or: The adventures and games of Wakkeliwaan at the Intergalactic Chess Café.
(New In Chess, may 1995)
It was a fateful night in february when I first saw that posting on the Internet, in the newsgroup rec.games.chess. It suggested that I try telnet chess.lm.com 5000 and see how I would like it there.
Before I knew what had happened, I had a screenful of names like turbopragma, CarbonNitride, Sartre, DEATH, GrandJaap, Hoho, toto, Barendregt, zigzag, CapedCrusader, Roman, gutterface; all chessplayers I understood - some of them, judging from the ratings next to their names, quite good, and all ready to play chess with me. When I had mastered my first few commands, and was able to read their personal files, I saw they were from all over the world, from the US, Iceland, New Zealand, Brazil, Turkey, Chile, India, even from Leiden, but regrettably few from Eastern Europe. DEATH was a student from Puerto Rico, HUS an IM from Singapore, Belsebub a blitz-only player, TheKiller a mathematician from Sweden, Galileo a father of four from San Diego, Pawngrubber a girl, Candide a Texan who turned out never to have heard of Pangloss and indeed, Roman was Roman Dzindzichashvili. He had already played over 1500 blitz games there, and his rating was over 2800. The global village suddenly seemed like something from the past - this was a global living room; an Intergalactic Chess Café. Officially it was, at that moment, named ICS; the Internet Chess Server - now it's ICC, the Internet Chess Club.
I registered, chose a 'handle' I would play under (something other than Wakkeliwaan, but I like the anonymity of ICC - only a few players reveal their identity in their notes) and immediately this text appeared on my screen:
Challenge: money (2113) Wakkeliwaan (0) unrated standard 4 20
You may accept this with "accept money" decline it with
"decline money" or propose different parameters.
Shivering with expectancy, I typed 'accept money', and my screen filled with hieroglyphs amongst which I could, with some trouble, discern chessmoves, mine and his. We were playing an actual blitz game (Fischer clock; 4 minutes initial time, 20 seconds increment) while being a few thousand miles apart. I typed my moves here, while according to his file he typed his in Atlanta, Georgia, USA. Even so, those moves appeared on my screen instantly, bleep onto bleep, as if he were sitting across the table. It was overwhelming, mindboggling - the old dream of omnipresence come true. Our mothers have taught us that when we're here, we're here and not there, but that didn't hold anymore. Soon I was playing a game with somebody in Chile while somebody in Finland peeked over my shoulder and typed on my screen that I was a stupid patzer to sacrifice my knight on b6. (I wasn't! It was good! I only went wrong later!)
I was hooked before I knew what Internet chess could really be. In that first game with money, I had played the Alekhine - because I had thought his first move was d2-d4. I had to type my moves then, playing them on a real chess set - onscreen I only had ASCII-garble and a very crude diagram with letters where e2-e4 could easily be mistaken for d2-d4. I was sure there had to be a smoother way, and when I asked the administrators, somebody typed on my screen: 'get ziics.'
'Getting' ziics, an interface program for Internet chess, from an 'anonymous ftp site' somewhere far, far away on the Internet, and getting it to work was an adventure in itself that I am very proud to have brought off, and when I had it installed, I had a cute little glistening white-and-green diagram on my screen (my choice from among 10 boards) on which I only needed to mouseclick my moves, and on which the moves of my opponents appeared. With that, the chess player's Eldorado was complete.
Over 11000 players have played at least one game on ICC; around 2500 are considered to be active now, meaning they have played a certain number of games over the last 31 days. Each day some 4000 games are played on ICC.
There are around 50 GM's, IM's and FM's who play regularly. Many greats, like Anand, Judit Polgar, Yudashin, Benjamin, have played at least a few games there and KingLoek - Van Wely of course - rated 2642 with close to 200 games, is one of the world's busiest GM's here, too.
GMStefansson is GM Stefansson from Iceland, and pim is Pim Haselager from my club in Amsterdam, but most players have let their fantasy free reign in choosing their handles. There are many chessnames, scattered about the ratings spectrum: Alekhine, Smyslov, CapablancaII, BSpassky, Krapov, GMKirpov, Weenink, Naisortep, Barendregt (who had only vaguely heard of Barendregt), EUWE, Euwie, Donner, colle, matulovic, lundin and a whole bunch of Fischers: fischer, bfischer, BobbyFischer, bobbyficher, Bobbie.
