ICS Interview – siggemannen

Interviewed March 2019
First published June 2019


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


Thank you for the opportunity to get interviewed! It feels nice to be featured among the more famous ICSers!


When did you first start playing chess online?


The years and dates seldom agree with me, so i had to do some research for this question, but it all started in April 2003 on FICS, with it being THE server for me throughout the years. Back then, FICS had a really strong policy about not allowing free emails like hotmail or yahoo, so it was a big hurdle just to sign up! So I started by playing GnuChess locally on Winboard, and then played as guest called modembog (cause of the dial-up…) for a while. Then, in October, i managed to get an access to an ISP email from a friend and finally register siggemannen. I was a 1400ish player back then, having studied quite a bit of chess as a kid but taking a long break due to stuff like school, puberty and Wolfenstein 3D. In college though, we had a lot of free time and the library had a few boards. Actually, one of the main reasons i joined was that so i could practice enough to beat a school-mate of mine. After a while, i dropped all the regular gaming for online chess, and as they say, things were never the same again.


While you’re probably best known as being an atomic world champion, do you still play atomic at all? Or have you transitioned to normal chess / other variants?


This is a hard question for me, mostly due to the fact that — no, i don’t play any atomic at all for the last X number of years. Actually, already after 2005, motivation and fun i had playing began to evaporate. But i kept going through the motions for a while, even trying some other servers like Buho. Sometimes I do get back and play a few games, but it never lasts for long. Guess this is a common pattern for a lot of players of ‘ye olden years. To be honest, it was a lot more fun analyzing than actually playing, with all the rating and chess opening stress that atomic is.
I do still follow atomic remotely, and like Fischer, am staging the eventual comeback, but something tells me it won’t be for a while 🙂
As for other variants, i did some wild fr, bug and zh, but eventually came back to regular chess, which have been my main “occupation” ever since.
How old were you when you first began playing online?
I was 19, the school was easy so there were a lot of free time to be had. Eventually i joined a OTB club and combined the online and real board playing. But after a few years being unemployed and landing a job in 2007, i had to cut down the playing, and since then it has been a rather spotty online presence. FICS being in the state of slow decay hasn’t really helped things, and a lot of people from the my generation has gotten real lives, which makes it feel like a ghost-town sometimes when you log in.
What were you trying to do when you found your first chess server?
I wanted to get better at chess, and for some reason i really hated playing computers, so it was mostly about finding real opponents. Also, guess i was kinda lonely and looking for some friends, back then the FICS community was really big, and it was easy to get to know people from various parts of the world. Note that this was a few years before Facebook, Twitter and other platforms being ubiquitous as they are now.
How did you learn more about atomic chess?

Actually, it’s a bit of a soapy story. A friend of mine showed me and this girl we both liked the basic ropes of the moves and ideas and we played it as well as analyzing, and for some reason this variant just clicked for me.
Unfortunately, it never really worked out with the girl, but that’s a story for another publication perhaps!

Back then it was mostly about playing, because there were absolutely no resources except the Vlasov’s page with a (in my opinion) dreadful opening book 😀 When not playing i always did “games /x” and observed whatever atomic game was on, and i still automatically type this command from time to time when on FICS. I played a mental game of guess the move while watching, comparing to what was played, going back n forth and analyzing the finished games.

Later, people like maciejg and seberg started to work together to analyze the game, and i joined them, and when tipau came to FICS, we kind of hit it off immediately and started to analyze a lot together.
Actually it was quite often a new player X would emerge, and we’d do some analyzing and then move on. But tipau had unlimited ideas pretty much so it was always interesting to work with him.
I guess i mostly learned from others, not having too many ideas of my own, but being good at evaluating /refining them.

Later with wildchess database available it was possible to analyze through it, and nowadays there are strong enough atomic computers, but even then, there was TrojanKnight, introducing some really good lines in atomic.


Do you enjoy any other variants?


