Sunday, September 4, 2011


(originally published in The Outreach Connection in March 2005)

When I was maybe twelve or thirteen, I briefly decided (who now knows why) that I’d like to be into chess, At that point I knew the rules, but had no particular affinity for the game. Like everyone else I found Bobby Fischer fascinating, and I always knew the name of the reigning world champion, but that was it. Eagerly embracing geekdom, I bought a couple of chess books and started studying. A few days later I decided it was too dull, and (like my earlier day-long interest in stamp collecting) that was the end of it. A few years later I bought a mini chess computer, thinking it would entertain me on road trips and the like, but I instantly tired of that too. I gave it to my brother, who used it for years afterwards.

Tiny Fragment

So I am not a chess player, and in a way it’s aligned with my not being drawn to poetry or to arts and crafts or to watching the sunset or even to lovingly working my way through the DVD extras on a particular film. I’m not someone who’s drawn to honing a tiny fragment of the universe – I’d rather sweep up a broad swathe of experience, even if only superficially. Chess is particularly problematic for me in this regard – a closed system operating under arbitrary rules; no doubt capable of stretching to its limits the human capacity for strategic imagination, but not in a way that ultimately feeds back into the world beyond the board - or at least not very efficiently. Fischer, a genius on the chessboard but increasingly dysfunctional everywhere else, seems like a particularly compelling symbol of its hermeticism.

The new documentary Game Over: Kasparov And The Machine, directed by Vikram Jayanti, tells the story of the 1997 match between Garry Kasparov, at that time the world champion and the highest-ranked player of all time, and the IBM Deep Blue computer. This was a rematch of a 1996 contest, which Kasparov won. In 1997 he started out with great panache and won the opening game. But he lost the second game, drew the next three, and then by all accounts collapsed completely in the sixth and final game, giving the win to the computer. The film has extended access to Kasparov, shown mooning five years later around the locations of the original match, and to the IBM technicians who programmed Deep Blue, and it jazzes up its fairly sober material with images of the famous "Turk", a supposed chess-playing automaton from the 1800's, and (oddly) through a whispered voice-over, presumably intended to lend events a conspiratorial air.

Beginning Again

The film has a rather melancholy air about it, particularly in how it depicts Kasparov's response to his defeat - from this evidence, he seems to have become a desolate figure casting around for a way to begin again. He lost his world title in 2000, then we see him at a cheesy-looking European tournament, then in a 2002 rematch against his old foe Anatoly Karpov, who ends up getting the better of him. These stretches strangely reminded me of the latter stretch of Scorsese’s The Color of Money, after Paul Newman has been humiliated by a young hustler and goes back out on the road to rediscover his sense of himself. But whereas Newman permanently reimmerses himself in pool, Kasparov seems increasingly aware of the world beyond the chessboard. It was no surprise when he recently retired from competitive chess, saying he wants to devote his energies to opposing Russian president Putin, whom he calls a fascist and a dictator.

Given the bias I set out, this of course seems to me like a positive outcome because of all the areas of human activity, chess seems to me like one where we might willingly accept the intervention of machine intelligence to break the spell. But the movie doesn't see it that way - the title "Game Over" is sorrowful rather than triumphant, and the reference to "The Machine" casts Deep Blue as the emblem of an overpowering industrial complex. Kasparov was particularly rattled by the second game, where the computer threw him off at one point by refusing the offer of a pawn sacrifice, and then made a mistake at the end (although Kasparov only became aware of it after he’d resigned). Kasparov regarded these moves as so quintessentially human that he assumed there was additional input into the machine’s decisions (a hidden team of grandmasters perhaps). The movie plays it in between, insinuating through montage and juxtaposition that there might be something to the claims, but going no further.

Casino Evening

While I was writing this article I went to a "casino evening" at work at which we played roulette and blackjack with fake money. For the same reasons again, I couldn't get into it (although at least now I know something about the structure of the roulette table, which may help with the occasional movie) and after a while I just sat on the sidelines and talked to whomever came along. I told them about my reservations and they said that I was being selective in my enthusiasms and that there was no difference in submitting to a movie for two hours. It seems to me that they may be right if the film is a purely commercial project that aspires to nothing beyond sending the audience home with a general feeling of satisfaction, but that they substantially undervalue the return on time invested in other kinds of cinema.

Game Over provides a few things to mull over, but itself often seems as closed off as a game of chess. It seems to aspire to move in the direction of The Corporation, to expose corporate excess (like that film by the way, it counts as a Canadian production). Kasparov claims that the match marked a turning point in the public awareness of corporate power, and fostered a heightened sense of responsibility, which seems a little egotistical to me. Some of his pique may lie in his failure to realize at the outset how much greater IBM's upside was than his. He was paid $700,000, but the company's stock rose some 15% in the wake of Deep Blue's victory, and the film estimates that the company made hundreds of millions out of it in one way or another. There was no remaining upside to allowing Kasparov a rematch, so the research was soon curtailed and the computer mothballed.

One of the film's commentators compares this to landing on the moon and then turning right round and returning home without having done anything, but for this analogy to be persuasive we'd need a better sense than the movie provides of the collateral benefits for mankind of continuing to master the game. Lacking that, Game Over often conveys a mere generalized depression, like the product of a kid who's remained at the board for too long and vaguely feels something is passing him by.

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