The Chess Handshake Challenge

by Frederic Friedel
6/24/2020 – How far away are you from the World Champion, in terms of handshakes? Have you shaken hands with someone who has shaken hands with him? How far from Boris Spassky? Capablanca? Morphy? Here's this week's challenge: try to find the shortest handshake chain from you to the most famous chess players you can think of. There's a prize for the most impressive submission.

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Please bear with me. After a somewhat lengthy introduction I will come to the point of this article, which I hope you will find interesting.

In my previous life – no wait, it was more like a few decades ago – I was a rookie journalist, producing science documentaries for national German TV. It was a lot of fun. We did many interesting pieces, met many interesting people. The head of the department was the very famous science anchor, Hoimar von Ditfurt, who was not just quickwitted and inteligent, but also blessed with a fair deal of humour. I got on extremely well with him, and we had a number of adventures together (like this fight against astrologers)

Another good friend at the time was Wolfgang Runkel, an editorial journalist who wrote for the very prestigious weekly magazine Die Zeit. He was the one who pointed me to the fact that computers were beginning to play chess. When I told Hoimar about this he commissioned me to make a documentary, and that was my entry into the world of computer chess.

With both Hoimar and Wolfgang I played a game we called the "handshake chain." This was almost two decades before the advent of actor Kevin Bacon's "Six degrees" game," which was based on a similar concept. The point was to find how many handshakes away you are from any given person. For example I was two handshakes away from the President of Germany, because I had shaken hands with someone who had shaken hands with someone who had shaken hands with the President (I use this past tense, not "had shook"). Wolfgang was one handshake away, Hoimar was zero, since he regularly fraternized with the President. In our method of counting shaking hands with someone meant your handshake distance was zero.

My contest with Wolfgang was fairly close, although he was usually the winner. Against Hoimar I did not have the ghost of a chance. He was part of German aristocracy, a well-respected Professor, son of a famous historian. He had met and broken bread with everyone of name and fame. Typically I was four handshakes away from some famous personality (e.g. Albert Einstein), while Hoimar would be just one.

That changed to some extent in 1979, when I was assigned to do a research project for GEO magazine and German TV, on the budding field of "Artificial Intelligence" (yes, at the time we still put it into inverted commas). For this I took a trip around the world – Hamburg, New York, California, Japan, India – visiting all the important Artificial Intelligence labs (and a couple of pathetically fake companies). On this trip I got to meet a number of famous people, or persons close to them.

When I got back I could challenge Hoimar: "Mao Zedong" I said to him. My score was two, since I had met Richard Nixon's brother on the trip, and Nixon had shaken hands with Mao. Naturally Hoimar, after an hour of mulling over it, came up with a one-handshake score. I could only beat him, occasionally, on US politicians (like Dwight D. Eisenhower) due to the fateful encounter with Edward Nixon. But usually, sometimes the next day, Hoimar would think of something that shortened his chain, and he drew parallel or beat me.

The Chess Handshake Chain

So now we come to the reason I am telling you all this: I want to propose a Chess Handshake Competition. How many handshakes are you away from famous players? We will assume that when two players have faced each other in a game they will have shaken hands. Say you played in a simul against Korchnoi (and conceded defeat with a handshake). Then your handshake score for Spassky, Karpov, Kasparov, and many others is one.

What is the best way to work out chains? Think of some good player you have met, and then search for his games in Mega or Big Database. If you do not have these – yes, Virginia, there still are some who do not – you can also search in the ChessBase Account, which also has a lot of other entertaining services. You can make yourself a 3-month trial account to start things off. The quickest method for searching for the opponents of a player you have personally met is by using the page players.chessbase.com, which is a very neat service in itself.

Personally, I have met a lot of strong players: Kasparov, Karpov, Korchnoi, Spassky, Euwe (whom I drove from a tournament he was visiting in Hamburg to his hotel), Botvinnik and Reshevsky (very important!). So it is tough for anyone to beat me. Here are some examples:

  • Emanuel Lasker: my handshake score is one (Reshevsky played Lasker in 1920)

  • Rubinstein, Janovsky, Drake, Fine, Capablanca, Aljechin, and many others: one, me-Rechevsky-them. Meeting Samuel was incredibly important!

  • Alan Turing: one. I met Donald Michie, who worked with Turing.

How about Steinitz? Morphy? I have got the latter down to four and still hoping for a three (or even two). The Duke of Brunswick (= Morphy + 1)? Ruy Lopez? François-André Danican Philidor? Working on them all – maybe you can help?

A small humorous interlude: I was recently discussing the chess handshake chain with a 14-year-old grandmaster. He was very impressed by my score of one to Capablanca. "I wonder what my score is," he said. "Seven? Ten?" – "Probably," I replied, "Such a pity you have never met me!" – "Tell me, Frederic," he exclaimed, "how is it possible for someone to be so dumb as me?"

So here's the deal: try and find the shortest handshake chains between yourself and famous chess players. The most impressive chain will be rewarded with a ChessBase software package signed by at least one (contemporary) World Champion. Post your results in our feedback section below. And have fun searching!




