ICS Interview – Comet

THE ICS INTERVIEWS SERIES – No. 010 – COMET
Interview begun March 2011, concluded May 2013
First published March 2019

INTERVIEWER

Thanks for agreeing to be interviewed as part of the ICS Interviews project. I’m sure several players are eager to hear from you as you’ve disappeared from the ICSscene being last spotted in early 2000. Do you still play chess online?

COMET

Rarely. At some point (it might have been 2000) I decided that online chess was just too addictive; I don’t know what my percentage of life on ICS was at the time, but it was high. It’s rather disturbing how the brain (or perhaps the male brain) tends to attach great value to ratings and rankings, even if they are in something irrelevant like online chess. Since then, I’ve once in a while played on playchess.com because it is free, but nothing like the old days.

INTERVIEWER

You’re probably best known as Comet on FICS, but may be equally well known as Wethalon on ICC. There was also the “Rodonal” account on FICS as well. What’s the origin and meaning behind all these handles, and are there any other accounts you may have had on any of the ICS servers?

COMET

The names are just made up. Those were the accounts I had.

INTERVIEWER

When did you first start playing online chess? Which server did you start out on? And if you were using an interface at that time, which interface was it? Do you still use that same interface or have you tried other interfaces over the years?

COMET

That was around 1993, with some college classmates. I started on ICS and FICS and also had accounts on EICS and DICS (Dutch). I remember the day when ICS turned commercial. I initially used telnet with an ascii board, but quickly switched to xboard on a Unix machine.

INTERVIEWER

You’re a very strong chess player – possessing the FIDE Master (FM) title. Were you a FM before you began playing chess online? And if you weren’t a FM before playing online chess, do you think playing online helped you towards that goal?

COMET

No I wasn’t – I think I became FM in 2000. Playing online may have helped in terms of tactical acuity, but not much else.

INTERVIEWER

And now, the question everybody’s been waiting for. How did you get introduced to wild 5? Did you have a teacher?

COMET

I think I just found it some day, or a friend told me about it. Nobody taught me.

INTERVIEWER

What about wild 5 appealed the most to you?

COMET

It’s so different from anything else. Many chess variants end up in positions that look much like regular chess. That’s never going to happen in wild 5. Also, I like that it starts with a bang and requires very concrete calculation at every move.

INTERVIEWER

Having reached a 2700+ rating on Comet and nearly replicating that as Rodonal, you’re obviously within elite company. There were a few 2500+ rated players during the period of time you played most of your wild 5 in (1996?-1999). Who were your favorite opponents?

COMET

I played with grasgraaier, chste, oren, topcat (I believe he was ranked very highly very selective in whom he played). I think I played with you quite a bit too.

INTERVIEWER

Did you ever participate in any major wild 5 tournaments?

COMET

Not that I remember.

INTERVIEWER

Which server did you prefer to play wild 5 on? ICC or FICS?

COMET

I played on both.

INTERVIEWER

Are there any other chess variants that you enjoyed playing online?

COMET

I enjoyed crazyhouse (which actually comes with Chess on Mac these days). There was a wild that started with white pawns on a2, b2, c2, and black pawns on f7, g7, h7, kings on e1 and e8 – surprisingly hard. A variant in which the pawns started on the 4th and 5th ranks was interesting, and one in which the first player to give three checks wins. (If those were not wilds, they should have been!)

INTERVIEWER

It’s interesting that you mentioned wild 7, which I don’t consider to be a chess variant (the K+3p v K+3p setup mentioned). GM Reuben Fine gave that position as a forced win for white in his Basic Chess Endings (diagram #68), or also known as the Szen position. It’s also mentioned in Staunton’s Handbook as diagram #128. I wrote an article about this variant years ago – it was rated on ICC for several years and FatalImage mentioned the names of several ICC admins that racked up huge (2800-3000+ ratings) playing this game as white, then ICC finally admitted it was won for white and removed wild 7 from the variants that could be played rated. They let the old ratings stand though. The other variant you mentioned actually has 2 versions – wild 8a and wild 8b (8a being your pawns on 4th and opponent’s on 5th and 8b being yours on 5th and opponent’s on 4th). I’ve heard rumors that one of them has been solved already, but I’ve never investigated it deeply and rather enjoy playing it myself as well. w25 (three-checks) on ICC is a new variant that’s been fun to play as well. I’ll agree that w7 is difficult but not impossible to play correctly. Has your opinion of it changed given that you now know it’s a forced win for white? Also, are there any other games besides chess and chess variants that you enjoy playing?

