Arts & Culture

Falling to Pieces

Why are so many people suddenly watching live chess?

by
• 2,118 words

ON Sunday May 4, 1997, representatives of almost every major media outlet in the world crammed into a room on the forty-ninth floor of The Equitable Center, on 7th Avenue in New York City. They were there to cover the match of the century: a historic confrontation between Garry Kasparov, the reigning world chess champion and possibly the greatest player of all time, and IBM’s supercomputer, lovingly nicknamed “Deep Blue.” In size, the crowd present matched those that show up for title fights at Madison Square Gardens. Another 500 spectators watched the game on video screens in the ground-floor auditorium. Every move was broadcast live on the Internet and scrutinized by millions of people all over the world, some of whom called in sick so they could watch the game at home.

When the match was first announced, it was billed as Man v. Machine. Newsweek put Kasparov on its cover with the caption “The Brain’s Last Stand,” as though chess’s man of steel were all that stood between us and hordes of rampaging metal and wire, bent on taking over the world. But the campaign soon took a more attenuated position. Even IBM backed off the Man v. Machine comparison, though one supposes it was less because they thought the thrills were too cheap than out of concern that their customers might come to identify Big Blue with the Terminator. “Deep Blue is stunningly effective at solving chess problems,” an IBM press release said, “but it is less ‘intelligent’ than even the stupidest human.” At the end of the day, all that remained was the question: How did a sport that had, outside of Russia, fewer fans than the Montreal Expos, attain the status of the Super Bowl?

One answer has to do with our fascination with genius. It is, after all, to our geniuses that we pin our profoundest hopes. Expressions of genius offer us momentary respite from the quotidian, and sometimes even grant us a brief glimpse into eternity. Small wonder, then, that we feel so threatened when one of our most enigmatic talents faces the threat of being reproduced, reduced to the mere mechanical powers of a computer.

Garry Kasparov possesses such a genius. At the time of the match, the Azerbaijani-born Kasparov was thirty-four. He was already a mature thinker with an intellectual swagger. Here was a mind to reckon with – a beautiful, bold, self-assured example of masterful ability in areas where most of us are duffers. Here was a grandmaster who held the distinction of being the first world champion to have reached this pinnacle without having lost a single match.

Kasparov’s whole manner radiated invincibility. He was a master of psychological warfare, known in the inner circles of chess for that Medusa-like gaze called the “Garry glare.” But he was also a master strategist, and careful observers understood this about him early on – for example, in 1984, when he came up against the then-titleholder and Soviet poster boy Anatoly Karpov. Kasparov was brash and independent, two qualities the Soviets did not particularly respect, and, to the Kremlin’s great satisfaction, he lost the first five games. Then, as though the losses had been his way of marking time while he got to know his opponent, Kasparov began forcing draws: forty in a row. By the time the last draw was declared, more than four months later, Karpov had lost twenty-two pounds. Only then did Kasparov move in for the kill, scoring decisive victories in games 47 and 48, at which point the president of FIDE, Florencio Campomanes, intervened, suspended the match, and drew to a close one of the ugliest days in the history of chess. Kasparov did not get another opportunity to compete for the crown until 1985, when he met, and trounced, Karpov, and easily held on to the world championship title for the next fifteen years.

Deep Blue ended his winning streak. Vikram Jayanti, the director of the documentary film Game Over: Kasparov and the Machine, tells viewers this right off the bat. Thankfully, Jayanti chooses not to focus on the struggle between “man and machine”; what really interests him is the manner in which the film’s hero, Garry Kasparov, unravels.

Dramatizing a historical event always presents the documentary filmmaker with a challenge, even more so when the emotional state of the main character is the central theme. What makes this film compelling is that, during the actual match, one of Kasparov’s crew followed the champion around with a movie camera. Throughout the doc’s eighty-five minutes we get the rare opportunity to follow history in the making. Jayanti also had plenty of archival footage to choose from, which allowed him to avoid the mind-numbing prospect of constructing a film of talking heads. Kasparov’s unravelling is presented as though it were scripted in advance – which, in some profound way, it was.

The first time Kasparov played Deep Blue, in 1996, the match was rather low-key, more a scientific experiment than a real competition. But the attention it garnered – an estimated $100 million dollars of free publicity and a perception that IBM was doing cool stuff – took Deep Blue’s corporate sponsor by surprise and opened shareholders’ eyes to the potential of a rematch.

The next time he played the computer – the 1997 match – IBM decided to give Kasparov a run for his money. An early indication of the company’s new mindset came when Kasparov requested printouts of Deep Blue’s training matches. In fact, there was nothing unusual about this request: chess players always prepare by studying their opponents’ games. But even though each of Kasparov’s games had been fed into Deep Blue’s database, IBM refused to turn over records of any of Deep Blue’s performances. The contract between IBM and Kasparov stipulated access to the computer’s public games only; IBM declared that all of Deep Blue’s games had been played in private. As Deep Blue’s senior project manager, C. J. Tan, growled, after the rematch was announced, “This isn’t a scientific experiment any more. We’re here to play chess.”

