The third coming of Bobby Fischer?

by Frederic Friedel
10/5/2021 – The story captured headlines twenty years ago. Many people believe that Bobby Fischer has returned to chess and was performing miracles on the Internet. Nigel Short said he was "99 per cent sure" he has had played Fischer, author Tim Krabbé, who was initially sceptical, went on to see the light. In September 2001 we took a closer look at the evidence.

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Is it a computer? Is it a program? No, it's Bobby Fischer (some wish)

The story was that Bobby Fischer sometimes logged on to the Internet Chess Club (ICC) as a guest and played an incredible series of blitz games against random opponents. He would play a series of very fast blitz games ("bullet chess"), using preposterous openings, but whipping the living daylights out of his opponents. They were sworn to secrecy, so the games were seldom published. Only the stories of the apparition, of the bone-chilling encounter with the ephemeral chess legend remained.

All this remained a chess-club story, until Nigel Short went public with his encounter with the mysterious ICC Fischer in the Telegraph in September 2001. He revealed that he had played nearly 50 speed chess games against the ICC Fischer during that year. "I am 99 per cent sure that I have been playing against the chess legend. It's tremendously exciting," he said. In October the previous year, in the first of their four confrontations, Nigel had lost 0:8, although he was one of the world's best speed chess players. "In my opinion Fischer is a much stronger speed chess player than Kasparov, which is incredible when one considers that at 58 he is virtually a geriatric in terms of the modern game," Nigel said.

Acevedo? Siegen 1970!

For Nigel the final proof came when he tested his mysterious opponent with the following question: "Do you know Armando Acevedo?" The response was immediate: "Siegen 1970." Fischer had played Acevedo, an obscure Mexican player in the Siegen Chess Olympiad of 1970.

At the time I took a look at this piece of evidence: with ChessBase or Fritz loaded I simply pressed Ctrl-F and typed in "Acevedo, Fischer". 

Five seconds later I had the one game played between Acevedo and Fischer. The tournament is given as "Siegen Olympiad 1970".

If I had been scamming Nigel I would have added "It was an A49 – Anti-King's Indian system with 1.d4 Nf6 2.Nf3 g6," or something to that effect. As an experienced user it would take me about ten to fifteen seconds to prepare the message.

The ICC Fischer usually started his game with some really crazy moves, like 1.f3 d5 2.c3 Nf6 3.Kf2 e5 4.Ke3 or 1.e4 c5 2.Ke2 Nc6 3.Ke3. And he kept winning. Aha, obviously this pointed to two things: the ICC Fischer wants to avoid the main lines of modern chess theory. Secondly it was assumed that the legendary Fischer was the only player with the god-like abilities to pull this off.

Since his historic match against Boris Spassky in 1972 Fischer had only played 30 public games, in the 1992 rematch in Sveti and Belgrade. Were we to believe that this man, now 58 years old, could suddenly resurface, and beat the strongest GMs in the world in lightning blitz games, after giving them a tremendous advantage in the opening? No, not beat them, tear them to pieces, wipe the floor with them.

But what was the alternative? Who else could be doing this? There was an obvious answer: only a computer would be able to do what the mysterious ICC Fischer has done on the Internet. In fact it was exactly what you would expect from a fast, tactical program. And we could easily try it out. We asked our readers to load Fritz, Junior, Shredder or Tiger (the best programs at the time), force the first moves of the ICC Fischer player, and then play on against the program. At three minute time controls.

Personally it was clear to me that Nigel and the rest of the strong chess players were getting mauled by a very fast computer (and a very proficient computer operator), not by a 58-year-old non-playing GM. As to the question of why on earth anyone would perpetrate such an eloborate hoax, I had a pat answer: because it is fun! Can you imagine anything more entertaining than whipping Nigel Short, convincing him that he is getting licked by a ghost, and then having him publish it all in the Telegraph?

Is it him, or isn't it him?

