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 Mateus show 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, say he had been lying there, thinking of a good line to react. He took my tears 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.

See also:

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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Minnesota Fats Minnesota Fats 12/3/2020 08:17
okay @Malfa . i see that.

i have the same impression about the world nowadays, it's all about fast profits, quick benefits, no real vision, just dollars. Pitty, we lost some soul i think..some other values.
malfa malfa 12/2/2020 11:10
@Minnesota Fats, the contradiction is not in my words, but between how the world works and how I would like it to work...
Minnesota Fats Minnesota Fats 12/1/2020 10:49
@malfa your phrase contradicts a bit...market rulez and give everyone this or that...contradicts...Market rulez are de facto contra a nice sharefull idea...they just want the stupid people to buy their products....market rulez have no other goal than profit. I studied economics and i hated it.
malfa malfa 11/29/2020 12:13
@Minnesota Fats

frankly I find such sarcasm rather futile. As I wrote, may it like or not, market rulez and CB are in their full right to act accordingly. Pity that they are traditionally totally deaf to the idea of releasing products in an environment that by definition encourages the sharing of knowledge, while at the same time boosting their merits of "giving everyone access to the information".
Minnesota Fats Minnesota Fats 11/27/2020 11:32
@malfa he doesn't care at all, just dollars , like all chess nowadays? just a line of thought.....
malfa malfa 11/25/2020 10:13
Frederic, did you note that I was talking of running CB on Linux?
Frederic Frederic 11/25/2020 09:57
I am preparing an article on the current version of ChessBase (CB16) and the preposterously fast ChessBase search booster Jeroen has developed. On my regular notebook, no special graphics card, when I am entering moves or replaying games, it replays 8.2 million games, from beginning to end, to see if the new position has ever occurred in any of them. It then shows me a list of all games in which it occurred, so I can see what other players did in this position. Of course there is a tedious wait for the list to be shown. Sometimes almost a full second.

With the latest GeForce RTX you could theoretically store 500 million games in memory and have the computer search through 50 billion positions to find matches. You wouldn’t have time to make a coffee before the results become available over. How times have changed...
malfa malfa 11/25/2020 03:33
no over-dramatising, just facts. I have dealt with Chessbase since its 2.0 version, obiously over time it has been eating more and more resources proportionally to the new features that were introduced and to the increasing computer power progressively available, exactly as the OS family on which it has always been exclusively running. Frankly I see no more enough reasons to somehow accommodate a whole quite resource-consuming and inefficient system inside or alongside a much better one just for the sake of using one single piece of software.
lajosarpad lajosarpad 11/25/2020 01:24
@malfa you are over-dramatising it. Chessbase's databases are not particularly large and if you have enough resources it should not be THAT bad. If Chessbase's databases are that slow, then another issue Chessbase might have is schema planning and indexing of their databases.
Minnesota Fats Minnesota Fats 11/24/2020 10:03
being against something ?

being pro something?

should everybody be pro mass consumption ?
I just wrote a simple thought process. Is it so difficult to understand?
adbennet adbennet 11/24/2020 09:50
@Minnesota Fats - Eh? You seem to be against something, but I don't know what it is. I can't follow your reasoning...
Minnesota Fats Minnesota Fats 11/24/2020 09:36
fuck this shit PhisMaster.

only 1% of the world population becomes a GM.

chessbase supports chess.

And than it rips of his supporters to follow a mass product movement?

Don't you ever get any smart ideas? This site is populated by more intelligent people than mass consumption!
malfa malfa 11/24/2020 05:06
@lajosarpad, any dummy can run CB software on a Windows VM on top of a Linux host, but then we can speculate on how many cups of tea he can quietly sip per database search White waiting its result...

Of course market rulez, which does not mean everyone is happy about It, full stop.
PhishMaster PhishMaster 11/24/2020 01:13
To all the "too bad it does not run on Linux or Mac" people, it is a business. Sorry, but developing for 17% of the market (Macs), and 1.5% (Linux), is not an effective use of their time and efforts. Heck. Macs are not even a big part of Apple's business, accounting for only about 10% of their revenue so who knows when they may get out of that market.

By comparison, Windows holds 76% of the world-wide markets.

I do not blame them at all.
lajosarpad lajosarpad 11/24/2020 12:30
@malfa @mehmet17 it would be great if Chessbase would support Linux, but while it is not doing it, you can install a virtual machine on your Linux and install Windows on that virtual machine. This way you could use the same computer to do your Linux-thing in most of the cases and open up your Virtual machine with your Windows for Chessbase.
mehmet17 mehmet17 11/24/2020 10:47
Interesting article.Would like to know a bit about early technical-historical details.
adbennet adbennet 11/24/2020 01:26
@malfa - Yes, my mind wandered and I made some points not directly addressed to you, despite the "@malfa". Sorry. I also prefer to stick with one environment, and sometimes wish for native ChessBase. Oh well...
malfa malfa 11/24/2020 01:09
@bennet, to me the matter with using Chessbase on top of Linux is neither one of price nor one of open/closed source philosophy: simply, their products do not run appropriately in that environment, and I prefer to spend my lifetime better than switching between Linux and Windows, whether they share a multiboot machine or run on two different hosts, for the unique purpose of using those products.
adbennet adbennet 11/23/2020 10:52
@malfa - Cool picture.
adbennet adbennet 11/23/2020 10:35
I love this article on many levels. (1) It really underlines that what drives development and progress is *people*. Who you know is just as important as what you know. Technical excellence is important, Mr. Feist had it. Talent is important, Mr. Kasparov had it. Human contact is equally important, Mr. Friedel had it. Magic. (2) It humanizes Mr. Kasparov in a way that is missed when the focus is on his chess (which it almost always is). Lying on the bed, thinking, thinking, what to do???? Decision! I love it.

@malfa - Unix/Linux, I use it as well. The freedom of open source is also the freedom to be closed source, if the developer chooses. Without that it wouldn't be true freedom, would it? ChessBase is great, part of that is no doubt because they are wise to stick to the tools they know. It's true that they charge a price for their product. I used to think "too expensive". Nowadays I don't compare the price to "free", I compare it to the cost of my own time if I try to do things "on the cheap". In that respect ChessBase is really not expensive. And then I read here on chessbase.com how they use some of their hard-earned database money to further chess around the world, and in sum I have to say that ChessBase people have good hearts. So in another round-about sense ChessBase is again not expensive.
malfa malfa 11/23/2020 06:20
Chessbase nowadays is a great company, with a space of paramount importance in the history of both chess and IT, so a long-lasting happiness on the occasion of this 35th anniversary is really well deserved. Only pity, for me, but a big one: you have never bothered to develop a Unix/Linux product line (I remember I received a "niet" from Matthias in no later than 2005, when I asked him for it), so running CB on such platforms is either de facto unsupported or a pain in the ass, or rather both things, and I have been practically forced to give up using your products a long time ago.
bbrodinsky bbrodinsky 11/23/2020 02:49
I don't know where to put this comment, but this seems like the perfect article... I would much like to much thank Chessbase for the excellent favor they did for me. I bought MegaDatabase 2020 about 2 weeks ago mistakenly thinking it was the latest one. It was for about a week until MegaDatabase 2021 came out. Not being an active player (just a hobbyist at this point), I accepted the sale.
Unsolicited by me, Chessbase sent me an email that since I had purchased the 2020 version so soon before the 2021 version, they were just GIVING me the 2021 version for no additional cost!
This is customer service far beyond what I am accustomed to (at least in the USA, I'm sorry to say). I again want to express my appreciation to Chessbase, and you have a customer for life. Thank you, and happy 35th anniversary.