20 years ago: "Brains in Bahrain", Vladimir Kramnik vs Deep Fritz

by Dagobert Kohlmeyer
10/6/2022 – 20 years ago, on 4 October 2002, a very special duel began in Manama, in the Kingdom of Bahrain. The reigning World Champion Vladimir Kramnik played against a PC chess programme - Deep Fritz. Dagobert Kohlmeyer followed the match in Bahrain and shares memories of this remarkable event.

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20 years ago: Kramnik vs Deep Fritz in Bahrain

A chess fairy tale from the Arabian Nights

20 years ago, the chess world looked to a small country on the Persian Gulf to follow one of the most exciting chapters in the battle between man and machine. There, starting on 4 October 2002 in the Gulf state of Bahrain, the match between the reigning world champion Vladimir Kramnik and the chess programme "Deep Fritz" took place. It caused a worldwide echo. I would like to tell you again why this tiny island in the Gulf, with an area smaller than Berlin, was the venue. 

Great mosque in Manama

Chess has a tradition in the Arab world, and in the heyday of Islamic culture, the game enjoyed great popularity. The Arabs were the first to study it systematically and then bring it to Europe. But tradition alone is not enough. Without a million US dollars in prize money from Bahrain's king, nothing would have come of the duel between Vladimir Kramnik and the computer.

For a long time the "Brains in Bahrain" match hung by a thread. It was postponed twice after the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. The Bahrainis have their obligations to the United States. In the east of the island lies the headquarters of the US 5th Fleet, next door in Qatar a large airbase. Also lurking in Kuwait were tens of thousands of American soldiers; ready to strike out against Iraq. (The war then began under a pretext on 20 March 2003.) A delicate situation for the small Gulf state of Bahrain, whose majority population consists of strictly religious Shiites. However, the Sunnis, headed by the king, hold the power in the country. Monarch and hereditary prince are omnipresent in the image of the capital Manama. The ruling house rules with a hard hand, no real opposition is tolerated. The relationship with the powerful neighbour Saudi Arabia, with which Bahrain is connected by a dam, is particularly close. Most tourists come from there. There are also friendly ties with Kuwait and Abu Dhabi. So much for the political background of the event.

In October 2002, Kramnik's match against the chess programme became reality. It was not only in the Kingdom that people were eagerly awaiting the duel; the international chess scene was watching spellbound.  The media echo was global and similar to that of Kasparov against Deep Blue in 1997. From the "New York Times", the "Washington Post", the London "Times", the "Spiegel", "El Pais" in Spain to the gazettes in Asia, the worldwide palette ranged.

TV stations such as CNN, the BBC, ARD or ZDF reflected the match. As a dpa correspondent, I was also able to contribute to the press coverage with daily reports from the venue. There were many hours of broadcasts by the organiser Einstein TV, and the rest of the network was also full of live broadcasts. Here in Germany, ChessBase, the "Spiegel" and the "Thüringer Allgemeine" offered this service. Many other chess providers had set up links on their homepages where the fan community could click in. "Brains in Bahrain" became the sporting event it promised to be in the electronic and print media.

My memories of the trip, which seemed like a fairy tale from the Arabian Nights, are still vivid even after two decades.  This is certainly due to the magical flair of the small country. Its charm lies in the fact that it is not as ostentatious and artificial as Dubai or Qatar.

View from the hotel

Before leaving, I visited Bahrain's then ambassador to Germany, Adel Sater, to get first-hand information about the country and its people. He said: "The most popular sport discipline here is football.  After that come volleyball, basketball, hockey and tennis. Horse racing has a long tradition in Bahrain. But now the whole world will be watching the 'man versus machine' duel." The diplomat referred to the island country's chess federation, which regularly participates in Olympiads. There are many prominent supporters of the royal game in Bahrain. Ex-minister Yousif Al Shirawi had helped organise the match between Kramnik and the computer in Manama. Every day, the then 75-year-old was to be found among the spectators.

Yousuf Al Shirawi

The sporting ambitions of the ambitious Gulf state subsequently went much further: "We are building a modern car track. In 2004, the first Formula 1 race can take place in Bahrain," the ambassador told me at the time. Amazing, because it was a first for the entire Middle East and has since taken place 19 times.

