ChessBase is 25: Birthday greetings from Anand

6/1/2011 – Our company was born on May 19, 1986, twenty-five years ago, and on May 19, 2011 one of our most loyal friends, World Champion Viswanathan Anand, logged into the Playchess server and sent us a ten-minute birthday greeting. It was quite moving to be reminded of the early days by one who was present at the time – and who has remained a close friend ever since. Must-watch historical video.

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Vishy Anand on 25 years of ChessBase

The beginnings

I had vaguely heard of a product called ChessBase, but it wasn’t until 1987 that I met Frederic Friedel when he had come to the Loyds Bank event in London. There he told me a bit about it and suggested that I come and visit him in Hamburg and check out the new software. At that point I had no idea about computers, or how they could be used for chess. By the end of the year I managed to get an Atari. I still didn’t have any games, but I could see what the software was like. It seemed interesting. I think that initially the people who fell in love with it were the laziest ones – the software seemed designed for them. We didn’t have to go searching for books or making index cards, and things like that. Also you could take a lot less luggage suddenly. A lot of the encyclopaedias and books you would have to carry, and even this tournament chess bulletin where they would simply print games. Suddenly you could leave all that stuff home. So this was excellent.


Anand in 1988, working with an Atari, watched by a young fan, Thomas Friedel

The database

I went to Hamburg and got my first set of floppy diskettes, and at some point in 1989 I upgraded my notebook to some horrible beast which by today’s standards was incredibly fat and could not store very much. What I remember of the early versions of ChessBase was that the instructions manual would always tell you to please abbreviate names. I think the example they used was Azmaiparashvili against Chiburdanidze and said if you put Azma and a star and Chib and a star (or asterisk) then you save a lot of hard disk space. But it slowly started to get better.


1991: The proud owner of a "laptop computer" and two boxes of 3½ inch "floppy diskettes"

I think the next historic event I witnessed with ChessBase was when Matthias Wüllenweber came to the Belgrade GMA Open. I remember him trying to convince Efim Geller, the legendary player, and tried to show him what the software could do. I still remember, as if it was yesterday, Geller’s reaction. He looked at Matthias and said: “It’s for little boys.”


Working with a more modern notebook at Ken Thompson's home in New Jersey

Anyway slowly at least the younger generation started to get into it. The ChessBase office in Hamburg, Mexikoring, started to become a kind of meeting point for chess players. At least one player I can remember vividly meeting him there for the first time was Rustem Dautov, and typically a lot of the chess players after their Bundesliga events, if they were anywhere near Hamburg, they would pop by for a visit. It was a nice place, you got together with a bunch of nice guys, got to spend an afternoon with them. Then for a couple of years we enjoyed coming and picking up the floppy diskettes. I think some of the younger players, especially the ones that were born in the nineties, and who are now at the top of world chess, they might be forgiven for thinking that they used to attach floppy diskettes to carrier pigeons and send them off to addresses all over Europe. But in fact the carrier pigeons they used were very often grandmasters, when the postal service didn’t work.

Fritz

Then – I don’t remember exactly when, maybe 1992 or so – the first version of Fritz came along. That was fun. At the beginning you didn’t know what to make of it, because it was a very, very basic chess engine. So if you felt really bad you could give it a King’s Indian position and watch it play Rd2 and Rd1 and double on the d-file, and make all these typical computer mistakes. But slowly we realised that it had some value. You could do some error checking with it, and it caught you in the mate-in-ones, or the odd tactics that you missed. Still early days, but slowly it became part of our lives. I think a lot of the non-German players probably did not know what Fritz meant. We discovered that it was the name of a German emperor, but you know how it is: by 1993 everyone was addressing it as Fritzy, and it seemed less of a German emperor and more of a pet dog that you have, a German shepherd you take with you. But it became better and better. I remember there was this game, my first game with Kamsky, in the match in Sanghi Nagar, I discovered this move Qe4 or something like that, based on a tactical point, which I double-checked with Fritz. I think it was the first time I really made use of the software to find something important.


Anand experimenting with an early version of Fritz

Visiting the office we met a lot of these guys: Frederic of course, the two Matthiases, Feist and Wüllenweber, Ben, Pascal, André, and of course if you wanted to get paid you had to know Frau Kowalsky. It was really a kind of home away from home. I forget when the DVDs started coming out – or maybe we should just say CDs in the beginning, where you could do a little bit of annotation. Again, for lazy people I think it was wonderful not having to write out your annotations and fax them everywhere. You could just do them on the computer and give them to ChessBase whenever you met them – or slowly, as the Internet came along, email it to them. DVDs I think were an important step, because they allowed you to explain your thoughts. Rather than just give tons and tons of variations you might want to bring home what it is you saw during a game and why you did a certain thing. I think it was a very important touch, and I suspect that a lot of players actually benefitted from this kind of instruction and learnt from it.

News page and Playchess

I think the next stage is probably the server, and the web site. The web site is obviously one of the most important chess web sites, it is a must-do site for most people to find out about chess. Then we started hearing the stories of people who spent hours and days on the server, playing and trying to get their ratings up. But you could also log on anytime and watch other people do this, so you didn’t really have to get addicted yourself – it was just a fun way to watch blitz happen.


Working with openings specialist Alex Kure and programmer Matthias Wüllenweber

I think ChessBase is a particularly remarkable kind of software. Of course it brings back quite some nostalgia when you see photos of the early versions – the Atari version or maybe the first DOS versions – simple stuff. Of course now the software is much, much more sophisticated, you get a lot of new functions which over the years we have learnt to use. But what I find most remarkable about the software is that whenever it malfunctions and you complain to ChessBase, then you take it to ChessBase, and typically Frederic will wake Matthias Feist up and ask him to come by and take a look. But whenever ChessBase top brass are watching the software will never malfunction, it will always work perfectly when you are there. Feist will say Yeah, I see, I understand the problem, but you understand that these guys are looking at you rather strangely.

I think it is easy to overlook sometimes what a fundamental change has taken place in the world of chess. There are very few companies that can say that they changed their industry almost completely. If you look at chess today, at modern chess, the way it’s played, the way people analyse, the way people prepare – everything is sort of influenced directly or indirectly by what started all those years back, in 1986. So I think a big congratulations and a wonderful 25th Happy Birthday to everyone in ChessBase. I think you should feel very proud of yourself and I wish you lots and lots of success in the years to come.

Copyright ChessBase


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