by Steve Lopez

It's interesting to me how several seemingly unrelated incidents can convege in odd ways when I give them a bit of thought. It's even more interesting (and even creepy) that a few editors will actually pay me to write this stuff down for your amusement.

The chess world is abuzz with talk of an untitled player named Clemens Allwermann, rated 1920, who recently kicked butt and took names at an international open in Boblingen, Germany. Allwermann demolished various strong players and wound up with a performance rating of over 2600 for the event.

Talk started almost instantly about the possibility that Allwermann had outside help from either a strong player or a computer, the moves having been transmitted back and forth with the help of tiny microphones, cameras, and receivers. It's not outside the realm of possibility -- Allwermann's an interesting-looking guy, with long hair that resembles a wig and large Buddy Holly glasses, both of which could help conceal small electronic devices. Personally, I'd find it intensely humorous if somebody whipped off his wig and glasses to reveal Martin Landau wearing an earphone (and then find Greg Morris and a pile of electronic equipment secreted in a closet nearby). Allwermann is rumored to have an extensive background in microelectronics. There's no word yet on whether or not he's working for Peter Graves ("This Rook will self-destruct in five seconds...").

I won't go into the details of the games -- they're available in several other places on the Interrant, as well as in ChessBase Magazine #68. But this incident raises a fascinating reciprocal question (which few people are asking): could Allwermann, at the age of 55, merely have had the tournament of his life, with no outside help whatsoever?

The whole incident is an interesting scenario, and it put me in mind of a great short story I read several years ago.

The late Fritz Leiber, renowned fantasy writer and avowed chess addict, wrote a wonderful tale called "Midnight by the Morphy Watch". It was originally published in 1974 in If magazine and was later reprinted in a book called Pawn to Infinity, edited by Fred Saberhagen (Ace Printing, 1982, ISBN 0-441-65482-7). Leiber's short story happens to be the best piece of chess fiction I've ever read.

The story's protagonist is an elderly chess duffer and amateur chess historian (bearing a strong resemblance to author Leiber) who's been playing chess all his life with very limited success. One afternoon, he happens across a rare find in a San Francisco pawn shop: the pocketwatch presented to Paul Morphy upon his return to America after his triumphant European tour. Stirf Ritter-Rebil (the elderly duffer) purchases the watch for a considerable sum from the shop's owner (who is evidently unaware of the watch's origin and significance) and takes it home. Late that night the previously-stopped watch unexpectedly begins running by itself, waking Stirf with its sudden loud ticking.

Stirf begins carrying the watch around with him. He's a coffeehouse player -- literally: he's playing in an ongoing tournament at a cafe near his home. On tournament night, he easily beats everyone in sight, including the California state champion. But he's always eerily cognizant of the presence of the watch in his pocket. It seems almost alive. He also becomes aware of the presence of a short fellow who seems to be constantly watching him as he plays. Stirf never gets a good look at the guy -- he always seems to vanish into the crowd whenever Stirf looks up from the board. But he's always there, present in Stirf's perepheral vision.

Stirf's enjoyment of his newly-found chess success is short-lived. His sleep becomes tormented by nightly ghostly apparitions. Soon, Stirf suspects that he is slowly being driven insane...

I won't ruin the tale for you (in case you want to seek it out) but I will say that it's a brilliant, truly inspired little ghost story that's anchored firmly in established chess lore. It's intimated in the tale that the watch eventually comes into the possession of Bobby Fischer (the story was written in 1974, and the watch winds up belonging to the "World Champion"). After thinking about this, I was struck by an amazing coincidence. As you may have heard, many of Fischer's prized possessions were recently auctioned off. Soon thereafter, Herr Allwermann suddenly started playing like a house afire. Are you thinking what I'm thinking? Nahhhhh...it couldn't be...

The conventional buzz is that Allwermann was being helped by an accomplice keying the moves into a computer and relaying the computer's suggestions to Allwermann electronically. There is a precident for such suspicions, by the way.

Let's turn the clock back to 1993. The scene is Philadelphia, the Adams Mark Hotel, site of the World Open. A dreadlocked young man, wearing headphones, enters the event under the name John von Neumann. (It's interesting to note here that the historical John von Neumann, who died in 1957, is one of the fathers of computer science). The mysterious young man enters the tournament as an unrated player. He gets a Round One forfeit win, then is paired with GM Helgi Olafsson in the second round. von Neumann plays White:

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6 6.Bg5 e6 7.f4 b5 8.e5 dxe5 9.fxe5 Qc7 10.exf6 Qe5+ 11.Nde2 Qxg5 12.Ne4 Qh4+ 13.N2g3 gxf6 14.Qd4 Ke7 15.Qc5+ Kd8 16.Qb6+ Ke8 17.Qd4 Ke7 18.Qc5+ Kd8 19.Qb6+ Ke8 20.Qd4 Ke7 21.Qc5+ 1/2-1/2

Who was this weird kid? Olafsson was later quoted in Inside Chess as saying, "...I even thought he was on drugs. He took way too much time to reply to obvious moves and he was very strange."

In Round Three, the plot thickened. von Neumann was paired with Icelandic master Ingvar Asmundsson, got to an even position on move 27, and proceeded to lose on time. According to Inside Chess, "Oddly, he [von Neumann] seemed incapable of hurrying his play in the slightest, always taking several minutes per move, even on simple recaptures, with much time devoted to staring at the ceiling."

It all started unravelling for von Neumann in Round Four. As White he played the following:

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 exd4 4.e5 Nge7 5.Be2 Nf5 6.0-0 Be7 7.Nbd2 0-0 8.Nb3 d6 9.exd6 Qxd6

And then von Neumann did a very curious thing: he refused to move. The time control was 40 moves in two hours. von Neumann just sat on his hands, looked at the ceiling, sat some more, and eventually lost on time.

