Kasparov and the start of ChessBase

by Sagar Shah
11/23/2020 – How did ChessBase begin? It's been nearly 35 years now! When co-founder of ChessBase Frederic Friedel was in India, IM Sagar Shah decided to record the story of how it all began. In this article Frederic speaks about the humble beginnings of the big chess technology company and how the 13th World Champion Garry Kasparov played a big role in its success!

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Frederic Friedel on Kasparov and how ChessBase began

The first time I met Frederic Friedel was in 2014. It's been six years and I have spent a lot of time with him in this period. Each time I meet Frederic I am enchanted with his stories – he is a great narrator. However, he prefers to do it without a camera pointed at his face. 

When Frederic visited India in 2019 I was the one who had to ensure all the arrangements related to his travel, stay and planning of the trip. This gave me a good leverage point to get the Friedel stories recorded on video! One thing I always wanted the world to know was how ChessBase began, and what was the role of Garry Kasparov in all of this! It's a story that has been told before – in fact you can read about it in Kasparov's biography. But it never ceases to amaze how the 13th World Champion played a huge role in ChessBase taking off the ground. 

After a bit of coaxing and a bit of threatening, Frederic opened up, and what you get is a great story! Sit back and enjoy this interview.

Sagar Shah: Frederic, can you tell us how it all started. With Kasparov?

Frederic Friedel: One day, in Hamburg, the biggest news magazine, the biggest in Europe, Der Spiegel, had invited a young chess player to play a practice game and do a giant interview with them – a title page interview. He came to Hamburg, and they asked him what he wanted to do on his free day, and he said “I have a friend here I want to visit him. His name is Frederick Friedel.” They knew me and they said “What? How come you know him.” – “He sent me some computer games,” he replied.

[0:36] And then one day there was a ring at my door, and this young man stepped in and said “Hi I'm Garry Kasparov. You're Frederic? Hi! And this is your wife, Ingrid? Yes, and this is your son Martin, and your son Tommy. Great, and it's a nice house here, a nice garden... Okay, now we're friends. Tell me all you know about computers. So I sat there with him, for days on end, telling him what computers can do, and showing him – there are pictures of this happening – and he kept telling me what computers should do for chess players. In 80% of the time I would say “Yes, yes, of course they can,” and in 20% of the time I said “No, of course not, they can’t do that!”

[1:27] So we designed a sort of basic idea to create a database. And the magazine Der Spiegel immediately published the story: Friedel and Kasparov are planning to build a database! After that – people had read about this – every crackpot in Germany contacted me and said “You know, we can build it, or we have built it. I actually traveled across the country to see a few of them, and realized that their main goal is to get to know Kasparov.

[2:03] I can’t program – I'm not a programmer, I can't write it myself. Then one day a young man came to me and very shyly handed me a diskette and say “Would you take a look at this?” I took it home ran on an Atari ST. The Atari ST completely new and a very powerful computer, a very beautiful computer. I had one at home, and I ran it and said “Oh my goodness, this is a database.” It wasn't complete or anything, but you could enter moves, you could store the games, you could load a game, you could replay it and everything. So I called this young man, whose name was Matthias, and I said “Can you come with me to Basel, in Switzerland, to show it to someone.” He said “To whom?” I said “To Garry Kasparov” who was now World Champion. Matthias I think fainted at the other end of the line. And he came to Basel by hitchhiking there.

[3:10] We sat in my room, we put up a computer and prepared everything, and after his game against Tony Miles – Garry was playing a match – he came out. He was tired, but I said “Garry, come on, I want to show you something.” He said “Fred, I'm tired, leave me alone.” I said “No, no, take a look at this.” He came into the room, he looked at Matthias and was very suspicious – he doesn't like to meet new people immediately after a game. But I forced him to sit down and watch, and Matthias showed him the program: “You see you can load a game, and then you can replay it like this, and then you can load the next game, and you can search for this,” and so on.

[3:52] Gary was completely silent. He just looked at it. He was sitting on my bed, and he tossed himself back, and lay there with the eyes his eyes closed. Matthias looked at me, alarmed. He said, okay this is probably boring for him, he's telling us go away, this is nonsense.

[4:12] But suddenly Garry jumped up and he said: “This is the most important development in chess study since Gutenberg.” This is like someone landing on the moon, who plans what he is going to say. He knows this is going to be quoted all over, so he had been lying there, thinking of a good line to react. He took Matthias and me aside and he said “You guys have to make this database, you must build this, you must develop it.” He actually took his letter paper and signed ten pages for me, and said “Write letters in my name, to companies to support you.”

[4:53] This is quite remarkable, because at the time he had a fairly substantial monopoly on chess information. He had four or five people working for him and collecting games, and sorting them and scanning them, and so on. All the other players in the world had to slog it out all by themselves. He was encouraging us to develop something that gave everyone access to the information. So I still admire him for doing this. He's one of my most loyal friends in chess. For ten years he supported us, he did advertising, we could use his picture. He would prepare for games, and call journalists to watch him using ChessBase. He would tell everyone it is because of ChessBase that I can play clock simultaneous against a national team – how do you do that? I use ChessBase and I study their games in advance. This all helped our company tremendously. Of course we had to pay him: zero point zero zero German marks. He did all of this for free, and why? Because Fred is family. You don't take money from your uncle, or your cousin, or whatever. So I'm still very grateful to him.

In 1986 we launched ChessBase at last,

Sagar Shah: “So so we can say that Garry Kasparov was one of the biggest inspirations for the launch of ChessBase?”

[6:49] He was absolutely central in the development of the program – as I said: admirably so, because he was giving everyone access to the information. And today if you want exactly the same tools and capacity of the World Champion you have to go out and spend 200 or 300 Euros, and then you're absolutely equal to Anand or Carlsen or whatever. You don't have any disadvantage.

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Sagar is an International Master from India with two GM norms. He is also a chartered accountant. He loves to cover chess tournaments, as that helps him understand and improve at the game he loves so much. He is the co-founder and CEO of ChessBase India website, the biggest chess news outlet in the country.

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