RIP Jim Vichench

Photo of Jim Vichench, a.k.a. Red Balaclava, a.k.a. Red Balaklava, a.k.a. Jeopardy! Jim smiling to camera. He is wearing a t-shirt from the original HOPE conference.
Jim Vichench.
Courtesy Pam

With a heavy heart we share the news that longtime NYC2600 stalwart, HOPE speaker, and Off the Hook voice Jim Vichench passed away early Thursday morning, November 24, Thanksgiving Day. He was 64.

Brooklyn native James Vichench was a pillar of the local hacker community for what seemed like longer than anyone can remember. He was a constant presence at NYC2600 meetings, a longtime co-host of WBAI FM’s Off the Hook, and a regular HOPE speaker and contributor spanning the entire history of the conference.

In those early HOPE days Jim used his experience working for the MTA to fuel his curiosity about the then-new MetroCard project and share what he learned with others. To avoid trouble back then Jim was known by the handle “Red Balaclava” (sometimes spelled “Red Balaklava”) after the identity-obscuring headgear he wore when speaking publicly on such subjects. Jim gave his first MetroCard talk at the first HOPE conference in 1994 and followed up three years later with another talk delving further into the MetroCard at the Beyond HOPE conference, an appearance which would land his obscured visage on the front page of the New York Times.

Photo of Jim as "Red Balaclava" with the garment in question covering his face, giving a talk in front of a crowd. Screenshot from the talk's video.
Speaking at the Beyond HOPE conference in 1997.
From Channel2600

Jim would later relax the restrictions on his identity, shedding the mask and appearing under his own first name over decades of Off the Hook installments on WBAI. Among his friends he’d also found himself stuck with the nickname “Jeopardy Jim,” earned by way of his appearances as a contestant on a two-episode stretch of the popular game show in 1990. He won the game on his first day but, in a twist about which he’d managed not to become all that bitter later in life, lost by one single dollar on his second appearance. Jim’s hacker friends will forever marvel at the cosmic coincidence of his final game taking place on Jeopardy episode #1337.

Jim was always known as an erudite speaker, a sharp wit, a friendly presence, and a walking encyclopedia of knowledge with a burning sense of exploration and curiosity shared by the greater hacker community. On WBAI he often found himself a more politically-conservative contributor counterpointing many left-leaning panelists’ points, but he always embraced constructive debate, encouraged it in others, and maintained the ability to bring discussions to common moral ground.

Screenshot of Jim as a contestant on Jeopardy in 1990. He is smiling and standing at his contestant's lectern as a caption "Jim Vichench" is shown.
As a contestant on Jeopardy! in 1990.
©Jeopardy Prod. Inc.

Jim’s contributions on the air would be curtailed in October of 2007 when he suffered a serious stroke which cost him a great deal of physical mobility and left him with aphasia, severely limiting his ability to speak. For someone who had always found his power in his talents for self-expression and information-sharing, this seemed an especially tragic condition.

Jim did not let his affliction stop him. Through the medical and rehabilitative resources he was able to access combined with the assistance of his close friends and family, he worked tirelessly at fighting his way back and improving his condition. Jim would never regain most of his verbal vocabulary, but through handwritten notes and assistance from those of us who’d found themselves developing the skill of interpreting for him he continued to communicate and thrive.

Though he suffered further medical and personal setbacks over the ensuing years Jim maintained his interests, which included an avid poker hobby. Many of us will never forget the time in 2008 when he disappeared without trace from his assisted-living facility, causing a panic as we began to organize missing-person alerts for a man who had difficulty walking and couldn’t speak, only to find when he eventually sauntered back into the facility that he’d simply decided to take a multi-day trip to Atlantic City. He felt like playing some cards, so he did.

Panoramic photo of a radio studio taken from a position at one of the panel mics. Jim is on the far left, and three others (dot.ret, Emmanuel Goldstein, and Rob T Firefly) are at the other mics.
Jim (far left) in the WBAI studio for a broadcast of Off the Hook in 2010.
(CC) BY-NC Bre Pettis

Jim continued to contribute to Off the Hook, by sending in discussion topics as well as continuing to be part of broadcasts from WBAI’s Brooklyn studio. Even when all listeners heard from him was a quick “hi!” during panel intros, his presence very much remained a regular part of the program right up until the COVID-19 pandemic shut down our physical access to the station in 2020.

As pandemic restrictions eventually lessened Jim continued to be a part of NYC2600. Even as his health declined under numerous medical complications he resumed meeting attendance as soon as the events returned to physical space, and continued for as long as he remained physically able. This past summer he made remote contributions to a final HOPE talk given by his wife Pam.

Jim was a part of all our lives at NYC2600, and he will always be looked upon by his surviving family, friends, colleagues, and community with the fondest and warmest thoughts.

As I write this I am still coming to terms with the loss of one of my longest-serving friends and colleagues. Since we met at my first NYC2600 meeting in 1997 Jim inspired me in countless ways, influenced a great deal of my work, made me laugh a lot, and made a real difference to me. Jim helped me find many of my high points and helped me through many of my lows, and I will always remember him.

Jim will be missed.

Rob Vincent / Rob T Firefly