Dr James Macrae Aitken

27-10-1908 Calderbank, Scotland - 03-12-1983, Cheltenham, England

Aitken did not keep the best of health when he was young, so he was was schooled at home for a number of years before going to Dunfermline High School in 1921. He was Dux of the school in 1927, excelling at Latin, Greek and Mathematics. He attended Edinburgh University, graduating M.A. with first-class honours in Classics in 1931. He then went to Balliol College, Oxford, gaining a B.A. with another first in ‘Greats’. Later, he would be granted a PH.D from the University of Edinburgh for his thesis on George Buchanan, the 16th century scholar and humanist. This thesis was published as The Trial of George Buchanan before the Lisbon Inquisition (Oliver and Boyd, Edinburgh and London 1939).

Aitken during the 1930's.

Aitken was taught chess at an early age by his father, but did begin to play seriously until he went to Oxford University. He represented Edinburgh Chess Club in the Richardson Cup, the premier team event in Scotland. He won the Scottish championship for the first time in 1935, going on to win a total of 10 times, his last being a shared 1st in 1965.

Aitken represented Scotland in the Olympiads at Stockholm 1937, Munich 1958, Tel Aviv 1964 and Skopje 1972. In 1937, the strongest player in Scotland was W.A. Fairhurst, but he knew that he would be unable to take up his position on the Scottish team. He did, however, play an important practice match with Aitken, which helped the latter with his preparation for the important contest, Aitken’s first international event. Although he lost this match, Aitken succeeded in defeating Fairhurst in a second match in 1938.

Aitken also played in the Zonal tournaments at Bad Pyrmont 1951, Munich 1954 and Enschede 1963. Other international tournaments in which he competed were Bournemouth 1939, Hastings 1945/46 and 1946/47 and Southsea 1949. He also represented Great Britain in the radio match against the Soviet Union in 1946, and in the over-the-board meeting between the two countries in 1947.

He was engaged in secret British government work during WWII, as part of the group of codebreakers at Bletchley Park. After the war, Aitken continued to work for the Foreign Office in Cheltenham.

He competed in a number of British championship events and played in club and English county chess events until the end.

Scottish Championship
Aitken won this championship on 10 occasions, one short of W.A. Fairhurst's 11 wins.
1935, 1952, 1953, 1955, 1956, 1957, 1958, 1960, 1961, 1965 (shared with P.Jamieson)

He participated in many other championships, notably his 2nd place finishes behind Fairhurst in 1934, 1936 and 1938. His last championship was 1977, played when he was a few months short of his 69th birthday.

1937 Stockholm ■ 1958 Munich ■ 1964 Tel-Aviv ■ 1972 Skopje

Zonal Tournaments
Bad Pyrmont 1951 ■ Munich 1954 ■ Enschede 1963

Dr Aitken at the Enschede Zonal 1963.

Matches with W.A. Fairhurst
1937 Aitken lost 2½-3½
1938 Aitken won 5½-2½

Match with Mieses
In a letter to Newsflash (July 1984, p 6), it was reported that Aitken had played a match against Mieses in 1947, which he won 5½-½. 'In deference to the feelings of the old master, the result was never published.' [Mieses was aged 82 at the time.]

International Matches
1946 Great Britain v Soviet Union Radio Match - Aitken lost both games to Bondarevsky.
1947 Great Britain v Soviet Union (London) - Aitken lost both games to Ragozin.
1947 Great Britain v Australia Radio Match - Aitken defeated Mills.
1948 Great Britain v Australia Radio Match - Aitken drew with Hanks.
1951 Great Britain v Yugoslavia (London) - win and a loss against Nedeljkovic.
1957 Ireland v Scotland (Dublin) - Aitken defeated Bourke on board one.

Scotland v England
1951, 1955, 1958, 1962.

Bournemouth 1939
Hastings 1945/6
Hastings 1946/7
Southsea 1949

British Championships
Aitken competed in many British Championships, including 1948, 1949, 1952, 1954, 1959, 1962, 1965, 1966, 1968.

He was also in the secondary event (Premier) at the 1948 Championship, which he won outright with 9½ points from 11 rounds.

