Ken Thompson: Moscow adventures (2)

by Frederic Friedel
1/5/2020 – In the early 1980s, FREDERIC FRIEDEL spent a week in Moscow with Unix pioneer Ken Thompson, who was supposed to demonstrate his computer chess world champion machine Belle to the Soviet Chess Federation, and to former World Champion Mikhail Botvinnik, who was developing a rival strategy in chess programming. He takes us on a trip down memory lane. Read part 1.

Master Class Vol.10: Mikhail Botvinnik Master Class Vol.10: Mikhail Botvinnik

Our experts show, using the games of Botvinnik, how to employ specific openings successfully, which model strategies are present in specific structures, how to find tactical solutions and rules for how to bring endings to a successful conclusion


Part 2

In 1982, the Soviet Chess Federation and legendary chess world champion Mikhail Botvinnik invited Ken Thompson, the creator of the world champion computer "Belle", to demonstrate this hardware chess machine in Moscow. An invitation was also extended to him by the former World Champion Mikhail Botvinnik. As a friend of both Ken and Botvinnik I too was invited, and embarked on an adventurous trip-of-a-lifetime. (Continued from Part 1...)

Sleight of hand

The lunch included Botvinnik's programming team, and in the afternoon we at last got to discuss their efforts to implement a highly selective search, using criteria defined by the great world champion, to drastically reduce the number of positions a chess program had to generate and evaluate before it made a very strong move. They could not show us the computer or their program, but spent a fair bit of time explaining how it could find the famous bishop sacrifice that their mentor had played against the former World Champion José Raúl Capablanca in the Avro Tournament in 1938.


You can replay the whole game (it's the second example). The bishop sacrifice, Ba3!!, occurs on White's 30th move. The replayer has a fan icon below the board which you can use to start a chess engine, which even runs on an Android phone, where it plays the bishop sacrifice in less than a second.

Botvinnik's Intelligent Programming team explained very eloquently how their algorithms found the bishop sac for purely positional reasons in a couple of minutes. It sounded very convincing — it was clear that they had provided this explanation to experts many times before. 


At this stage Ken asked them about a position he had given Belle. It is from a 1913 game in Paris, when the future World Champion Alexander Alekhine sacrificed his queen, and announced a mate in ten. He played 22.Qh5+!! and won after 22…Nxh5 23.fxe6+ etc., leading to mate. "Belle cannot find this move in reasonable time," Ken said.

Immediately the intelligent-method team started to apply their algorithms on the position, using paper and pencil to do so. Botvinnik looked on with pride. But his approving smile froze when he noticed that I had removed the white pawn on h2. As one of the strongest chess players of all time he realized that without that pawn it was not a mate, and 22.Qh5+ was a terrible mistake that in fact lost the game. Still, it did not disturb his computer team: after considerable calculation and enthusiastic discussion they came to the conclusion: "Our program will find 22.Qh5+!!, definitely, in under two minutes." It was the "dynamics" in the position that allowed it to do so. Our conclusion (not shared with them): if these guys had a computer and a program at all, they were mainly trying to tune it to find the famous Botvinnik-Capablanca bishop sacrifice.

You can listen to Ken describe his involvement in chess, building chess machines, and the trip to Moscow in the above May 2019 interview with Brian Kernighan. It gives you an impression of what Ken is is like, even today – the things he has done and the way he narrates episodes from his life. It will also tell you why I went to stay in his home, first in New Jersey and then California, around twenty times during the last forty years.

Dinner at Vladimir's

During our stay in Moscow we also visited a rival computer team, led by Vladimir Alazarov, a mathematician and computer scientist (shown on the left in this picture), and Mikhail Donskoy (on the right), computer scientist and system programmer. Ken’s in the middle in this photo taken a couple of years later by Prof. Monroe Newborn.

These scientists had written KAISSA, a traditional brute force program that won the first Computer Chess World Championship in 1974.

One evening we were invited to dinner at Vladimir Alazarov’s home. The lunch at Botvinnik’s dacha had warned us of what we could expect. We were shown around the Alazarov flat. In the dining room there was a sumptuous buffet on the table, and when they showed us the kitchen Ken instructed me to stay behind and look for any additional food they could be hiding. I checked carefully and assured him there was nothing else. So we could really tuck in with the buffet. But when we were finished Vladimir and his wife opened a concealed oven door in the kitchen and pulled out — big roasts, steaming potatoes, vegetables and salads. Ken said I had failed him badly.

