Steve Linford, the operator of the Spamhaus Project, a blacklist of spamware vendors and the ISPs who host them, asked Shiksaa in October 2000 to join an elite team of spam fighters in a new project he was launching. Her mission would be to help compile detailed dossiers on the Internet’s biggest junk emailers. The research would be published at Spamhaus.org as part of a pioneering effort Linford had dubbed the Register of Known Spamming Operations, or Rokso. His plan was to turn Rokso into an Internet hall of shame that would put pressure on shadowy spam operations by exposing them to the light of day.
More importantly, Rokso would provide Internet service providers with a much-needed clearinghouse for screening new customers. The Rokso list would include searchable records on each of the spammers, including descriptions of their junk email operations and spam samples, as well as contact information including aliases, business addresses, phone numbers, and email addresses. To be included on the Rokso list, a spammer had to have been thrown off at least three Internet service providers. To get off the list, a junk emailer simply needed to refrain from sending spam for at least six months.
Rokso wasn’t the first effort to focus public attention on the Internet’s egregious bulk emailers. In 1995, Alex Boldt, a mathematics graduate student at the University of California in Santa Barbara, launched the Blacklist of Internet Advertisers. Boldt compiled a small who’s-who list of chronic Usenet and email spammers, including their contact information. But Boldt stopped regularly updating his list around 1997, and nothing permanent had arisen in its place—until Rokso.
While the Rokso list would eventually swell to over two hundred, the inaugural edition included just twenty-five spammers. Among them was Jason Vale, who had stopped sending Laetrile spams after the court order and instead had been blanketing the Internet with ads for products such as Willow Flower, an herbal treatment for urination problems and other symptoms of prostate disease. The first version of Rokso also had an entry for 29-year-old Ronnie Scelson, a junior high school dropout who led a group of spammers based in the New Orleans suburb of Slidell.
Linford coordinated the Rokso effort from his houseboat, moored off an island in England’s Thames River. Forty-two at the time, with a trimmed grey beard and a full head of grey hair, Linford had a hip worldliness that differentiated him from the more nerdy spam fighters. Born in England, Linford had been raised in Italy, where his father operated a factory in Rome that produced industrial platinum. Linford studied photography in college, but he dropped out to pursue a career as a rock musician. His singing and songwriting attracted the attention of GM, an Italian record label, which signed him to a five-year contract. The Italian composer Ennio Morricone even used him as a vocalist on the soundtrack for the 1982 Roberto Faenza thriller Copkiller, featuring Harvey Keitel. But a few years later Linford had a falling out with GM over the direction of his music, and he decided to stop performing until the contract expired. In the meantime, he worked as concert manager for much bigger artists, producing shows for the likes of Pink Floyd and Michael Jackson when they toured in Italy. He became an early user of Apple computers and was intrigued by how technology could revolutionize music production.
Linford decided in 1986 to move back to England, where he started a Macintosh software-development firm with his brother Julian, a talented programmer. Together they created UltraFind, a personal search engine utility capable of locating information in any Macintosh file. It sold briskly for nearly a decade, until Apple built a search tool called Sherlock into its operating software. As a result, Julian decided to return to Italy and take a job with the European Space Agency. Linford remained behind, morphing UltraDesign into an Internet design and hosting business.
It wasn’t long before lots of junk email, much of it originating from Sanford Wallace’s Cyber Promotions business, began arriving at Linford’s various email accounts. He set up a special filter in Eudora, his mail program, to automate the task of forwarding incoming junk emails to the spammer’s ISP, with a carbon copy to the Federal Trade Commission. Linford felt at the time that irresponsible ISPs were as much to blame for the emerging junk email problem as the spammers themselves. At one point, he added a signature line to the bottom of his Usenet postings that stated, “Spam would not exist if not for the greed of a few carriers. This site sends all spam back to spam carriers.”
Although he stopped short of making it a personal crusade, Linford believed that if others joined in this task, ISPs could no longer ignore the spammers using their networks. In a 1998 posting to Nanae, he wrote, “Beneath Nanae is an iceberg so big it has the force to terminate spam simply by stuffing a terabyte of complaints up every ISP that gives you connectivity.”