The chess spectacle was called "Brains in Bahrain", marketed by the Einstein Group from England. This company had previously acquired the rights to Kramnik's chess activities from Braingames, including World Championship matches until 2005. All this is history, which subsequently took a slightly different course.

Let's now embark once again on the interesting journey to the small Middle Eastern kingdom whose King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa was prepared to offer one million US dollars in prize money for the chess spectacle. On the way to Bahrain, I meet Frederic Friedel from ChessBase, GM Raymond Keene, IM Malcolm Pein and a few other Englishmen at London Heathrow. They are travelling on different missions: as team members, chess journalists or advisors.  The exertions of the night flight are made much more bearable by Gulf Air's excellent service. After seven hours, we land safely in Bahrain's capital Manama. At the airport we each pay 15 dollars for the entry visa and go to the Gulf Hotel. There is not much time to acclimatise, as the opening ceremony is on the afternoon of 2 October.

We set off in time for the big celebration. It is being held at the "Royal Meridian", the most noble hotel in the city. The King himself is unable to attend, as he is receiving high-ranking guests of state on this day. But Crown Prince Salman lends the opening the appropriate glamour. Several hundred festively dressed guests take their seats in the beautiful garden next to the hotel. For us Europeans, the 40 degrees in the shade are very upsetting, but the ceremony is worth it. When the Crown Prince appears, everyone rises from their seats. The Bahraini national anthem is played. Then a children's ballet performs. Dressed in chess costumes, the girls and boys dance to modern sounds on a huge board, right before the eyes of His Highness.

Before the performance

Chess ballet

Three speeches follow. Sheikh Mohammed, who belongs to the royal family and is head of the organising committee for the match, expresses his country's joy at hosting such a chess event. He refers, not without pride, to Bahrain's other ambitious sports projects. They are actually building a modern car track and want to host the first Formula 1 race in the Middle East in 2004.

Vladimir Kramnik takes the microphone after him and is taken with the magic of the city of Manama. The World Champion thanks the Royal House for the invitation to this match. He quotes the former World Champion Max Euwe, who coined the phrase about the intelligent game from an intelligent country for intelligent mankind.

Frederic Friedel, speaking for the Fritz team, points to the Arabs' achievements in mathematics and algebra as well as the fact that chess came to Europe via the Middle East more than a thousand years ago. The Hamburg native also thanks the Royal House for hosting the spectacular event.

Drawing of lots with a falcon

Then comes the highlight, the drawing of lots by the Crown Prince. Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa floats two falcons from his unique breeding onto the stage. The noble animals are to determine the colours for the first game. Because the dark falcon assigned to Kramnik appears first, the Russian leads the black pieces in the opening game. The light falcon for the computer team gives "Fritz" the advantage of the white pieces. The prince talks to the protagonists on stage for a while. While taking photos, I hear him invite Kramnik and Friedel to his residence. "Sometime in the evening, if you have time," he says.

But for now, both teams are thinking about the match. The eight-game duel is not only about the prize money, but also about a great deal of prestige. The cardinal question is whether humans are capable of standing up to the highly-equipped computer once again. The computer equipped with eight processors that runs Deep Fritz manages 3.5 million operations per second. Kramnik can only use his intuition and chess creativity against it. Five years earlier, his compatriot and predecessor Garri Kasparov had failed against the legendary "Deep Blue" because he lost his nerve in the last game and overlooked a relatively simple answer from the IBM monster.

Press conference

Kramnik is considered by the experts to be psychologically more stable. Nevertheless, the Russian was only cautiously optimistic at the press conference before the opening match. "I have prepared myself conscientiously, but I have a lot of respect for the computing power of my opponent." Computer guru Friedel stresses that his team has always dreamed of this match against the reigning world champion in classical chess. "We would be highly satisfied if the match ends 4:4."

The first game

On Friday, 4 October 2002, 3 p.m. local time, the unequal duel begins at the Mind Sports Center in Bahrain's capital Manama. Kramnik and the Fritz operator Matthias Feist sit in a very small room on the 1st floor so as not to be disturbed. The room is air-conditioned because it is 38 degrees outside. Some days Kramnik's glasses fog up when he steps out of the room. The match is broadcast on monitors in the courtyard of the Sports Center. On site, English grandmasters Nigel Short, Danny King and IM Malcolm Pein comment on the games for the spectators. Julian Hodgson will join them later.