Not everyone agreed with me. Author and columnist Tim Krabbé originally thought the ICC player was not Fischer. "Playing over these games, you get the impression that the mysterious guest is a fantastically strong player," he wrote in his Chess Diary. Then Tim had a change of heart: "I take back everything I said and claim the opposite." He had found convincing evidence that the ICC player was not a computer.

The evidence turned up in a series of 25 three-minute blitz games that a "Guest" had played against French IM Robert Fontaine, who had an ICC rating of 2827 (and a FIDE-rating of 2452). The guest always played absurd openings, won 20 games, lost three and drew two games. For Tim the most interesting game was the following:

 

So what did we say to the above? Well, a quick check with all top engines did reveal that they will play 28.Qxb5, but if the operator was running in multiple variation mode he might have well seen the text move come up as the second or third-best line.

In this example (on a 666 MHz computer) we could see that Deep Fritz saw at least two ways to draw the position. If you selected the second line, and then started entering the black moves as played by Beber/Fontaine, Fritz duplicated every single move after that, all the way to the final mate: 28...Qc3+ 29.Kb1 bxc4 30.Rc1 Qb3+ 31.Ka1 Rd2 32.Qc8+ Kg7 33.Bf8+ Kf6 34.Qc6+ Kf5 35.Qc5+ Kf6 36.Qe7+ Kf5 37.Qxf7+ Kg5 38.Be7+ Kh6 39.Qf8+ Kh5 40.g4#.

Tim has one more argument: in the database the times used for each move were recorded, and he could see that the guest never took more than three seconds for any move in the game. But 28.Bxc4 cost him 12 seconds.

Interesting. We concluded that he was probably using Deep Fritz in multi-variation mode, and paused to think about the options available on move 28. He may have even played through a few moves and decided that there were greater pitfalls after 28.Bxc4. Or he may have simply run through the first line to see the full draw (28.Qxb5 Qa1+ 29.Kc2 Qa2+ 30.Kc3 Qd2+ 31.Kxc4 Qxe2+ 32.Kb4 Qb2+ 33.Kc4 =), before deciding to go for the"other drawing line.

Finally it is entirely possible that the ICC Fischer was running multiple engines, choosing the move he thinks is most promising.

So what do we conclude? It could be that Bobby Fischer had descended unto us to play miraculous games of chess. But Occam's Razor forced at least the author to believe that ICC Fischer was a prankster using a fast computer and one or more of the top programs to create an urban legend that would stay alive in chess circles for a long time to come.

Games of ICC Fischer

Here are some of the games by "Fischer" on the ICC in 2001. The first 24 are against "Beber" (IM Robert Fontaine), the second against "Ural", who was IM Alexander Reprintsev, FIDE rating: 2428 (June 2001). The games are at the very least funny and enjoyable. In one of the games the fake Fischer plays Ke8-f7-e6-d6-c7 in the first six moves – and still manages to beat the 2428 IM. You can watch full commentary by Thechesspuzzler on YouTube.

 

Addendum

In 2002, I was able to trace the fake Fischer, when he became very active on Playchess. It was a Canadian Sysop of Asian descent, who was an extremely adept computer user. When confronted he confessed he was "Fischer" in ICC and Playchess.

In 2006 and 2007 I had a number of long telephone conversations with Bobby Fischer in his refuge in Iceland. I asked him whether he had played on the Internet, specifically the games against Short and Reprintsev. He had no idea what I was talking about. So it became 100% clear: it was not Bobby who had tantalized the masters on the Internet.

There is one more little story I cannot resist telling: during the controversy around Nigel I called him. He was in Argentina at the time, and when he recognised my voice on the phone he said, sarcastically: "Is that you, Bobby?" My reply: "Do you know what is happening? Switch on your TV, Nigel!" This he did, after I persuaded him it was urgent. And I heard him exclaim: "Holy #*&§!!" The first plane had hit the Twin Towers in New York, and as we spoke, the second plane hit. I will never forget where I was and what I was doing when the horrific terror attack occurred, twenty years ago.


