ICS Interview – Oren

THE ICS INTERVIEWS SERIES – No. 008 – OREN
Interview conducted March 2011
First published March 2019

 

INTERVIEWER

Thanks for agreeing to be interviewed as part of the ICS Interviews series.

OREN

I am honored that you chose me as one of your interviewees. It is very nice of you to take the initiative to document our past wild 5 world. It was a small yet interesting community that we shall always be looking back at with pleasure.

INTERVIEWER

You’re a real oldtimer for online chess players. Do you still play online chess?

OREN

I do, mostly 3 0s on FICS.

INTERVIEWER

How did you get started playing on the ICS? Which server did you start on?

OREN

I started playing in the summer of 1994, probably August 1994, after a couple of fellow students introduced me to ICS (eventually to become ICC). This was my first encounter with online chess and an online community. It was the best  period in terms of discovery: I’ve just started graduate school, and for the first time stayed up late in the computer lab and experienced the nerdy student’s genre. ICS was an integral part of it for me.

INTERVIEWER

You were once the best at wild 5 at a point. How did you learn about the variant and did you have a teacher? What do you think your best run in wild 5 was?

OREN

I owe my inflated rating and my basic knowledge to TOPCAT, Comet and Hela. Each was an extremely strong player, the last two (with TOPCAT being quite reasonable too) also in classical chess. Each one had a different style, and after an initial period of getting to know them, they opened up to me and shared with me many brilliant ideas.

INTERVIEWER

How old were you when you first began playing online chess and how old are you now?

OREN

I was 15 when I started, 32 now. I feel ancient just putting this sentence down in writing. 🙂

INTERVIEWER

What were you doing back then and what are you doing now? (I can paraphase your reply below for the 2nd part of this question).

OREN

Like I mentioned, I just started graduate school. I have been in the academia during most of my active *ICS years. I am still in the
academia, working as a senior software engineer in a healthcare-related project. Knowing what I know now about writing software, I sometimes think back at how rudimentary the FICS code was, and that it could have been much improved. But then again, the discipline of software engineering was not developed at the time, and that’s how internet-interactive software had been written up to that point. So it is not surprising. When I first took a look at the FICS source code, I had no idea how it worked. I taught myself quite a bit of C programming that way (that’s a double-edged sword, though! You never know what you will need to UNlearn later because of that…).

INTERVIEWER

What interface did you first use when you started out playing online? What interfaces have you used throughout the years?

OREN

Started with XBoard on a SPARC 2 and moved to WinBoard in the 2000s after migrating to a windows platform. I am a devotee of WinBoard to this day. I’ve glanced at other interfaces, but have never really moved away from the X/WinBoard family.

INTERVIEWER

You mentioned learning how to code from the FICS code. Some players may remember that you were the coder for the Middle East Wild Internet Server (MEWIS). If I understand correctly, there were two versions of MEWIS, one from about 1997 and then another one from 1998 on that was hosted at your old university then moved to a Swedish university. How did you get involved with MEWIS?

OREN

I had the idea of running my own chess server around 1997. I wanted to do something new and different than the mainstream servers. Being involved in wild 5 and other wild variants (I like Fisherrandom variants too, btw), I decided to code a new server that would focus on wild variants, including new variants. FICS was open source, and I still remember starting from version 1.1 or 1.2 and finding how convoluted and complex the code was. I ended up putting it up on a university server, but that didn’t last long because the university could not afford to allocate computing resources to such an endeavor. A fellow Swedish wild 5 player whose handle escapes me was nice to host the MEWIS code on his university server. I think it was in Chalmers but not sure. [Interviewer note: This player was lukka, Henrik Lukkarila – there was also Darlanio that ran SICS at port 5000 but Darlanio hated MEWIS.]