I haven't played Feyenoord (too weak for me), but I did play MrBill, Hombre, Bereolos, eggbeater, Archangel, crushee, Blokje, BIGpotz, Oedipus, wokkie, peanut, BLACKisOK, Tijg, SIRPALADIN, Flaneur, OnePawn, yowsirs, fly, Tiitta, WitPaard, NYKNICK, FatChessGuy, Astrange, Nemo, mikkot, Hotti, Hoku, DrTheKid, Uzbek, OKIE, salgatov, Trashtalker, Epor, farendil, Halo, AliBaba, princess, abc, gcfour, Sausage, Fanta, Survivor, AND, sexman, Zuby, febi, chesspagan and many others.
Had this happened a bit earlier, we might have read about 'a strong novelty in the VacuumCleaner line of the Lazarus Indian, first played in DrDeath - SillyOldPawn.'
Internet chess is a marvel. You can play all the games that you want at any time. You can set any time controls that you can think of. Blitz from 2 6 to 3 12 is most popular (sometimes some bargaining goes on before the actual controls are settled) although good old 5 0 is played too. But with zero increment, there are problems with Internet lag - I'll come to that. You can watch, move by move, any of the 20 to 50 games that are always going on. I saw Durex - Donner, femidom - dude, KarlMarx - Nostradamus, idefix - Luzhin. While they're going on, you can discuss them with the other players who are watching. You can make remarks to the players themselves. When the game is finished, you can play it over by yourself, or analyse it with others. You can have all your games emailed to you automatically. You can look at, or have emailed, any of a player's last 20 games. You can have all the the GM- and IM-games played on ICC since august 1994 (some 7000) emailed to you.
Thanks to the computer, you don't need the computer-chess anymore. It was nice to have this strong player around, but he was boring. No need to let him out of his bottle again - we have real live humans onscreen now, who will hang pieces, fall for traps, panick, have themselves swindled unbelievably. After all those stale computer-games, it's heaven. Internet chess will be the death of commercial chess computers.
But it is a dangerous marvel. Many players have played thousands of games on ICC and are logged in almost constantly. In your own file, shielded from others, is a line that says: '% of life spent on ICC'. It gives the percentage of time, since you first logged in, that you have spent in the club. With me, in the beginning, that was 25. I had to get a second telephone line, just for chess - I had been totally incommunicado. Eventually, I have managed to get my percentage down to 10. But I'm still hooked - haven't been so hooked on chess for years. New games, new chances are never more than a few keystrokes, a few mouseclicks away. It is a feverish feeling that reminds me of my casino time, that joyful expectancy of buying your chips, turning into disgust when you have played too long and can't stop losing, and end up preying: 'God, let me break even' - you're not going to quit before your rating is back to what it was at the beginning of your session. Only, it's 2:30 AM, you're bleary-eyed, you don't see mate in one, and the other guy has just had lunch. And in the end you just don't care. You start liking to hang pieces, just like those casino sessions where you started playing tens carefully, and finally threw away hundreds.
Certain things are different in Internet chess. One guy had a pawn on the seventh rank against me but never promoted it. After the game I asked him why, and it turned out he had no interface, had to type his moves, and didn't know how to type a promotion.
There is the mouse blunder, not unlike Capablanca's famous move against Thomas when he thought he shoved his rook to a8, but it halted on a7. Sometimes you click a little carelessly, and some ridiculous and disastrous move appears on your screen. You can then ask for a takeback, which will usually be granted, although I suspected some opponents of using it as a pretext to undo a normal blunder. One night Survivor (Jean Hébert from Canada, remembered in Holland for his draw in Rio '79 against Timman) played Qd1-c2 against me in the opening, allowing Bf5xc2. He asked for a takeback which I gave, but later that night I saw him play Rd1-d7 against an IM from France. There followed Rd8xd7, just grabbing a rook. Survivor obviously had wanted to swap rooks with Rd1xd8, and asked for a takeback, but did not get it. He was fatalistic about it. 'Just won't play him again,' he said.
'Wash you mouse ball,' I advised him.
Against Akira from Singapore I dropped a piece one move, and my mouse dropped a queen the next. I resigned. 'Everything all right?' came a concerned line from across the world. 'Yeah,' I said, 'mouse dropping.'
The invisibility in the intergalactic chess café is an attractive feature that can be used in many ways. Are you really playing a girl, a 14-year old, as their notes say? Have I played Martijn Spaan, also from my club? We know we're both playing on ICC but haven't told each other our handles, so we simply don't know. Was that guy, who asked for a brief adjournment because he had to welcome the cleaning lady speaking the truth or did he want time to analyse our game? Could the real Bobby Fischer be playing here? The anonymity should appeal to him, and he could create his ideal playing circumstances.
