First computer chess cheat

In the 1993 World Open chess tournament, an unknown competitor drew a match against a grandmaster. He used a computer to cheat.

Chess board
David Lapetina, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The World Open is a chess tournament with open entry. Unranked players can walk in the door, pay the admission fee, and try to win the prize money. The open section is pretty much always won by a chess grandmaster, because they are grandmasters for a reason, but theoretically a complete unknown could swoop in and clean them all up.

In 1993, one unknown player drew a lot of attention and controversy. He entered the tournament under a pseudonym: John von Neumann, a pioneer of mathematics and computer science who died in 1957. This player wore headphones and his bulging pocket gave off a suspicious buzzing sound. And he played shockingly well.

In one of his matches, the mystery player went up against Helgi Ólafsson, an Icelandic grandmaster, and played him to a draw. He won another match against another highly ranked player. And all the time, this buzzing from his pocket.

In his final match, though, he slipped up. He made a rather bad move, and then every one of his moves after that one made less and less sense. Finally, he just froze and stopped playing – losing the game on time. This odd behaviour, along with his suspicious props, landed him in front of the tournament director. Quizzed on some basic chess questions, the pseudo-Von-Neumann could not demonstrate that he even understood the game.

The tournament director disqualified him, convinced that the player was getting instructions from a computer. The man in headphones left the tournament and was never seen again. To this day, his true identity remains unknown, but he sits in the history books as one of the first people to use a computer to cheat at chess.

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