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A chess machine: The death of the game? (Long Zheng CC BY-SA 2.0)



Tempus fugit. It is almost nine years since this column began, in the first issue of Standpoint. The founder-editor, Daniel Johnson, a great student of chess history, had the idea that I should write about the game in essay form: it is an idea I have delighted in exploiting, for every issue of the magazine’s existence.

But I have probably written enough such essays: I have begun to repeat myself. So this is the last of the series, with apologies to any readers who have an appetite for more of the same.

It coincides with the 20th anniversary of what we must now consider to be the most significant match in chess history. Not the Fischer-Spassky match: that was as long ago as 1972. No, it’s the match played at the beginning of May 1997 — between the world champion Gary Kasparov and the Deep Blue chess computer program.

IBM had sponsored the programmers, led by its employee Feng-Hsiung Hsu, in order to demonstrate what had hitherto been impossible: that computers could beat the world’s best carbon-based life form at a pursuit thought too amorphous to be captured by algorythms and digital calculations.

Kasparov had beaten Deep Blue in a match the previous year and was confident he could do so again. He underestimated just how fast IBM’s programmers had been improving their ability to make the machine “understand” chess — and the pure number- crunching power of computer chips was increasing dramatically: the theoretical maximum search speed of Deep Thought in 1997 was a billion positions per second.

Kasparov’s confidence was only increased when he won the first game of the rematch. But in the next game he was — as we learnt immediately afterwards — completely disconcerted by what he saw as strategically masterful moves by an opponent hitherto regarded as a mere calculating machine. So perplexed was Kasparov that he resigned the game in a drawn position: his state of mind was not improved when this was pointed out to him afterwards by one of his team.

This illustrated one of the biggest advantages that machine has over human. We become exhausted and upset — which affects both our concentration and our peace of mind. The computer program has no fear because it has no feelings. And it never runs out of energy, unless it is unplugged (which, of course, is what Dave the astronaut does to HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey, when he realises that the computer — which also played chess in the film — is bent on destruction).

This helps explain Kasparov’s otherwise inexplicable performance in the final game of the match, when the scores were level and it was all to play for. The human champion, right in the opening, allowed a sacrifice already known to be dangerous: it had occurred in previous grandmaster games. In his book, Behind Deep Blue, Hsu suggests that Kasparov had bet that the machine would not play a move that involved giving up material for an attack of uncertain outcome. But Deep Blue did exactly that. Hsu records: “Gary acted a little surprised, but then . . .” Well, you can read what actually happened next in the game notes at the end of this column.

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