The search for the “Fifth Man” — Spooks and Chess Players

“They began a mad search for enemies inside the organisation itself – seeking to find more hidden traitors who could be used to explain why MI5 kept failing to do its job properly.

It was the search for the “Fifth Man” – to go with the other four already exposed, Burgess, McLean, Philby and Blunt.”


A story about the legendary — and sometime hilarious — incompetence of MI5 caught my attention. The whole piece is worth reading, but I will just focus on the following allegation: “The assistant of a MI5 Director was communicating with the Russians through his Correspondence Chess Games”.  Follow us on Twitter: @Intel_Today


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This allegation is PURE NONSENSE. Allow me to explain. To begin with, even if it was possible to communicate secretly by playing correspondence chess, the method would be the less efficient system of telecommunication ever designed.

Compared to the dozens of Mega bits per second of the current LTE (4G), such system would have a transfer rate of information of just a few micro bits per second at best! Smoke signals do better…

Moreover, the games played by the ‘suspect’ are obviously good games that only show that he was a very good player. There is no additional information beside the moves themselves. For those who understand chess, it is obvious.

Let us first read the story and then we will take a look at one of Graham Mitchell’s games.

“A small group of MI5 men went to their boss and said they wanted to investigate all the past failures looking for evidence of treachery.

Their boss was called Sir Roger Hollis – and he said no. His argument was that operations often went wrong because of simple human failure, and to re-examine them on the basis that failure was evidence of treachery would tear the agency apart.

Imagine what it would feel like he said to know you are being watched because a past operation you were involved with had gone wrong. “It’s like the Gestapo” he said. So the small group of MI5 agents decided he must be the traitor.

[Hollis was criticised for not alerting John Profumo, the War Secretary in Prime Minister Harold Macmillan‘s Conservative government, that he might have become entangled with a Soviet spy ring through his friendship with Stephen Ward, and his affair with call girl Christine Keeler, who was introduced by Ward to Profumo.]

It became farce. The journalists who had started the mole-hunt went to war. Nigel West wrote a whole book announcing that he had discovered that the 5th man wasn’t really Hollis, but was actually Hollis’ deputy. He was a man called Graham Mitchell who in his spare time was a grand master in correspondence chess.

Apparently the dissidents in MI5 were convinced that the letters he sent his chess-friends were his way of contacting his Soviet controllers. The moves he typed out were actually secret codes that disguised his treachery.

Here is one of Graham Mitchell’s games that he played in 1950. You are looking at a complicated code, whether it was secret messages to the Russians has never been proved.”



I have replayed this game and used a very powerful software (KOMODO) to analyse every move. I can only conclude that both players played very well through the entire game. Not a single move is suspicious.

1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5

The Ruy Lopez, also called the Spanish Opening or Spanish Game, is a chess opening characterised by the moves:
1. e4 e52. Nf3 Nc63. Bb5

The Ruy Lopez is named after 16th-century Spanish bishop Ruy López de Segura. It is one of the most popular openings, with such a vast number of variations that in the Encyclopaedia of Chess Openings (ECO) all codes from C60 to C99 are assigned to them.

3.  … a6 4. Ba4 Nf6 5. O-O Nxe4 6. d4 b5 7. Bb3 d5 8. dxe5 Be6 9. c3 Be7

The ECO for this variation is: C83 – Open Ruy Lopez: 9 c3 Be7. So far, both players have played moves that have been documented and analysed for a very long time.

10. Be3 O-O 11. Nbd2 Nxd2 12. Qxd2 Na5 13. Bc2 Nc4 14. Qd3 g6 15. Bh6 Nxb2 16. Qd4 Re8 17. Qf4 c5 18. h4 Qa5 19. Rfc1 Na4

This is the last ‘book’ move according to my software, but I am pretty sure that specialized books on this opening — available to both players at the time– go even deeper in the game… Nevertheless, let us carry on…

20. Ng5 Nxc3 21. Qf3 Bd8 22. h5 Ra7 23. hxg6 hxg6 24. Bxg6 fxg6 25. Rxc3 Bxg5 26. Bxg5 c4 27. Bf6 Rh7

28. Qe3 (28. Qg3 is interesting Bf7 29. Rd1) 28… Qc7 29. Qg5 Bf5 (29… Qf7 30. Qe3 b4) 30. g4 Be4 31. f3 Qc5+

32. Qe3 Qb4 (32… Qxe3+ is an interesting idea 33. Rxe3 Bc2)

33. Re1 Bd3 34. Qd4 Qf8 35. Kg2 Qh6 36. Qxd5+ Kf8 [Black has a mate threat] 37. Qd6+ Kg8 38. Qd5+ Draw by repetitions.

There is simply not a single suspicious move in the entire game. Every move respects the rules of the game. The opening is one of the most studied openings of the classical games. The middle game is free of mistakes. And the end  game is a forced draw.

There simply cannot be a hidden message beyond the game itself. Any reasonable person who understands the game will agree to that conclusion. So much for the MI5 folks…

‘Chess Game and Spies’ in popular Culture

The Chess game and the spooks are often associated in popular culture. For instance “Declassified: Untold Stories of American Spies” is a documentary series that details important cases, missions and operations of the American intelligence community, told firsthand by the men and women who worked them.

The series debuted on CNN on June 19, 2016. The series is hosted by Mike Rogers. The first episode of Season One is titled ‘Trigon: The KGB Chess Game’.

Here is a clip from one of the best spy movies: “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”

Clip – “Be suspicious; be very suspicious.”


Bugger – Maybe the real state secret is that spies aren’t very good at their jobs and don’t know very much about the world — BBC


The search for the “Fifth Man” — Spooks and Chess Players

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1 Response to The search for the “Fifth Man” — Spooks and Chess Players

  1. Per G Eriksson says:

    Its only natural to suspect Roger Hollis for being a mole, too many anomalies during his career connected to him and a pre MI5 life that raises a number of questions – one of which can be “tell me who you socialise with and I can tell you who you are”


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