Oxford v Cambridge, University Matches
1932 - Aitken's first appearance for Oxford University in this annual match. Although Oxford loses, Aitken draws his game on board 3 with Peter Reid who, incidentally, would play alongside Aitken on the Scottish team at the Stockholm Olympiad 1937. Also on the Oxford team were John Montgomerie and Nicholas Anthony Perkins. Montgomerie also played for Scotland at the 1937 Olympiad, and Perkins would be on the 1958 team at Munich.

1933 - Aitken again plays board 3, and again draws his game. Oxford win 5-2. (Montgomerie and Perkins are on boards 2 and 4.)

1934 - Aitken is on his usual board 3, but loses this time. The match is drawn, and again Montgomerie and Perkins are members of the team.

1935 - Aitken is now on board 1. He loses to Craddock in a drawn match. N.A. Perkins is still on the team, but Montgomerie has moved on.

Aitken also played for Oxfordshire in several county matches during these years.

Club chess (and additional information)
Aitken only got involved in club chess after going to Oxford University. As shown above, he played for the university in their annual matches against Cambridge University, although he also played in other matches. Aitken also turned out for Oxfordshire in English county matches.

After the completion of his studies at Oxford, Aitken was back in Scotland, playing for Edinburgh CC. He played for the club in the Richardson Cup finals of 1937, 1938 and 1939, before the outtbreak of war changed everything.

In 1940 he joined the group of codebreakers at Bletchley Park. When he was first approached by the authorities, Aitken was not working, meaning that he could immediately take up his position, whereas others may have to work some kind of notice, or refuse the approach altogether. Even the movement or transfer of people to Bletchley was top secret, so the fact that Aitken could quietly make his way there without alerting anyone was a bonus.

Aitken worked in Hut 6, which dealt with German Army and Luftwaffe Enigma machine cyphers.

Clearly, the opportunities for serious chess were limited, although Aitken did turn out for the Lud-Eagle CC in London. Also, the presence of C.H.O'D. Alexander, Milner-Barry, Golombek and N.A. Perkins at Bletchley must have allowed for some play. See, for example, the article on an interesting match between Bletchley and Oxford University played near the end of WWII.

After the war, Aitken was soon back in the fray, playing club and tournament chess, and being selected for international matches.

Dr Aitken in 1965, by 'Mac'.

Aitken continued to work for the Foreign Office, ending up at GCHQ in Cheltenham. He played in club and county chess throughout his life, with periodic visits back to Scotland for the championships. The BCM obituary notes that Aitken 'died at his home in Cheltenham on the Saturday morning when he was due to turn out in a county match that afternoon.'

The BCM obituary notice also noted that Aitken was a book reviewer and occasional annotator for the magazine for two decades.

Edward Winter, on his Chess Notes website, draws attention to Aitken at CN 3766, including his ability as a writer. http://www.chesshistory.com/winter/winter10.html

Aitken's games scores and chess library were bequeathed to the Edinburgh Chess Club.

Additional note (January 02, 2012)

On a recent review of the excellent web site devoted to the history of Bletchley Park , http://www.bletchleypark.org/ it was noted that additional information about Aitken had been added.

Aitken James McCrae ("Alex")
Foreign Office Civilian, TJAO [Dr. Temporary Junior Assistant (possibly Administrative) Officer]. Graduate, or equivalent, entry grade.
Bletchley Park 1940 - 1945. Hut 6 and Block D(6).
Hut 6. Location of German Army and Air Force Enigma Processing and Decryption Section. This section continued to be referred to as “Hut 6” after moving to Block D in February 1943.
Cryptanalyst, exploited a weakness in German Enigma security - "Aitkenismus".


Scottish Chess, No. 79, February 1984, p 5 (obituary by JBW Robertson & G. Bonner).
William Russell Aitken, brother of Dr Aitken (personal conversation).
Chess Explorations, by Edward Winter. Cadogan, 1996, p 120.
BCM 1963, November, p 323.
BCM 1984, p 65.
CHESS, 1946, p 226.
Chess Notes
Bletchley Park web site.

Compiled by Alan McGowan