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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Highbee Highbee 6/25/2020 12:16
IM Femi Balogun played GM Magnus Carlsen(current world champion)in the 2017 FIDE world cup Tilibisi, round 1, They shook hands
Carlsen defeated Anatoly Karpov at the Reykjavic Rapid in 2004, they shook hands. Anatoly Karpov played Boris Spassky e.g. Porto vecchio 2006 in France, and a warm handshake took place. Boris Spassky battled Jose Raul Capablanca in many games at Havana 1962 and many handshake occurred. So when I shake my friend (untreated player) who played IM Femi Balogun at Iwo 2020 tournament a local tournament, I have successfully created a chess handshake chain with the above world champion and many more. In short I'm just three handshake away from Carlsen (the most famous player I know) and six handshakes away from Capablanca, my favourite.😇
anthonyy anthonyy 6/24/2020 11:36
these chains are usually rather short

you can imagine two variations, which will lengthen the chain:
1) do not take simuls into account
2) find someone whom you beat, who beat someone, ..., who beat a world champion
DavidFriedman DavidFriedman 6/24/2020 11:30
The mentions of Bisguier and Christiansen reminded me of some other connections that I have. I shook hands with Bisguier when he analyzed games at the Kings Island tournament in the 1990s/early 2000s. That reduces my Fischer number to 2. Bisguier played Reshevsky, so my HN number for Capablanca, Alekhine and any WC who Reshevsky played is 3. I played many USCF games against Richard Ling, who beat Christiansen in a simul in the 1980, so my HN number for any World Champion who Christiansen played is 3. I lost to Stuart Rachels in a simul in the early 1990s, so my HN number is three for Anand and any other WC who Rachels played.
Frederic Frederic 6/24/2020 11:27
@JulioK: Julio, great to hear from you again. Safe and sound? I give up -- who connects you with Che and Nelson Mandela? Important to know, because that puts me at 2 to them.
@Lars Rasmussen: great to hear from you again. Email me (same old id) and I will send you a picture of you and Matthias playing simultaneously against John Nunn, like 100 years ago. And of course you are right, I was just one handshake away from the President. Somehow it feels a bit tricky: I was competing with Hoimar, who was zero handshakes away from so many famous people. If I was six handshakes away from most of them I could reduce that to one by saying to Hoimar: Okay, you win. I'll shake you on that!
Petek Petek 6/24/2020 10:27
I played in simuls against Bisguier, Lombardy and Benko (long ago). I also knew juliok and lived in the same apt bldg in 1977 - 1978 (Hi Julio!). Any of those gives me Reshevsky. (Pete Klimek)
Lars Rasmussen Lars Rasmussen 6/24/2020 10:14
Hi Frederic, how could you be two handshakes away from the President of Germany? Did you never shake hands with Hoimar who was zero?
KnightOnTheRim KnightOnTheRim 6/24/2020 09:06
@ JulioK : playing against Rossolimo is not bad either !
InHocSignoVinces InHocSignoVinces 6/24/2020 08:52
I guess having shaken hands more than once with Botvinnik creates an almost limitless chain from 1900 to the 90es
Ariovistus Ariovistus 6/24/2020 08:05
I played Korchnoi twice, in a simultane and in rapid, that brings me close to almost any famous chess player in the world.
Poisondart Poisondart 6/24/2020 07:19
Played Bill Martz.(IM). He was a close buddy of Robert Huebner,,,after that it explodes!!
Boisgilbert Boisgilbert 6/24/2020 07:02
Albert Pinkus->Emanuel Lasker->Henry Bird and many others->Paul Morphy
feherp feherp 6/24/2020 06:56
Dear Frederic,

I feel, that your counting is false. :-( If you start from Kortscnoi, then all others is two, but not one. It is an analogy with Erdos-number in Mathematics. If you have a common article with Erdos (Paul), your Erdos-number is 1. If you have a common article with somebody, who wrote with Erdos, your number is 2. And so on. For example I have 2 handshakes from Einstein through Edward Teller, 2 handshakes from Kasparov through Adorjan etc. This is a very small world! Warm regards from Hungary: Peter Feher PhD
juliok juliok 6/24/2020 06:48
Julio Kaplan here. Looking at my score with players of my generation was of course pointless (0 with most of them) so I reached into the past, beginning with my boyhood heroes Lasker, Capablanca and Alekhine.

Immediately Reshevsky came to mind. What a career! He played long enough that I could actually face him once (Lone Pine 1977). He immediately gives me a score of 1 with most of the previous two generations of top players!

And since you brought up politics, here's one for you youngsters (under 50) to figure out (too easy if you are my age): who gives me a score of 1 with Mao, Che Guevara and Mandela?
DavidFriedman DavidFriedman 6/24/2020 06:31
For Garry Kasparov, for Anatoly Karpov, for Boris Spassky, and for Mikhail Tal my number is three: I played GM Alex Shabalov in the 2016 Ohio Chess Championship. Shabalov has played GM Boris Gulko, and Gulko has played Kasparov, Karpov, Spassky, and Tal. Of course, that also means that my number is no worse than four for Botvinnik, as at the very least Tal played against Botvinnik. I also have played GM Alex Yermolinsky several times in USCF events. Yermo has played Nakamura (2007 U.S. Championship), so my number for Carlsen is also three. If we are counting any kind of encounter (not just rated games), I took lessons from GM Anatoly Lein, who played against Tal, Spassky, and Karpov, and is thus just one removed from Fischer and Botvinnik. (Submitted by David Friedman, USA).
Justjeff Justjeff 6/24/2020 06:01
I shook hands with Patrick Wolff during a simul. And of course he probably did the same with Kasparov and many others in the 1990's.
Alexey Root Alexey Root 6/24/2020 05:20
1955 Bobby Fischer versus Viktors Pupols, which Pupols won. Pupols was the first chess master I ever defeated, when I was a teenager. (Submitted by WIM Alexey Root)