Linford was an early proponent of the idea of blacklisting Internet service providers and domains used by spammers. Although he was no fan of America Online, in early 1997 Linford found himself defending AOL’s PreferredMail service against criticism from an anticensorhip activist. The AOL feature, a precursor to the service’s current Mail Controls system, enabled users to turn on a filter that blocked all emails from a list of domains determined by AOL to be sources of spam.
“Although filtering them won’t stop all spam, it will reduce it by ninety-five percent,” Linford argued in a newsgroup for subscribers of Demon, a big ISP in the United Kingdom. “More importantly,” he said, “the ISPs that stand up to Cyberpromo and Cybergen now ensure that the Net in a year’s time is not just a load of spam with the occasional mail item.”
In 1998, Linford continued to be a gadfly to what he considered spam-friendly ISPs. But his criticism of UUNET Technologies, one of the largest service providers on the Internet, almost cost him dearly. At the time, spam fighters on Nanae were keeping a running tally of the number of spam complaints unresolved by Virginia-based UUNET. As reports of abused dial-up accounts and open relays approached one million in March 1998, Linford and others grew frustrated with the firm’s sluggish enforcement of its network abuse policies. To call attention to the situation, Linford created a banner graphic atop Spam Combat, a popular page at the UltraDesign site where he offered a variety of free, anti-spam tools. The image consisted of the UUNET globe-and-lightning-bolt logo, with the word SPAM inserted in the middle. Beneath the logo were the words, “We’re behind 50% of the spam in your mailbox.” Clicking on the banner would take visitors to the UUNET home page.
In the middle of March 1998, the fax machine in Linford’s houseboat buzzed to life and slowly spat out a two-page letter from Taylor Joynson Garrett, UUNET’s London-based legal counsel. According to the letter, UUNET was “extremely angry” at the blatant infringement of its rights and reputation, which the company considered libelous. The ISP’s lawyers ordered Linford to immediately remove the banner or amend it so that it made no reference to UUNET. They also demanded that he turn over the offending graphic to them within forty-eight hours. If Linford failed to comply by the deadlines, UUNET would sue him in High Court.
Linford wasn’t sure whether his little logo parody violated any laws, but he was quite confident of the facts behind his claim. So he decided to meet UUNET halfway. He removed the banner and replaced it with the words, “Yeah, ok, it’s gone. But tell UUNET to stop spamming and start enforcing an AUP [acceptable-use policy].”
Linford figured that would send UUNET’s lawyers on their way, but six days later Garrett faxed him another letter. Linford’s site still infringed on UUNET’s rights, said Garrett, who gave Linford until noon the next day to remove any mention of UUNET, “whether expressly or implied,” from his site or risk further action from UUNET.
Linford thought the new demand was outrageous. He hadn’t spoken of UUNET’s threats on Nanae until this point, but he decided it was time other anti-spammers knew about the attempts to silence him. He posted a letter to the newsgroup with a link to a web page he had created that included scans of the UUNET threat letters. Soon, mirrors of Linford’s “Sue You Net" page sprang up at other sites, and spam fighters began discussing a protest rally outside UUNET’s headquarters. Linford was on the verge of making plane reservations to Virginia when cooler heads prevailed at UUNET, and the company pulled back its lawyers. Even better, UUNET shook up its network-abuse department, launched an initiative to close its mail relays, and finally began acting on its spam-related trouble tickets.
The banner incident was a big victory for Linford. Even though UUNET hadn’t a legal leg to stand on, it did have significant legal funds, and Linford knew he might have gone bankrupt trying to defend himself. As he saw it, UUNET had decided that suing people who protested against its spam was a fast track to a public relations fiasco. Linford’s innocuous little graphic had forced the Internet’s biggest ISP to change course.
Following up on his success against UUNET, Linford moved his spam-fighting resources page to its own site, Spamhaus.org. For the first couple of years, it remained a relatively obscure resource known only to anti-spammers and their opponents. But soon it would become the tip of the spear in the fight against spam.
Shiksaa was thrilled by Linford’s October 2000 invitation to join Spamhaus. After nearly eighteen months of haphazard spam fighting, much of it against chickenboners, she was eager to focus her energies in a more structured way against the biggest sources of spam. Perhaps it was just his British reserve, but Linford had always seemed to Shiksaa a voice of reason among the frequently strident participants on Nanae. Since he didn’t charge for access to the Spamhaus information, Linford couldn’t pay her or the handful of other volunteers for their efforts. But he did provide Shiksaa with a new, spam-filtered email address that she proudly used in her Nanae postings: email@example.com.