Unequal match halves

The opening game ends in a draw after 28 moves. Kramnik chooses the Berlin Defence, which had already served him so well in the 2000 World Championship match in London against Kasparov. After the game, the champion says that the position was mainly in balance and neither side had any real chance of winning. Nevertheless, it is dangerous to lull oneself into a sense of security in a supposedly simple position. You always have to be prepared for surprises against the computer.

With White, Kramnik wants to exert more pressure in the second game and look for success. And he succeeds promptly. On the next day of play, Kramnik defeats Deep Fritz in a Queen's Gambit Accepted after five and a half hours of fine manoeuvring in a rook ending, Fritz capitulates. Nigel Short predicted many draws in Bahrain before the match. As it turned out, he was quite wrong.

The match was played every other day. Between moves, Kramnik went to his rest room. It was much bigger than the room in which he fought his duel with the silent Fritz. Comfortable leather couch, a lot of light and tons of fruit. The table bent under the weight of culinary delights. More than anyone could or should eat during a game.

The second game

Vladimir Kramnik has Black in the third game, and he also wins this game against his mute opponent. After three games he now leads 2.5:0.5. Is a disaster on the horizon for the computer? Deep Fritz tried to surprise the human with the Scottish Opening. However, the world champion proves to be fully on top of things and is able to equalise the position quickly. In the middlegame, the chess program makes a weak pawn move, which allows Kramnik to seize the initiative. He wins a pawn and occupies the open lines in the centre with his two rooks. As in game two, the machine is forced to move and cannot prevent its position from deteriorating more and more. Fritz programmer Matthias Feist resignedly acknowledges the second defeat.

Grandmaster Danny King, who works on site for Einstein TV as a commentator, is enthusiastic about the champion: "Kramnik's preparation was world class. He brainwashed Fritz." The Dutchman Frans Morsch, one of the developers of Fritz, on the other hand, expresses dissatisfaction: "It's annoying that so far we've invariably got positions on the board that Kramnik wanted. We now have to find a way to lure him out of his openings."

The next opportunity to do so comes in game four, a Queen's Gambit. Vladimir wins a pawn after strategically clever play. But the advantage is not enough to win. In the rook ending the computer defends himself very precisely, and after 41 moves the game ends in a draw that allows Kramnik to keep his comfortable lead. Thanks to his two wins the in the 2nd and 3rd game, Kramnik leads 3:1 at half-time. A big surprise.

Formula 1 in the desert

Every day, illustrious guests come to watch the match on site: Members of the royal family, ministers and diplomats. The ambassadors of Germany and Russia in Bahrain also watch some games. But another event then distracts their attention. While the third game is still in progress, both diplomats hurry off. They are drawn to the ground-breaking ceremony for the Formula 1 circuit. After all, Bahrain wants to be the first country in the Middle East to host such races two years later. Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa and Prince Andrew, who flew in from England, are shovelling with silver spades this afternoon. The 3.6-kilometre-long track that is subsequently created has a special feature. It is located in the middle of the desert.

In the evening, a photo session with Kramnik and Prince Andrew is planned. Because the stubborn computer does not give up in time, the chess king arrives too late. He is welcomed on stage by Sheikh Zehad from the Al Khalifa royal family. They inspect a highly-equipped Mercedes bolide, a car not big enough for the 1.95-metre tall Kramnik.

Kramnik, Sheikh Zehad, Carsten Hensel, the manager of Kramnik

High-tech in motor sport and in the royal game. Bahrain's government has invested more than two million dollars in the chess duel. The event attracts worldwide attention, no question. It's good for boosting tourism and trade and attracting even more investors, including from Germany. Bahrain competes with other small Gulf states like Dubai in the luxury holiday market. So far, guests have mainly come from the Arab world. An important location advantage for the island: it is not yet so built up.

