THE ICS INTERVIEWS SERIES – No. 011 – MOLTENTHINKER
Interviewed March 2019
First published April 2019
Why did you agree to this interview?
I agreed to do this interview for two reasons. First, because you have taken many high quality interviews of players who I truly admire and consider to be my friends. Secondly, because I feel that the Internet Chess Club (ICC) was a very special place, with many interesting personalities and I think that our stories need to be passed down to the future generations. I believe our mark on history needs to be recorded, and I highly commend your efforts for arranging these interviews.
When did you first begin playing chess online? I assume it was on ICC. And what were you doing at the time you discovered ICC?
I joined ICC in 2002 around the time when I entered high school. I was attracted by the club atmosphere: there were many colourful personalities and I made many friends. While I had no shortage of friends in real life, the online chess community filled a hole in my existence. It was a place where I could relax, be myself and discover who I was. It was a place where I could connect with like-minded people from all over the world, many of whom were searching for the same thing.
While some of my friends went on to become famous grandmasters, ICC was filled with interesting people from all walks of life… very warm and generous people. I owe them a great deal.
Sadly, this community that has given so much to me has mostly fallen apart. Part of the reason is that ICC is a paid service, and after one’s account expires, one can longer log in and reminisce for old times sake. However, the main reason was the excessive moderation: you could get muzzled for no reason at all. The people running ICC were dictators and tyrants: pathetic self-centered people who liked to exercise power. When you were muzzled, you had to beg the admins for forgiveness. It was an exercise in humiliation that no one should have to go through, least of all talented youngsters who love chess. Actually some admins were softer than others, so if you pleaded your case to the right admin, your punishment would be less severe. ICC has been dismantling their own community for years: the server was run by an army of volunteers (helpers and tournament managers) who were treated like they were expendable. No wonder many of them quit ICC and moved on with their lives.
For me the final straw was when ICC was bought out by “new management” who decided to dismantle wild 29 (where a chess variant is chosen at random). Some chess players weathered the storm on the Free Internet Chess Server (FICS) or buho21, before finding a more stable home on lichess.org: the refuge for lost souls. However, many simply quit online chess. The reason I stayed on ICC for as long as I did was because of prize tournaments such as the League of Losers (LOL) that gave membership extensions as prizes.
How did you find ICC in the first place? What interface were you using if it was something other than Blitzin?
The first interface I used was Internet Chess client for Mac. To modern eyes, it looks like something that you can only find in a museum. I remember there was a seek graph which had many interesting buttons. I noticed that sometimes when I clicked on one of the buttons, I would not be playing regular chess, but a variant like atomic or losers. Then I noticed that the buttons had little symbols on them depicting the type of game I was playing. This is how I made my first online chess friend TheChessKid, who introduced me to atomic.
A short while later, I switched to a program called Fixation which I used for about five years. Unfortunately, Fixation did not have premove, so I had a lot of trouble achieving my potential in bullet. Mostly, I played 1 0 games, so the lack of premove was quite painful. At some point, I downloaded a program called Chessic, which had premove but did not support chess variants. While beautifully designed, Chessic was extremely buggy, so I didn’t use it very much.
While in high school, I wrote my own chess client but the ICC overlords would not grant me access to their Time Stamp technology, to compensate the player for the lag. This made it impossible for me to develop a viable alternative for my purposes and therefore, I didn’t bother to develop it properly. At this time, most chess servers featured a monospace console into which you enter various commands. Different channels were colour-coded as well as tells, kibitzes and shouts, so it was quite easy to read. Since the font was monospace, many players enjoyed sending each other ASCII art. There was a program called Figlet which allowed one to type text and have it converted into ASCII art. I implemented Figlet into my client and used it to spam people in big letters. Some people did not appreciate my creativity and censored me. But spamming them was worth it.
A few years later Mike Adams (adam16mr on ICC) made a Java-based client called Lantern which was fully functional and had many interesting features. Since Mike was a good friend of mine, he developed several features at my request. However, when I moved over to FICS, I switched over to Raptor, which is the client I still use to log in today. The problem with FICS is that it is completely unmoderated and people have been extremely vile, especially in the bughouse channel.