One morning in late October 2000, Shiksaa’s phone rang, and the twangy New Orleans voice of Rokso-denizen Ronnie Scelson was on the other end of the line. Shiksaa had exchanged instant messages with him several times in the past. Scelson had dropped out of school after eighth grade, and it showed in his messages, which were full of misspellings and tortured syntax. But Scelson had the gift of gab and a rare trait among junk emailers: a tendency to tell the truth about his spamming tactics. So despite her revulsion for his line of work, Shiksaa found herself enjoying their online and telephone conversations.
Taking its name from the color of the Hormel luncheon meat (and thus from spam), a pink contract was a tacit deal by ISPs to allow spammers to use their networks as long as too many complaints weren’t generated. Scelson had previously boasted that big ISPs, despite their public posturing about opposing spam, were perfectly happy to provide services to him and other high-volume bulk emailers. Indeed, the previous June a spam fighter had reported on Nanae that a supervisor at AT&T admitted that the big company did business with spammers. But spam opponents had no hard evidence to prove the existence of such deals.
That was about to change with Scelson’s offer to Shiksaa. He said he had a copy of a pink contract signed in February between AT&T and Nevada Hosting, a Delaware company run by one of Scelson’s partners in spam. The contract would show, he promised, that AT&T was aware that Nevada Hosting would be providing web sites to spammers and that AT&T had agreed to look the other way.
Shiksaa was wary of Scelson’s generosity and suspected there were strings attached. The previous April he had tried to blackmail anti-spammers into leaving him alone. If antis didn’t back off, he threatened, he would give away his custom-made mailing program to other spammers for free. He claimed the program was able to squeeze messages past filters at AOL and pump spam out onto the Internet at the rate of eight million messages per hour.
“I would much rather find a way to work together than have this software all over the Web. Due to its power I’ve never sold it or given it away, but if the antis play unfair then so will I,” Scelson had threatened.
When Shiksaa asked Scelson why he was willing to leak the AT&T pink contract to her, he told her the big ISP had “screwed over” Nevada Hosting—and, indirectly, him—by canceling the deal early and yet requiring that Nevada Hosting pay the remaining balance. Scelson’s revenge would be to expose AT&T’s secret collusion with spammers, and he could think of no one better than her to do it.
After Shiksaa agreed to examine the contract and share it with other Spamhaus volunteers, Scelson faxed it over. The one-page document had a title across the top that read, “Agreement Concerning the Operation of Bulk Hosted Web Sites" and was signed by a general manager at AT&T. Under the arrangement the two parties mutually agreed that Nevada Hosting would not send any spam through AT&T’s gateways and that doing so would result in termination of services. But the contact specifically stated that AT&T knew Nevada Hosting would be operating web sites “spammed from other gateways” and that it would not terminate Nevada Hosting for hosting such sites.
Finally, anti-spammers had the smoking gun they needed. Shiksaa placed the contract in her scanner and made a digitized file of the document. Then she attached it to an email message to Linford. The next day, October 31, Linford put the contract up at the Rokso section of Spamhaus.org and sent email to AT&T’s abuse department notifying the company that he was making the information public.
“This fax proves that AT&T knowingly does business with spammers,” he stated, and requested that his message be forwarded to AT&T management. Linford also posted a copy of his letter on Nanae.
Within twenty-four hours, word of the pink contract was making front-page headlines at CNET.com and other technical news sites across the Web. In the articles, an AT&T spokesman tried to explain away the legal agreement as an aberration, stating that it was inconsistent with corporate policy and the work of a rogue salesperson. In a message on Nanae, a company official assured spam opponents that AT&T was making efforts to ensure that such deals never occurred again in the future. But the pink contract proved an embarrassment for AT&T as it propelled Spamhaus into the limelight for the first time. (While most of the news accounts quoted Linford, there was no mention of Shiksaa or Scelson, or how Spamhaus came into possession of the contract.)
Just as the furor over AT&T began to die down, the story gained new legs. An anti-spammer provided Shiksaa with a copy of a contract between top-tier backbone provider PSINet and a Scelson-run spam service called CajunNet. To Shiksaa and her cohort, this second contract was even more revealing of the profit-driven, backroom deals between ISPs and spammers.
