on the chessboard, rather than the battlefield.

After their meeting, Morphy worked with local Confederate officials and helped to secure the release of his fellow chess player. After about 6 months, the senator was finally released.

Chess served as an important pastime during the American Civil War. Soldiers carried pocket-sized sets like the one showed here:

Pocket-sized chess set carried by some Civil War soldiers. Source: National Park Service.

In the subsequent years of the war, chess would frequently be played around campsites and in prisons around the country in order to break-up the monotony of endless waiting. Waiting for the next battle or for a prison release. As chess has freqeuntly been considered a wonderful mental exercise for military tacticians, many officers played each other in order to keep their minds focused during downtime.

Public domain. Colonel Martin T. McMahon playing against an aide, before beginning the Wilderness Campaign. SOURCE: The Photographic History of The Civil War in Ten Volumes, 1911.

Chess analogies also appeared in strategic communications between war planners. One such example refers to a strategic situation that happened during the war when it looked like the Union General Hooker might take Richmond, Virginia (the capital of the Confederacy) while Confederate General Lee would simultaneously take Washington, DC (the capital of the Union). Such a situation, the tacticians wrote, would be like "exchanging queens" with the enemy. Of course, implying that each side would lose their most important strategic assets and thus negate the gains for either side.

As I continue to learn more and more about the history of chess, I continue to stumble upon stories of where chess has brought people together from different walks of life, including different sides of an armed conflict.

Have you experienced this in your life? Has chess brought you together with someone you might otherwise have nothing in common with? Has it ever opened doors (or prison cells, ha!) for you? If so, please share in the comments below.

  • Glenn Julich

You don't even remember the exact date anymore. Not that it matters. All of your days seem the same now.

You are cold, tired, and hungry. You've been enduring some form of deprivation since you and your allies landed on the beaches of France a few months ago.

But now... things have gone from bad to worse. Your squad somehow managed to get separated from the main Allied force. And, just your luck, you now find yourself in a POW camp somewhere in Europe.

Thankfully the Axis let a charity shipment through to the camp. After they thoroughly inspected everything, of course. In addition to a few blankets and some boots, you find a few small cardboard tubes. The tubes are labeled "Ajax Chessmen."

Finally, you have something to break the doldrums of POW camp life.

Used with permission for fair, non-commercial use. © Imperial War Museum.

Used with permission for fair, non-commercial use. © Imperial War Museum.

You and your buddy sit at a table eager to enjoy a game and take your mind away from the camp for a bit. You open up the tube, spread out the board, and place the pieces.

Pawn to E4. Your buddy responds with E5. But wait a minute...

Something isn't right with this chess set.

The bishop... It is different. It has a little more heft to it than the other pieces. So you inspect it further and sure enough, you can peel back the top of this flat chess piece. It reveals... a compass!

You and your buddy grin at each other and then casually inspect the tube that originally held the board and pieces, careful not to attract attention. Were other goodies smuggled in as well?

The cardboard tube looks like it is two layers. You peel back one of the layers and sure enough, in the middle, you can see what appears to be a map.

You think to yourself that it might be time to get serious about that escape plan you and your buddies have been working on.

What you just experienced happened several times throughout the Axis POW camps during World War II.

Charity shipments to POW camps were not unusual. Multiple legitimate charities, including the Red Cross, would send items like clothing and games to Allied POWs scattered around the prison camps in Europe.

MI9, a department of the British War Office between 1939 and 1945, got the idea that they would tinker with many of the commonly donated items and embed escape tools into them. Once modified, these items would then be fed into the regular, charitable distribution stream.

So while your buddy might get a normal chess set, you might get the modified version that includes escape tools.

One such example was the Ajax Chessmen set pictured above. It included a compass in one of the pieces and a map of Europe.

Meanwhile, another fellow POW might find a knife embedded into the sole of his donated boots. Another buddy might discover that he could peel off the face of his playing cards to reveal a map.

Interestingly, there were 316 known escape attempts utilizing these kits.

How many of those documented attempts actually made it all the way home?

Ready for this?


Yes. The documented number of POWs that utilized these kits and returned home was 32.

And thirty-two, of course, also happens to be the exact number of chess pieces.

Wild, right?


(1) The chess set designed to help POWs escape. By Daily Mail. Originally published Nov 2006. Accessed Nov 21, 2020 at

(2) Escape tools. By Escape & Evasion. Accessed Nov 21, 2020 at

(3) Imperial War Museum. Accessed Nov 21, 2020 at

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