Chess: Identity crisis in Philadelphia

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JOHN VON NEUMANN (1903- 1957), mathematician and computer pioneer, is apparently alive and well and playing in tournaments in the United States, writes William Hartston.

Someone of that name entered the World Open in Philadelphia last month. He wore headphones at the board, was frequently observed fumbling beneath his jacket, and was as erratic in his play as in his behaviour.

In the second round, he drew with the Icelandic grandmaster Helgi Olafsson. A spectator who asked von Neumann what had been the opening of the game was surprised by the answer: 'Sicilian Defence or Ruy Lopez.' Sometimes he thought for 20 minutes or more over forced moves.

In the fourth round, playing White, he began 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. d4 exd4 4. e5? Nge7, then settled down for a very long think before playing 5. Be2.

Curious behaviour must be commonplace in Philadelphia, for it took until the ninth round before anyone complained to the tournament director, but the headphones, the fumbling, the erratic play and his name led them to suspect computer involvement.

After all, that 4. e5 move in the fourth round would have been perfectly normal if Black had played 2 . . . Nf6 instead of 2 . . . Nc6. And if the position had to be reset for a machine to adjust to a transmission error, it would explain the long delay on the following move.

The assistant director of the tournament asked to see proof of von Neumann's identity, which he could not produce. When asked to speak to the director, von Neumann declined on the grounds that his wife was having a baby.

When von Neumann's final score qualified him for a prize as one of the best unrated players, he was asked to solve a simple chess problem to demonstrate that he could indeed play the game. When he refused to do so, he was denied his prize for alleged cheating. Such ingenuity and enterprise deserved more. Let us hope he disguises it better next time.