INTERVIEWER

MEWIS had an active group of players that came to play quantum (sub 1 minute chess), atomic chess, and crazyhouse chess (it was the first to have crazyhouse chess anywhere on the Internet for several months). What inspired you to add quantum chess? Atomic had been available on GICS (where it originated in 1995) and DICS, but those servers were pretty much dead due to being country specific. Do you remember anything about the MEWIS championships you used to run?

OREN

To be honest, I don’t remember much. We did have a small crowd and enjoyed all the best available tools of that time, including Tomato and mamer. There were regular wild 5, atomic and bughouse tournaments. Atomic was quite popular. The idea of adding it was indeed suggested by a Dutch player, and it caught fire ever since it had been added. I recall many atomic tournaments played. Adding quantum chess was in line with my main mission of hosting as many different variants as possible.

INTERVIEWER

What did you enjoy the most about MEWIS? It’s dead now, but the memories of that server endure for several players, including myself. I’ve contacted Helenep and ChSte in the past in an attempt to see if anybody still has some of the source code with no success.

OREN

The best part was that I started with an idea only, and it grew to be something. It was a pleasure watching your “offspring” develop and watch other people use it. I would sometimes come in the morning and note that changes were made by other people, or some tournaments were finished while I was sleeping! It was nice to be part of a global project.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve got a Ph.D. in mathematics. Some of the other wild 5 players you mentioned were similar in education. TOPCAT was a computer engineer, Comet has a Ph.D. in string theory (physics), and I’m not sure of Hela’s background but know he is an IM in draughts (checkers). In addition, ChSte has a Ph.D. in astrophysics. Care to provide a theory on why so many highly educated people enjoyed wild 5? You mentioned that wild 5 may require some creative out of the box thinking, which I can appreciate.

OREN

A side note: Hela is very capable in many areas. He is the only one I have been keeping in touch with ever since. He’s a wonderful young man. Like I mentioned, wild 5 calls for creative thinking, but also concrete tactical, logical play. Exact sciences often require the same type of thinking, so it is not surprising that the two correlate. I am honored to be mentioned in the same sentence with TOPCAT, Comet and Chste, who are so much smarter than I am.

INTERVIEWER

What did you enjoy the most about wild 5? The game itself or the culture associated with it?

OREN

Both. I enjoyed playing a game that was completely original from move 1. And I love having lots of queens on the board…

INTERVIEWER

I’ve got to know. Did you play wild 5 flipped or unflipped?

OREN

99.9% of the time, unflipped. 🙂

INTERVIEWER

Do you happen to have a favorite all-time wild 5 series or game?

OREN

The TOPCAT-Comet 2 1 matches on FICS. It was like watching Zeus and Poseidon rival in an Olympic struggle.

INTERVIEWER

You mentioned that you enjoyed being part of a global project such as MEWIS. Have you been involved in any other global projects since that time? I know you’ve been involved with a project that involves preparing high school students for college. Would you like to elaborate on that project and any other movements that interest you? On a related note, Comet founded the Rural China project (www.ruralchina.org), which attempts to provide education to children in rural China. It might be interesting for you to hear about that project since he began it about the same time he really quit playing chess online and that organization has only grown by leaps and bounds each year.

OREN

I have been involved with two national projects in the U.S. – RUReady, a project to help high students and returning adults prepare for basic mathematics college courses, and more recently, FURTHeR, a project that federates medical record information (mostly in the state of Utah) to help clinical researchers discover the effects of new treatments.

It is too bad that Comet quit playing chess!… He has an enormous talent for it. I am in awe of his achievements and contributions to society.

INTERVIEWER

Do you enjoy any other chess variants apart from Fischer Random based games, such as progressive chess or extinction chess or other types of games such as go? Which variant or game has been your favorite apart from regular chess over the years? Or has wild 5 been your favorite?

OREN

I am not aware of these, but I am sure I would like them all. I don’t have a favorite, all variants are equally interesting. I am still a sucker for classical chess, though.

INTERVIEWER

What’s your opinion on computer chess and of those that use engines to cheat? You’ve been playing online chess since almost the very start. Do you recall any famous computer cheating cases or remember if there were a lot of cases during the early days or has it only been a recent development for online chess?

