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Outlook Money
Frontline

The chess stories

King of cyber-chess

By V. Venkatesan

HUNCHED OVER a chessboard in a small chamber at the Philadelphia Convention Centre last fortnight sat world champion Gary Kasparov. The strongest player in chess history, who retained his crown in October 1995 defeating India's Viswanathan Anand, was this time facing an "invisible opponent" -- Deep Blue, the most powerful computer ever developed -- in a fascinating contest.

The six-game match got off to a sensational start on February 10 when Deep Blue, housed in a New York suburb and operated via phone lines by a programmer seated opposite Kasparov, became the first automaton to win in the classical extended-time format; computers have won at chess before, but only in short-duration 'speed games', where they have an edge.

But Kasparov soon got the measure of the digital foe he calls 'The Monster'. He won three of the next five games and drew the rest, to finish 4-2 up and take home 80 per cent of the $500,000 prize money.

The product of six years of research by IBM programmers, Deep Blue uses parallel-processing technology, which allows it to work on different parts of a complex problem simultaneously, to sift through 50 billion chess positions in three minutes. But lacking the intuition and pattern recognition skills of Grand Masters, the machine looks at too many irrelevant moves.

The Man-vs-Machine play-off, covered live on an Internet Web site, was organised as a part-scientific project to find out "what makes humans different from computers". The event may have provided only part of the answer: for all its clinical efficiency, Deep Blue was less than a match for the inexplicable mental processes that go to make Kasparov a wizard of the 64 squares. n

(Published in Frontline, March 8, 1996.)

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