Virginia-based PSINet, struggling financially at the time, had agreed to sell CajunNet a high-speed DS3 line, capable of data speeds over forty times greater than a cable modem or DSL line. The contract said CajunNet would use the line to send commercial emails “in mass quantity,” with the exception of ads for pornography. In addition, PSINet would not be required to handle any complaints of spams originating from CajunNet’s leased line; instead, the big ISP would forward all complaints to CajunNet. In recognition of the deal’s high risk, CajunNet agreed to pay PSINet a nonrefundable deposit of $27,000.
Armed with a big pipe such as a DS3, a bulk emailer could pump out devastatingly large amounts of spam in a short time. Chickenboners who routed their spam through proxies and open relays were limited to sending a couple million emails per day. But with a dedicated DS3 circuit, a big-time spammer could crank out over 200 million spams in a twenty-four-hour period without breaking a sweat. The price was steep, however: Scelson reported to Shiksaa that he paid $40,000 per month for a DS3 circuit.
Shiksaa knew she could blow another spam-friendly ISP out of the water. But she and Linford were hesitant to publicize the PSINet contract. For one thing, the document was not signed, so there would be questions about its authenticity. Secondly, the spam fighter who obtained the contract admitted he stole it from one of Scelson’s PCs. As Shiksaa understood it, Scelson had configured the computer to allow file sharing with others on his network. Using a Microsoft Windows command called Nbtstat, the anti-spammer was able to view the remote machine’s networking apparatus over the Internet and proceeded to access its hard disk. (Shiksaa had learned how to use Nbtstat as a tool for viewing the names spammers had assigned to their computer networks, but she felt it was unethical to go the extra mile and access files left exposed by the spammers.)
Shiksaa couldn’t bring herself to tell Scelson about how she got the CajunNet-PSINet contract. So Linford decided to provide a copy to a reporter and see whether he could confirm its authenticity. Amazingly, both the ISP and CajunNet fessed up to the deal. PSINet issued a statement that blamed the contract on a junior salesman who overlooked the company’s network abuse policy. And a CajunNet spokesman freely admitted that the company was a bulk emailer and previously had contracts with AT&T, Sprint, and UUNET. Seeing blood in the water, other news outlets picked up the story. Most quoted a letter Linford had written about the incident in a message to SPAM-L, an email list for discussing spam: “I think the ISP community as a whole needs to reexamine its ethics.”
Pink contracts, however, would remain a big source of income for ISPs. In 2004, deals with known spammers would earn UUNET (renamed MCI Wholesale Network Services) the top position in Spamhaus’s list of the most spam-friendly ISPs.
One day after news broke of the PSINet pink contract, Shiksaa’s not-so-secret admirer Mad Pierre posted a detailed spammer exposé on Nanae. The report represented the culmination of several days of work he had poured into researching a particularly persistent and cocky junk emailer. In some respects, it was Mad Pierre’s homage to the consummate anti-spam researcher, Shiksaa. The dossier even cited some of the sleuthing groundwork she had previously laid.
Ordinarily, such an exposé would have spawned a long thread of discussion. But few spam fighters, Shiksaa included, paid much attention to his little opus at the time. They were still up in arms over the shady ISP deals and were busy congratulating Shiksaa for her role in exposing them. (Mad Pierre had showered her with his customary praise as well, exclaiming on IRC that she made him behave “like a testosteronal teenager in an AOL chat room”—a line that Shiksaa was quick to appropriate for use in her Usenet signature.)
Mad Pierre knew that the subject of his early-November exposé was just a penny-ante chickenboner compared to big-time Rokso spammers such as Scelson. But Mad Pierre felt someone in Nanae should focus on the brazen bulker who had been boasting, “I’m a college dropout. I work about two hours a day. I’m ambitious, but extremely lazy, and I make over $350,000 a year. Are you curious yet?”
“Well, I got curious,” wrote Mad Pierre in his report.
The spammer proclaimed that his twenty-dollar CD not only included spamming software but could also enable Internet users to find confidential information on anyone in thirty minutes or less.
“I decided I couldn’t wait that long,” Mad Pierre wrote. Like other spam fighters before him, he began reviewing the registration information for PrivacyBuff.com and other domains mentioned in ads from QuikSilver Enterprises. But unlike even the incomparable Shiksaa, Mad Pierre laboriously did Internet searches on the various names and addresses listed in the registrations. After trying unproductive searches on James Kincaid, Winston Cross, and other aliases, Mad Pierre plugged the name “Davis Hawke”—the registrant of QuikSilver’s resalepalace.com—into a search engine.