OREN

Computer cheaters have existed as long as *ICS servers existed. It doesn’t particularly bother me, and I think the phenomenon has declined because we are there to have fun and improve our play, rather than gain rating points. A rating is not important beyond a general indication of progress or change in one’s strength.

INTERVIEWER

Have you had an opportunity to meet any other ICS players in real life? You’ve been able to travel somewhat well from Israel to across the United States. And if you’ve met anybody, have you played chess or chess variants with them over the board (OTB)?

OREN

So I’ve met Comet when he was visiting Israel around 1998. We played 4 OTB chess games in our back yard and the result was 2-2, but that was simply luck. Comet could have easily beat me 100-0. Perhaps the bright Israeli sun was in his eyes!?
I’ve never played W5 OTB. Tried once to convince my dad (a 1200 player) but he wasn’t so interested. Besides, we didn’t have enough queens or knights!

INTERVIEWER

Has playing online chess enriched your life? What areas do you think it’s helped you in if at all? I know you mentioned that learning English was sped up once you moved to the United States, but you did learn quite a bit from chatting online.

OREN

Yes, in many ways. In the words of Gary Kasparov, chess is a miniature of life. I learned about dedication, discipline and the importance of planning even though I have never been a strong player.

INTERVIEWER

Who was the strongest wild 5 player you ever got to play?

OREN

It’s a tie: TOPCAT and Comet.

INTERVIEWER

What wild 5 players do you remember playing? There seems to be a small group of players that played, and it has barely grown with time. Do you remember any of the early players’ handles apart from TOPCAT, Comet, and Hela?

OREN

I don’t. I am sure their handles would come back to me if you mentioned some of them. There were around 30 enthusiasts.

INTERVIEWER

I have to ask this – the rumor for years is that you had a duplicate account on FICS called “Woman” – which has a best in wild of 2458 dated 06 May 1996. Can you confirm the rumor or deny it? Also, what’s your opinion on duplicate accounts for ICS players?

OREN

To be perfectly honest, I don’t remember for sure. But I’d have to say yes, because the account rings a bell. I had another dupe called “Flute” later on for a brief period. I was certainly a mischievous teenager in this respect. My current opinion on dupes in ICS is the same as as on computer cheating: it is absolutely unnecessary and a waste of time. I’d spend my time reading good chess books instead.

INTERVIEWER

On a related note, what’s your view on ICS administrators wiping ratings? As a mathematician, have you studied the rating system models at all? MEWIS had an odd rating system – somewhat a mix between ICC and FICS’, where 20 games would establish but you also had RD that never grew back up more than a couple of points. Was that by design? What are your thoughts on the Glickman rating system?

OREN

In 99% of the cases, the ICS admins are also wasting their time. In the unlikely event of the other 1%, there’s an outlier with 200 rating points or so above the next largest rating, which doesn’t really have any effect on the ratings of the entire population. So it’s probably a waste of time unless they are awarding prizes for top ratings.

I looked at the Glickman system while writing the MEWIS code and it seemed great. Indeed, MEWIS’ odd rating system was designed to prevent wild 5 players from quickly obtaining such a low RD that their rating didn’t significantly change. This was not statistically sound. I suggest to create a separate rating system for wild 5 variants because they are not comparable with chess. It should not promote eeking, but should account for the smaller crowd and white/black bias.

INTERVIEWER

Are there any old ICS players you wish you could contact again?

OREN

I’d like to meet you (Chronatog) in real life!

INTERVIEWER

Any final comments about playing chess online or your experiences over the years?

OREN

Online chess is fun and a place to meet new friends. Make sure you don’t get addicted to it, though! 🙂 


Oren Livne was a former wild 5 chess world champion. He was also the coder and head administrator of MEWIS, the Middle-East Wild Internet Server where many chess variants were programmed for the first time to allow for online play (including crazyhouse chess amongst others).

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