Today is Victory Day in the USA, also known as VJ Day, and marks the anniversary of the Allies’ victory over Japan during World War II. It followed the dropping of the devastating atomic bomb on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima on August 6 and Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. And this year it takes on a more poignant significance, with this being the 70th anniversary.
In the movies recently, we’ve seen how chess masters made a significant cerebral contribution to the war effort against Nazi Germany, with two-time British champion Conel Hugh O’Donel Alexander featuring in The Imitation Game where he played a supporting role to Enigma codebreaker Alan Turing. Alexander wasn’t the only top British master stationed at Bletchley Park, also there was Harry Golombek and Stuart Milner-Barry. In America, Reuben Fine also worked in naval intelligence; while Seattle's Olaf Ulvestad was the only top US master to see combat duty in WW2 serving in North Africa and Europe.
The chess played during the war is further explained in an intriguing new exhibit Battle on the Board: Chess during World War II, which will run through Jan. 17, 2016, at the World Chess Hall of Fame in St. Louis. Writing about the exhibit, chess historian IM John Donaldson comments: ‘Arguably even more significant than the contribution of chess players toward the war effort was the therapeutic role the game provided in fighting boredom and depression. Chess offered a much needed distraction from the fear and monotony of prison life. Tournaments were held, some with hundreds of prisoners competing, which allowed the participants to temporarily forget their plight.’
One such remarkable survival tale through chess being that of English amateur Eugene Ernest Colman (1878-1964). He was a civil servant stationed in Singapore in 1942, when at the age of 64 - and already in ill-health - he was no doubt looking forward to his retirement. But after the Japanese invaded, he endured in conditions of great privation by being sent to the notorious Changi Civilian Internees Camp.
What’s even more remarkable is, that when he was there for three years, he made his own chess set and helped organise chess among the fellow internees, and with them analysed this "new defence” in the Two Knights’ Defence (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Nf6 4.Ng5 d5 5.exd5 Na5 6.Bb5+ c6 7.dxc6 bxc6 8.Qf3 Rb8) he had invented to take everyone’s mind off the horrors of the prison (about 850 POWs died in Changi during the Japanese occupation).
The line went on to become known as the Colman Variation, as he unleashed it on hapless opponents in the London and Surrey leagues in the post-war years - and it proved so effective that his legacy to chess is that very few now dare venture 8.Qf3 in tournament praxis. His tale of mental triumph over privation is told in Olimpiu G. Urcan’s absorbing book Surviving Changi. E. E. Colman: A Chess Biography.
Suren Momo - Milan Vukcevich
World Students Team Ch., 1960
Two Knights’ Defence, Colman Variation
1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Nf6 4.Ng5 d5 5.exd5 Na5 6.Bb5+ c6 7.dxc6 bxc6 8.Qf3?! The big theory lines are the bishop retreats to d3 - a favourite of Hikaru Nakamura - or e2. Either way, Black has plenty of compensation for the pawn with active piece-play. 8...Rb8! 9.Bxc6+ Nxc6 10.Qxc6+ Nd7 11.d3 Be7 12.Ne4 Rb6! This is the central theme to the Colman Variation - the rook lift to b6 doesn't just hit the queen, it also dramatically swings over to attack on the kingside. Black may be two pawns down, but defending this for White has proven very problematic - so much so, that 8.Qf3 has all but disappeared from tournament praxis due Colman's analysis while a POW in Ghangi prison camp. 13.Qa4 0-0 14.0-0 f5 15.Nec3 Bb7 16.Qc4+ Kh8 17.Nd5 Rg6 18.f3 If 18.g3 f4 is crashing through. 18...Bc5+ The attack plays itself now. 19.Kh1 f4! (See Diagram) 20.b4 Qg5 21.g4 Rh6 22.d4 Bxd5 23.Qe2 White can't recapture as ...Qh4 was mating. 23...Bxd4 24.c3 Bc4 25.Qg2 Bxf1 26.Qxf1 Qh4 0-1