It is also very easy to take on a disguise. When I interviewed ICC's boss, Darooha, too many other people were asking him things, so he just logged out and came back as Quimbee, who could talk more quietly. Or take this guy Hardin, a historian from San Jose. One night, after flagging him when he was lost (he agreed to that), we engaged in a lengthy discussion about time controls and the Will to Win. Chivalrous players add time to their opponents clocks to compensate for lag, but Hardin was proud of adding time when he thought the game was too interesting to be stopped by the clock. I told him, in more polite words, that I have been too close to real chess to see anything but soft bullshit in that. Then a few nights later, somebody with the strikingly beautiful name of tragipawn approached me, asking me, after a few preparatory remarks, if I had made friends in the café yet, and if I knew a guy named Hardin. I said I did.
'He was nice,' tragipawn said. 'Didn't flag me when I was down on time.'
'That's exactly the one thing I don't like about him,' I typed, 'not wanting to win or lose on time.'
'Why, it's nice of him,' tragipawn persisted.
'No, its soft.'
'You don't like him then... me?'
I had been had hook line and sinker: tragipawn was Hardin, just sounding me out. Later in our conversation she (she felt like a she) denied being Hardin, but I have never been able to find tragipawn again on ICC - when I try to reach her I get the message: 'Does not match any players name.'
That same night I was greeted by Xmen, who quickly revealed he was really money, the guy I had played my first game with, and later by somebody named someone, which made ICC's syntax rather confusing.
'someone tells you Hi'
'Hi, who are you.'
'someone tells you someone.'
'Of course you're someone. Tell me who.'
'someone tells you Why, someone.'
'Yes, but who, for chrissake.'
'someone tells you Don't get mad - I told you: someone.'
Someone turned out to be someone I already knew under the name of Uzbek, from Texas. 'Two players from Uzbekistan are among the world's best 100' he said in his notes, 'and I'm not one of them.' But he was a strong player; one night I had seen a rating of over 2800 next to his name, which was remarkable even if he had only played a few games; provisional ratings can be way off. He was playing one Russky, and it seemed appropriate to send him a note during play: 'Cmon Uzbek, kill the Russky.' He did, came back to me afterwards to say 'I mated him accidentally', and since then we are friends. He didn't want to reveal his true name, but said he was really from Uzbekistan and had played Kasparov and many other players who are now 2600+ in Soviet youth Olympiads. We played two games and I beat him in a very good endgame, but my pride in that sank when over the next week, Uzbek's rating dropped to below 2300. When I logged in, I started to find messages from him: 'Look at my reiting :-(' He now had an excuse in his notes: he was practically playing blindfold - he didn't have ziics or another interface, and didn't want to get it, was happy to type his moves, and use the incomprehensible ASCII-diagram. I doubted that was true, but liked him anyway. He had a friend, he said, Gavrik, also from Uzbekistan, and also living in Texas, who did have ziics. 'Play him sometime,' he said. I looked up Gavriks notes, and saw he had a rating close to 2500, which made it doubtful he would play me, as I was then around 2100.
'Oh, he will play you,' Uzbek said.
'Why do you think that?'
'Because I'm him.'
And now he was also someone - and who knows who else.
That's how I discovered you can always log in under any unregistered name. I could become tragipawn myself, and ask Hardin a few questions, Ajax to beat Feyenoord, God to crush Belsebub.
Internet's invisibility also makes various ways of cheating possible - tempting, even. When my opponent spends a lot of time for his first few moves, is he desparately browsing for our variation? When he never drops the least pawn, is he using a computer? When he plays a few hundred points better then last time, is a master friend playing for him?
Everybody wants to boost their ratings, and so do I. You need a good rating to get good games, but the ego has its needs too. Even if I am the only person in the world who knows I am Wakkeliwaan, I still like Wakkeliwaan to have an impressive rating. I do want muffiman, badloser, RubbishDump, and all the other anons to know he is good. 'Wakkeliwaan 2332', a few people, but from all around the world, will see on their screens, and for an instant they will think: 'Not bad at all, this Wakkeliwaan.'