COMET

I looked at some 8a games on wildchess.org – pretty fascinating. I had no idea [about wild 7] – thanks for telling me the history of this position. I guess it should not have surprised me that it was solved; after all, it’s just an 8-piece endgame.

INTERVIEWER

You mentioned playing on FICS and ICC. Due to playing on both servers, did you use a single interface (such as the previously mentioned xboard) or did you use Blitzin for ICC and xboard for FICS and all other _ICS servers? Given a choice, what interface would you use if you could use it everywhere? And have you tried out any of the newer interfaces (past 2000) such as Babaschess or Thief?

COMET

I only used xboard.

INTERVIEWER

ICC had an interesting group of players with which you helped found a group, called the ICC Youth League. It’s currently listed as channel 137, IYC competitions. What do you remember about this group and why did you help set it up?

COMET

I maintained a website with rankings and organized tournaments on ICC for the members of this group. I just thought it was fun.

INTERVIEWER

What time controls do you prefer playing and have those preferences changed with time? You were well known as one of the strongest 1 0 players online when you played (1996-2000). Do you still prefer fast games or have you slowed down with time?

COMET

1 minute for an entire game is pretty crazy. You don’t really improve your chess skills that way. In later years, I didn’t play 1 0 anymore, only 3 0.

INTERVIEWER

Are there any players you recall from FICS or ICC that you wish you had gotten an opportunity to play with more often?

COMET

I believe I once won (on time) against Dahlia, supposedly an alias of Kasparov. Of course it would have been nice to play more against titled players.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve traveled well during your lifetime. As far as I recall, you’ve spent a lot of time in the Netherlands, acquiring a Ph.D. in string theory there and worked at Princeton before moving to the West Coast for a brief period of time. Now you’re in Texas, working in cognitive science. What led you down that path of academic interest from physics? What got you interested in physics in the first place?

COMET

Both physics and neuroscience address very fundamental questions: physics asks about the building blocks and origin of the universe, neuroscience about the neural basis of behavior and cognition. During my PhD research, I gradually realized that I was not suited for theoretical physics. Neuroscience is closer to human experience than modern theoretical physics. I also like the integration of theory and experiment in neuroscience.

INTERVIEWER

In Oren’s interview, he mentioned that you visited him in Israel at one point and the two of you were able to play some chess OTB. Did you get a chance to meet ChSte while you were at Princeton and if so, did you play him some wild 5 over the board? What other FICS/ICC players have you met in real life and have you managed to play any wild 5 over the board with them?

COMET

Yes I met ChSte but I don’t think we played wild 5. I don’t think i’ve ever played wild 5 on a real board.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve mentioned Windows, Mac, and Unix as being operating systems you’ve worked on. Do you prefer one above the other and if so, why? Do you think that using xboard on an Unix machine gave you a slight speed advantage above what you could get on a PC running Windows?

COMET

This is possible, but I cannot compare. I don’t have strong feelings about operating systems.

INTERVIEWER

What about 3. g8=N?! as an opening in wild 5 appealed to you so much that you actually began writing a treatise on it?

COMET

I imagine that players who face this move for the first time are shocked – a minor promotion doesn’t seem to have a place in wild 5. But even after one has played it many times, it is still not easy to deal with. I won quite a few miniatures with it. I think I wanted to establish the objective validity of the line. However, I was very biased in thinking that the move would lead to a win for White. Now, I am just happy that it doesn’t seem to lead to advantage for Black.

INTERVIEWER

You played on the Caltech chess team, which won the 2003 US Amateur Team Championship by playing board 1 with the first few games being played on the US Chess Live! server, and the finals were played on ICC. Have you won any other chess competitions comparable to the USATC?