It is a shame that the next generation of web-based chess servers like chess.com and lichess are graphics oriented and are not designed for communicating with others. I suppose that the need to communicate with others was filled by Discord to some extent, although not everyone is on Discord. In any case, it would be desirable to chat directly on the chess server.
While you’re pretty well known as a great variant player, do you have a preference for a specific one?
I pretty much like all variants except Fischer Random. Generally, I don’t like to memorize openings or long series of only moves. I am more interested in figuring out how to play viable moves in situations I had not encountered before. My two strongest chess variants were atomic and losers, and I was one of the top players in these variants from 2005 — 2007 (although you cannot be the very best for very long). I also enjoyed playing triple check and kriegspiel, but since these variants were less popular on ICC, I didn’t play them as much.
I guess I didn’t play too much suicide because I felt it was an inferior version of losers. Losers requires a lot more strategy because if you end up with a king and a blocked pawn, you can never get rid of the pawn and so you lose. But in suicide, one is allowed to be a lot clumsier: if you end up with a blocked pawn, you win. In my opinion, suicide is much too volatile to be a serious game, sort of like Racing Kings is on lichess. Actually, part of the fun in losers is to force your opponent to checkmate or stalemate you. These wins are especially satisfying.
I guess I tolerated some other variants such as Shatranj or advanced pawns. Probably, manest (Aleksandr Lenderman, now a GM) gave me the most trouble in wild 29, since he was a very strong chess player and was good at every variant.
Recently, I started playing Go, a truly fascinating game. What attracted me to Go was that positions which at first appear to be invulnerable are actually filled with holes. As I improved in Go, I noticed that what I originally perceived to be a straight line was simply a sparse array of dots. However, I grew up with chess: I learned the game from my older brother when I was little while we were listening to songs of Vladimir Vysotsky. To me the epic matches of Karpov and Kasparov or Bronstein and Botvinnik are part of world history, just as real as the fall of the Soviet Union or the launch of Sputnik. The world champions of chess are my heroes but the great Go players of the past mean nothing to me: they are merely names.
What did you think of w7? It took me years to convince the admins that it was solved. Antichess (suicide) is solved too, so I would presume you dislike w7 as well. Before w29, it was very hard to get games in certain variants but after w29 got implemented, you could get at least a few games in, although the odds were heavily weighted towards the more “popular” variants, which I recall as being something akin to 40/110 odds for FR or the like. I also remember w7 temporarily being included in the mix for w29.
I never liked w7 (three pawns and a king vs three pawns and a king) because it is primarily based on the concept of zugzwang. I generally prefer games where one can build up a macroscopic advantage, where one achieves a series of objectives. For instance, in chess, you try to place your pieces in optimal locations and induce your opponent to create weaknesses. When you build up a significant advantage, you should either convert it to a win or at least run no risk of losing the game. However, in w7, you need to maintain perfect play for the entire game. For me, chess is about piece play rather than pawn play: you have a diverse army of different kinds of pieces that perform different functions which you are supposed to seamlessly coordinate. Serey was a master of w7, he generally liked the games I didn’t.
It is true that antichess has been solved, but in a practical game, one is generally able to navigate to a playable position. The reason antichess has a solution and regular chess does not (with today’s technology) is because the starting position is too volatile: the move 1. e3 produces too many threats which cannot be easily parried. It is okay if a game gives white a significant advantage, provided black has some counter play. But if black has to dig in and resort to passive play from the start of the game, the game is simply tedious. I don’t think antichess isn’t in trench territory, but it is definitely close.
Fischer random wasn’t really popular until it was rebranded as Chess960 and grandmasters began playing it. There was a guy called PopeJohn who organized Fischer Random tournaments which no one liked. This would not have been a problem if not for the fact that it was forbidden to organize wild tournaments while Chess960 was in progress. For this reason, most of the chess variant community loved to hate Fischer random.
It is a pity that ICC didn’t implement more chess variants. The actual number of variants was actually much smaller than 29 – 1 = 28, since a number of variants were similar to Fischer random where the pieces were shuffled on the first rank with different constraints. Many so-called variants were simply endgame training tools like mating with two knights against a pawn or a queen against rook. Actually, rather than adding new chess variants, I think that chess servers should replace chess variants every year with new ones.