Mad Pierre hit pay dirt. He located a Washington Post article from August 1999 that mentioned Davis Hawke’s leadership of the American Nationalist Party, the neo-Nazi group he started during his student days in South Carolina. The article noted Hawke’s failure to coordinate the march on Washington by various white-supremacist groups. To be sure he had found his quarry, Mad Pierre ran other searches and pulled up corroborating data, such as the firstname.lastname@example.org email account used to register some QuikSilver domains. Mad Pierre even found a small photo of Hawke from his Nazi days, published at Overthrow.com, a site operated by a Hawke antagonist and anarchist named Bill White.
“Many of us have been accused of being spam Nazis, but it looks as though Davis Wolfgang Hawke really is one,” Mad Pierre concluded with a flourish.
He also wryly noted that Hawke was Jewish and had changed his name in 1996 from Andrew Britt Greenbaum. “You can see his dilemma, can’t you?” Mad Pierre asked in the article, which he titled “The extraordinary story of Davis W. Hawke.”
If Mad Pierre had published his exposé twelve months earlier, Davis Hawke might have been ashamed for the world to learn of his transformation from a neo-Nazi leader into a spammer. But by November 2000, the only dilemma Hawke had was keeping his web sites and credit card merchant account from being shut down. He wasn’t directly aware of Mad Pierre’s article, but Hawke indirectly felt the impact. Verio, the Texas-based ISP, shut down PrivacyBuff.com in response to Mad Pierre’s report, forcing Hawke to scramble to line up a new host. He had set up mirror sites, with names including MerchantAccept.com and CompuZoneUSA.com, at other ISPs to minimize the revenues lost from such outages. Hawke also tried to erase all evidence of his connection to South Carolina. His new spams listed a rented post office box in New York City and a phone number in Boston that were both forwarded to his new mailbox and phone in Cosby, Tennessee.
Hawke and Patricia had moved at the end of the summer to the eastern Tennessee town of 800, which was just across the mountains from their old place in Leicester, North Carolina. To keep them company, they acquired two dogs that were half wolf. Nemesis, a female, was Patricia’s pet. Hawke named his male Dreighton.
Patricia, who had earned her black belt, was starting up her own karate studio in a strip mall off Dolly Parton Parkway in nearby Sevierville. Hawke carved out a niche marketing to people in circumstances similar to his. Across the top of the PrivacyBuff.com site were the words, “Because sometimes...you need a fresh start.” The site offered a couple dozen printed books with titles ranging from How to Make Fake Driver’s Licenses and Other Identification Cards to Be Your Own Dick: Private Investigating Made Easy and How to Use Mail Drops for Profit, Privacy, and Self-Protection. Hawke charged between twenty and thirty dollars per title for the books, which were originally published by a variety of small presses.
At the site, Hawke introduced himself to visitors. “My name is Dave. Yours is John Smith, right? Nice to meet you,” he wrote with a wink. The welcome message, which was signed “Dave Milton,” acknowledged that shoppers probably wondered why he was offering to sell “such outlandish, anti-establishment titles.” The first reason was simple, he wrote. “We want to make money.” But rather than marketing cars, real estate, jewelry, and other products, PrivacyBuff.com was interested in spreading the word about “the unjust system of government in America and throughout the western nations,” said the note. Milton and his staff were libertarians, he said.
“We believe that Government has only two mandates: national defense and public works. All other functions should be performed by the private sector, including education, welfare...we also favor the legalization of all drugs, an end to all taxes, and the abolition of the criminal justice system,” he said.
While espousing such an ideology was a convenient marketing ploy, Hawke was genuinely intrigued by libertarianism. In many ways, the antigovernment political philosophy now fit him more comfortably than the racist, neo-Nazi views he had embraced during college. Starting as early as his freshman year in high school, Hawke grew disillusioned with the U.S. government. The catalyst was when international chess champion—and Hawke’s personal hero—Bobby Fischer was charged by the U.S. in 1992 with defying a trade embargo against Yugoslavia. Fischer’s crime consisted of traveling to the war-torn country to face Boris Spassky in a rematch of their 1972 meeting, which many had referred to as the “chess match of the century.” Ignoring a cease-and-desist letter from the Treasury Department, Fischer won the match and a prize of $3.3 million but was immediately forced into exile when the U.S. issued a warrant for his arrest. (Fischer didn’t help his case by boasting at a news conference before the match that he hadn’t paid any federal income taxes for sixteen years.)
