Computer History Vignettes

By Bob Bemer

"Chess to Come" is the title of a story in the 1957 Jan 05 issue of the New Yorker Magazine, based upon a woman reporter's interview of me. It got IBM quite excited, for it was the first "positive" mention of an IBM employee in that magazine. This qualification is because Dr. Cuthbert Hurd, then Dir. of Applied Science, had gotten a previous mention. But it was a bit negative. He and I tangled a bit until we finally became friends.

It happened like this:

After completion of the first FORTRAN, some of those programmers were so exhausted that they wished to do other work. I, on the other hand, was starting to work on XTRAN, a successor to FORTRAN, and a predecessor to ALGOL. I was also thinking of IBM's need for a commercial compiler, to compete with Grace Hopper's work at Remington Rand Univac. I needed programmers.

I put an ad for programmers in the Scientific American of 1956 December (with the help of the proper IBM department, of course). It also ran in the New York Herald Tribune newspaper. As programmers were a little scarce at that time, the ad featured a black knight chess piece, and said that "those who enjoy playing chess or solving puzzles will like this work".

Eventually several applicants that had not been programmers were given aptitude tests and hired. One was Mark Halpern, who wrote a memoir about it in the Annals of the History of Computing. Another was Arthur Bisguier, then United States Chess Champion. They were definitely not your typical IBMers of the time.

That led to the New Yorker story.

It happened that I was going by train to Chicago on the old Twentieth Century Limited, in late 1956. A dining car companion heard my story, and said that he had a friend whose son played chess, and could he come around? OK.

So there showed up one day, at our temporary quarters in the Langdon Hotel, one A. Sidney Noble, who claimed to be the chess champion of the French Riviera, where he had been doing a little guitar playing and traveling.

This being a new title to me, I asked if he would mind playing a game with one of our programmers? "Not at all", he said (quite cockily, I thought).

So I went into another room and told Bisguier about this, asking if he would mind. No problem. When we came back out. our applicant got a stunned look, and stuttered "Y-you c-can't fool me. That's Bisguier!". At least we knew then that he was knowledgeable about chess, so I hired him.

Bisguier became a good programmer, but the needed time off for tournaments eventually led to a parting. Noble continued on, and was a fine programmer. A programmer's programmer, which I define as someone that goes around to all of the other programmers and says "Look at this clever scheme that I thought up".

Chess became sort of a hallmark for my half of Programming Research. There were others besides Bisguier, and eventually it was said that we might hold a Russian national team to a draw. At least become Manhattan Chess Club champs.

It was to their premises that many of us went to see Bisguier play Dr. Sammy Reshevsky, a noted Grand Master. Dave Hemmes, our 650 FORTRANSIT leader, and John Brigham (whose father was Kiplinger of the newsletter) came on John's motorcycle. These men made quite a pair. They would stand on a street corner in New York City, and invariably something fantastic would happen to them.

After Bisguier won that night, we left for home. I had to go to Grand Central station for a train to Connecticut. Brigham hailed a Yellow Cab (the roomy type). I got in, followed by the motorcycle, and then Brigham and Hemmes.

During the ride the driver asked how we were going to get the machine out. Brigham said it was simple, got in the seat, hit the ignition, and said he would just drive out. Our ride ended right there!

In these later years, many people have asked me if I play chess. To all I admit that, being manager to these talented chess players, I dared not look like a fool. So the chess-playing of my youth came to an abrupt halt.

By the way, a Web check shows Grand Master Bisguier still active in this new century. See an autobiographical summary in his campaign letter for election to the board of the U.S. Chess Federation. Unfortunately his stint at IBM did not really pertain to chess, so he omitted that period.


Many claim that the Japanese game of "Go" is more complex than chess. Once my IBM chess experts decided to validate the claim, and started to learn it. By coincidence, some months later a team of female Go experts from Japan were touring and visiting New York City. Someone had the bright idea of hosting them at IBM, and naturally our crew was asked to play a few games with them. It was an absolute disaster. Those young ladies triumphed in every game, after which Go became less popular in my department.

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