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 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:
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 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:
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.
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…
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:
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
in the gardens of Andalucía
the nouveau riche
elbows his way across squares
sewn from a Harlequin’s cloak
a mocking ignoramus
with all the openings
and finally with a joyful
hallali above the corpse
of his opponent
the royal game
passes into the hands
it needs to be snatched by night
from the prison camp
when the mind slumbers
we must begin again
a journey to the imagination
Zbigniew Herbert (translated by Colin McGourty)
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
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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