I do, but wish i would be any good at them! Obviously I enjoy regular chess and its offsprings: wild fr and w5.
Bug was fun due to it’s unpredictable nature and the crazy community, and same could be said of zh.
Suicide with it’s incredible deepness has always been more fun to watch than play, with losers being the only variant which i totally never understood nor have any will to play further.
Of non-official variants I could recommend alice chess and atomic fr.
Being a FICS purist, I would definitely NOT recommend non-fics atomic rules on the likes of ICC / Buho!
With that being said, i’d love to be a part of the old Mewis world of variants!
You mentioned wildchess, and that’s a sorely missed resource nowadays. How did you even come up with the project in the first place? I know you worked with kardolus and possibly a few others. I and others donated some games and other resources (opening books and the like).
To be honest, wildchess history has kinda escaped from my memory, at least its beginnings, I don’t even remember the year we got the site running, but let’s put it somewhere in the middle of 2005-2006!
From what i remember, i was living alone in a new town, out of work and didn’t really know a lot of people. I also had recently dropped out of university (bored out of my mind, plus it was computer science, so no girls whatsoever!), and didn’t really do a lot except playing atomic on FICS and just generally wasting taxpayer’s money.
I wanted to learn some more programming and this guy i knew from college taught me a bit of php and mysql /linux. Also, around that time, python was getting popular and maciejg gave me some code to parse chess moves from SAN.
So, basically, i wanted to do something useful for future career as well as trying to clone chessgames.com (sorry guys =)). They had a thing called Opening Explorer, that allowed browsing openings. But rest of the site was pretty barebone, and i wanted to build a better one. With this in mind, I wrote a really buggy python bot to save FICS games into a MySQL db, and copped some Dreamweaver template to create a very rough draft of what later became wildchess.
Of course, Wildchess wouldn’t be possible without kardolus, he did a lot of features on the site, as well as template design and hosted the server in his flat. He had a lot of ideas, for example, the “daily game”, latest game, chess engine evaluation of position (i think we were one of the first on the net with this!), and a lot of other ideas like Live relay of the games from FICS on site (although, don’t think we ever went live with that one :)). Spogorecki created the board pieces as well as some general help, and maciejg and seberg were the coding experts for advice. Yeah, Chron and knighttour gave us a lot of games from w5 / ye olden times / bugdb.
It was an awesome time, and i think that wildchess has been useful for a lot of people while it lasted.
And it got me my first real job!
After asking about wildchess, I have to ask the inevitable – did you just lose interest in maintaining the site? Or was it just a slow / steep decline in line with FICS? FICS is pretty much a ghost town today in 2019. But wildchess disappeared a few years back.
Actually, it was three things that killed it. First was the integration of bug games into it. There were LOTS of games, which put the (already quite shoddy) database design on its knees. It was still useful for casual browsing, but opening explorer (which was the main thing for me at least) got dog slow. I never managed to fix it properly, and it also led to a lot of problems of handling the database in general. Then, we had a server crash, which meant we had to move all the data to a host. It was one of those early “cloud” providers, which were just too weak. It was just a lot of problems, and after a while, I just kinda lost heart and stopped paying for it.
I’m still trying to find a backup of all the data, but so far, no luck.
But yeah, wildchess demise all coincide with the fact that I was working and I think kardo was busy with his stuff, so we kinda lost the desire to work on it. It was also the start of the FICS Dark Age, one that haven’t left the premises yet…
You mentioned Buho. Have you played on any other servers or has it solely been FICS and maybe the occasional visit to Buho and now lichess?
That’s pretty much it, I didn’t want to pay for chess, so ICC, Playchess and USCL was out, and chess.com was a place of madness back then. There were a few correspondence sites like Brainking and schemingmind, but i didn’t really have the patience for long games.
Buho is an interesting case, a local Spanish server that started from nowhere and grew quickly. They had a LOT of atomic players, with onubense probably being the best of them all. I think actually most atomers from FICS moved to Buho after the action dried up there. Annoyingly, there was already a guy called siggemannen registered there, so i played as a chick under handle “theHatter” (i was REALLY into Alice In Wonderland AND the American McGee’s Alice video game).
Although, I doubt the ruse was all that effective =)
You were also for a time, an admin at FICS. What persuaded you to become one in the first place? Did you find that it changed your perspective on FICS or any of the other users?

I’m still an admin, although the actual amount of admin work i do these days varies from non-existent to barely noticeable!
But in 2004 i was pretty hungry and knew my way around FICS, so i started as a TM to do more atomic tourneys and progressed to SR and eventually to admin role.

For some reason i seldom had problems with the more “abusive” users on FICS, so for me it wasn’t the case of “jaded cop”-trope. Being an admin should be about helping users and to be unhelpful to abusers, and there are different ways to do it, personally i preferred to try to talk it out and refrain from the harsher stuff.

