Blockchain, Looted Art, Civil Rights, Kortchnoi

by Matthias Wüllenweber
1/13/2022 – The auction of the World Champion NFTs, in which ChessBase acted as a kind of digital art gallery, has been completed. The 14 works raised 7.2 Ether, which is currently around €21,000. Thank you and congratulations to all successful bidders! The creative process behind the development of the NFTs was inspiring, the technical background fascinating, the discussion with critical readers refreshing. Now the series has been released into the world, and it will be exciting to see what happens with it in the years to come. Finally, the raffle of the Viktor Korchnoi NFT, which was not included in the auction, has found a winner.

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Before announcing the winner, a little thematic detour. It was interesting and in hindsight not surprising to see how many readers express a critical opinion on the topic of cryptocurrencies and especially NFTs. In our role as a software producer, we are inclined to see every technical innovation with positive curiosity. However we have also experienced ourselves how chess has been intensely changed by the introduction of technology, and are thus used to meaningful critical views as well as to enthusiastic adoption. Nevertheless, here are a few optimistic thoughts on the future significance of blockchains.

Looted art and provenance research

The science of "provenance research" deals with the determination of the origin of works of art and cultural assets. After the turmoil of the 20th century and colonialism, this field offers challenging research subjects. Even if there is nowadays a political will for restitution, i.e. for the return of looted art or art extorted below value, the proof of ownership is not trivial for the heirs. Provenance research can become a thriller: We recommend the moving film "The Woman in Gold" with Helen Mirren, which tells the fate of the portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer painted by Gustav Klimt in 1903 (see cover image of this article).

However in the future, provenance research will become less and less important: proof of ownership via blockchain makes it possible to easily trace the history of a work's origin with just a few clicks, even if the individual owners may remain anonymous. You find that exotic and only marginally interesting? Imagine buying a used car instead: The seller gives you the car's token ID in a blockchain and you immediately see all previous owners with mileage, maintenance, repairs and accidents. The distributed, self-monitoring structure of this data protects against manipulation.

Kasparov: Crypto is freedom

The renowned civil rights activist Garry Kasparov (chairman of the Human Rights Foundation) advocates cryptocurrencies and blockchain technology along similar lines. Digital proofs of ownership and identity strengthen civil liberties if they are stored in a decentralized way. Hard currencies that can not be printed by central banks in arbitrary numbers protect small savings from inflation.

Kasparov - Crypto means freedom

Governments try to block donations to civil rights organizations, but supporters switch to cryptocurrencies because they are more difficult to control. Alexei Nawalny or the Nigerian women's rights movement are noteworthy examples. Also repressive regimes like to take away the passports of citizens who are willing to leave the country, thus restricting their freedom of movement. In a country that stores proof of identity on a globally distributed blockchain, this will no longer work. Ethiopia is taking the first steps in this direction with Cardano's Atala Prism. A citizen carries her passport in her brain, so confiscating a printed copy is meaningless.

The passport in your brain

How to keep your passport in your memory? Well, a "wallet" that stores cryptographic tokens such as money, NFTs or passports is at its core nothing more than a huge number of about 77 decimal places. One could memorize this number. But that would be an impractical task in the decimal system. Wallet addresses today are represented as sequences of words. The Metamask wallet which is common for NFTs can be reconstructed from twelve words on any web browser in the world.

Imagine being forced to emigrate from your country. It is now sufficient to memorize a sequence of 12 words to bring your passport, perhaps your diplomas, your assets (and possibly even an art collection) across the border.

Kortchnoi as emigrant

A well-known emigration fate in chess history is Viktor Korchnoi, who received political asylum in the Netherlands after his participation in the 1976 Amsterdam tournament. Viktor Korchnoi is certainly one of the strongest and most successful players who did not become world champion. Therefore, it seemed obvious to honor him in a separate NFT.

For the auction of the World Champion series, 490 individual bids were submitted, making it 490 lots. From these we drew the bidder "b22c3", to whom we have now transferred the Kortschnoj NFT. The name "b22c3" might be read as "b2 to c3". Does somebody here play 3.Sc3 against French and then accept the doubled c-pawn? Viktor Korchnoi would have liked it as Black. Congratulations to "b22c3"!


Viktor Kortschnoj. Photo Rainer Woisin, Hamburg 2005.


Finally two famous games of Viktor against a white b22c3 :-)


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Matthias Wüllenweber, CEO of ChessBase


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