Around the same time, Hawke also latched onto Texas millionaire Ross Perot, who was making his bid for President. Perot had tapped into the national distrust of politicians and dissatisfaction with Washington bureaucracy, and in the summer of 1992 he was polling neck and neck with candidates Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush. That autumn, Hawke arrived at the high school early to stand, usually alone and sometimes in the rain, with his Perot For President sign. Although Perot received an impressive 19 percent of the popular vote, Hawke was crushed when Bill Clinton won the general election.
Hawke had come to believe that spamming was a profession ideally suited for an underground economy free from government regulation and taxes. So, too, did lots of other Internet users. The best-selling title offered by QuikSilver wasn’t How to Start Your Own Country or SCRAM: Relocating Under a New Identity, although each did pretty well. Hawke’s top item was The Spambook, a kit that included an eighteen-page booklet he had found on the Internet along with an eight-page manual he authored himself: Seven Days to Spam Success.
Hawke’s prose in Seven Days was clear, personable, and persuasive. Not surprisingly, the manual said writing good ad copy was the crucial element of spamming success. Hawke offered several tips, ranging from the schoolmarmish (“Use active verbs rather than passive verbs”) to the more psychologically oriented (“Ask rhetorical questions frequently in your ad copy, as it engages their mental processes and encourages them to keep reading”). Seven Days advised spammers to tell customers what they wanted to hear but not to exaggerate too much, or they would risk losing customers’ trust.
“I make $25,000 per week, but I’d NEVER claim that the Spambook will allow my customers to make that much money, because no one would ever believe me. I set the figure at a few thousand dollars a week because you can grab that amount much easier,” he wrote in the booklet.
To take in that kind of income, a bulk emailer needed the ability to accept credit card orders, Hawke advised. Credit card buyers were mainly impulse buyers, he explained. Although setting up a credit card merchant account was fairly easy, Hawke warned that hassles and frustration were part of the business, and one merchant account provider had tried to steal over $6,000 from him by withholding funds he had processed. “Never keep more than a few thousand dollars in a bank account attached to your merchant account,” he advised. “Make frequent withdrawals to keep it below $2,500 or you will be sorry.”
Seven Days also included practical advice on obtaining email lists. Hawke counseled beginning spammers to avoid purchasing addresses in bulk on CDs and instead to harvest them fresh from web sites using one of the two programs included with the Spambook kit. Steer clear of harvesting from newsgroups, he advised: “These emails are usually very poor with professional anti-spammers included in the mix.”
The manual also addressed the issue of targeting America Online subscribers. “If a spammer is like a hunter, then an AOL user is a twelve-point deer with a red ribbon on its head,” observed Hawke. In general, AOL customers were new to the Internet, less knowledgeable, and more likely to waste their money, he noted. But because of the big ISP’s spam filters, it was almost impossible to send email into AOL. “I have tried many methods and failed,” he admitted.
As for bulk-email software, Hawke said he personally used Cybercreek Avalanche. “I have found it to be the best product of its kind on the market,” he stated, although he conceded the program was pricey and “recommended for the serious spammer.” Seven Days to Spam Success also recommended Send-Safe, a fairly new mailer program written by Russian programmers. Hawke included a copy of Send-Safe with the Spambook kit, pointing out that spammers first needed to purchase credits at the Send-Safe web site in order to use the software.
Hawke had discovered the Send-Safe site that summer. He liked the company’s mailer, which was faster and less prone to crash than other programs he tried. As a registered user of the software, Hawke was also able to access a customer forum at the Send-Safe site, which served as a sort of Chamber of Commerce for bulk emailers. On the message boards there, spammers traded mailing lists, advertised affiliate programs, and made other business deals. Even though they were his competitors, Hawke enjoyed networking with people who faced the same obstacles he was dealing with every day.