The nice part of being an admin is you get to know a lot of people that were part of fics “lore” and knew their way around. Sure, the power thing is nice, but to be honest, after you nuke a few people, it wears off pretty quickly, admins mostly nuked the various staff members for giggles. I do miss a lot of people from those days, AcademiaNut (who some people absolutely couldn’t stand!), DrDeath, pgv, ARCEE, SI and a lot of others.

You know, in general, FICS is a bittersweet memory for me, a feeling of happiness and loss at the same time. Sure, the moment has passed, and we’re not the same people, but still, it’s kinda sad.


Have you met any of the internet chess players you’ve interacted with in real life?


Yeah, i’ve met quite a few, mostly Europeans: kardolus, mrundersun, Wizeman, seberg, HyperMagnus, litovec, elektroz, Thalagor, Esekla and probably some others whom i forgot, as well as talking IRL with a few others. I still have a lunch @ fismoluni to pick up, as well as some gals to catch up with. Also, i wouldn’t mind meeting tipau as well as yourself some day 😀

Funnily enough, it was seldom chess meetings, in fact, i can hardly remember playing against any FICSer OTB!


I remember TrojanKnight as being one of the best engines – back in the day and I don’t think its competition was stellar, I mean there was Atomix and pulsar and atomkraft. What are your thoughts on each of those engines?


You forgot Sordid! tipau and I actually helped MightyByte with the book as well as some general advice on it. It was written in java, and i have some old jars somewhere, as well as its old book. Sordid were the “playmakers” on fics, generating action, but unfortunately also a lot of repeating abusers and rating eekers.

The first game of Sordid was against me, and it beat me fair and square! Sordid had a bad depth so it often most decent endgame positions due to sloppy calculations, but it was always a tough opponent in the middle game.

TK was amazingly strong, but had a quite average book, some of it were outright losses. It got fixed later on though.

A lot of theory in nf3 f6, e3 e6, nd4 and nb5 -line was created and refined by him, and tipau and TK had some legendary match series.
There was also another computer you forgot: opossum, who also played strong atomic, the hardest thing was to catch it online though! One cool feature of it was that after the game it re-analyzed and “learned” from the mistakes. opossum vs TK series had some marvelous “pure” computer games.

About pulsar and atomkraft, these were pretty much after my active time, but pulsar was pretty strong, and was used by tipau to analyze for his book, it was also the first engine that could be used for standalone stuff that was available to the “public”.

Atomix was WAY before my time.

Personally, i never liked playing comps, they’re just too cold and have no fear, so my style never worked too well against them =)

Also, these engines have generally made openings a trap-filled wasteland of good ideas. The Stockfish-atomic engine on lichess is really good for analysis, but i think it kills your own creativity to study too much with it.
Judging by strength of that engine, I suspect that computers should be able to find a solid winning atomic line, or at least a comfortably dominating one for white, but luckily it hasn’t happened yet, so there’s still hope for the future!


Given your expertise as a programmer and the discussion of engines, what’s your opinion of certain people trying to “solve” atomic like they did suicide? Especially if they build a “neural net”?


For me it’s a double-edged dagger, as a player i would prefer others to figure atomic on their own volition rather than by using the electronic crutches of Stockfish etc. Technically, people did try to solve it before as well: by repeating good lines against strong players and computers like TK and getting better, but to me it seemed more fair, since you actually needed to do a bit of work yourself.

On the other hand, i’m also fascinated by the whole AI thing, just look at how AlphaGo and its chess little brother been doing, they play some really interesting lines without “understanding” anything, and even less calculating in the old trivial way. In my opinion, this knowledge isn’t as transferable, but it’s nice to watch on the side-lines to see what happens.

The nilatac etc of the suicide days most solved the crappy lines, or it had such a deep lines, no humans could accurately replay them.
With atomic, it’s a bit narrower path, so it’s easier to get some pretty good lines going. But of course, in the long run, the better players win. Which brings me to another topic that’s seldom mentioned, first move advantage in atomic. Perhaps, the servers should start to compensate black players better for drawing games. Then we have stuff like w5, is it not solved by computers yet?

I would probably summarize that in atomic, and in life in general, the next “boom” will be in the neutral nets / AI fields.


Knowing what you do now, would you be able to do a whole new wildchess again? Perhaps sans bughouse? Or would it be something best left behind in the past?


