Features Oct 29, 2014 | 10:01 PMby Colin McGourty

Man vs Machine: A poet on Kasparov-Deep Blue

Two battlers - Zbigniew Herbert and Garry Kasparov | photos: Fundacja im. Zbigniewa Herberta and The Man vs. The Machine 

We’ve grown to accept that humans can no longer compete with computers at chess, but it wasn’t always so. When Garry Kasparov took on Deep Blue in 1997 there was every reason to believe in the human player. A new ESPN documentary sees the seeds of Kasparov’s defeat in his mistaking a computer bug for profundity, but as today is the 90th anniversary of the birth of the great Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert we’re publishing a very different perspective on the match. Herbert’s poem “Chess” is a lament over how, “the royal game / passes into the hands of automatons,” that ends with the plea, “we must begin again / a journey to the imagination”.

Machines awaken

The two matches between IBM’s Deep Blue and World Champion Garry Kasparov were the culmination of the dream of machines mastering chess, a game once (and perhaps still) considered a touchstone of the intellect. A key man in that quest was British mathematician Alan Turin, who published the first chess-playing program (on paper) in 1951. The newly released film “The Imitation Game” should boost Turin’s reputation yet further, with Dominic Lawson entitling an article in the popular UK listings magazine Radio Times: Benedict Cumberbatch and The Imitation Game will turn chess geeks into heroes.

Garry Kasparov actually played a game against Turing’s program in 2012, at a conference to mark the centenary of the mathematician’s birth:

The victory of the dragon

Garry Kasparov after conceding defeat in the final game of the second match | screenshot: The Man vs. The Machine

Computers developed immensely, however, in the 45 years that elapsed between that prototype and Kasparov first playing a match against Deep Blue. In 1996 in Philadelphia the machine custom-built by computing giant IBM lost a six-game contest 4:2, but only after claiming Kasparov’s scalp in the very first game.

The rematch in New York a year later saw an enhanced version of the computer and even greater anticipation. It all started off well but, according to Nate Silver – the relevant chapter of whose book “The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail – but Some Don’t” has been published at FiveThirtyEight – the big turning point in the match came when Kasparov was about to win the first game:


Kasparov-Deep Blue after 44.f6

The most obvious try, 44…Rf5+, fails eventually, but the move Deep Blue played, 44…Rd1, does nothing to stave off defeat, and indeed after 45.g7 Deep Blue (or its computer operator – interviewed here by Dominic Lawson) resigned.

The problem, though, and the centrepiece of Frank Marshall’s new documentary The Man vs The Machine (watch it above, or here), was that both during the game and afterwards Kasparov wrestled with the question of why the computer had made such an inexplicable move. He concluded Deep Blue must have seen further than he previously thought it was capable. Spooked, Kasparov lost his mojo, trusted the machine in the next game by resigning in a still drawn position and went on to lose the match without winning another game.

The next time we saw Kasparov looking so miserable was the World Championship match against Vladimir Kramnik | screenshot: The Man vs. The Machine

The punchline is that the mysterious move was apparently nothing but a computer bug – when malfunctioning and unable to choose a move for some reason Deep Blue would resort to making a move completely at random. Kasparov’s human urge to find meaning in events had proven his downfall... or at least that’s the story. Mig Greengard, Garry Kasparov’s right-hand man, dismisses that version of events:

A knife between his teeth

He didn't mean in a good sense... | screenshot: The Man vs. The Machine

What the film does make very clear, of course, is that Kasparov believed the computer got unfair assistance from its team of human assistants. 

You can watch the moment, both intensely awkward and funny, when he responds to a question from Maurice Ashley with a footballing analogy:

It reminds me of the famous goal that Maradona scored against England in ’86. He said it was the hand of God… 

It was an acrimonious end to a match whose outcome already dented the popular association of chess with human intelligence. Should we be upset, though? Two well-known chess figures give their view in the film.

Bruce Pandolfini: "I'm not sure humanity needed upholding!" | screenshot: The Man vs. The Machine

First Bruce Pandolfini, a chess author, teacher and coach, once portrayed by Ben Kingsley in the film Searching for Bobby Fischer:

Kasparov was trying to uphold humanity, in one sense. I’m not sure humanity needed upholding! Human beings programmed Deep Blue. It’s still a representation of human intelligence.

