Buenos Aires 1939, chess and Nazism

“Chess is so rich that a single life is not enough to enjoy it in its entirety”, wrote the Dutch teacher and journalist Hans Ree. He was not only referring to the fact that the number of different possible games is one followed by 123 zeros (the number of atoms in the universe has 43 less zeros), but also to the fact that chess can be a good starting point to talk about almost anything. His tantalizing connections to artificial intelligence, pedagogy, neurology, psychology, psychiatry, mathematics, sports, international politics, literature, convinced Ree that “those who can imagine anything can create the impossible.”

In September 1939, the VIII International Chess Olympiad was held in Buenos Aires. The winds of war were blowing in Europe. Austria and Czechoslovakia had ceased to exist as independent nations, annexed by Nazi Germany. The Czechoslovakians were allowed to compete as a separate team, but under the name “Bohemian-Moravian Protectorate”.. The English delegation consisting of Colonel Hugh O’Donel Alexander, (British champion at the time and eminent mathematician) Stuart Milner-Barry and Harry Golombek, abruptly left the tournament without much explanation.

The Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, ordered them to move urgently to Benchley Park (80 km north of London) to dedicate themselves, along with other privileged brains, to a mission of extreme importance: the deciphering of the Enigma code. They were immediately integrated into the top-secret group led by Alan Turing that ended up cracking the famous Nazi army code, which probably shortened World War II by several years. Turing’s (mathematician, cryptographer, biologist, philosopher, and one of the fathers of computer science and precursor of modern computing) reasoning was that the enormous complexity of chess -there are more different possible games than there are atoms in the known universe- would allow access to the decryption of the encryption.

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The operation was a resounding success and Turing’s coexistence with the great chess masters influenced so that in 1948 the first chess computer program “Turochamp” was created, and chess was chosen as the field of experimentation of artificial intelligence. Alan Turing died of poisoning at the age of 42, and probably committed suicide from the terrible side effects of the chemical castration he chose to escape prison when it was discovered that he was homosexual.

Half a century later, his stubborn determination to associate chess with technology would prove him right. In 1997, “Deep Blue” (IBM) managed to defeat the Russian Gari Kasparov. Thanks to this research, IBM achieved very important advances in areas connected to molecular calculation: manufacturing of complex medicines, agricultural planning, weather forecasting or financial calculation. In 2021, the company Deep Mind (Google) achieved the greatest advance in the history of biology -deciphering the behavior of proteins- thanks to what they learned with chess and go (a complicated game in its tactics, although less so in strategy) through its revolutionary programs “AlfhaZero” and “AlphaGo”. One of the most influential reasons why chess has inspired so many intellectuals is its powerful connection to psychology and psychiatry. That irrepressible temptation to paint chess players as walking aliens walking the stormy limits between genius and madness.

Stefan Zweig wrote before committing suicide: “Every time I meet I feel more alone.” It was February 22, 1942. His masterpiece, “Chess Novel”, was published in Buenos Aires a few months later. The story is a stark criticism against Nazism and the methods of the Gestapo. Its protagonist, Dr. B, tortured and isolated, survives the madness thanks to a chess manual found by chance. Zwieg and Turing clung to chess to tell it. One more example that final death only happens with oblivion.

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