I remember the ICC community and some of the names you mentioned. Just hearing adam16mr being mentioned jolted my memory to him being the programmer of the pulsar chess engine, which was one of the very few engines able to play atomic chess. It appears his website has disappeared. Did you stay in contact with him? I didn’t really know of Lantern, but pulsar was a different matter. What did you think of his engine?
Back on ICC, Mike and I were very good friends and spoke almost every day. We had a semi-private channel with me, him and serey. Unfortunately, after I left ICC, we have not kept in touch because he refused to log onto FICS. But I still consider him to be my friend, and I have learned a lot from him from our discussions on computer programming and life in general. Thanks to Mike, I am a better person.
Pulsar was a reasonably strong atomic engine: generally, I got the upper hand against it, but it would beat me a definite proportion of the time. Its rating was usually lower than its actual playing strength due to atomic engine abuse. A weak player would find a winning sequence and repeat it until some admin norated Pulsar. A while later, Mike would fix the bug and Pulsar would be playing rated games again. Then, new winning sequences would be found, and the process would repeat itself, essentially without end.
Mike implemented some of my suggestions which made Pulsar play stronger, and I helped a little with the opening book. Of course Pulsar is nowhere nearly as good as Stockfish is on lichess, and was not set up to analyze games. Nowadays, we are all very spoiled. But before that, I am glad we had Mike. Actually Mike used to be an admin on ICC, but he was kicked out of the club after some disputes with the other admins.
Shatranj and makruk and the other variants are fun to play, but I notice you didn’t mention the other variant closely associated with Go. Have you tried shogi? It’s somewhat the precursor of crazyhouse but isn’t the same. Somewhat close to shatranj as well. What about mahjong or are you only interested in pure skill games?
Yes, I have tried Shogi. When I was a graduate student, my roommate gave me a shogi set as a birthday gift. I really loved the fact that in Shogi, crazyhouse was the main game and not merely a variant. I thought I would easily beat my roommate due to my crazyhouse experience on the internet, but to my surprise, he beat me. Probably the reason was that since I couldn’t read Japanese, I had trouble distinguishing the pieces.
Shatranj is an interesting game: it runs a lot slower than regular chess because pawns can only move forward one square per move and the queen is not as overpowered as it is in regular chess. This gives you a lot of time to arrange your forces and prepare before the two sides inevitably clash. However, most people only play Shatranj in 1 0 form when it is randomly selected in w29, where it is essentially a mouse race. I was quite good at it despite not having premove.
I love games of incomplete information like kriegspiel. Actually, on buho21 (a Spanish chess server), there was a very interesting variant of kriegspiel, where you could only see the squares that were attacked by your pieces. When I was small, my brother told me about a variant called “Bomb chess” where each player puts a bomb underneath a square on the board (he writes it secretly on a piece of paper) and when an enemy piece steps on it, the bomb is revealed — the piece explodes and the player can plant a new bomb on a different square.
I don’t object to randomness per say: I enjoy playing board games which feature cards and dice, for instance I love Risk and Settlers of Catan. But for me chess and dice do not mix. Of course, if someone comes up with a creative chess variant which involves randomness, I might change my mind.
This is somewhat well known already but you have your own website as well, with brief introductions to both atomic and loser’s chess. What inspired you to begin your site? And also to create probably the most interesting collection of aphorisms and poetry to be found on the Internet?
As I noted previously, ICC was filled with many remarkable people ranging from beginners who barely knew how to move pieces to strong grandmasters. Some members didn’t play much chess at all, they came to chat about topics completely unrelated to chess. It was a very diverse group. Most members had talents outside of chess. I had many interesting conversations with people of all ages and countries and made many friends. I will try to list my best friends from my time on ICC, however some names will be inevitably left out because they have been forgotten. It is very easy to forget because online chess is generally anonymous and you don’t have faces to go with the names.
My friends include the greatest atomic players of my generation: TheChessKid, tipau and Peter-Patzer. They include great wild players like manest, yochess and ChampBlair. They include BRDrumboy, the absolute master of kriegspiel. They include great losers players like BeautifulDay and kingkong2, and great bullet players like Starbuck and whole. I met Sicilian-GM1 who at some moment, censored about 5000 people and Raspoetin who said “It is dark in Belgium” and from that moment on, I thought he was some kind of dictator hellbent on taking over the world. And of course serey, the jack of all trades who saw the world in a different colour (I believe this colour was grey).