Joel Benjamin, a US Grandmaster who acted as a consultant for IBM, agreed:

We thought of it as man the toolmaker against man the artist. The artist is very important but so is the scientist, so is the toolmaker and we need to develop both these things.

Which brings us to the poet…

A journey to the imagination

Zbigniew Herbert | photo: Fundacja im. Zbigniewa Herberta

Zbigniew Herbert (1924-1998) was one of the great poets of the 20th century, widely considered at least the equal of Czesław Miłosz and Wisława Szymborska, his Polish contemporaries who won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Born in Lwów (Lviv) when it was still a Polish city, he lived through the German and then Soviet occupations of Poland.

One recurring theme of his work was the danger inherent in scientific progress, at least when it created something humans were unable to grasp. He felt uneasy about Joel Benjamin’s toolmakers. 

For instance, in “Still Life with a Bridle”, a volume of prose dealing with the art and history of the Netherlands, he included an apocryphal “Letter”. It was supposedly sent by Delft-born artist Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) to his townsman and contemporary Antonie van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723), the “Father of Microbiology.” The scientist had just shown Vermeer the “true nature” of a drop of water under a microscope - “I always thought it was pure like glass, but strange creatures swirl in it like in a transparent hell out of Bosch”.

Vermeer explains his concern:

I fear that you and those like you are setting off on a dangerous expedition, which can do humanity not only good but also great, irreparable harm. Did you not notice that the more the means, the tools of observation, improve, the more distant and elusive the targets become. With every new discovery a new abyss opens up. We are ever more alone in the mysterious void of the universe.

By the time of the Deep Blue match Herbert was bedridden with severe asthma and would only live a year after Kasparov’s defeat, but shortly before he died he managed to publish one final volume of poems, “Epilogue to a Storm”. One of the poems was about the man vs. machine contest:

Chess

awaited 
in great anticipation
the match between a man
distinguishing trait: a knife between his teeth
and the monster of a machine
distinguishing trait: Olympic calm
ended in the victory of the dragon

for nothing
poems ripened
in the gardens of Andalucía
the nouveau riche
Deep Blue
elbows his way across squares
sewn from a Harlequin’s cloak
a mocking ignoramus
stuffed
with all the openings
attacks defences
and finally with a joyful
hallali above the corpse
of his opponent                                 

and so
the royal game
passes into the hands
of automatons                  

it needs to be snatched by night
from the prison camp                    

when the mind slumbers
machines awaken                            

we must begin again
a journey to the imagination


Zbigniew Herbert (translated by Colin McGourty)

Herbert had in mind how chess came to Europe via Andalusia, where Arab, Jewish and Spanish culture mixed. Here a Jewish chess set is at the centre of an exhibition in Palacio de los Olvidados in Granada 

That’s not the only reference to chess in the Polish poet’s work. His poem “A life” includes the couplet:

I know I didn’t go far – I achieved nothing
collected postage stamps medicinal herbs played ok chess

In the well-known poem “The Return of the Proconsul” – a parable of Herbert’s own dilemma over whether to return to Soviet Poland – the Roman Emperor is weary of

                                                               …endless chess
that left cup is for Drusus wet your lips on the other
then drink only water don’t lose sight of Tacitus
go out into the garden and return when they’re already taking out the body

And finally… it’s curious to note that translating Herbert’s prose poem “When the world stops” requires some knowledge of chess, although a perfect translation remains impossible. The problem is that “horse” in Polish is a slightly colloquial but valid way to talk about a “knight”, while the same word used for a normal “field” also applies to a “square” on the chessboard. Plus of course we know that knights jump to squares of the opposite colour to the square on which they stand...

The standard translation of this prose poem includes, “and the horses pass from the black field into the white field”, but an alternative might read:

When the world stops

It happens very rarely. The earth’s axis screeches to a halt. At that point everything stops: storms, ships and clouds grazing in the valleys. Everything. Even horses on a meadow freeze as in an unplayed game of chess.                            

But a moment later the world goes on. The ocean swallows and regurgitates, the valleys steam, and the knights move from a black square to a white square. You can also hear the resounding crash of air against air.


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