Hans Berliner, chess master and programmer, dies at 87

by Frederic Friedel
1/18/2017 – He learned chess at the age of 13, and the game became a preoccupation and obsession. Hans Berliner played for the US Olympiad team and four times in the US Championship. He later graduated in computer science and became a professor at the Carnegie Mellon University. There he pioneered hardware programming and built the first machine that exceeded 2400 Elo points. Last Friday he passed away in his retirement home in Florida. Hans Berliner is also remembered for what many have called the greatest chess game ever played.

Hans Berliner, 1929 – 2017

Hans Berliner, born on January 27, 1929, in Berlin, Germany. At eight his family moved to America to escape Nazi persecution. Hans learned chess at age 13, and the game quickly became his main preoccupation. He was described by Carlos Fuentes as "an extremely brilliant boy, with a brilliant mathematical mind". He was talented at all aspects of chess, and as a teenager gave a blindfold simultaneous exhibition at the Washington Chess Divan, winning all six games against top local players. In 1949 he became a Master, in 1953 the New York State Champion, and in 1956 the winner of the Eastern States Open, ahead of William Lombardy, Nicolas Rossolimo and Bobby Fischer (at age 13).

In 1952 Berliner played for the US at the Helsinki Olympiad, and then in the US Championship four times. In 1954 he scored 6½/13 to tie 8–9th places, and the last three times Fischer won the tournament. Mega Database has 79 games by Berliner, against Fine, R. Byrne, Evans, Bisguier, Lombardy, Mednis, Denker, Reshevsky, Rossolimo and four against Fischer (who defeated him 3½:½).

Berliner returned to school in 1969 and graduated in 1974 with a thesis entitled "Chess as Problem Solving: The Development of a Tactics Analyzer." He went on to become a Professor of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University. He was an International Master in over-the-board chess, and grandmaster of Correspondence Chess. From 1965-1968 he was the World Correspondence Chess Champion. He died on Friday in Riviera Beach, Florida, at the age of 87. His death was confirmed by Carl Ebeling, a former student who retired in 2012 as a computer science professor at the University of Washington.

An excellent eulogy of Hans Berliner appeared in the Monday edition of the New York Times, written by ever vigilant chess correspondent Dylan Loeb McClain.

Hans Berliner won the Fifth World Correspondence Chess Championship, which began in 1965 and lasted three years. His margin of victory in the final was the largest in history: his final score was 14.0/16 (twelve wins, four draws), three points ahead of any opponent. But it was his game against Yakov Estrin, a Russian correspondence grandmaster that followers of chess remember. McClain writes:

Mr. Berliner, playing Black, essayed the Two Knights Defense, one of the more complicated openings. For many months, the players traded what would be described as haymakers in boxing, with each attacking, only to be met with a counterattack. After an incredible series of moves, the game wound down to a rook-and-pawn ending that Mr. Berliner won.

Andy Soltis, a grandmaster of over-the-board (conventional) play, ranked the game No. 1 in his book “The 100 Best Chess Games of the 20th Century” (2000). Over the years, the game was often analyzed by people using increasingly powerful chess computers, but only a few small improvements in the moves of both players were ever found.

In a 2004 lecture entitled "The greatest chess game ever played" Playchess.com trainer Dennis Monokroussos gave the award to Estrin-Berliner from the 5th Correspondence World Chess Championship. Monokroussos wrote:

"Hans Berliner, on his way to the title, produces a fearsome novelty against future correspondence champion Yakov Estrin in the latter’s specialty, the Two Knights Defense. Berliner’s opening idea was so deep that it is still debated to this day, and needless to say, Estrin could not even begin to solve everything, even under the relatively leisurely time controls afforded by correspondence chess. Instead, he tried to bail out to a drawn ending via a long forcing sequence. Here too, Berliner was a step ahead of him, capping off the crown jewel of his correspondence career with a beautifully played – and instructive – rook ending. This is a game not to be missed: it possesses opening theory you can use, beautiful endgame technique, and complications to suit even the most discriminating tactical connoisseur. Check it out, bring your friends (except those who play the Italian game against you), and prepare yourself for a feast!"

Here's the famous game for you to analyse, enjoy – and to learn from. It is annotated by IM Sagar Shah who, as a young lad, read Hans Berliner's book The System: A World Champion's Approach to Chess. It lays out a set of principles that Berliner used to guide him to the right moves. Readers will be astonished by the simplicity and power of Berliner's methods as he takes several major openings and subjects them to System principles, and finds radically new approaches to them.

