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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