I’m sure it wouldn’t be a huge deal to bring wildchess back, with or without bug. But the question remains: for whom. For chess aficionados, there are already better resources available with more games by stronger players than FICS would provide, and same goes for atomic (see lichess for instance). I think it needs some more killer features to be interesting to people, and i’m not quite sure what these could be. Perhaps if it would support some exotic variants, but not sure.
The main problem is to source the games, FICS just doesn’t cut it anymore, and the other content providers aren’t that generous with data. Perhaps a combination of chess server and database?
People change as you’ve said. Things change. It was a different time. I mean it’s 11 years since I tried to get an interview with you back in 2008. And think about it, you can very easily make the case that your atomic chess career peaked 15 years ago. Do you think your time playing chess online has improved your life?
It’s a hard question, because, frankly, we don’t have a what-if time machine on our hands right now. But i could definitely say that playing all those games, back in 2008 and now, almost nothing can beat the excitement of a long and hard battle, mating your opponent with the last premove on 0.1 second and just generally trading blows with a skilled attacker.

And yeah, i’m talking 3 0 now, it’s the ultimate time control. Maybe cause i’ve been playing on touchpad since 2007, but 1 0 has always been second best for me.

Also, i do believe that chess sharpens your mind and allows you to focus and be able to “trace” things, like computer code easier, because you generally need to store a lot of state information while calculating a move sequence or debugging some long multi-threaded routine.

Life-wise otherwise, well, I did meet a few of my very best friends through FICS, and even if we mostly aren’t that much in touch these days, it feels just like a temporary thing. So, it’s been mostly good, and as they say, i would do it all over again 🙂


What are you doing now for fun? What do you miss the most from your FICS days?

Well, i’ve been doing a lot of interviews lately… 😄

But to be honest, last couple of years haven’t been a lot of fun, being filled with mostly grown-up responsibility things like working, paying rent and mortgages kind of stuff. Death and taxes as they say in the US. And it hasn’t been that much chess either, just a few binges from time to time.
The job-thing does give a few advantages though, i now have means to do a bit of travel, last year the big one was Australia, a trip that i would definitely recommend!

Other interests include old black and white movies, and older cars (although not THAT old), and some other nerdier stuff.
I also picked up yoga, and after doing it like 4-5 years, well, i wish i could say that i got leaner, but it’s a really good workout, body and mind.

I do sometimes miss the whole companionship / game analysis part of fics, and just general banter in ch 99 and such, but perhaps as you get older, it’s not always possible to keep the online presence going in the same way.


I had to throw this one in – what did you think of the whole Daysleeper saga?


Well, it was a bit before my time, and memory on the subject is a bit hazy, but i do remember us having a couple of “Town hall” meetings with Chessty back when the story “broke”. The big ado had to do with personal admin files being leaked to friends of the “daysleeper”-mole.
At least i think it was about him, although it took place a couple of years after his deed, but perhaps that’s when it got public. To be honest, most admin files are quite mundane, even on such colorful characters as Seipman et al, so I never quite got the big thing of it. But sure, it was a lot of work to get on the team, from what i know, he was loved among the admins.
But the question is, since he succeeded, does it mean he manipulated people only for the lulz, or perhaps he was after all just a nice guy underneath it all? For me, it was always the second thing, from what i know of him.
You might be from the last generation of players that had to be somewhat computer terminal savvy. What do you think about the new generation of chess servers? Certainly allows for a lot more games, but I think some of the charm is lost as basic chatting pretty much has disappeared. Thoughts?

I find it a bit of a loss, the lack of chat and general communication possibilities. Consider lichess, to “chat” with a friend, you need to pretty much send emails back and forth to each other, and reload the page to do it. An equivalent of using “message” to chat with someone online at FICS!
The whisper is still possible, but kibitzing isn’t, and sure, it was often discouraged even on FICS; but still, “say” command was sometimes handy. I guess the reason for less communication is to avoid abuse.

My favorite part is examine, and it’s usually quite shoddily implemented as well, along with the chatting. The “console” thing isn’t a must to me as it is, some people prefer tabbed chat, but i like a simple way of talking and having an overview over several things.
Who knows though, perhaps the art of talking online is slowly going out of style anyway, with more and more polarizing communication seen on the likes of Twitter, Reddit etc, it’s might just be the way of progress in general.

It could also be that we’re slowly turning into a bunch of dinosaurs, but then be it, who knows, like the more famous Hollywood-lizards, we may soon make a comeback with a bang!

siggemannen was the 2005 Atomic Chess World Champion and the programmer of the long-gone variant chess database wildchess.org. The interviewer would like to thank sigge for agreeing to complete this interview again several years later after the original request!

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