Culture and Civilisations

The Great Chess Murder Challenge 

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The Great Chess Murder Challenge 

Many readers of my column have asked me to write something about my most outlandish chess experience. In that respect there is no contest. This story was published and re-published in hundreds of newspapers around the world and I was interviewed by numerous radio and TV stations from Manhattan to Madrid. 

Towards the middle of July 1990, I was contacted by Detective Superintendent Roy Fletcher of the Lancashire Constabulary with the most bizarre request I had ever encountered. Supt Fletcher had arrested a man, a computer expert from Seaford, East Sussex. He was suspected not only of having defrauded his girlfriend, 43-year-old Therese Clare Terry, of her substantial life savings amounting to £27,000, but also of having disposed of her body sometime in January that year at an unknown location in southern Ireland. 

The suspect refused to indicate to the police where the body was concealed, although he did — apparently — confess, admitting freely to having buried the woman. The only clue he would give the Constabulary, as to the victim’s whereabouts, was, as Supt Fletcher put it to me, a chess diagram, drawn in his jail cell, comprising 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 me the chess diagram and the moves, which he promptly did.

I had expected the fax (exciting technology at that time) to consist of a conventional chess diagram and moves similar to the daily winning move challenges, which I had been publishing in The Times, furnished with recognisable chess moves, which would probably represent the coordinates of some point on a map, and that the chess pieces in the diagram would stand for the players in this lethal endgame. What came through on the fax lines, however, 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, to a country. The sole connection with chess, apart from the title, was the word “Black” squirrelled 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 connections that were immediately apparent.

I was beginning to think that it was going to be insoluble, and that the Lancashire Constabulary was going to be left empty handed, but at this point I drew inspiration from my recollection of a Sherlock Holmes story, “The Dancing Men”, in which Holmes breaks a singularly barbaric and recondite code, that utilises little figures of dancing men. This case was redolent of that fictional forerunner. Confronted with the dancing men, Holmes opined that these hieroglyphics evidently had a meaning. If they were purely arbitrary, then it might be impossible to solve it. If, on the other hand, they were systematic, Holmes had no doubt that he could get to the bottom of it. These words acted as a guiding principle, as I embarked on cracking the chess move code late on Friday night, July 20.

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 parallel to Alice in Wonderland, 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, the time had come to attack the code and extract what meaning, if any, could be obtained.


Image: A copy of the original fax sent to me by Detective Superintendent Roy Fletcher. 

First of all I focused on 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, 13 January 1990 and run through, from top to bottom, to Wednesday 24 January. This is the period in which the action clearly takes place. Next, obviously there is a reference to chess pieces. However, without knowing what these pieces reference, there was no hope of further progress. I speculated 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, had 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 surmised 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 re- enter the realm of speculation, but this seemed to me to be a scarcely veiled insult referring 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.

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 could dangle all sorts of intellectual clues in front of the police‘s nose, without there being the slightest chance of any ability to solve them.

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 “BKI7VI“. On this assumption the code is uncrackable. I came to the conclusion, upon which all the rest of my work was 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 to read off some lines of moves. Thus the line opposite Saturday 13th, following this interpretation, would appear to read “black king moves from 1 to 6“ (‘1’ and ‘6’ being the conventional script of the Roman numerals “I” and “VI”). This is all well and good, but what on earth do figures 1 and six represent? To determine this I had to shift back the focus of attention to the sheet labelled “Area for Game“, consisting of three hideously nebulous blobs.

At this point I experienced a sudden flash of insight, caused, more or less, by having glanced 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. As an afterthought, the suspect had then struck it through, rejecting it 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 had taken place, replacing the crossed out circle to the left of the triangle, representing 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 numbers fit into place. We knew that the suspect lived in East Sussex, that the victim lived in Preston and that Dublin, Cork and Limerick figure 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 there are 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 is a grid reference system which 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 had already abandoned in 1986, each square had two names, depending on which side of the board one was situated. There were two King Five squares, one for white (e5 in modern algebraic notation) one for black (e4) as well as 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, and adopting the principles of the old descriptive notation.

Armed with this deduction, I now tried to decipher the game. The game proper starts after Wednesday 17  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, combined with the identity of the particular pieces, I offered my interpretation of the events of the next six days on the page “Timescale for Game” to Detective Superintendent Fletcher:

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

Friday 19 January: suspect and victim travel from London to Dublin brackets (victim makes a telephone call to say “we are in Dublin“).

Saturday 20 January: suspect and victim use victim‘s credit card both to obtain cash and to enable them to hire a car. I identified the 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 21 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’ indicate two further uses of the Visa credit cards to obtain cash.

Monday 22 January: suspect and brother use Visa card for the fifth time to obtain cash. Suspect and Victim (the latter of whom may now be dead) travel to Limerick or its environs.

Tuesday 23 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 returned from Dublin to London.

Wednesday 24 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 one, white king and white pawns search back and forth between Dublin and Limerick.” 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.

Overall, who knows if my deductions are correct but I am reminded of one more Sherlock Holmes story “The Retired Colourman“ in which the great detective says, “Amberley excelled at chess – one mark, Watson, of a scheming mind.“ And there was certainly a lot of scheming behind the various conundra of this curious and most singular case.

Much of what I have written above is based upon the exegesis which I published as a front page story for The Times on Monday July 23, 1990, and which Superintendent Fletcher confirmed was in agreement with his own investigations. Over two decades have passed, since I first encountered this murderous puzzle. The outcome now gives me the chance to pose a challenge for readers of TheArticle. Supt Fletcher suffered a back injury and retired from the force, before this case came to trial. His successors apparently lacked the superintendent’s diligence, and procedural flaws in the prosecution case meant that, after two weeks of legal argument, it was never tried before a jury. Hence, the mystery remains. The victim’s body was never located. She has certainly not resurfaced, so one can assume — given that Therese Clare Terry was 43 years old, with no obvious resources — that she has vanished without trace, without making any sort of contact for thirty years, and is dead. I have been contacted subsequently by several police forces, some as far distant as Australia, and various Myrmidons of the media, including journalists from The Daily Mail and The Sun, who remain fascinated by this mystery. But the grave, assuming it exists, remains hidden.

So, here is my challenge to readers of The Article:  You are armed with all the clues which I possessed at the time, plus all the new resources offered by technology and the internet. So, can any of you work out the secret grave location and thus identify the one missing link to a murder mystery which has been intractable for over thirty years? Answers on a postcard…

Another Holmesian echo is this week’s game, Pantebre versus Moriarty in 1972. 

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  • Well argued: 98%
  • Interesting points: 98%
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