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Searching for Bobby Fischer - On the Internet

By Tim McDonald
NewsFactor Network
September 10, 2001

A British chess grandmaster claims he has been playing against -- and been defeated by -- the elusive Bobby Fischer on the Internet.

A British grandmaster chess player is convinced that an anonymous player he has been engaged with -- and getting soundly whipped by -- on the Internet is Bobby Fischer, arguably the greatest chess player of the 20th century and certainly its most enigmatic and charismatic.

"I am 99 percent sure that I have been playing against the chess legend," wrote Nigel Short in Sunday's London Daily Telegraph. "It's tremendously exciting."

The two have been meeting on the Internet Chess Club (ICC), an online gathering place for chess amateurs and professionals alike, including many of the game's elite players, called grandmasters.

ICC officials told NewsFactor Network that there have been Bobby Fischer hoaxes before -- two involving amateurs with computers and one involving a grandmaster -- but that this claim has the ring of authenticity.

"There's no way to be sure, but it's very plausible he could be," ICC spokesman John Fernandez said. "If Bobby Fischer was going to be playing chess anywhere, he would be playing on the ICC. Nigel Short is one of our most respected grandmasters, and if he's 99 percent sure, and he's been talking to this gentleman for a long time, I don't see why not. If it's a hoax, it's a fantastic one."

The 'Blitz' Challenge

Short said he was approached online a few months ago by a man who claimed to be an intermediary for a "very strong chess player who wished to preserve his anonymity." The two set up a meeting to play a series of fast, three-minute games, called "blitz" in the chess world. A code word was to be used to ensure it was the right person.

Short said he was stood up at the appointed time, but months later when he signed on, an unregistered guest approached him with the correct code word. Short had heard the rumors of Fischer playing on the ICC, but said he was skeptical, even when confirmed by his friend, Greek grandmaster Ioannis Papaioannou, who claimed to have played Fischer.

The unregistered guest asked Short to sign off and then sign back on as a guest so their games could not be recorded or watched by others, as is customary when a grandmaster logs on. Still, Short's skepticism deepened when his guest made a series of "absurd" moves a grandmaster would never make: moving all his pawns forward one square. It was, Short said, as if the guest were deliberately putting himself at a disadvantage.

'Extraordinary Power, Speed'

But Short's opinion of his opponent changed quickly: "From this deliberately unpromising position emerged moves of extraordinary power," Short said. "In this first game I was totally crushed."

The two played eight games and Short lost them all. "My opponent moved with breathtaking speed," Short wrote. "Often, when I ran short of time, he added seconds to my clock so that he could beat me on the position instead of on time. Of all my many hundreds of ICC opponents -- including some of the world's leading grandmasters -- no one had ever done that before or since."

Short said he took note of his opponent's online mannerisms: "He was polite, funny and clearly an American, to judge from his spelling and pattern of conversation."

Short said he quizzed him on arcane chess history, including a question about Armando Acevedo, an obscure Mexican player. His opponent immediately wrote back "Siegen 1970," which was when Fischer played Acevedo at the Siegen Chess Olympiad of 1970.

Fischer: No TV

Fischer's mystique has remained strong through the years since 1972, when he gained his greatest fame by beating Russian grandmaster Boris Spassky in a tense, closely-watched contest in Reykjavik, Iceland. It was at the height of the Cold War and the two, like it or not, were seen as representing the world's two superpowers.

Fischer created a stir by refusing to play until the television cameras were removed. Then he beat Spassky easily and disappeared from public view. He emerged in 1992 for a rematch against Spassky in Yugoslavia, despite U.S. warnings that he would be violating sanctions against that country.

Fischer won again, and once again disappeared. He has been rumored to be living in places as varied as Hungary and Japan.

He was the youngest player ever to attain the rank of grandmaster, in 1958, and at age 14 in 1957 was the youngest player ever to become U.S. champion. Fischer is now 58.

Without a Trace

Since the unknown opponent logged in as an unregistered guest, he (or she) cannot be traced, and therefore it cannot be proven that it was Fischer, said Fernandez.

"There's a lot of evidence that says this one may be a little more real than any of the previous [Fischer hoaxes] we've seen," Fernandez said. "Nigel Short has a very strong understanding of the game. He knows when he's facing a very strong opponent and he knows when he's facing a computer. Computers don't make deliberate mistakes."

Fernandez admits that the ICC site has been receiving quite a bit of publicity as a result of the rumors, but said there is a downside to that: "Knowing how much Fischer rebels against publicity, if it was the real Fischer, he's probably not going to show up anymore."

As for Short, he says he is certain that by going public he has burned his bridges with the elusive and legendary figure, a childhood hero of his. He is particularly saddened that there is no record of their games, 50 in all.

"It would be wonderful to publish one of my games against Fischer," he said. "To me they are what an undiscovered Mozart symphony would be to a music lover."