Mystery revealed: it was chess at the South Pole

by Frederic Friedel
5/26/2014 – A week ago we published a picture of a masked man holding up a ChessBase logo. He was, we said, in the process of playing two correspondence chess games – under unusual circumstances. We asked our readers to guess the location of the player. A surprising number got it right – perhaps because the solution could be found on our Facebook page?! Here now is the full story.

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This is the picture we published, together with some more or less useful hints:

  • The player depicted above is not in Tromsø or in Khanty-Mansiysk.
  • There is nothing sinister about the attire – no crimes or terror to be reported...
  • ... although the games do involve a correctional facility.
  • The reason the picture is fuzzy is not a bad camera or focus – it was a light problem.
  • It was not unusually cold when the picture was taken – in fact it was positivly balmy.
  • If you can guess where the picture was taken you will know why it is so special.
  • If you do guess right you will be able to give a very precise location.

Minutes after publication we started receiving messages. The most accurate was from Christian Sasse, who wrote: "The image was taken at 90.0000° S, 0.0000° W and shows Robert Schwarz – my guess." Correct, and hardly surprising, since Christian is an astromomer – he has contributed to many ChessBase articles in the past.

The picture shows Robert Schwarz at the geographic South Pole. The flag on the right indicates that the exposure time for the image was 1.3 seconds (with a Canon EOS 6D). That is because the picture was not taken in sunlight (the sun is never visible during the Antarctic winter) but by full moon! The temperature was a relatively balmy –65°C (–85°F) in a place where it can sink to –82°C (–116°F). Robert describes it thus: "To take pictures here, especially in the dark is not as easy. The tripods have to be taken apart and all the lubrication has to be replaced with extreme low temperature grease. Otherwise your tripod will just freeze up like you put super glue into all moving parts."

Robert tells us that in the marker for the Pole in front of the sign was at the exact location of the geographic South Pole on January 1st 2014. In the meantime it has moved about four meters from the true Pole, because the ice on which it stands is moving by around ten meters per year.

Incidentally, here's a little exchange I had with Robert: "Magnus [Carlsen] told me that he was brought up understanding that Amundsen was 'the good guy' and Scott evil. Norwegian schools! The English school system taught me the opposite." To which Robert replied: "Magnus is right about Amundsen and Scott", and added a smiley.

Robert at the Pole

Robert Schwarz is an astrophysicist and manages the Keck Array, a collection of five telescopes at the South Pole that is peering back at the early universe. He is responsible for everything from electronics to system administration, optics to mechanics – whatever is needed. He has spent ten winters, nine-and-a-half months, at the South Pole. Robert is also one of 705 applicants for a place with Mars One, a project aiming to colonise the Red Planet by 2025. That would be a one-way trip.

Astrophysist Robert Schwarz in normal garb...

... and in working clothes

That's him in the bowl of the Keck Array telescope

This is what the station looks like when there is a bit of sunlight...

... and this is what you get to see in darkness – a full aurora display

The chess connection

But first to justify this report: the chess connection. Robert is an avid chess player, and plays correspondence chess from the station at the South Pole. Last year he played a game against a visually impaired opponent, Erwin Heck from Troisdorf (report in German), via email, at the rate of one move per day. This year he started two games against inmates of the Correctional Facility in Straubing, Bavaria, which has a chess group.

But there was a problem: there was only one chessboard at the South Pole station, and Robert had to keep switching positions. This became tedious as the games progressed, so he contacted ChessBase and we made a copy of Fritz available to him, so he could keep track of the games on a computer. The download took three days. Jorge Shinozaki of Tokyo, Japan, who also guessed right, wrote: "The place is a base in the North Pole or the South Pole and that the man is playing correspondence chess games with jail inmates who are very strong players. At the same time, he is testing how the Playchess server works in a place where the Internet connection is one of the worst on Earth."

Preparing for the last leg of the trip

The LC-130 with eight bladed props during takeoff

Inside the plane the team of 41 scientists and technicians, and the crew

The station from the air

There are many more spectacular images to view on Robert Schwarz's Iceman page. Also full information on the scientific project, the results, and links to articles and papers on cosmological inflation. You will spend many hours there if you click the above link. We will be telling you more about the location, the physics and the chess in a further installment in the near future.

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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