Friday, July 23, 2010

Times chess man cracks 'missing woman' riddle

The Times
Monday 23rd July 1990
Page 1

Times chess man cracks ‘missing woman’ riddle

Two police forces were today examining an analysis by The Times chess correspondent of a complex puzzle which they believe could disclose the whereabouts of a missing woman, who disappeared from her home near Preston, Lancashire, in January.

The only clued the police had was a diagram which looked like a chess puzzle, drawn by a man arrested on fraud charges who they believe knows what happened to her.

The police called in Raymond Keene, the chess correspondent, who explains here how he cracked the suspect’s code.

Keene: called in by police to solve complex puzzle*

I was contacted at the end of last week by Detective Superintendent Roy Fletcher of the Lancashire constabulary with the most bizarre request I had ever encountered. Superintendent Fletcher had arrested a man, a computer expert from Seaford, East Sussex, who was suspected not only of having defrauded his girlfriend of her substantial life savings amounting to £27,000, but also of having disposed of her body sometime in January this year at an unknown location in Southern Ireland. The suspect refused to indicate to the police where the body was concealed, although he did admit freely to having buried the woman. The only clue he would give the constabulary as to the victim’s whereabouts was, as Superintendent Fletcher put it do me, a chess diagram and a sequence of chess moves. Superintendent Fletcher knew of me through my chess contributions to The Times and asked if I would help to crack the deadly code. I asked him to fax the chess diagram and the moves, which he promptly did.

I had expected the fax to consist of a chess diagram and moves similar to the daily winning move position which I publish in The Times. I had expected that a conventional chess diagram with recognisable chess moves would probably represent the co-ordinates of some point on a map and that the chess pieces in the diagram would stand for the players in this legal endgame. What came through on the fax lines did not justify my initial optimism. It consisted of two pages, one with a crudely drawn map entitled “Area for Game” while the other page consisted mainly of a very obscure series of unconventional chess moves with the heading “Timescale for game”. Initially, these two sheets made about as much sense to me as if they had been written in Babylonian cuneiform. The “Area for game” sheet consisted of three amorphous blobs (one of which had even been crossed out) which could have represented anything, from a pond, a lake or a farm or an estate

[article continues on page 2, column 3]

‘I was beginning to thing it was going to be insoluble, but I drew heart from Holmes’

to a country. The sole connection with chess, apart from the title, was the word “Black” scrawled in the left hand corner. The other page was almost as bad. References to a Black king, queen and pawn and a White king and pawns were again the sole chess connection immediately apparent.

I was beginning to think that it was going to be insoluble, but at this point I drew heart from my recollection of a Sherlock Holmes story, “The Dancing Men”, in which Holmes breaks a singularly barbaric and recondite code which utilises little figures of dancing men. This case was redolent of that fictional forerunner. Confronted with the dancing men Holmes said: “These hieroglyphics have evidently a meaning. If it is a purely arbitrary one, it may be impossible for us to solve it. If, on the other hand, it is systematic, I have no doubt that we shall get to the bottom of it.” These words acted as an inspiration as I embarked on cracking the chess move code late on Friday night.

There appeared to be yet one more literary reference, whether by accident or design, in this curious conundrum. Looking at the sequence of moves, all of them above the line across the centre of the page appeared to be made by black. As is well known, in chess black and white, the two opposing forces, must move alternately. This curious monopoly of moves by one side reminded me of the chess problem at the start of Lewis Carroll’s book Alice through the Looking Glass. In this the heroine Alice enters a looking glass world of reflections and mirror images peopled almost entirely by chess pieces. The mirror image motif is an important one, and will recur with great significance. As Lewis Carroll observed in his preface, “the alternation of black and white is perhaps not so strictly observed …”

Now, fortified by literary allusions, which I am sure were also not a million miles from the mind of the suspect who had created this bizarre document, was the time to attack the code and extract what meaning, if any, could be obtained. Let us look at the page “Timescale for game”. In the left hand column at the top we evidently see a series of days of the week with dates attached. They start with Saturday 13th January 1990 and run through from top to bottom to Wednesday 24th January. This is the period in which the action clearly takes place. Next, obviously there is a reference to chess pieces. Without knowing what these pieces refer to there was no hope of further progress. I deduced that the black king should refer to the suspect, that the black queen signified the victim while the black pawn was, in all probability, the suspect’s brother who, as the police had told me, has been in Ireland accompanying the duo. The game is initiated by the arrow indicating that the black king writes to the lady-in-waiting. There is no such chess piece and never has been. I deduced that the lady-in-waiting must refer to the status of the victim before the game begins, i.e. she is waiting for the game to start and once it has started she appears as the black queen. I operated on this assumption throughout the remainder of my analysis.