Sagar: "At the time this book had a deep impact on me. The author suggested lines and variations with an aim to proving that White can win all the games if his system is followed. To that end, he recommended 1.d4! as the best move!"

[Event "Correspondence World Cup"] [Site "?"] [Date "1965.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "Estrin, Yakov"] [Black "Berliner, Hans"] [Result "0-1"] [ECO "C57"] [Annotator "Sagar Shah"] [PlyCount "84"] [SourceDate "2017.01.17"] 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bc4 Nf6 4. Ng5 {To play such a move in Correspondence chess is not a great idea. Mainly because this line could work in a tournament game due to the constraint of available time. However, in correspondence chess it is a completely different world.} d5 5. exd5 b5 $5 6. Bf1 $1 {This paradoxical move is the best in the position. The idea is to keep g2 pawn defended so that Qxd5 can be met with Nc3, developing with a tempo.} (6. Bxb5 Qxd5 {[%cal Gd5b5,Gd5g2] is completely fine for Black.}) 6... Nd4 7. c3 Nxd5 8. Ne4 (8. cxd4 Qxg5 9. Bxb5+ Kd8 10. O-O Bb7 {The position remains unbalanced and complicated.}) 8... Qh4 9. Ng3 {This move not only saves the knight but also blocks the h4-e1 diagonal. Now Bg4 can be met with f3.} (9. d3 Bg4 { is not so easy to meet.}) 9... Bg4 10. f3 {The bishop on g4 is attacked and so is the knight on d4. What must Black play?} {[%tqu "When two pieces are attacked, what do you do?","","",e4,"",10]} e4 $3 {You put the third one under attack as well! How many pieces can White take in one move!} 11. cxd4 (11. fxg4 Bd6 {already gives Black excellent play.}) 11... Bd6 {It's not about how many pieces you have on the board. It's all about how many pieces are actively taking part in the game.} 12. Bxb5+ (12. Qe2 $5 O-O (12... Bxg3+ 13. hxg3 Qxh1 14. Qxb5+ (14. Qxe4+ Be6 $17) 14... Bd7 15. Qxd5 $18) 13. fxg4 Bxg3+ (13... Nb4 14. Qxb5 Nc2+ 15. Kd1 Nxa1 16. Nxe4 $18) 14. Kd1 $5 {The computer thinks that this position is winning for White. I have my doubts. You can try to analyze this deeper.}) 12... Kd8 13. O-O exf3 14. Rxf3 (14. gxf3 Bxg3 $19) {[%tqu "Black has all of his pieces into the attack. What must he do now?","","",Rb8, "The way Berliner gets all his pieces into the game is quite inspiring. It doesn't matter if you are a piece down, as long as the number of forces playing in the game is to your favour.",10]} 14... Rb8 $1 {The way Berliner gets all his pieces into the game is quite inspiring. It doesn't matter if you are a piece down, as long as the number of forces playing in the game is to your favour.} 15. Be2 $2 (15. Bf1 Bxf3 16. Qxf3 Qxd4+ 17. Kh1 $16) 15... Bxf3 16. Bxf3 Qxd4+ 17. Kh1 Bxg3 18. hxg3 {Black is better now because he brings in the rook into the attack now} {[%tqu "Threaten a mate!","","",Rb6,"A strong move threatening Rh6#",10]} Rb6 $1 {A strong move threatening Rh6#} 19. d3 Ne3 20. Bxe3 Qxe3 {Once again Rh6 is a big threat and there is only one way to stop it.} 21. Bg4 h5 22. Bh3 g5 23. Nd2 (23. Bf5 h4 24. g4 h3 $19) 23... g4 24. Nc4 Qxg3 25. Nxb6 gxh3 26. Qf3 hxg2+ 27. Qxg2 Qxg2+ 28. Kxg2 {After all the complications, the material sanity has been restored. However, it is black who now has an extra pawn. How would you recapture the knight on b6?} {[%tqu "With which pawn would you recapture?","","",cxb6,"Capturing away from the center, but now White has no way to create a passer on the queenside.",10,axb6,"looks logically, but in endgames it is better to not allow the opponent to get outside passed pawn, which White can do with a4,b4 and a5.",0]} cxb6 $1 { Hans Berliner in his book The System wrote: Here Black is a pawn ahead, but it is difficult to utilize it. Black's f7 pawn is attacked and he must decide what to do. If he defends it with Rh7 planning to advance the h-pawn, he ruins the dynamics of his position, as the h-pawn will not get very far. And in the meantime White will attack and exchange the pawns on the queenside. Ke6 is useless as it will be met with Re1+. Black must recognize that his assets consist of outside passed pawn on the kingside. And the fact that White's pawn on d3 can be captured anytime. The plan becomes clear. Black will sacrifice his f7 pawn and activate his rook and attack the queenside pawns. This will make the white rook passive and the black king will enter the position as the white king will have to take care of the h-pawn. Thus the next move becomes clear:} (28... axb6 {looks logically, but in endgames it is better to not allow the opponent to get outside passed pawn, which White can do with a4,b4 and a5.} 29. a4 Kd7 30. b4 Kc6 31. Rh1 $17) 29. Rf1 (29. Kh3 $5 $17) 29... Ke7 30. Re1+ Kd6 31. Rf1 Rc8 $1 {I like this decision very much. You give up a pawn and get all your pieces co-ordinated.} 32. Rxf7 Rc7 33. Rf2 Ke5 {The h5 pawn ensures that all pawn endings are winning. Now Black uses his king to inflict the damage.} 34. a4 Kd4 35. a5 Kxd3 36. Rf3+ Kc2 37. b4 b5 38. a6 Rc4 39. Rf7 Rxb4 40. Rb7 Rg4+ 41. Kf3 b4 42. Rxa7 b3 {A great game by Hans Berliner. The way he brought all his pieces into the attack is something to learn from.} 0-1

