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  • 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.

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  • 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?


Thirty-two!


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?

References:


(1) The chess set designed to help POWs escape. By Daily Mail. Originally published Nov 2006. Accessed Nov 21, 2020 at https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-419519/The-chess-set-designed-help-POWs-escape.html.


(2) Escape tools. By Escape & Evasion. Accessed Nov 21, 2020 at http://www.escapeandevasion.com/?page_id=26.


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

https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/30082429.


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A few months ago I had the good fortune to stumble across a fellow Chess.com user that started the Adult Chess Improver YouTube Channel geared at those of us who are adults and working to improve our chess games. In the past months, I have really enjoyed the content he has created which includes game analysis, book reviews, his study methodology, board exercises to improve chess vision, and so much more.


I recently approached him and asked him if he would be willing to be interviewed for my blog and he kindly agreed!


So without further ado, here's a short interview with Luka Popov, an adult improver who has shown significant improvement in his chess. Enjoy!


Glenn: Luka, it is great to have an opportunity to interview you. We actually have a bit in common. Not only are both of us adult improvers, but we also both possess doctoral degrees; you in theoretical physics and myself in medicine. So I suspect we both are fascinated by and sincerely enjoy the learning process. This is probably why we like chess! I think there is more chess knowledge, texts, and theories than many academic disciplines!


Luka: Yes, it looks like we are in the same boat 😊 Well, as Karpov famously said, chess is art, science, and sport. I guess we are both attracted by the “science” part.


Glenn: So let's get some of the basics out of the way! Tell me a little bit about yourself, where you live, and what you do for a living.


Luka: I am 38 years old, I live and work in Croatia. As a theoretical physicist I used to work at the Department of Theoretical Physics (University of Zagreb) most of my career, but then I shifted more towards applied science. Currently, I work as an engineer in a private R&D facility. I am also a family man, father of three.


Glenn: When did you start getting serious about chess improvement and how have you gauged your improvement (rating, etc.)?


Luka: Well, I used to play some chess as a kid for a start. I played with my father, grandmother, relatives, friends. But nothing too serious nor competitive. When I was a student, I joined the chess club at the Department of Mathematics. This was the first time I experienced competitive OTB chess. At that time I did work on my chess occasionally, mostly using Chessmaster 9000 software, but still nothing too serious. Then I quit chess completely and I came back to it some 15 years later, June 2019 to be precise. And this time it’s serious. 😊


Glenn: And as I recall from your videos, you play both online and over-the-board in the real world. Are you involved with any local chess clubs at all?


Luka: First let me say that I don’t see chess as a video game, never have and never will. For me, chess is a beautiful, ancient board game and this is how it should be played, over the board. Online chess is very useful for training purposes, but the main goal for me is to play OTB chess. So yes, I am a member of the small local chess club and I use every opportunity to play real chess.


Glenn: Are you doing tournaments? And if so, is this a new experience for you? Any tips for online players who want to venture into the tournament world?


Luka: Yes, whenever I can. Unfortunately, I didn’t have many opportunities since all this virus thing. I did play one classical OTB tournament, and a few local blitz and rapid tournaments. If everything goes well, I hope to attend a big classical tournament in January 2021. I think every online player should try the real tournament, it's a completely different experience than online chess. The thrill, the adrenaline, body language of your opponent, the pressure to play well… there are just so many dimensions of this sport that cannot be experienced online.


Glenn: I'm curious what your daily study routine is like?


Luka: I don’t have a fixed routine, but there are some things I try to do on a daily basis, and these include: tactical training, one rapid online game, reading a chess book, watching chess videos. These are the things I do every day, although I can’t always allocate the same amount of time. But I believe that with this kind of routine I am making sure that I am always in shape and that I work on all areas of chess.


Glenn: Looking back over your time as an adult improver, what study habit has given you the most return for your investment?


Luka: For any adult improver, tactics training is something that will give you the fastest results in terms of rating and improvement. For me, it was building pattern recognition skills using various online resources and working on tactics from various books. Currently, I am working with Laszlo Polgar’s famous book, improving my calculation and visualization by solving hundreds of mate-in-2 problems.


