Ken: The Moscow adventure (2)

In the early 1980s I spent a week in Moscow with Unix pioneer Ken Thompson. That was quite an adventure.

In 1982, the Soviet Chess Federation and legendary chess world champion Mikhail Botvinnik invited Ken Thompson to Moscow to demonstrate his hardware chess machine, Belle. As a friend of both Ken and Botvinnik I too was invited. Unfortunately Ken’s computer did not arrive in Moscow — it was impounded by US security — and we got a dressing-down for this unfortunate turn of events. But we were also treated to the extraordinary hospitality of Botvinnik, and were able to discuss his endeavour to produce an “intelligent” chess program with the authors. I described all this in my previous article.

During our stay in Moscow we also visited a rival computer team, led by Vladimir Alazarov, a mathematician and computer scientist (shown on the left in this picture), and Mikhail Donskoy (on the right), computer scientist and system programmer. Ken’s in the middle in this photo taken a couple of years later by Prof. Monroe Newborn. These scientists had written KAISSA, a traditional brute force program that won the first Computer Chess World Championship in 1974.

One evening we were invited to dinner at Vladimir Alazarov’s home. A previous lunch at Botvinnik’s dacha had warned us of what to expect. There we had been served a sumptuous buffet meal, and ate and ate until we could take no more. Once we had given up, the table was cleared and the main meal was served: big roasts, steaming potatoes, vegetables and salads.

At Vladimir’s home we were shown around the flat. In the dining room there was a sumptuous buffet on the table, and when they showed us the kitchen Ken instructed me to stay behind and look for any additional food they could be hiding. I checked carefully and assured him there was nothing else. So we could really tuck in with the buffet. But when we were finished Vladimir and his wife opened a concealed oven door in the kitchen and pulled out — big roasts, steaming potatoes, vegetables and salads. Ken said I had failed him badly.

One more tale about the Alazarov visit. After we had barely survived the meal Vladimir said: “Now we drink vodka!” This was a signal for all the ladies to get up and leave the room. Vladimir got three bottles and three glasses and set them on the table. He opened one bottle, poured a shot into a glass and drank it — like tasting wine before you serve it to your guests. But then he poured a second glass, and drank it too. “Can I have some?” I asked, and he replied “Yes, drink!”, gesturing at my bottle. That was when I realized that the three bottles were intended for the three of us, one bottle each. “No, I can’t drink that much,” I said, and poured myself a shot from his bottle. Ken did likewise. That evening he and I drank two small shots each — in the meantime Vladimir finished the rest of his bottle, opened mine and drank half of it. It was strong vodka, tasting a bit like lighter fuel, and the two shots made me feel quite dizzy. But Russians, I have discovered, have different livers and can take ten time more than me. Vladimir remained perfectly steady and lucid all evening, while I was already slurring my consonants after the two glasses.

Now we come to the story that really shook us — and I’m going to narrate it in some detail. During our stay we were contacted by Aron Futer, a slim and intense young man, who wanted to discuss programming with Ken. He had developed endgame algorithms for chess, and Ken was impressed. In the end Futer (for some reason we used his surname) invited us to dinner at his house, and we gladly agreed.

That afternoon we told our Intourist guide, the enthusiastically garrulous Nikitin, that we would not be taking dinner in the hotel — we were visiting a friend. Niki wanted to know who that was, and when we told him the name he made a phone call. He made calls, from telephone booths (no cell phones at the time), every fifteen minutes, so we did not attach any attention to this call. But he came back and said: “There is problem, I already ordered dinner in hotel restaurant.”—”Well, then cancel it,” we said. “But that is not possible,” he replied. “Then tell them to serve it and take it away again,” we said, “or invite a couple of your friends to share it with you.” Niki saw that we were not giving in and finally said, “No, it’s fine, you go to friend.”

In the evening we sat in the lobby, waiting for Futer, whom we suddenly saw entering through the main door. When you see and recognize someone you raise your eyebrows slightly, or smile. Niki picked up the signs and immediately knew: that is Futer. He sprang up and walked over to him, graciously ushering him to where we were sitting. “I am very sorry,” Futer said, “but we cannot go for dinner to my home. My wife is sick.” — “Oh, that is terrible,” said Niki, and after a minute or two came up with a new proposal: “Why don’t you have dinner with us in hotel.” Futer agreed, and we engaged in slightly strained conversation at our dinner table.

At some stage Niki got up to make his routine phone call, and I said to Futer: “Underground station. We will come there at nine o’clock.” He looked quite mystified, but before I could say anything more Niki had returned and pressed on with his conversation (on the rival sound quality of Sony and Telefunken amplifiers, I remember).

At eight we were finished with dinner, said goodbye and went up to our rooms. An hour later, we were back in the lobby, and after making sure that Niki was not there, proceeded to the underground station. Unfortunately there were three of them, very close to the hotel. And they were gigantic. But close to the entrance of the second we found Futer, standing nervously in a corner. He was clearly relieved to see us. “So I understand correct,” he said, and took us in the train to his house.

Let me explain what had happened: Niki was of course not an Intourist guide but a KGB operative, and the periodic phone calls were to his headquarters. When we told him that we would be having dinner with a friend named Futer (he asked for the name) he quickly found out who that was. And it was decided that we could not have dinner alone together. The scary part is that when Futer entered the hotel, Niki had perhaps five seconds to say something to him, on the way from the door to where we were sitting. I never got around to asking Futer exactly what he had said, but assume it was something like: “You cancel invitation!” And Futer had immediately understood that he wasn’t allowed to take us to his home. It was all scary and quite devastating.

Incidentally I have a feeling that in the end Niki knew what we were up to, and simply looked away. During dinner we had made it clear that we were dissatisfied with the new arrangement and froze Niki out of the conversation. At some stage Niki started feigning tired and said he was going home right after dinner. Was he inviting us to sneak out to meet Futer? It is certainly possible, he was that kind of person. Actually I grew quite fond of him.

The surreptitious visit to the Futer home led to a marvellous evening (and a second big dinner) with Futer and his wife Olga. She worked at the Neuroscience Institute as a research assistant. Both Futers had applied for emigration a couple of months earlier, and both their jobs were at once threatened. The administration of Olga’s Institute wanted to lay her off and offered her the position of an animal care technician instead — an insulting proposition to an aspiring scientist who was striving for a PhD. Olga fought back and managed to keep her original position. Is it clear: both Futers were Jewish? Thes showed me that it said “Nationality: Jewish” in their passports.

One more thing I need to mention: In 1987 I was invited again to Moscow, together with the co-founder of my company ChessBase, to do a demo of the brand new chess database software we had developed. On the flight I told Matthias what I had experienced with Niki and Futer five years earlier. He was a bit sceptical: is this kind of thing still going on? And then we got a full repeat in the Russian capital — you can read the full story here.

Link: Ken: The Moscow adventure (1)

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Frederic Alois Friedel, born in 1945, science journalist, co-founder of ChessBase, studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford.

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