When it is played competitively, chess is never just a cerebral contest between two highly tuned intellects. Like any sport played at the championship level, it is a battle of wit and will, physical stamina, and huge mental concentration. When one of the challengers is made of something more durable than flesh, the balance shifts. Some purists even argue that when chess is played between a computer and a human being, the game is not chess at all.

It is certainly true that humans and computers do not play chess in the same way. Computers excel in “tactical” positions. They are best when evaluating whether a piece is at risk. Where computers lag behind human players is when they find themselves boxed into a “closed” position, that is, a position from which no clear strategy emerges, or in situations that demand an assessment of a move’s long-term merit. Here, the human imagination far outshines the computer’s powers of calculation. A grandmaster like Kasparov can take in or visualize the entire board. He feels threats, senses the safety of his king, intuits opportunities. The computer commands none ofthese faculties, and can only counter with an astounding ability to runsome 200 million calculations per second. In short, the machine treats chess not as an art form, but as an enormous but mundane arithmetic problem. Believing that Deep Blue was “stupid,” which is to say no more than a glorified calculator, Kasparov locked himself into a very specific anti-machine strategy. But Deep Blue was not just a machine – in fact it was perhaps less of a machine than any of its predecessors, if only because the IBM team had managed to program into its software lessons learned from the highest ranks of grandmasters. The team anticipated Kasparov’s tactic, and built into the software that ran Deep Blue enough flexibility for the computer to adjust itself to the champion’s various attempts to outwit it.

Nonetheless, Kasparov won the closely contested opening game. But, by game two, IBM’s hard work began paying off. Not realizing that the computer’s chess knowledge had grown exponentially, Kasparov stuck to his game plan. By move 35, Deep Blue, playing the white pieces, had gained a significant advantage. The next move, 36, turned out to be not only the most decisive of the game, but also the catalyst for the drama that ensued.

Generally speaking, the move that allows the capture of an opponent’s piece without endangering one of its own is the move the computer will make. Knowing this, Kasparov and his team of experts laid a trap for Deep Blue, fully expecting the computer to counter by threatening the black bishop with its queen. In Kasparov’s estimation, the move would appeal to the computer’s sense of “greed.” It was also arguably the best move on the board – in all but one way. It left open the outside possibility that Kasparov could launch a counterattack. Only a grandmaster’s highly developed intuition could sense the danger. Somehow, Deep Blue got it. It resisted making the expected move, instead initiating a sequence of two moves aimed at countering the counterattack. Kasparov was stunned. Eight moves later, he resigned the game.

That evening, Kasparov was forced to absorb yet another seismic shock. Post-game analysis showed that Deep Blue had, in fact, botched things early on, and, had Kasparov stayed in the game, he could easily have played to a draw. That Kasparov missed the opportunity was a sure sign that the most brilliant mind the chess world had ever seen had begun to unravel.

Kasparov soon found himself unable to call on any of his legendary powers. He became convinced that IBM had cheated. He accused the corporate team of allowing human intervention. “I felt we were a bunch of amateurs, challenging the terrible faceless monster,” he said some years later. In 2000, the fifteen-year world champion lost his title to his twenty-five-year-old former protégé, Vladimir Kramnik. He has not won it back since.

(Recently, Kasparov has been back in the news, this time in connection with Russian politics, having founded a group called Committee 2008: Free Choice, whose chief aim is to bring down Vladimir Putin and foster Western-style democracy in the country.)

Looking back on the match that broke Kasparov, one is left with little doubt about IBM’s behaviour. The corporation bent the rules as far as it could. It knew very well the effect of its hardball strategies. “We felt that we had broken him. We really did,” said Joel Benjamin, Deep Blue’s resident grandmaster. But playing hardball is still very different from cheating, and there has never been any evidence to support Kasparov’s allegations. (Unfortunately, Vikram Jayanti leaves the viewer with the impression that there may be something to the wild accusation. In the opening sequence, and then again, near the end of the film, a voice-over whispers conspiratorially, “Consider this. The day that Deep Blue beat Kasparov, IBM’s stock rose fifteen percent.” This isn’t true – the stock rose only a few points the following day – but Jayanti justifies it by saying it is “atmospherically correct,” meaning that it reflects Kasparov’s paranoia.)

But what of Kasparov’s performance? He was not exactly a hapless victim of a corporate giant’s ambitions. The catalyst for his fall had to have come from somewhere else. There are two kinds of grandmasters in chess: the kind, like Kasparov, who win matches and crowns, and the kind, like Miguel Najdorf and Aron Nimzowitsch, who develop moves. Some of the most masterful plays in the history of chess have been invented by the latter variety – formidable minds who have never won a title or even played for a championship because, ultimately, they may have lacked the supreme confidence, even arrogance, that it takes to win. It’s the confidence that forges the pure, noetic power of a concert pianist, or a prima ballerina, or an Olympic pole vaulter. All great chess champions have it, too, and most have learned to insulate the precious quality from the world, to sustain it through losses and failures.

That, in the end, may have been Kasparov’s undoing. When Garry Kasparov played Deep Blue, he had had very little experience of real failure – had never lost a major match, never given up his crown. The realization that he had grossly underestimated his opponent must have come as a colossal shock. But, where another player might have accepted his mistake and recovered, his inner faith in himself intact, Kasparov cracked. His genius had not prepared him for defeat.