I had many interesting conversations with adam16mr about computer programming and with ComplexZeta about mathematics. I got to know promaterial, one of the most dedicated tournament managers who worked her heart out for ICC, only to be talked down by some cruel administrators who did nothing for the server. Perhaps, my biggest influence was MACTEP. If you read his name in cyrillic, it spells “Master.” He was certainly a master of words and he has helped me develop my unique conversational style. I am proud to have been his disciple.
This is not merely a list of names, but a list of men and women of irrepressible courage who made the online chess world what it is today. I only hope that the online chess community remains filled with magic and that the younger generation follows in the footsteps of these giants. My website may have begun as a list of quotes but it now serves as a looking glass to an earlier era of online chess.
There’s actually a chess variant out there called Paranoia Chess, but it seems undocumented. It may go by other names, but the general premise of this variant is much like kriegspiel – where a referee is utilized in some form. Basically a player has to guess what the other player is going to move before the other player’s move. If the move is guessed correctly, that piece disappears and the player whose move it was going to be has to select another candidate move. It’s a form of randomness without actually being random and might be up your alley. A completely fake game could be Black guessed 1.d4, White moved 1.e4, move is valid. White guessed 1. … e5, Black played 1 … d5, move is valid. Black guessed 2.exd5, White played 2.Bb5+, move is valid. Now here’s where the fun begins. Black only has five legal moves here – c6, Nc6, Nd7, Bd7, or Qd7. So White has a 20% chance of guessing the correct answer here. If White guessed c6 as Black played it, the pawn on c7 disappears and Black has to move one of the remaining 4 moves, whereas White now has a 25% chance of guessing one of the remaining moves. What do you think of this variant?
This reminds me of another variant Serey and I played called Takeback Chess. After a move, your opponent has the option to say “Takeback.” If he does not, then your move is played. If he does, then you must choose another move and the second move you choose stands. This variant makes recaptures more difficult like in Paranoia Chess. One probably has to play several games of Paranoia Chess to get a feel for the game, but I think its safe to say that too much bluffing will be involved for my taste. Similar to my comments above with w7 and zugzwang, I don’t mind the use of bluffing, but I don’t like games primarily based on bluffing like poker.
However, I do like card games such as Coach Ride to Devil’s Castle which involve deception. It is a game for 4-7 players, where at the beginning of the game, you are randomly assigned to a certain team (either Red or Blue) but you do not know who your teammates are. During the game, you are able to learn the allegiances of some of the other players. If a player is not on your team, it may be beneficial to troll him to confuse him and the other players, because if the true allegiances are revealed prematurely, you might end up on the losing side.
It’s actually been commented on by some of the coders at FICS that they errored in designing the chess servers by allowing the chat to occur the way that it did on ICC and FICS – meaning channel / server tells. I agree with you that a sense of community was developed by being able to chat with so much of this diverse cultural milieu, despite it being digital. There were homeless people logging in via telnet from the public library. There were rich people logging in for a few games. And of course, so many far-flung comradeships were made and lost. Did you ever feel like you were playing a persona at times or simply being yourself online? I ask because you mentioned MACTEP and your unique conversational style.
Generally, I am the same person online and offline. What changes is the medium of communication. In a live dialogue, you can see the face of the person you are talking to, and he can show you whether or not he understands by means of a facial expression. However, in an online conversation, one does not have this visual cue and therefore, to effectively communicate, one is forced to be more precise. Since one has the ability to read previous messages, the conversation is generally more organized. The written nature of an online conversation makes the discussion less emotionally charged and more intellectual: one needs to make arguments rather than produce emotional outbursts. In a live discussion, one is limited by the knowledge of the participants. But in an online conversation, one can look up facts on Wikipedia. Many of my online conversations are about sharing knowledge on topics of mutual interest.
While I obviously love to talk to people in person, I think my ability to communicate was able to flower because of my online conversations. In fact, my online conversation informs how I speak in the real world. This is why I love poetry: it is the idealized form of online conversation.