To boost your rating, you can do things in ICC that are not possible in over-the-board chess, but that are also not mentioned in ICC's 'abuse'-file. It is officially abuse to use computers or strong friends without telling, or to disconnect in a lost position and refusing to resume - you can be banned for that. But what if I click a piece on my screen and then do not play it? Is there a rule 'mouse clickée - piece jouée'? Of course not - but if I play on a chess set and move the pieces around? In slower games you could really analyse a position. On 'rec.games.chess', I started a discussion about cheating in Internet chess, and found that most people (10 out of 15) did not think analysing while playing is really cheating. 6 respondents thought using books was cheating, but 8 thought it was not, including ICC's boss, Darooha. A few pointed out that what you will win in position, you will lose in time. One American GM said he advocates the use of books on ICS as 'a good way of learning and trying your openings.' None of my respondents could really tell me how Internet chess should be viewed, or treated: as over-the-board chess, or as very fast postal chess where all these practices (and the use of computers) are en regle and even expected.
I would never use a computer, but I wondered: if I do not use books, am I a gentleman, or just a sucker who gives everybody else a 100-point headstart? So - I've done it on a few occasions. In one game, my opponent let me follow my 25-year old book until it said I had 'strong play'. A few moves later I was hopelessly lost - having 'strong play' is of little use when you have no idea of the wishes and dreams of your pieces. Or maybe his book was better.
The biggest problem with Internet chess is 'netlag' - with all those millions of computers communicating with each other all the time, there are bound to be traffic jams; you have clicked your move, but your clock keeps ticking as the move is stuck somewhere in a glassfibre-cable. In one of my first games, in an even position just out of the opening, I clicked my move, but nothing bleeped. All that happened onscreen was my digital clock going down and down until a message appeared: 'Wakkeliwaan forfeits on time.' When I was able to communicate again, my opponent was matter of fact about it. 'Happens all the time,' he said. 'It will even out in the end.'
I doubted that. Already, I had seen outcries on my screen about so-called lagflaggers - people who took advantage of their opponents lag and flagged them. Although I did not plan to do this myself, I felt a certain compassion with these disdained lagflaggers - if everybody did it, it would even out in the end, and nobody would ever have to waste time thinking about true lag, faked lag, or clemency. So I set autoflag ON, a feature that will flag automatically, him or me, and knew I had some undeserved wins and losses coming.
That cost Wakkeliwaan the blackest day in his young life. Soon afterwards I played a young German I'll call Verleumder. During our second game, I saw a message about 'added time', and thought Verleumder had added half a minute to his clock. I didn't like that very much - but what the heck. Later, in a lost position, he overstepped the time limit, and autoflag went off - 1-0 for Wakkeliwaan. But Verleumder was furious, filling my screen with anger. He had given me extra time, and now this! I saw the terrible misunderstanding - he had added time to my clock, because he thought I had lag. How nice of him, ands how stupid of me - of course it wasn't possible to add time to your own clock! But if he had given me extra time, he'd done that because he thought I had lost time, and in fact, I now realised I had been away from the screen to get a glass of milk. That didn't change his genuinely having overstepped the time limit. I tried to explain to him what had happened, told him to stop whining when that didn't help, but he was still cursing when I gave up on him.
Later that afternoon I played a Swiss I'll call Jaccuse, and I really lagflagged him - without wanting to. After 12 moves, no more reply. As I started wondering whether autoflag was such a good idea after all, the seconds ticked away. Maybe I should remove autoflag for the following games - but now it was on. Was it possible to switch it OFF during play - how? - but there it was already: 'Jaccuse forfeits on time.'
When his lag was over, I discovered Jaccuse did not share the insight that it will all even out in the end. 'F*ck you, small player,' he cursed. 'Quit ICS....!' And on and on. I typed that I had been on autoflag, was new to ICS, didn't know if it could be switched off, would lose a token game to him to give his rating points back, but when I sent my message, my screen said: 'Jaccuse has censored you'. He had put a gag over my mouth - nothing I typed now would get through to him. To my horror, I saw he hurled his indignation across the world, with so-called 'shouts' that everyone can hear: 'Don't play Wakkeliwaan! He's a lagflagger!' Before long, he went capital: 'WAKKELIWAAN LAG FLAGGER, WAKKELIWAAN LAG FLAGGER. DONT PLAY WITH WAKKELIWAAN' Verleumder, apparently noticing that, joined in on the top of his lungs: 'Jaccuse is right! Wakkeliwaan is a lagflagger. Down with Wakkeliwaan!'