Video commentary by Tryfon Gavriel

"Best correspondence chess game ever played": Estrin vs Berliner, 1965

Addendum: a chess legend passes...

Former Junior World Champion Julio Kaplan wrote us:

Meeting Hans remains one of my fondest chess memories. I was a teenager living in Puerto Rico at the time, and Hans was vacationing in the island. He visited the chess club, we got to talking, and he showed me his analysis of the Estrin endgame – something like a year before the whole thing played out, exactly as he analyzed! He stopped at critical points and posed them as puzzles, and I still remember my excitement at working through his ideas.

I always loved endgames, and also went on to produce chess computers. In retrospect, this meeting with Hans influenced my life more than I ever realized at the time.

Computer chess pioneer

There is another aspect to Hans Berliner's life that is important: he was a expert in computer chess, and one of the great pioneers of hardware chess machines.

Hans Berliner and his student Carl Ebeling at Carnegie Mellon University, in 1985 [Photo Bill Redick]

The Hitech chess machine was designed in the late 1980s by Carl Ebeling. The custom hardware could analyze 200,000 moves per second and was the first computer to be rated over 2400.

Hans Berliner (background) at a computer chess tournament. In the forground are his student Murray Campbell with Feng-hsiung Hsu. The two went on to develop Deep Blue for IBM.

Hans Berliner at a computer chess championship. Next to him is his student Murray Campbell, opposite him Robert Hyatt of Cray Blitz and Tony Scherzer, author of the program Bebe. Behind Berliner are computer experts (and IMs) David Levy and Mike Valvo.

The full story about Hans Berliner's work in computer chess has to be kept for another day.

Editor-in-Chief of the ChessBase News Page. Studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford, graduating with a thesis on speech act theory and moral language. He started a university career but switched to science journalism, producing documentaries for German TV. In 1986 he co-founded ChessBase.
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fightingchess fightingchess 1/17/2017 11:52
what a genius. rip.
genem genem 1/18/2017 12:54
I have been reading a lot about Berliner recently, in his cooperations on chess psychology experiments with William Chase and Herbert Simon in 1973. By scientific protocol, Chase & Simon kept Berliner's participation anonymous. But Berliner did not need anonymity, and freely told people he was the grandmaster C&S mentioned (which was perfectly his right to reveal).
rachmuth@pdx.edu rachmuth@pdx.edu 1/18/2017 02:12
The game against Estrin belongs in an art museum. I love how it has both the sacrificial attack and then the endgame masterpiece.
benedictralph benedictralph 1/18/2017 03:00
While it may seem like a plus to be a master player in order to be a good chess programmer, I'm guessing it's not a necessity. Just like one can be a good movie director/producer (e.g. Steven Spielberg) without being much of an actor.
parselmouth parselmouth 1/18/2017 05:28
That was a beautiful correspondence game. It was also played before computers were out there.
NYTed NYTed 1/18/2017 12:59
I love this quote: "It's not about how many pieces you have on the board. It's all about how many pieces are actively taking part in the game."
PEB216 PEB216 1/18/2017 11:11
"The Fifth Correspondence Chess World Championship" by Hans Berliner and Ken Messere was published in 1971 as B.C.M. [British Chess Magazine] Quarterly No. 14. Berliner's famous game against Yakov Estrin can be found on pages 1 - 4.