The next thing to establish was the identity of the white king and the white pawns. Since white opposes black in chess one has to seek a possible opponent for the suspect and it can only be the police. It is psychologically interesting to note that the suspect has symbolically chosen the black pieces for himself and that he has decided that in this case, contrary to all the rules, that black will move first. I now turned my attention to trying to understand the section “White king – all pawns”. Here, I had to enter the realm of speculation but this seemed to me to be a scarcely veiled insult to the suspect’s assessment of the competence of the police force. There has to be a white king, without kings on both sides there can be no chess game, but it seemed to me here that the suspect was dismissing the police force (perhaps the white king refers specifically to the chief investigating officer) as no better than a collection of pawns, menial foot soldiers with no directing strategy.

The “board” and moves supplied to the Lancashire police with suggested explanations by Raymond Keene

[Click on the map for a closer look: JMGB]

If true this gives an essential clue to the suspect’s psychology, one of tremendous intellectual arrogance, allied with a perverted ingenuity and rooted in the belief that he can dangle all sorts of intellectual clues in front of the police’s nose without their being able to solve them. In this case, I earnestly hope that he will have been proved to have underestimated the resourcefulness of the force.

Now I looked at the game moves. In discussion of the document, Superintendent Fletcher had suggested to me that the first line opposite Saturday 13th read “BK17VI”. On this assumption the code is uncrackable. I came to the conclusion, upon which all the rest of my work is based, that the symbol which appears to resemble a seven is in fact a vector sign indicating movement from one place to another. Treating all apparent sevens as vectors in this fashion means that we can start read off some of the lines of moves. Thus the line opposite Saturday 13th, following this interpretation would appear read “Black king moves from 1 to 6”. This is all well and good, but what on earth do the figures 1 and 6 represent? To determine this I had to shift back the focus of attention to the sheet labelled “Area for Game”, consisting of the three hideously anonymous blobs.

At this point there was a sudden flash of inspiration caused more or less by looking at The Times’ British Isles weather map on the back page of the paper. What if the triangular blob on the right were to represent the UK mainland while the crossed out round blob on the left were to be a crudely drawn representation of Ireland which the suspect had then crossed out and rejected as inadequately detailed for his purposes of taunting the police with the conundrum of locating the victim’s body? In that case the large blob which dominates the centre of the page suddenly becomes a representation of the section of Southern Ireland in which the drama took place, replacing the crossed out circle to the left of the triangle which shows the UK mainland. It should be noted that the UK mainland indication is, as one would normally expect, on a north/south axis. The map of Ireland, however, has been revolved so that east is at the top and west is at the bottom. By carrying out this rotation the map begins to make sense.

Having identified the outlines as countries, the number fits into place. We know that the suspect lived in East Sussex, that the victim lived in Preston and that Dublin, Cork and Limerick figured in their journey. I now deduced that I on the “Area for Game” page represents London, III is Preston, IV is Dublin, V is Cork and VI is Limerick.

A serious problem now arises, namely on the map as to why are there two IVs and two Vs? As is well known, there is only one Dublin in Ireland and only one Cork. I attacked this problem by treating the map of Ireland as a chessboard. The line drawn from London to Limerick in this case not only acts as the trajectory of a journey but also as a dividing line between the two halves of a chessboard which are mirror images of each other. In modern chess notation, the algebraic variety as used in The Times, a grid reference system gives one name only to each square of the total of 64, be it a1, c4, e5, g8 or whatever. Nevertheless, in the old fashioned descriptive chess notation, which The Times abandoned in 1986, each square had two names, depending on which side of the board one was situated. There were two King Five squares, there two Queen Four squares and so on. It seemed to me therefore that the suspect had taken a large section of the map of Ireland and reduced it to a chessboard with black playing on the left adopting the principles of the old descriptive notation.