By Round Five, people were beginning to suspect that von Neumann was receiving electronic assistance. After a very weird opening, he got to an even Rook ending, had four minutes to make five moves, took three minutes to make the first move of the five, and proceeded to lose on time yet again.

It really hit the fan in Round Eight. von Neumann is White:

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 e6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 Bb4 6.e5 Nd5 7.Bd2 Nxc3 8.Bxc3 Bxc3+

and von Neumann again began to think, spending 40 minutes on his next move. His analytical style during this extended "think" was pretty interesting. He didn't even look at the board. He spent the entire time staring at the ceiling.

It was during this period that something odd occurred. A second young man appeared at boardside, jotted down the board position, and vanished into the crowd. Shortly thereafter, von Neumann finished his close scrutiny of the ceiling and played the obvious 9.bxc3. He went on to win the game.

(It was later theorized that the move transmission had become garbled. 8.bxc3 was misinterpreted as either 8.Bxc3 or 8.dxc3 -- the Bishop being the only d-file piece that could legally capture. Unfortunately, back at the computer room, the second young man thought the Bishop was still on d2 and was frantically transmitting the move 9.Bxc3 over and over, in the erroneous assumption that von Neumann had played 8.bxc3. After a half-hour, he finally wised up, figured out what happened, came down to the playing hall to record the position, then went back upstairs and reset the computer).

Making a long story short, everyone was on to von Neumann by Round Nine. It was unfortunately too late -- he'd already won the Unrated section and the prize money. However, he refused to produce legal ID (required for tax purposes in the case of large monetary prizes) and likewise refused to play a "test" game sans headphones or even to solve any simple tactical problems. He was therefore denied his prize money. "John von Neumann" left the Adams Mark Hotel empty-handed, and has never been heard from since.

What makes this story significant (beyond its bizarre nature) is that it helped put commercial chess software on the map. Strong players who had previously disregarded commercial programs as being "weak" suddenly sat up and took notice. Assuming that von Neumann had computer assistance from software running on a PC (a logical assumption, given that he generally took about the same amount of time for each move of his games and failed to move in some obvious positions), it meant that chess software had become strong enough to go toe to toe with grandmasters.

Even more significant was the sudden awareness of chess software by the general chessplaying public. Postal players who had never really worried about the possibility of playing a computer ("No problem! The dang things don't understand strategy anyway!") suddenly became very concerned. If someone could almost get away with computer cheating in over-the-board events, it must be ultra-easy to do it at home! And chess programs were getting better all the time!

In the intervening years, we've seen innumerable instances of accusations of computer cheating in postal and on-line chess. But Allwermann's case is the first OTB accusation I've seen since the "von Neumann incident".

There is one branch of chess in which receiving outside help seems to be pretty generally accepted: overnight adjournment analysis in top-level chess. Top players in important matches have teams of seconds who analyze adjourned positions overnight and report their findings in the morning. This is actually prohibited by FIDE's Laws of Chess (Section 15.1a), but it's not only unpunished but even openly admitted to and condoned nowadays.

Sometimes a player receives unsolicited advice. This, too, is illegal. However, the source of such advice is so unusual in rare cases that allowances need to be made.

In 1908, Frank Marshall was playing in a tournament in Prague. The time control was reached and the players adjourned the game. Marshall (as Black) sealed his move in an envelope and retired to his room to consider the adjourned position.

Marshall had sealed 32...Bg5 to reach the following position:

Marshall spent most of the night trying to analyze the position after 33.Qc8 (which is what he anticipated his opponent Karl Schlechter would play), but came up dry. Finally, after hours of frustration, he decided to knock off and get a little sleep before the game was to be resumed.

As he lay down to get some shuteye, Marshall became aware of a presence in the room with him. A white amorphous shape was materializing nearby. It slowly came into sharper focus to reveal -- Wilhelm Steinitz, who had been dead for eight years!

Marshall wasn't sure whether to yell or run, when he was stopped in his tracks by the apparition's voice. It told Marshall to make a certain move -- a pawn sacrifice. Then the spectre vanished.

Marshall lit a candle, went to the chessboard, made the suggested move and saw that it made sense. He played it the following day and here's how the game ended:

33.Qc8 c5! 44.Qa8 Bxe3 35.Bxe3 cxd4 36.cxd4 c5 37.dxc5 Qc4+ 38.Kf3 d4 39.Bf4 Qxc5 40.Ke4 Kh7 41.Qd5 Qc3 42.e6 Qe1+ 43.Kd3 Qf1+ 44.Ke4 Qe2+ 45.Kf5 Qh5+ 46.Ke4 Qe2+ 47.Kf5 Qd3+ 48.Kg4 Qg6+ 49.Kf3 Nxe6 50.Bc1 Qd3+ 51.Kf2 Qc2+ 0-1

Marshall absolutely believed that he'd been visited by Steinitz' shade. For the rest of his life, he kept a pocket chess set next to his bed each night as he slept. However, there is no record of a second nocturnal visit by Steinitz' spirit.

This wonderful little ghost story, friends, brings us back around to where this article started -- the Allwermann case and the Morphy watch. Did he receive help at Boblingen? If so, was it from a computer? Did it come from a strong player? Or was it some sort of otherworldly power? We may never know the answers for sure. But after comparing the "von Neumann incident" to Frank Marshall's experience in Prague, I think I've found a way to save money if I ever get an irresistable urge to cheat over the board -- I'll skip my next hardware upgrade and buy a Ouija board instead.

Until next week, have fun!

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