Glenn: One challenge for adult improvers is that we often don't know where to focus our studying: openings, the middle game, or the end game. In your studies, how are you dividing your time between these three? Any advice?


Luka: First advice I can give to any adult improver is to forget about the openings. I mean this literally, just don’t study openings. OK, you should know some 5-10 moves of the mainline opening you play and some ideas about where do you want your pieces to be. So bring out your pieces, put the king to safety, connect the rooks, and just play chess. On a sub-master level, you really don’t need a lot of opening theory. Having said that, I think the main focus should be on tactics. Any kind of tactical training will do it, but I think focusing on basic and elementary tactics can be most beneficial. By doing basic tactics one builds pattern recognition skills and decreases the frequency of one-move blunders in one’s games. Some very respected authors and coaches say that you should do the same set of puzzles several times over until you can solve each one within 7 seconds, which means that your brain picked up a pattern. As for the endgames, an amateur should know some very basic technical endgames, and the rest of it will come with experience and the ability to calculate.


Glenn: At some point in your adult improvement journey, you started making fantastic chess instructional videos. I personally have enjoyed many of these videos. Have you enjoyed this process thus far? How are the videos being received by the adult improvement community?


Luka: As I strived to achieve chess improvement, I realized there is quite a community of adult chess improvers out there. So I joined several forums and discord channels, in order to connect with other improvers and share the experience. The YouTube channel was just the next step in my attempt to reach out to other adult chess improvers, to share my experience but also to hear and learn from others. I never did any video production before, so it was demanding for a start, just to figure out the technicalities of making good videos. But once I started, it proved to be a great experience. I’ve received many comments, both public and in private, from adult improvers offering me support. Many viewers find that they can identify with my efforts since they have the same path and struggles. And there aren’t that many channels dedicated to adult improvers by the adult improvers. Most chess channels are run by titled players who started with competitive chess as kids, and they often just cannot understand the struggles and problems of late starters. I made many videos at once, just wanting to share my experience and training methods, and now I will continue to analyze my games on the channel, emphasizing my own weaknesses which are often common to all adult chess improvers. In this way, I hope I can help myself and others to overcome these weaknesses. Some viewers suggested that I should offer some kind of individual mentorship for improvers who need some more concrete guidance, so I’ve recently started a Patreon page, mostly for that purpose.


Glenn: I'm curious since you have shown so much improvement, do you have any personal goals to become a titled player in the future?


Luka: I honestly don’t think it’s realistic for a late starter. A more realistic goal, and my personal goal for that matter, would be to reach 2000 ELO rating and just play chess as 1900-2000 player. For a title, one would have to go above 2200, and I am not sure that anyone who started as an adult can go that high. But on the other hand, we are all different and have different rating ceilings. Who knows? Maybe I will stay way below 1900, maybe not. Time will tell.


Glenn: Do you study any games of chess masters? Does any particular master resonate with you?


Luka: Yes, I often go through master games and I enjoy it very much. I always do it with a paper book and a physical board, and it gives me great pleasure. My favorite player by far is Paul Morphy, and I really like going through his games. The problem with Morphy is that he can be very hard to imitate since he was an intuitive player, often winning by brilliant combinations and by out-calculating all his opponents. The problem with contemporary masters, as well as with Soviet-era masters, is that they rely so much on the theory that it is extremely difficult for an amateur to learn from their games. This is why I believe that an amateur can learn the most from post-romantic, pre-Soviet masters, such as Steinitz, Lasker, Capablanca, Reti, and the like. But one should also study instructive amateur games, sometimes you can learn more from amateur’s mistakes than from master’s brilliance. Dan Heisman is a proponent of that approach, he has many very instructive videos and a book with amateur games, which I highly recommend.


Glenn: Anything else you want to share about your journey with the readers?


Luka: Just don’t get discouraged. Nobody takes adult improvers seriously… until they actually improve. So just keep working, expose your brain to as much quality chess content as you can, play slow games, analyze them afterward, and the result will surely come.


Glenn: Thank you for your time! And I look forward to continuing to enjoy your video content! Keep up the excellent work and good luck to you!


Luka: Thanks! Good luck with your great blog and stay in touch.


Please be sure to check out Luka's fantastic YouTube channel:



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