One more tale about the Alazarov visit. After we had barely survived the meal Vladimir said: “Now we drink vodka!” This was a signal for all the ladies to get up and leave the room. Vladimir got three bottles and three glasses and set them on the table. He opened one bottle, poured a shot into a glass and drank it — like tasting wine before you serve it to your guests. But then he poured a second glass, and drank it too. “Can I have some?” I asked, and he replied “Yes, drink!”, gesturing at my bottle. That was when I realized that the three bottles were intended for the three of us, one bottle each. “No, I can’t drink that much,” I said, and poured myself a shot from his bottle. Ken did likewise. That evening he and I drank two small shots each — in the meantime Vladimir finished the rest of his bottle, opened mine and drank half of it. It was strong vodka, tasting a bit like lighter fuel, and the two shots made me feel quite dizzy. But Russians, I have discovered, have different livers and can take ten time more than me. Vladimir remained perfectly steady and lucid all evening, while I was already slurring my consonants after the two glasses.

There is one final tale from Moscow, but it is not related to chess. If you are interested you can read the rest of the story here on my biographical blog.

Master Class Vol.10: Mikhail Botvinnik

Our experts show, using the games of Botvinnik, how to employ specific openings successfully, which model strategies are present in specific structures, how to find tactical solutions and rules for how to bring endings to a successful conclusion




Editor-in-Chief emeritus 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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John Maccormack John Maccormack 1/6/2020 10:36
Frederic: Nothing on Twitter. Contact me on Facebook. I live in Texas. JXM
Przewoznik Przewoznik 1/6/2020 12:49
It would be fine to compare the Erik Erikson's 8 stages of social development (
with the Frederic Friedel's stages of chess playing program's development. :)
Thank you for such interesting articles!
Frederic Frederic 1/5/2020 11:31
@John Maccormack: You are, quite thankfully, making me think. I have sent you a message on your Twitter account. Please reply briefly if I got it right. In the meantime I will write a few tales from the past, here on, and see how readers react.
PhishMaster PhishMaster 1/5/2020 10:47
Fredrick, that is what I mean: I do not trust Soviets at their word...they "said" with no real proof, and I simply do not believe that a computer at that time would have found that.

I have been using your products since ChessBase 1, and Knightstalker, and own Fat Fritz, so I am well aware of what they can do today.
John Maccormack John Maccormack 1/5/2020 06:56
Frederic: I look forward to the next of your articles published online. And please continue writing them, and begin planning the bound collection. I am involved in the word business and also a chess player (far better at the former endeavor) and I can assure you, there are many of us who would gladly pay real money for such a book. Don't wait. Life can be short. JXM
Frederic Frederic 1/5/2020 04:54
@John Maccormack: Thanks for your positive take on such articles. If others are of similar opinion I will keep writing stories here on (I remember "books" -- they were thin slices of tree stained with ink, right?). I have hundreds of stories which are not just informative, but more importantly entertaining. I have just set up a negative scanner to try to get some of the thousands of pictures I have in JPG for my reports. Will take me a few weeks to set things up.
Frederic Frederic 1/5/2020 04:45
@PhishMaster: I did not say they found Ba3, I said they *said* that Pioneer found the move. In any case I think you can easily train algorithms to find a specific move in one specific position. Contrast it with today: the standard Fritz17 engine shows Ba3 in zero seconds, Stockfish and Fat Fritz within five seconds. And they perform similarly well in any other position.
John Maccormack John Maccormack 1/5/2020 04:42
Frederic: This is fantastic! If you are not already writing a book about your life in chess, gathering all such similar stories, you will leave a great unpaid debt to chess lovers the world over. Please tell me you are writing a book. And thanks for this great story. JXMn
PhishMaster PhishMaster 1/5/2020 12:40
While I am enjoying these articles, I find it hard to believe that the Soviet computer found Ba3!! at that time. I was a Russian linguist at that time, and if you ever studied the Soviet Union, they had to be better at everything, at least appearance-wise, so exaggerating is not something I would put past them, especially when trying to show off to the West, and to show them up.