As autumn took hold in the Tennessee hill country, Hawke grew weary of his lone-wolf existence. Aside from Patricia, he had no real friends or even business colleagues in the area. He got back into playing chess, initially in games against himself and then versus opponents over the Internet. For his first over-the-board competition since high school, Hawke drove to Nashville in October, entering a small tournament held in a bungalow owned by the local club. He introduced himself as Walter Smith to the five players who showed up and filled out a card to register with the U.S. Chess Federation under that name.
In high school Hawke, under the name Britt Greenbaum, had achieved a USCF rating of nearly 2000, which put him in the top 10 percent of chess players nationwide. Hawke, playing as Smith, easily defeated his two weaker opponents in Nashville, both of whom had sub-1600 USCF ratings, and he came away the winner of the tournament.
After the victory, Hawke entered weekend tournaments every week for the next month. He placed third in a tournament in Crossville, Tennessee and then came in second in the Under-2000 section of the North Carolina Open. His playing there lifted his USCF rating as Walter Smith to 1949, just fifty points below his peak rating of 1998 as Britt Greenbaum, which he had reached when he was fifteen. Hawke had always wanted to break the 2000 barrier, and his strong return to chess at the age of twenty-two made that goal now look attainable.
Hawke’s heady rise was stalled, however, by a couple of lackluster performances in November, including a twenty-first place finish at the National Chess Congress. He had traveled all the way to Philadelphia to compete in the tournament, beating his first two opponents in the Under-2000 section. But he lost his third match, and then drew against his final two opponents, whom he considered mediocre players. His USCF rating dropped below 1900 after the poor showing. But Hawke was determined to finish his comeback year with a flourish.
A week before Christmas, Hawke returned to Nashville and entered a quick-chess tournament, again using the alias Walter Smith. Players were limited to just fifteen minutes of clock time, which gave nimble competitors an advantage. The favorites in the field of thirty-two were Jerry Spinrad, a computer science professor at Vanderbilt University who entered with a USCF rating of 2069, and Dale Rigby, an English professor at Western Kentucky University who had a USCF rating of 2031.
After he beat his first two opponents, Hawke faced Rigby in the third round. Rigby regarded “Smith” with suspicion. The newcomer entered the tournament without an official USCF rating, yet Smith obviously was no beginner. Rigby’s intuition told him Smith was a sandbagger who had competed in plenty of tournaments before, perhaps under a different name. His suspicions were confirmed when he struggled before ultimately defeating Smith.
After the loss to Rigby, Hawke rebounded, winning his next three games, including one against a high school player who had been in the hunt for the tournament lead. That set up a showdown between Hawke and Spinrad in the seventh and penultimate round. Spinrad had won all of his matches until that point, including one against Rigby. He had watched the unknown “Smith” play in the early rounds and spoke with him briefly between matches. Smith struck him as friendly but not at all intimidated by the field, extremely confident of his chess skills. Indeed, Smith jumped out to a small advantage as their match began. While Spinrad never felt in danger of losing, he was relieved when time ran out, and he was able to come away with a draw. Smith, however, seemed disappointed with the outcome, as though he had expected to defeat the stronger player.
In the contest’s final round, Hawke pulled off a win over a solid player, which gave him six and a half points in the tournament. But Spinrad also managed to defeat his final opponent, earning him a total of seven and a half points and the tournament title. Still, Hawke, playing as Smith, took a surprising second place and a forty-five-dollar prize, while Rigby finished third, just a half-point behind him.
As a kid, Hawke would have reviewed each round of the competition with his parents on the ride back home. Chess tournaments had always been a family activity for the Greenbaums. Both parents usually traveled with Hawke to chess competitions, and not just as spectators. Even his mother, who had originally taught him the game, would enter the tournament in the novice section. Hawke’s father was rated slightly higher than she, though he never came close to beating his son. But neither parent entered a chess tournament again after Hawke went off to college.
Following his strong showing in Nashville, Hawke drove home to Cosby alone. Then, on the evening of December 24, 2000, as families all around the country gathered to celebrate the holidays, Hawke was in his trailer, using a UUNET dial-up account to send out a new batch of spam advertising the Banned CD. He knew some people might consider it a depressing way to spend Christmas Eve. But Hawke refused to indulge in such sentimental thinking.
The next day, a spam fighter filed complaints with UUNET and Hawke’s web site host about the Banned CD ads. Hawke found out about the anti-spammer’s reports a few days later. Now that, thought Hawke, was a depressing way for someone to spend Christmas morning.