Friday Fluff: Chess password cracked after four decades

by André Schulz
11/29/2019 – A good password paired with strong encryption protects data against unexpected loss. No password is unbreakable, but some can last for quote a long time. After 39 years, recently a few old Unix passwords were cracked. Computer pioneer Ken Thompson had hidden his access behind a chess opening. | Photo: Bell Labs

Endgame Turbo 5 USB flash drive Endgame Turbo 5 USB flash drive

Perfect endgame analysis and a huge increase in engine performance: Get it with the new Endgame Turbo 5! This brings the full 6-piece Syzygy endgame tablebases on a pendrive. Just plug it in a USB socket and you are set!


Pawn to queen four

Ken Thompson is one of the heroes of computer history. He worked at Bell Labs most of his life, was co-inventor of the Unix operating system, developed the programming language "B", a precursor to the current "C" language, and several other important things in computer history. Later he brought his knowledge to Google. 

Thompson did great things for chess as well. Together with Joe Condon, he developed the chess computer Belle, who became chess computer world champion in 1980. Many years ago, Thompson had the idea to calculate endgames with limited numbers of pieces and compile them in a database. The first "tablebases", as they became known, with three, four and five pieces came from Ken Thompson. Others continued his idea later with newer computers and more pieces. The concept is in use today in all chess programs.

A few years ago, an encrypted file with the old passwords of computer old-timers like Ken Thompson, Dennis Ritchie, Stephen R. Bourne and Eric Schmidt was found by chance. Leah Neukirchen (see below) had the idea to crack the old passwords that used antiquated encryption with new techniques — which proved to be possible reasonably fast. Only Ken Thompson's password resisted. With the help of a colleague, Nigel Williams, it too could eventually be cracked.

The password included the sequence p/q2-q4!

What looks reasonably cryptic to everyone else is an easy-to-remember string for chess players. the password means Pawn (Pawn) Queen 2 - Queen 4 (d2-d4). Not a bad password for a chess fan.

For cracking Ken Thompson's chess opening password, Nigel Williams needed four days use his modern tools. Boris Grishenko, an antagonist of James Bond in "Golden Eye" (1995), of course, would have done much faster, even to impress his charming colleague Natalya Simonova. Here we see him at work.

Alan Cumming opposite Izabella Scorupco in the 1995 Bond film Golden Eye

Translation from German: Macauley Peterson


André Schulz started working for ChessBase in 1991 and is an editor of ChessBase News.


Rules for reader comments


Not registered yet? Register