Much more money than the chess spectacle is of course eaten up by the Formula 1 project. Its total cost of 150 million dollars should pay off for Bahrain. In addition to the race track, roads through the desert, a direct connection to the airport, new hotels, etc. are being built. The whole infrastructure of the country benefits from the Grand Prix circus. In 2011, the planned race was cancelled due to political unrest in the country. In 2020, the Bahrain Grand Prix had to be postponed due to the Covid 19 pandemic. The most successful drivers so far have been Louis Hamilton with five wins and Sebastian Vettel with four.

As there were some rest days, there was also an opportunity for the reporters to have a look around Manama. Together with my esteemed colleague Wolfram Runkel from the prestigious German weekly DIE ZEIT, who sadly passed away in 2019, I wandered around the city every now and then. One evening we visited the Botanical Gardens, where hardly any people were to be seen. The sun was setting quickly, and when we wanted to go out again, the gates were already closed. We had no choice but to climb over the very high wall. On another day, we went to a souk (oriental market) to buy robes like those worn by the local men. Wolfram, who had a great sense of humour, chose a dark one, I chose a light one. Back home in Berlin, I actually wore it once at a private carnival party.

Wolfram Runkel

The turn in the match

Once the computer also went on strike. Was it the heat (up to 40 degrees) or the humidity?  In the fourth game, the computer, which was strictly guarded in a special room of the Mind Sports Centre in Manama, simply got stuck and failed to work. The ChessBase people panicked. Deep Fritz had briefly become Foolish Fritz. But after 15 minutes, the game could go on but Little Fritz was only running on one processor. That was enough to draw the game despite the pawn deficit and to initiate the turnaround in the middle of the match.

After four games Kramnik was tired. He made mistakes and lost two games in a row. The great heat and the extremely high humidity had taken a toll on him. It was pure drama. After blundering a piece in game five, Kramnik was angry and took too many risks in game six. With a daring piece sacrifice on f7, the champion dragged his emotionless opponent's king into the open. Any human opponent would have collapsed under the force of the attack. But not Deep Fritz! The programme unleashed all its computing power and defended itself brilliantly. Kramnik lost for the second time in a row and the most exciting game equalised the score in the match.

Calculating power

When the world champion led 3:1 in Bahrain, the experts were only wondering how high he would win in the end. The arbiter Enrique Irazoqui (Spain) was also of this opinion when I spoke to him in the hotel lobby. The literature professor from near Barcelona and computer chess expert was wrong, just like many other insiders.

After the two rest days, Deep Fritz was better programmed by the team from Hamburg. There were no more early queen exchanges in the second half of the match. And Kramnik became increasingly tired which led to serious mistakes.

On the following days, Vladimir again played as level-headedly as at the beginning of the match and drew twice against the monster. After all, the was not only about prestige, but also about a lot of money. In the end, the score was 4:4.


Kramnik, then 27, had once again defended humankind against the machine and was $800,000 richer. However, the Bahrainis took a long time with the bank transfer. 200 000 dollars were supposed to go to ChessBase. The money was planned to go into a foundation for the development of junior chess but never arrived in Hamburg!

Vladimir Kramnik was supported by a strong team. There were the two grandmasters Christopher Lutz from Germany and Tigran Nalbandian from Armenia. They helped the World Champion to prepare two weeks before the match in Germany. In Bahrain, too, they were at his side until the last game.

Kramnik's team also included the physiotherapist Dr. Valery Krylov from Moscow, who already looked after Kramnik at the World Championship 2000 in London, as well as bodyguard Aziz, a former kickboxer. And last but not least, Vladimir's manager Carsten Hensel, who pulled all the organisational strings. In 2018, the Dortmund native published a remarkable book about his protégé's career, in which Bahrain naturally also plays a major role.

Team Kramnik

Back in Berlin, I experienced a bit of a shock. When I landed at Tegel airport, I was greeted by the first snow flurries in mid-October (!). The spectacular match was subsequently covered in detail in all the chess magazines. Both sides could live with the result. Above all, it opened up the possibility of another round in the battle of "man against machine". This duel took place in Bonn in 2006 and was the last of its kind. But that is another story. It was not such a spectacle as in Bahrain.

The games


Dagobert Kohlmeyer is one of the best known German chess journalists. For more than 25 years Kohlmeyer, who lives in Berlin, has been travelling all over the world to report about and to capture impressions of Chess Olympiads, World Championships, and top tournaments.


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