Endgame

How IBM rooked a champion--and crushed humankind

You know Gary Kasparov is distressed when he starts dropping his articles. "It played like machine," the Russian chess grand master says disgustedly in the dramatic documentary Game Over. Kasparov, a highly articulate and generally flawless English speaker, is recounting his 1997 death match with the IBM computer called Deep Blue. "The quality of the game was lousy...lousy is not the right word. It did exactly what people expect machine to do."

What many chess experts expected "machine" to do was lose, and in game one of the six-game match, that's what it did. Kasparov, then unbeaten in match play and the highest-rated player in history, had previously outfoxed Deep Blue's daddy in a friendly contest. But the new machine had doubled its processing power, and could now crunch 200,000,000 moves a second.

"The technique has got a beautiful name," one professor says of the fortified computer. "Brute force."

Gary Kasparov thought he was playing a match against a computer--not a whole corporation
TH!NKFilm
Gary Kasparov thought he was playing a match against a computer--not a whole corporation

Deep Blue, as apocalyptic headlines trumpeted at the time, carried the day against Kasparov. Seven years after the fact, the shock has faded. Most of us wouldn't challenge our calculators to see who's faster at calculating cube roots. And chess, we now presume, is more or less the equivalent of that kind of grinding exercise. Yet what Vikram Jayanti's film hypothesizes, to intriguing effect, is that the computer itself was more or less a mere bystander. The match was actually lost, Game Over suggests, when IBM and its human representatives played Kasparov for a pawn.

It's a conspiracy theory. You can tell that's the case in the film's opening seconds, when two anonymous voices whisper ominously off-screen. In the interviews that follow, Kasparov, his science advisor, and his agent recall IBM's machinations. They seem, from a distance, minor. For instance, though IBM had agreed in writing to provide records of the computer's public games--players habitually examine each other's strategies before sitting down--the company later declared that all of Deep Blue's trial matches had been private and proprietary. Lest the viewer miss the point, Rob Lane's score stomps behind the scenes, a Soviet horror-movie take on "Pink Elephants on Parade."

"It started semi-accidentally," one of Kasparov's team says of the psychological pressure that cracked Kasparov. Then, he says, the corporation "found it was working."

This drama reaches its painful crisis in game two, when Deep Blue declines Kasparov's pawn sacrifice. It's a positional, "non-computerish" move. And Kasparov becomes convinced that a computer didn't make it. A human, he suspects, has been aiding Deep Blue's decisions at critical junctures. The bewildered grand master resigns the game and descends into paranoia.

The viewer likely won't be persuaded by Kasparov's dark theories and the filmmaker doesn't seem to be, either. In a lesser leading man, such complaints would appear unseemly--like the tennis pro who fiddles angrily with his strings after being aced. But what makes this documentary so involving is that Kasparov is not only human but a staunch humanist.

The chess champion first won fame for facing down the Soviet sports apparatus in the bland person of Anatoly Karpov. Half Jewish and multilingual, Kasparov was an early adopter of democratic reform, eventually becoming a contributing editor at no less a bastion of free markets than the Wall Street Journal. He recently made international headlines by calling Vladimir Putin a "fascist."

 

There's a tragedy lingering in this documentary as a mighty man takes a tumble. The sight of Kasparov resigning the decisive game six is crushing. He shakes the hand of Deep Blue's minder as if it were covered in blood. Then he bursts up from the table with an exasperated shrug. He looks, with his curly hair and almost crazed expression, like Andy Kaufman in the wrestling ring.

Kasparov's mother, the fallen champ confesses, sent him upstairs to face the press conference like a man. One of the IBM programmers reports that Madam K clapped ironically when he took the stage. Then she nearly clipped him in the nose.

The parents of Deep Blue are a sorry sight all their own. In the closing press conference, the geek squad stands in a sloppy line, slouching and glum-faced. IBM's PR directorate, we learn, instructed the computer nerds not to smile. And so, in their moment of triumph, they appear spiritless--bland servants of their godlike microprocessor.

"It was a point when we should be most happy," says Feng-hsiung Hsu, the computer scientist who'd started the project while still a college student. "But we weren't. It sucks."

That quote hints at another human drama at work here--the experience of the programmers. But it's one that Jayanti's film isn't much inclined to follow. Hsu, for instance, pushed strenuously for a Kasparov rematch. When IBM refused him--the company's stock had already soared 15 percent after the win--he bought the chess chip he'd designed, paying what he later termed "a small personal fortune." He proceeded to challenge Kasparov himself.

Ultimately, Hsu published a book titled About Deep Blue, in which he framed the epic battle on his own terms. The showdown, Hsu insisted, was never about "man versus machine," but between "man the performer versus man the tool maker." A provocative thesis, though you won't find it--or almost anything else about Hsu--in Jayanti's doc. And to be fair, who's really going to blame the artist for choosing to side with John Henry over the steam drill?

Kasparov never fully recovered from his defeat. Neither did Deep Blue. We discover the latter as we follow company scientist Murray Campbell down the eerily empty hallways of IBM's suburban campus. At the end of a bright corridor, we come to a locked door, which Campbell opens with a swipe of his security card. Inside, in a dim room, stands the mothballed Deep Blue, decommissioned after only 12 games.

Back during the 1997 contest, corporate security guards barred Kasparov from even seeing his silicon opponent--part of the psych-out. It was "like a Pentagon secret room," Kasparov recalls. Seven years later, the carapace remains inviolable. The computer's case, Campbell tells us, is locked and no one seems to have the key.

Though the movie has made Deep Blue out to be a man-breaker, what we see isn't an image of Kubrick's Hal 9000. No, Kasparov's conqueror is a smooth, dark tower in a silent room. It has nothing to say to us, this affectless black shell. Yet we gape nonetheless: naked apes circling the grandson of the monolith from 2001.

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