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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HowardGutman HowardGutman 10/13/2021 10:37
I thought the story was a little silly. Bobby was a fantastic chess player at 5 minutes, but no computer. Check his games particularly against a top program and you will find a fair number of mistakes, second or third-best moves, etc.
Look at the book about his simultaneous games and you'll find a fair number of games where he was beaten by non-masters which makes sense, playing quickly any human can miss a wrinkle. Even 20 years ago when Deep Blue beat Kasparov, computers were better at slow chess, and there was a far larger gap at speed. The gap is even larger at 3 minute.

Additionally Fischer was a perfectionist, and there's no indication he would make some substandard moves. Yes he wanted random chess, but with both players compelled to think anew, not a game where he disadvantaged himself with a substandard opening.
yoodge yoodge 10/7/2021 06:35
(continued)

4. "An anonymous programmer from Canada admitted he was the guest and using an engine." This report has been attributed in several sources and is shaky at best. One investigator reported that this anonymous source later admitted he faked his story. So if we're considering this we should also consider the ICC logs attributed to RO Mitchell, which can be viewed here: https://web.archive.org/web/20160707065932/https://www.memphischess.com/ROBobbyConversation.html

If we accept these as legitimate it shows a few things:

I) A grandmaster (mihiz) was vouching that the "strongest player ever" was playing as a Guest on ICC. Keep in mind you could not obtain the (GM) tag in ICC without verification.

II) guest1923 displayed several characteristics that could be expected from Fischer but would be difficult to fake. Among them, he shows that he is still hung up on the cheating tactics used by the Russians. He also brags incessantly and claims that he is far superior to the modern masters. Being the greatest player of all time was Fischer's second life-long obsession, and he craved recognition for it. In his book of 10 greastest to play he "modestly" excludes himself, but he includes the player he smashed for the world title and a couple other contemporaries. It's clear the list is meant to show the 10 greatest to play other than of course Fischer, who is beyond comparison to the others.

III) Mitchell faced strange openings just like Nigel Short had. These openings were designed to prevent the opponent from using opening theory and force them to play what Fischer would consider "real" chess. In a way it was his compromise between Fischer random and the corruption of modern standard chess.
yoodge yoodge 10/7/2021 06:33
A problem with the analysis showing it couldn't have been Fischer is that it tends to ignore Fischer's prior statements and what kind of person he was. The below analysis shows an alternate view while taking these into account.

1. "Fischer denied playing online in the Jan 2002 Chess Interview." The first problem with this is that Fischer could never stop playing chess. In his interviews at various ages he states that he can't separate himself from chess, and that all he does in his spare time is chess. Whatever condition he had, it made him singularly obsessed with chess (and one other thing - see II below). But he seemed to have grown to hate the way the chess world operated and the existence of "fake masters" bolstered by opening theory and computers. He takes a position that chess is now terrible and everyone should play Fischer random instead, so it's understandable that he would deny playing online. Interesting note is that he does not flat out contradict the statement the reporter attributes to Nigel Short, but only says "he can say what he wants."

2. "Fischer couldn't be that good after being away so long." This assumes Fischer was ever "away" from chess, which by his own admission wasn't possible. For evidence look at what happened when Fischer stopped playing chess for 18 months beginning in 1968. When he returned to public chess he was unrecognizably better and began his legendary streak en route to the world title. If anything being out of the spotlight just gave him more time to study and improve.

