By Frederic Friedel

It was the summer of 1987. Matthias and I had been invited to Moscow to do a demonstration of the brand new chess database software we had developed. We were the guests of the Soviet Chess Federation, and our first presentation was in the famous Moscow Chess Club, where great World Championship matches had in the past been played. Our audience included a number of very strong grandmasters, but also chess experts — trainers, teachers, seconds, people who kept the Soviet chess force in its place at the top of the world.

The famous Moscow Chess Club

In this connection I must narrate how I gained insight into the workings of the Russian chess super-power. The Soviet Chess Federation had a world famous “kartotek,” a collection of games on index cards that was used to prepare top grandmasters for their international tournaments. It was a powerful weapon, and nobody in the West had access to anything like it. Our database program ChessBase was the first step to catching up with the Soviets, which is why they invited us to Moscow — to find out what we were up to. In return for our candid demonstrations I asked them to show me the kartotek. They somewhat reluctantly agreed, and we were led into a large, high-ceiling dark room filled with shelves. These contained hundreds and hundreds of boxes, with thousands of cards, each recording the notation of a chess game. Typed out or, in many cases, hand-written.

I noticed that the cards on which the games were recorded had holes along the upper edge, some open to the top. What is that for, I wanted to know? After some hesitation I was given the explanation: to extract the games of specific openings or certain players. And how did that work? One of the experts showed me: by inserting a knitting needle through one of the holes and extracting all the cards for which the holes were not open to the top. Incredible — but it worked. My expert guide stuck the knitting needle through a bunch of holes and had the games of a specific openings variation. “The problem is to put them back in — it takes hours to sort them in the right places. But we have people.”

Anyway, back to our lecture. Matthias patiently answered the questions of the elite audience: yes, it is easily possible to retrieve all the game of a specific player in a specific openings line. Yes, you can ask for the ones in which he was Black and won the game. And yes, of course you can flip the board when replaying games, so the black pieces move upwards. Our audience was deeply impressed.

The questions were generally very simple, but suddenly someone asked (and I remember this vividly): “I see that your data storage format is encrypted. Is this to protect theft or does it have a technical reason?” We quickly told him that we would discuss that after the lecture, since only very few people in the audience would understand or be interested.

And this we did. The questioner’s name was Stepan, and he spoke fairly fluent English. For this reason he translated the Q&A with guests crowded around us. I fondly remember some of his translations: “He asked about entering moves with the mouse — I answered the question.” Or the most memorable one: “He asked a very stupid question which I refuse to translate.”

We were getting on fabulously with Stepan, who soon asked us if we would like to visit him at his home, that evening? Yes, we would be delighted. “Then I will pick you up at eight.” We mingled with the other guests for a while. Suddenly Stepan came to us and spoke very loudly: “Frederic, Matthias, I invited you to my home, but your hosts tell me that is not acceptable. You are their guests, and I must not intrude. It was a pleasure discussing database structures with you, but now I will leave. Thank you everyone.” He shook hands with us vigorously and stormed out of the building.

We were all quite bit shaken by this sudden dramatic farewell. Except that I felt a little folded note in my hand. I went into the bathroom to look at it. The note contained a rough outline of the streets around our hotel, with a drawing of a car in a side street, and an arrow pointing to it saying “green!” And a message saying: “I wait for you at 8:30 p.m.”

That evening we had an early dinner with our guide from the Chess Federation — in reality clearly a (friendly and funny) KGB man. At eight we started to yawn and stretch, and told Yuri that we were exhausted and would like to turn in now. We went upstairs and peered through the window, until we saw him walking away from the hotel. Then we rushed down and out into the street.

There was a further complication: after walking a few dozen yards I said to Matthias: “There are two ladies following us.” Matthias dropped a key and turned to pick it up. “Yes, it looks that way.” We stopped to admire a tree, and they stopped as well, some yards behind us. When we got to the corner we saw the green car with Stepan sitting in it. We sprinted to it and told him that we were being followed. “Get in,” he yelled and drove backwards down the street, turning off at the next intersection and speeding off to his place.

The evening turned into a pivotal time in my life (a lot of future stories will elaborate on that). I met Stepan’s wife Svetlana — who soon became Sveta to me — and their son Alex, whom, as I write these lines on a Lufthansa flight to California, I am going to meet in a couple of days. Alex is now the owner and CEO of a big software company, Evernote — but at the time he was a little boy tucked into a bunker bed. Stepan, it turned out, was an enterprising technophile. The flat was filled with computers and devices. “This is your field of work?” I asked. No, he fixed cars and built furniture, “to support my hobbies.”

During that wonderful first evening I learned a lot about how things worked in the Soviet Union. For instance if I admired anything in his flat — like a painting or an LP of Sviatoslav Richter playing Bach — Stepan immediately handed it to me and said: “It’s yours!” At one stage he showed me a very interesting list or description of something and I said: “Can you make me a copy of this?” Stepan turned pale: “A photo stat? You want me to fill out the necessary forms and wait for a week for clearance? Take my car or this set of dishes instead.” Already at the time he had a very keen and imaginative sense of humour, and over the years I have picked up so many rhetorical devices from him.

When we were about to leave from an evening that had started an important lifelong friendship, I pulled out the note he had surreptitiously handed over to me that afternoon and said: “Stepan, I will treasure this forever. I will frame it and hang it up in my home.” But he grabbed it from me and tore it up. “Why you want to keep this, Frederic? They maybe find it at Seremetjewo Airport, and you have trouble, and I have big trouble. You mustn’t be sentimental like this — store it in your mind.”

So that is how it all started, how I made first contact with an intellectual soulmate and a massively successful technology developer. There are lots of tales to tell, and I will surely do it in separate essays.

Written by

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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