Pranking Kasparov

35 years ago a 22-year-old Russian lad came to Hamburg, at the invitation of Der SPIEGEL, Europe’s biggest and most influential news magazine. He was the challenger for the chess World Championship and was here to play a preparation match against a top German grandmaster — and to give the magazine a frank, courageous, outspoken interview, something we had not seen before from a Soviet citizen.

The title story Der Spiegel prepared said “Chess Genius Kasparov.” I had met Garry Kasparov briefly some years earlier, and sent him a disc with computer games.

This time he came to my house to visit. We became firm friends and his visit resulted in the creation of the world’s first professional chess database program.

Here’s the full story. If you are interested, I have described it, in detail, in this YouTube video (and in this one).

After this fateful meeting I started accompanying Garry to tournaments and media events. We spent a lot of time together, and had loads of fun. One thing I could not resist was pranking him with problems and puzzles. Here are a couple of examples — and they are the subject of today’s story.

One time we were travelling in a train, from Switzerland to Germany, Garry, his team of advisors, and me. It was a long and tedious trip, and Garry was suffering from his one big weakness in life: boredom. Wasn’t there anything we could do? “Let me show you a card game,” I suggested. “Great.” He is always interested in games and challenges.

So I pulled out a pack of cards, mixed them thoroughly, and after he cut I separated them into six roughly equal piles. “Okay, now we each pick a card, I said. “The higher card wins. Ace is the highest card. Red is better than black, hearts is higher than diamonds, spades is better than clubs.” Garry was taking mental notes: hearts better than diamonds, spades better than clubs… “Now we each turn over a card. The loser always gets to play first.”

“So what are the rules?” Garry wanted to know. “I just told you,” I replied. “But that’s ridiculous,” he said. “It’s pure chance. Where’s the strategy?” I explained that it was a game of skill, and I was really good at it. “I have practised for years, and I bet I can beat you!” Reluctantly, he started to play — turned over a card. I turned one over, and it was higher, so I took the pair. He picked another, and again I picked a higher card. We played through the entire deck and I won by something like 22-4.

Garry was very upset and demanded a new game. This time he shuffled the cards himself, very thoroughly, and split them into the piles. I wasn’t allowed to touch them — only point to the one I chose. But again I was winning almost every hand. Garry became more and more agitated and started discussing the matter with his advisors. They said things (in Russian) that included the word “statistika,” but Garry just spluttered and said something I guess meant “how the hell can statistics be involved?” He became seriously upset and annoyed, so I had to reveal how I was doing it.

The trick, I told him, was that I was using marked cards. Garry was stunned. He is one of the brightest people I have met, the chess World Champion, but at the time he was basically an innocent young man from Baku, Azerbaijan. He had no inkling that something as devious as that existed.

I actually still own the deck of card I used on Garry in that train, more than three decades ago. The cards have tiny markings on the back, only visible when you know where to look. In the above example I can tell at a glance that the cards are the two of hearts and the five of spades. So it was easy for me to always pick a higher card than him — except on the rare occasions when he by pure chance chose the highest card on the six piles.

I want to contrast this experience with an attempt I made to fool a more experienced and hard-nosed friend. After I had turned over four or five higher cards in a row, John Nunn stopped and started to carefully examine the backs of the cards we had played. After a few minutes he said: “Okay, let’s continue.” After that the player who went first inevitably picked the highest card. John had detected and actually worked out the system of the marking.

Another logical puzzle that had Garry on the verge of a nervous breakdown is described in this story. In addition, there were many chess puzzles which I have narrated on the ChessBase news page. But here’s a non-chess problem I annoyed him with:

“The U.S. air force has the largest number of combat aircraft in the world. The Russian air force has the third largest number. Who is in second place?”

Garry mulled over this for a considerable period. China? India? The European Union? Surely not Israel — no, that’s impossible. In the end he gave up, and I told him the solution: The U.S. Navy. “But that’s not a country!” he protested. “I never said we were looking for a country,” I replied. He was deeply annoyed didn’t speak to me for some hours. Then he came to me with his own revenge puzzle — actually it is more of a joke:

The Americans decide to train a spy against Russia. They take a young man and give him intense courses in Russian, until he speaks the language perfectly. He learns all about Russian culture, habits and traditions. When he is fully trained they parachute him into a Siberian forest. He spends a month all by himself, getting acclimatised, even taking on the smell of a forest wanderer. Then he emerges and comes into a small town. He sees a refreshment stall, run by an old lady. He goes over and says: “Mamushka, can you give a weary forest dweller a glass of water?” — “Of course, my son,” she replies. “Are you by any
chance American?” How did she know, why did she suspect?

I puzzled over this for a good while. His shoes, the dress, his pronunciation? No, he is well-trained and in fact was speaking with a native Siberian accent. I had no plausible theory, and Garry was enjoying my cluelessness. His solution: the man was black! The U.S. spy agency had trained an African American to become a Soviet super-spy. Actually quite funny.

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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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The Friedel Chronicles

The Friedel Chronicles

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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