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Outlook Money

The chess stories

The computer is King

Deep Blue checkmates Kasparov

By V. Venkatesan

BARELY eight moves into the final game of what was billed as the most competitive computer-vs-human-being playoff match in chess history, a look of stunned disbelief dawned on world champion Gary Kasparov's face. The strongest human player found himself ensnared in a trap set by his opponent, a supercomputer named Deep Blue, and for once even his famed aggression in the face of adversity wasn't helping. After desultorily pushing his black pieces around the squares for less than an hour, Kasparov resigned on the 19th move and stomped off-stage. And in that moment, cyber-chess history was rewritten.

On May 11, Deep Blue, designed by the computer multinational IBM, became the first automaton to win a chess match in the classical extended-time format when it defeated Kasaparov 3.5-2.5 in the IBM Chess Challenge Rematch, held on the 45th floor of the Equitable Towers in downtown Manhattan. Kasparov won the first game, on May 3, but lost the next; the three other games were drawn. The last time the two met, in February 1996, Kasparov had won 4-2 (See King of cyber-chess); at that time, IBM programmers promised to go back to the drawing-board and come up with a more superior machine. They appear to have delivered on that pledge. For their labour, they won the $700,000 prize money; Kasparov won $400,000.

In Game 1, the 34-year-old world champion opted for one of the lesser-analysed opening variations, similar to the Reti opening (Barcza system), and pinned down Deep Blue in 45 moves. Game 2 witnessed a Ruy Lopez opening, which is named after a Spanish priest who gained some distinction in the game. Kasparov overlooked a move that would have given him a draw and resigned after 45 moves; commentators said they believed the combative Kasparov did not play his natural game. Games 3, 4 and 5 were drawn. And the final game turned out to be the shortest between a computer and human being at this level of chess. Again, analysts said, Kasparov had strayed from his areas of strength.

The event drew tremendous interest worldwide. Deep Blue employes parallel processing technology, which allows it to work on different parts of a complex problem simultaneously, to sift through some 200 million chess positions per second. But, say chess commentators, since machine lack pattern recognition skills, they look at far too many irrelevant moves. As Indian Grand Master Vishwanathan Anand said: "Computers don't understand a bit of chess, but they calculate like God."

Computers have won against humans before, but only in short-duration 'rapid games', in which their speed of computation gives them an edge.

The triumph of Deep Blue drew incredulous response from chess-lovers. "All I can say is that I'm stunned," said match commentator and Grand Master Yasser Seirawan. "What we have just witnessed was a landmark achievement in chess."

The director of the IBM research team that developed Deep Blue, C.J. Tan, expressed satisfaction with the result. "We are proud to have played a role in this historic event," he said.

Three aspects of Deep Blue had been improved since February 1996, he explained: it had been made more powerful and had been fed a larger chess database, and a program had been developed to "change the parameters in between each game."

The technology that drives Deep Blue is also used to tackle complex "real world" problems such as cleaning up toxic waste sites, forecasting weather, designing cars and developing innovative drug therapies.

Kasparov, whose aggressive body language during matches has been known to intimidate human opponents and force them into error, was evidently unable to psych out his digital foe. He admitted he was in a poor frame of mind entering Game 6. "For me, the match was over yesterday," he said, referring to Game 5, a thriller, in which Deep Blue forced a draw -- "miraculously", as Kasparov said.

At the end of Game 5, Kasparov confessed to being "afraid" because, although he could out-calculate any human player, he was no match for the machine's power of calculation. And at the post-match press conference, he said: "I had no real strength left to fight. And the win by Deep Blue was justified."

But Kasparov, who has on several occasions expressed unhappiness with the ground rules of the six-game rematch, also challenged Deep Blue to a showdown under regular tournament format. He said there were "very good and very profound" reasons for his loss. "But," he said, "I think the competition has just started. This is just the beginning. It's time for Deep Blue to play real chess. I personally guarantee I will tear it in pieces." n

(Published in Frontline, May 30, 1997.)

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