COMET

The USATC was a highlight. I actually mostly enjoyed the qualifiers, the US Amateur Team West in Los Angeles. We had a great team, with Eugene Yanayt, Graham Free, Howard Liu, and myself. Good team spirit, good chess, nice opponents. With the Caltech Chess Club, we also won a friendly online match against MIT in 2003.

INTERVIEWER

Somewhat linearly after that chess championship and work at Caltech, you co-founded the Rural China Foundation (www.ruralchina.org) with two friends in 2005, and the organization has only grown since its inception. How did you meet your co-founders, and what inspired all of you to begin the foundation?

COMET

The three of us were all concerned about quality and relevance of basic education in rural China. Most organizations working in rural China assist in material needs. We instead focus on curriculum development and teacher training.

INTERVIEWER

It’s probably safe to say that your interests lie outside the chess world for the time being. Have you found your interests in other hobbies and activities to be more fulfilling than chess, bearing in mind that you’ve already accomplished more in the chess world than most players ever will?

COMET

I still secretly hope to earn the IM title some day, but it’ll have to wait. One of my favorite activities is to play strategy group games with friends, such as Settlers of Catan and Pandemic.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have any advice for chess players regarding setting goals and following through with them? You’ve set multiple goals over your career and met most, if not all of them.

COMET

I still don’t know whether chess teaches any generalizable skills. I’m not sure.

INTERVIEWER

Delving a bit into your actual field of discipline, do you have any cognitive science or neuroscience observations on chess and its impact on people?

COMET

I know the classical studies of De Groot and colleagues about pattern recognition in chess. Other than that, the neuroscience of addiction might be relevant, but I know little about that.

INTERVIEWER

What’s your view on the anonymity of Internet chess? I can confirm that you did indeed draw Kasparov on ICC, but it’s entirely possible that you’ve managed to play thousands of titled players without knowing it. As an example, it’s somewhat well known that on FICS, ‘rln’ is Levon Aronian, but it isn’t general knowledge. Being a titled player yourself, how do you feel about being able to play online chess without exposing your status as a titled player?

COMET

Since I’m just a lowly FM I have never worried about that.

INTERVIEWER

Are you familiar with the concept of “The HATE” as channel 10 on FICS describes it? If not, there’s a great essay by pdeck (a lightning player who also happens to be a professor of chemistry). Have you experienced the HATE?

COMET

Yes I read about it in an article by Arne Moll on Chessvibes. From when I still played online, I mostly recognize the “hate myself” part, after wasting hours or days on the server.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think that there’s a separate cultural milieu between the FICS and ICC servers, being that online chess doesn’t have a single cultural milieu, but rather separate sets according to the servers?

COMET

Yes, I have experienced both cultures, like many people.

INTERVIEWER

With your mixed cultural background, have you experienced both the “Western” and “Eastern” cultures, and how does chess fit into this equation? Have you played Xian Qi or any of the other “Eastern” variants of chess, such as Shogi, Makruk (Thailandic), or any of the other games?

COMET

Yes. In terms of chess, I am an average xiangqi player (i’ve played on clubxiangqi.com). A friend once taught me Shogi, but I’ve never tried it since.

INTERVIEWER

Having experienced communication on the Internet from its early days, to the modern day – do you feel that Internet culture has improved, stayed the same, or gotten worse?

COMET

I think it stayed the same.


Whee Ky Ma (Comet) is a FIDE Master and a professor (currently at NYU). While this interview was conducted 10 years ago, he has definitely moved on from chess. His impact has been visible by the growth of the nonprofit that he founded (Rural China) and acknowledgment of his achievements has extended to the point where he has his own Wikipedia page that has absolutely no mention of chess whatsoever (as of the time of this writing).

As a side note – the treatise that Comet wrote on 3. g8=N?! in wild 5 (reversed chess) will be available at a later date. The author would like to profusely thank all the interviewees that agreed to be interviewed over 10 years ago. This was the final interview conducted from that period in time.

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