Powerless, fuming with frustration, I sat at my screen, the pretty little white-and-green pieces still showing the final position of my ill-fated game with Jaccuse. Then somebody named Made shouted: 'Shame on Wakkeliwaan!!! Wakkeliwaan lagflagger!' The whole world was suddenly sick of Wakkeliwaan. Amidst less offending messages like 'Nietzsche, who was challenging you, has joined a match with konijn', Wakkeliwaan was smeared and slandered, and there was nothing I could do. Not even BoneFish, who told me: 'Good job... tee-hee, lag flaggers hurrah!!', could cheer me up.
After a while, Jaccuse removed the gag, telling me benevolently: 'You can speak now...' I gave him his win, and decided never to play him again. I never heard from him either, but for a long time, whenever Wakkeliwaan appeared in ICC, and Verleumder was there too, he started foaming at the mouth, shouting: 'Watch out, the lagflagger has arrived again,' until he was finally told by the adminstrators to stop that.
I must admit I made one more blunder in the lagflag-domain - playing someone who had obvious lag, and not yet knowing how to turn autoflag off during a game. I guess Verleumder saw that, watching every step I took, waiting to catch me at new misdeeds.
Maybe still is.
I did learn to toggle Autoflag.
Even allowing for the slander, I thought ICS was the most marvelous invention since chess itself. What made it even more of a miracle was that it was all free. My real-life chessclub charges some $ 90 yearly, and is open a few hours every week, with always the same faces. Playing on ICS didn't cost a cent (apart from the Internet access and the - local - telephone costs), but it didn't stay free. In the middle of my frenzied playing blitz game after blitz game, the news broke that it was going commercial on march 1st. It renamed itself ICC (for Internet Chess Club), and was now charging $ 49 per year. To entice us to become paying members, Daniel Sleator aka Darooha, ICC's chief programmer and boss, had invented something called 'timestamp'; a way of sending the time actually used along with the move itself. That way, you could never be lagflagged again.
New to Internet as I was, I failed to see why something like ICC should NOT cost money and I paid immediately, even if it was a bit sad Eldorado should have changed into a first class hotel. In essence, as tragipawn, Xmen and someone taught me, ICC is still a place where you can play chess for free - although as an unregistered player, a good game will be harder to get. But in 'rec.games.chess', a terrific uproar broke out. Amidst posts sympathetic to his action, Darooha was accused of going against the Internet spirit, hijacking ICS, being a dirty capitalist. The original author of the program accused him of stealing the code - just short of the words. When I interviewed Darooha onscreen in ICC, my screen nearly exploded with texts machinegunned into it by a subsersive member named Sneaker:
Do NOT support ICC!!!!! SAVE YOUR 50$!!!!!!!!!!
Commercialization of the ICC IS BULLSHIT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! BE WISE AND SAVE YOUR MONEY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! DAROOHA and POTZY are DEVIOUS, GREEDY CAPITALIST PIGS!!
A hundred times over, a bombardment of capitals and exclamation marks.
A boycott was proposed, and both in 'rec.games.chess' and in ICC itself, the 'Free Internet Chess Server' (FICS) was advertised, many disgruntled players saying they would take their chess there. But ICC has not seemed less bustling since then, and it looks like FICS will have some trouble convincing players to join. I play on FICS sometimes too, but there is not nearly as much activity as in ICC. I am assured however that everything on FICS (which runs on a computer located in Denmark) will be at least as posh as on ICC in the future.
ICC, begun in 1991, has been on - and kicked out of - computers around the USA, and is now located in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Darooha, (who has never physically met his cofounders of ICC, arcsin and POTZY) is a 41-year old professor of computer science at the famous Carnegie Mellon University there. He works next door to Hans Berliner, was indirectly involved with Deep Thought, and was at one time a colleague of Ken Thompson of Belle, Unix and endgame fame. He points out ICC is not the first commercial games club on the Internet - there is a paying bridge server, and there are several other paying services. The earlier program, he says, was a cardboard shack compared to the neat brick house he has built it into. He freely admits that in going commercial he had two objectives: making money, and changing ICC into a more serious chess club. He wouldn't mind at all to lose many of the weaker players for whom chess is just an on-and-off passtime, and who really log in to ICC to chat. He counts on having around 2500 paying members in the end - GM's and IM's will be exempt. In fact, ICC pays them to play blitz there, and give lectures.
Both FICS and ICC boast of the marvelous features that they already have and will add soon. Whether one of them will prevail in the end, or whether they will develop into complementary clubs - they both are chessclubs of a kind it would have been impossible to imagine even a few years ago.
(c) Tim Krabbé 1995
Postscript march 1998:
Many things changed of course, over the last three years. Before long, I'll get around to tell what, and how. To start with, you could have a look at ICC's homepage.
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