Armed with this information I now tried to decipher the game. The game proper starts after Wednesday 17th January when a black line is drawn across the page. The arrow pointing upwards above that indicates a preparatory phase for the game when the suspect may even have travelled to Limerick or arranged for someone to do so on his behalf, indicating premeditation of the dark events which were to follow.

Using my insight into the code, and the identity of the particular pieces I now offer my translation of the events of the next six days on the page “Timescale for Game.”

Thursday 18th January: Suspect’s brother travels from London to Dublin, victim travels from Preston to London, suspect travels from Seaford to London.

Friday 19th January: Suspect and victim travel from London to Dublin (victim makes a telephone call to say ‘we are in Dublin’).

Saturday 20th January: Suspect and victim use victim’s credit card both to obtain cash and in some way to enable them to hire a car. I identified circles as indicating some sort of financial transaction while V appeared to relate to a credit card transaction. The police later confirmed that there were six Visa card transactions during this period. I believe the C referred to the hiring of a car.

Sunday 21st January: The suspect and his brother inflict grievous harm (GH) on the victim. The words “do this” seem particularly sinister in this context. The brackets with V34 indicates two further uses of the Visa credit cards to obtain cash.

Monday 22nd January: Suspect and brother use Visa card for the fifth time to obtain cash. Suspect and victim (who may now be dead) travel to Limerick or its environs.

Tuesday 23rd January: The suspect returns to Dublin and uses the Visa credit card for the sixth time. The suspect considers himself safe or successful. The hired car is sent back and the suspect and his brother return from Dublin to London.

Wednesday 24th January: The macabre game is at an end.

What has white been doing all the time? If you look at the “Timescale for Game” sheet it seems to me that the notation at the bottom of the page reads as follows “Move 1, white king and white pawns search back and forth between Dublin and Limerick. [Sic re: absence of closing “] This confirms the suspect’s dismissive attitude towards the British police and the Irish Garda as he sees them fruitlessly thrashing around between two conurbations.

There are of course aspects of this deciphering, in spite of the internal consistency of much of it, with which I am not totally happy. On the page “Timescale for Game” page the curious compass-like symbol at the upper right is not clear to me. The arrows emanating from the sentence “We are here” may conceal some deeper meaning while the circled H on Monday 22nd could refer to many things, perhaps a hotel.

On the “Area for Game” page, figure 1 in a circle with EOT after it could be the Eire Officer of Tourism, not the exact title for the organisation but possibly one established in the suspect’s mind. It is known that he used the tourist office to aid the hiring of a car. The capital letters EEC may simply refer to the obvious to set the game in its overall geographical context but the letters NPS prefaced by a 2 in a circle are still opaque to me.

Where does this place us in locating the body? It is my firm belief that the body is located at HG some miles probably to the north-west of Limerick. The initials HG are a grotesque mirror image reflection of GH grievous harm on Sunday 21st January. They may also refer to a small isolated location, such as a farm, bog or even landmark with such initials. There is also an indication so simple it can be overlooked namely “her grave”. Finally Superintendent Fletcher tells me that both suspect and victim are devout catholics, so in this sense HG may refer to “hallowed ground”. If the suspect’s psychology is as I read it, his bizarre sense of humour and sense of intellectual superiority may well have led him to inter his victim at night in the grounds of a local church. I wish the Garda and the police well in their task of locating this lonely grave and Times readers will be kept informed of any further progress in cracking the recalcitrant code. Superintendent Fletcher seemed delighted with the advances made over the weekend and armed with this new information his men should receive a fresh boost in their morale. I am reminded of one more Sherlock Holmes story “The Retired Colourman” in which the great man says “Amberley excelled at chess – one mark, Watson of a scheming mind.” I hope in this case that the schemes of the suspect will be duly frustrated.”

Ray Keene Index

* I couldn't find the photo of Raymondo that The Times used on the net. This one is close enough [photo from].


Tom Chivers said...

Fascinating. RDK's reasoning reads as entirely preposterous - until you look at the drawing itself, when some of his guesses seem quite plausible.

D.M.Modak said...

The first reaction I had after reading the article was one of deep regret that the person turned his high intillegence and determined character(Note his refusal to co-operate with the police) to crime instead of benefitting the society! A 21st century 'Professor Moriarty' and the GM had to play the role of a Mycroft(but NOT Sherlock) Holmes!(since he 'solved' the problem in his study). Shows Chess players in general have very high intillegence.