You’ve sometimes revealed a critical eye for art, and appreciate the history of art – which may seem somewhat off the beaten path for a mathematician. Do you enjoy math and art because they both give you abstract pleasure, much like chess? Or is it because you enjoy finding the patterns in all three endeavors? What is your favorite type of art and do you know why you enjoy it the most?
I was in love with mathematics since I was a child because it is incredibly beautiful. Solving mathematical problems is hard work, but once you find a solution, the answer seems almost inevitable. It is a bit like solving a chess puzzle; however, mathematics is much less combinatorial than chess. Often to solve a chess problem, one has to try many different variations. However, mathematics is like a work of art: one just needs to discover the underlying principle (pin, fork, decoy, zugzwang).
My love for art came much later in life when I was a graduate student. During a conference in Kansas, I was eating lunch with three local mathematicians. One member of our group ordered a lemonade with a piece of orange sticking out from the side of the glass. I thought to myself… well that is sophisticated! And then it clicked for me: the goal of life is to be sophisticated. Soon after, I started going to art galleries and reading art history books.
I love all art, from the great Flemish painters like Rembrandt to Impressionists like Renoir. I do not like what people call “abstract art” but then again, I do not consider it to be art. While art is undoubtedly beautiful, its purpose is to show you something. Great paintings are often great because they tell stories that relate to everybody. Of course, I like some paintings more than others because some subjects interest me more than others. For me, a great painting is a window in time: I get to meet people from the past.
What are your thoughts on the rise of engine use in chess and chess variants? At times I feel like we’re playing in a very different era than even just 10 years ago, much less 20 years ago. The Internet and the growing strength of computational power seems to have accelerated the development of both players and theory.
Computers have revolutionized the way we think about games like Chess and Go. Arguably, Go has changed more than chess because it is more of a craft than an art, a bit like the Chinese lacquer. In Go, players have experiences with different patterns, but these patterns are much more flexible than the ones in chess. AlphaGo made humanity re-evaluate Go on a fundamental level by presenting us with completely new patterns. While computers are undoubtedly stronger than humans in regular chess, they play openings we would generally recognize like Queen’s gambit declined or the Sveshnikov. Thus computers refine our thinking about chess rather than redefine it.
The theory of atomic chess has grown considerably since the advent of Stockfish on lichess. Stockfish is ridiculously strong and gives very accurate evaluations. It has refuted some popular lines and created many others. Stockfish will tell you how to defend uncomfortable positions with black, if they are at all defensible — often this requires a series of precise or only moves that are nearly impossible to come up with in a practical game. With Stockfish, anyone can come up with interesting aggressive lines for white. Before Stockfish, most of the original new lines came from Tipau, who painstakingly studied the game for hours upon hours at a time. Stockfish has condensed these Tipau-hours into seconds, only without the pain.
When the atomic community was active on FICS, I often used the wild chess games database by Siggemannen to see how the top players handled various openings. This allowed me to get the answers the easy way, without analyzing positions for hours.
“MoltenThinker” has been your handle for so long – why did you pick a new name for lichess? Yes, we know fools must be smashed, but SMASHTimeFools? Did you consider the double entendre possibility there at all? Or is it just my bughouse channel background that led me down this path? If you could go back in time to about 2000, what would you tell young Moltey?
A real-life friend of mine was playing on chess.com, and I thought to myself: this site is full of fools. I should go there and show them what an ICC/FICS player can do. A while later, I discovered that chess.com is an actual chess site with pretty good players. I mostly played bullet and blitz there. However, in all honesty, I do not know if MoltenThinker even exists anymore. The boy who played on ICC is gone and I am now a different person. I still love chess of course and I still know how to play atomic and losers. I would very much like to experience chess like that boy again, but I do not know if it is possible. If I meet this boy, I would ask him if I lived my life alright.
Do you miss anybody from your earlier days on ICC or elsewhere? There are a number of characters that quite frankly, have simply disappeared.
I miss my old colleagues every day. A part of my soul has been erased. Perhaps, I can recover it by reading your series of interviews. I could easily reconnect with a large number of random people from my childhood thanks to Facebook, but it is hard to find an anonymous person. Sadly, it is the anonymous people who are my most precious friends.
SmashTimeFools née MoltenThinker is one of the strongest variant chess players, best known from his time on ICC, and possibly equally well known for his poetry and conversational skills. You might be lucky to find him on lichess.org.