3. "Fischer couldn't be that good against Kasparov, etc in blitz." Speed was Fischer's thing. Watch the video of him solving a 15 square puzzle on Johnny Carson. His performance at Herceg Novi reinforces that and one player stated that Fischer outclassed everyone so badly that even using less time he never blundered a pawn, while others blundered bishops and knights.
(continued)
Frederic Frederic 10/6/2021 01:40
@NIGEL SHORT: thanks for confirming the Bueonas Aires call, and helping convince readers that my Memory Lane stories are not all just made up. Incidentally, if you are a good boy, I will send you the chapter "Encounters: Nigel Short" for you to check and verify. @Readers: Nigel first came to stay 41 years ago. Some of the story is told here: https://en.chessbase.com/post/knowing-the-chess-greats-part-i
Frederic Frederic 10/6/2021 01:22
Gardar has cleared up the dates: he came to Hamburg in the first week of December 2005, at the behest of Fischer, who wanted him to check me out. Before he could get here, however, Bobby the Impatient had already called me, and we had had one or two conversations. Gardar stayed for a week in my house, and became a life-long friend. My telephone conversations with Fischer continued in 2006 and the beginning of 2007. Bobby always called, until in the end I talked him into giving me his number -- calls from Hamburg were cheaper that from Reykjavík. I never got to meet him personally, although there was talk about him visiting me in Hamburg. It is all described in my book.
PhishMaster PhishMaster 10/6/2021 01:05
@Nigel Short I agree with lajosarpad that no one is holding you to that still, and not even making fun of you because of it. It is just a fun, not even funny, story. It is super fun to fantasize about, and it was just a cool story, so I would not worry too much that people still talk about it.
lajosarpad lajosarpad 10/6/2021 12:48
@NIGEL SHORT I think nobody believes that you still consider the story to be true. It was just a mistake back in the day and we all make mistakes. Yours is repeated all over the place, because it is particularly funny. I probably make more mistakes than you, at least on the board. My mistakes are not funny, at least at the moment when I realize them :)

This is just a funny story that does not change the fact that you are a well-respected person in the chess world.
NIGEL SHORT NIGEL SHORT 10/6/2021 08:16
Upon realising my error, I withdrew these claims, in a column in the Sunday Telegraph, decades ago - but nobody is interested in, or listens, to retractions. The story has a life of its own, alas. And in the YouTube/streamer age it continues to be repeated ad nauseum.
Incidentally, I can vividly recall the above-mentioned telephone conversation with Frederic, from Buenos Aires.
Offramp Offramp 10/6/2021 08:14
This is the stupidest fake story on chessbase.
Frederic Frederic 10/6/2021 12:25
Sorry Craig Pritchett, got the date wrong. With the help of Fischer's best (and only) friend, I will try to find the exact time of our dozen or more conversations, which continued over many months and usually lasted for over an hour. The background is described here: https://en.chessbase.com/post/bobby-fischer-s-final-years and here: https://en.chessbase.com/post/bobby-fischer-s-final-days. I am currently working on a book on chess (Droemer/Knauer) which will appear next year. In it, I narrate more about what Bobby and I discussed.
Queenslander Queenslander 10/6/2021 12:05
How about some simple psychosocial analysis? Surely it is unconvincing that (a) Bobby Fischer played ANY internet chess, (b) he would allow himself to deliberately play inferior moves, or (c) he would be (or was ever) willing to be a prankster. And Nigel would have to be at or near the top of every prankster's list to play a prank on, right?
juliok juliok 10/5/2021 11:27
What nonsense are people going to believe next? Some GM said he played Bobby on the internet, with Black in a Ruy Lopez, and actually drew!
John Maccormack John Maccormack 10/5/2021 08:53
Nice investigative work too, to cut through the fog of fantasy.
Jarman Jarman 10/5/2021 06:05
On Jan 27 2002 Fischer was asked about the rumors during a radio interview with a Icelandic host.
Q: There has been news that you might have been playing on the Internet. Is that true? A: Not true. That's a lot of BS. [...] Q: Nigel Short said that he met someone on the Net that might have been you. A: He can say whatever he wants.
John Maccormack John Maccormack 10/5/2021 05:42
Frederic: Fascinating story as we have come to expect from you, in this case debunking a very hoary and attractive chess myth. Keep it coming! JXM.
Craig Pritchett Craig Pritchett 10/5/2021 05:40
Fischer died 17 Jan 2008. Would be interesting to know more about the 'number of long telephone conversations' with him (reportedly) that year, to say the very least! Or is the (reported) 'year' wrong?
TheBowtieClub TheBowtieClub 10/5/2021 05:29
Can you do an article about "Raffael" next? :-)
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