The Chess Master and the Computer

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Steve Honda/AFP/Getty Images
Garry Kasparov during his rematch against the IBM supercomputer Deep Blue, 1997

In 1985, in Hamburg, I played against thirty-two different chess computers at the same time in what is known as a simultaneous exhibition. I walked from one machine to the next, making my moves over a period of more than five hours. The four leading chess computer manufacturers had sent their top models, including eight named after me from the electronics firm Saitek.

It illustrates the state of computer chess at the time that it didn’t come as much of a surprise when I achieved a perfect 32–0 score, winning every game, although there was an uncomfortable moment. At one point I realized that I was drifting into trouble in a game against one of the “Kasparov” brand models. If this machine scored a win or even a draw, people would be quick to say that I had thrown the game to get PR for the company, so I had to intensify my efforts. Eventually I found a way to trick the machine with a sacrifice it should have refused. From the human perspective, or at least from my perspective, those were the good old days of man vs. machine chess.

Eleven years later I narrowly defeated the supercomputer Deep Blue in a match. Then, in 1997, IBM redoubled its efforts—and doubled Deep Blue’s processing power—and I lost the rematch in an event that made headlines around the world. The result was met with astonishment and grief by those who took it as a symbol of mankind’s submission before the almighty computer. (“The Brain’s Last Stand” read the Newsweek headline.) Others shrugged their shoulders, surprised that humans could still compete at all against the enormous calculating power that, by 1997, sat on just about every desk in the first world.

It was the specialists—the chess players and the programmers and the artificial intelligence enthusiasts—who had a more nuanced appreciation of the result. Grandmasters had already begun to see the implications of the existence of machines that could play—if only, at this point, in a select few types of board configurations—with godlike perfection. The computer chess people were delighted with the conquest of one of the earliest and holiest grails of computer science, in many cases matching the mainstream media’s hyperbole. The 2003 book Deep Blue by Monty Newborn was blurbed as follows: “a rare, pivotal watershed beyond all other triumphs: Orville Wright’s first flight, NASA’s landing on the moon….”

The AI crowd, too, was pleased with the result and the attention, but dismayed by the fact that Deep Blue was hardly what their predecessors had imagined decades earlier when they dreamed of creating a machine to defeat the world chess champion. Instead of a computer that thought and played chess like a human, with human creativity and intuition, they got one that played like…


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