Will the real Fritz programmer stand up?

by ChessBase
6/29/2003 – Mathias Feist is one of the authors of our flagship program Fritz. Recently he was on a German "What's my line?" type TV show. The three candidates pretended to be experts on (gulp) bird-eating spiders. One of the contestants thought Mathias was the real thing. The following story is not for arachnophobes...

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The last time Mathias Feist, 41, was on TV big time he sat across from classical chess world champion Vladimir Kramnik, operating Fritz in the Man vs Machine spectacular in Bahrain.

Normally Mathias resides in a flat in the rural town of Tostedt about 50 km south of Hamburg. Apart from programming he is interested in classical music, films on DVD (there is no TV set in his flat), good food, correspondence chess, helpmate problems, and a number of other more or less wierd things.

German TV gameshow "Sag die Wahrheit", which is quite similar to the TV classic "What's my line?"

On the TV program there were three candidates who all claimed to be experts on and live together with 100 bird-eating spiders. On the left is chess programmer Mathias Feist.

The contestants are four prominent personalities who can ask the candidates questions about their area of expertise and must try to guess which one is genuine.

Mathias Feist being grilled on spiders

Actually Mathias did pretty well. He displayed very profound knowledge on bird-eating spiders, correctly answering questions like how often do they moult (every one or two years in the case of females). He even survived the tricky question about spider sex ("Normal, a one-time encounter. After that they go their separate ways"). In the end one of the experts was convinced: Feist is the spider expert!

In the second round the fake candidates revealed what they really did. Mathias told the expert panel that he had written a program that had beaten the World Champion and they had to find out whether this time he was telling the truth. This time the majority believed him, and the producers could show pictures to prove the point.

Mathias tells the audience about the ancient Fritz 3 which beat Deep Blue and won the computer chess world championship in Hong Kong in 1995.

Naturally he also talked about Kramnik vs Fritz in Bahrain

Smudo of the pop band Die Fantastischen Vier

After the show one guest, Smudo, the lead singer of the German pop band Die Fantastischen Vier, told Mathias that he was glad to meet him because he loved Fritz. Turns out that Smudo has an account on the Playchess.com server and is a regular player there.

An interview with Mathias Feist

So how come Fritz programmer Mathias knew so much about bird-eating spiders. Naturally we wanted to know, and a few days after the TV show we sent a reporter over to visit him and shed some light on the matter.

ChessBase reporter: We are here in Tostedt in the flat of Mathias Feist, one of the main authors of the successful Fritz program. Mathias, recently you were on a German TV game show, pretending to be an expert on spiders. You even managed to convice one of the contestants that you were genuine. How come you know such a lot about spiders.

Mathias Feist: Well, as a full-time programmer it is important to have other interests and hobbies. As a child I spent a lot of time on a farm and have always been interested in animals. But when you live in a flat like I do it is best to have small animals that are easy to look after.

ChessBase reporter: So how come you know such a lot about spiders? You did a lot of reading on them?

Mathias Feist: Yes, I came across an article and then I bought a book on...

ChessBase reporter: Wait a minute, what''s that? What is in the cage? Don't bring it in here.

Mathias Feist: Well, then I decided to buy some and keep them in...

ChessBase reporter: Omygod, it's a giant spider! I can see it moving in the cage. Ewwww! It's hairy!

Mathias Feist: This is a pink-haired bird-eating spider that has been bred in captivity. They are native to Brazil and...

ChessBase reporter: What are you doing? You are not going to open the cage, are you??

Lasiodora parahybana:
the Brazilian pink-haired bird-eating spider

Mathias Feist: They are native to Brazil where they...

ChessBase reporter: Dear god, he's opening the cage! Don't do that! Don't open the cage!! Just tell me about them.

Mathias Feist: Look, they are perfectly docile creatures. They will never bite you or anything. No, it won't jump on you. Please come back into the room, nothing will happen. I promise.

ChessBase reporter: Are you [expletive] nuts? Why do you keep spiders??

Mathias Feist: Actually this is a relatively new hobby. A few years ago I started reading about them and thought they were really cool. So I got in touch with a bird-eating spider club...

ChessBase reporter: A what?? You are putting me on.

Mathias Feist: No, there is a group of people who breed these animals and supply all the necessary information, help you set up a terrarium and things like that. So I got myself two young specimens...

ChessBase reporter: You have two of them? You are completely out of your mind, you know. What else do you have in this flat? Spitting cobras? Gila monsters?

Mathias Feist: Just the spiders. Actually they are quite tame, really. Here, take one on your hand... Okay, come back into the room, I won't put it on you. No, I won't throw it at you either.

ChessBase reporter: Just keep it away from me. No, further away. What happens if it bites you?

Mathias Feist: First of all they are tame and never bite out of aggression. And even if they did it is not deadly for human beings. Just stings a lot.

Xenesthis immanis – purple bloom bird-eating spider

ChessBase reporter: How do you feed them? Where do you get the birds?

Mathias Feist: No, they are very seldom able to catch a bird in their natural habitats. Actually they live mostly on insects, and I feed them on crickets, which you can get in any pet store.

ChessBase reporter: Yuck! You have crickets in your flat?

Mathias Feist: Not right now. They only need to be fed once every three weeks or so. You simply put the crickets in their cages and they eat them. They are really very gentle creatures, perfectly tame and never aggressive...

ChessBase reporter: Take it off me! Take it off me! You promised you wouldn't do that!!

Mathias Feist: Look, it's not doing anything. It likes the feel of your shirt and it...

ChessBase reporter: Take it off me! Take it off me! You are completely nuts. I'm out of here. I will never come back again.

Mathias Feist: Stop shaking, it won't do anything to you. It seems to like you...

ChessBase reporter: Oh god, it bit me! Aaaaaaaggggghhhh! [Reporter crumples to the ground as Feist digs through the piles of DVDs looking for the anti-venom kit.]

Well, that the way the interview could have gone, the way it could have ended. Turns out Mathias does not actually keep spiders, or any other scary creatures for that matter. He was recruited for the show because his real profession was interesting enough for the second part of the show.

For the first part of the show he and the other fake candidate were briefed by the real expert (who really keeps 100 bird-eating spiders in his house). Mathias said they had about half a day to become experts on the subject, so they would survive the grilling by the expert panel who had prepared specialised questions on the subject.

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