Beating His Chess

Having checked with the proprietors of Manhattan's major nightclubs, opium dens and appliance-repair shops, we have some news: Deep Blue didn't paint the town red after blowing away Garry Kasparov in the recent Super Bowl II of Chess. Blue didn't call room service. Didn't pop a magnum of Dom Perignon. Didn't even yuk it up at having thumped Homo sapiens in what had been billed by assorted philosophers, scientists and a lot of people who don't know a rook from Joey Bishop as the century's great showdown between Man and Machine.

By all accounts, Mr. Blue (or is it Ms. Blue?) celebrated victory in this alleged world series of the mind by cooling its circuits for a couple of hours, then promptly resumed the life of abject slavery that is the lot of every computer--super or otherwise. The IBM RS/6000 SP may be able to sort out 200 million chess moves every second, but it wasn't smart enough to ask for a raise. It didn't demand IBM stock options. It didn't pack its clubs and bathing suit and head off for a nice vacation in the Bahamas, pausing to sign autographs at the airport.

Truth be told, Deep Blue doesn't think that straight. In fact, it doesn't think at all. Certainly not in the sense of, say, a seven-year-old who may have trouble with multiplication tables but can instantly connect memories, emotions and longings with no effort at all and smiles at her beaming parents every time they take her out for a hot fudge sundae. That's real thought. Computers can't conceive of it. Never will. Instead, Deep Blue does exactly what it's told to do by its human handlers--by the people who created it. It computes. This overrated slab of steel and diodes, a glorified washer-dryer with the Caro-Kann Defense stuffed inside it, has been programmed to play one helluva game of chess. But it's got all the actual smarts of a junk-heap car.

This is the force that unraveled Garry Kasparov's fragile mind? This is the mysterious power that has shaken the faith of humankind in its own abilities?

Trust the geeks and get-a-lifers of the chess cult to overdramatize the whole affair. "There's a tragic sense here," chess teacher Bruce Pandolfini proclaimed to the New York Times last week. "Man may no longer be the king of his universe. That's clear, and this is really the last stand."

Tragic sense? The last stand? Chess? Come now, fellow livers and breathers. Even if the world's computer nerds can--as they claim--come up with a gizmo that composes music ("Rhapsody in Deep Blue"?), writes newspaper stories (Please! And hurry!), recites the capitals of the fifty states backward in 250 languages, or, on a good day, beats Uncle Harry at Yahtzee, will that keep future Mozarts and Coltranes from creating more beautiful, more individual music? Hardly. Will it discourage Joyce Carol Oates from writing sublime fiction or stop Martin Scorsese from making movies? Unlikely. Will it ever pitch a no-hitter? Nope. Will it keep our exemplary seven-year-old from giggling in joy whenever Mom squirts ketchup onto her plate--a giggle that will forever remain beyond the abilities of any contraption we can dream up? We think not.

For that matter, is chess the world's ultimate test of creative intelligence? Its devotees would like to think so, but don't bet on it.

If we're lucky, the only noticeable effect of last week's big match will be that petulant, ill-tempered, sore-losing jerks like Garry Kasparov will think twice the next time they try to out-compute a computer. So let's stow all the fashionable Information Age terror and chilling cosmic consequences, okay? The real lesson here is not that adding machines have inherited the Earth but that, like a lot of other chess champions, Kasparov should probably be in therapy.

Listen to the man rave, will you?
After losing game two of the six-game match May 4, the 34-year-old world champion claimed he could "feel" Deep Blue deep-thinking, could sense its intelligence. You bet. Excuse me for a minute while I go into the kitchen and discuss Plato's Republic with my Frigidaire. The vacuum cleaner cut philosophy class yesterday and so is not invited to debate this morning. Get a clue, Garry. Anyone who can get psyched out by a bucket of bytes probably needs to get his own synapses swabbed. No wonder you screwed up game six with a move even the eighth-graders in the room called a brain cramp. Apparently, Deep Blue owns you.

No sooner was game six over and the match lost than Kasparov started bitching that the computer guys had cheated him. After furrowing his brow, massaging his chin and scowling his face off for two weeks, Mr. Maladjustment accused the IBM programmers of changing Deep Blue's strategies between games, even between moves. "It was nothing to do with science," he said, "nothing to do with chess. The match was motivated by one zeal--to beat Garry Kasparov." Okay then, but while we're at it, let's spill the rest of the beans. Deep Blue also talked Hitler into starting World War II, and it's even money that it was one of the shooters at the Kennedy assassination.

Get a grip, pawnhead. As the deep thinker and chess master Yogi Berra is fond of saying, if you can't hit the fastball, get out of the batter's box. And after you strike out, don't start complaining that the pitcher was too tough. Leave it to Kasparov, a smart guy clearly lacking in common sense, to see a conspiracy in the fact that a box full of zeroes and ones beat him at his own game. So what! One of the things computers are supposed to do well is play chess. Big deal. Just as there have always been certain thoroughbreds that are smarter than their jockeys, hundreds of perfectly obedient race cars are faster than their drivers. That doesn't mean a machine is going to take Bill Gates's job anytime soon, or John Elway's. Hand Deep Blue a dinner menu and see if it can tell the waiter how it wants its steak cooked. Good luck.

If late-twentieth-century humans indulge the paranoiac, inverted romanticism that compels them to fear their machines, the hydrogen bomb, the guillotine and the Edsel will fill the bill quite nicely, thank you. Why sweat bullets over a device created by humans--for humans--with the express purpose of freeing up more time for fishing, ping-pong and sex? Even chess?

Man is no longer king of his universe? Get out of here. Let's just say that Garry Kasparov is no longer the king of the chess world and leave it at that. He's also a bad loser of epic proportions. A machine beat him, and he can't take the heat. But will he shut his mouth? Absolutely not. He's now proposing a ten-game rematch to be played over a period of twenty days, with lots of new rules that he will be happy to make. Good God. Somebody get this guy down to the clinic but quick. Or pull the plug. If someone must bear the future of mankind on his shoulders, we can think of better people for the job.

Hockey fans in these parts--and by "hockey fan," we mean anyone who's learned that that black thing's a puck--may be experiencing their first crisis of faith. For quite a while there (two seasons is quite a while), it looked like the Colorado Avalanche would win the Stanley Cup every year, and every year there would be a parade to hail the conquering heroes, and every year people here who can now distinguish a faceoff from a facelift would be able to call old friends in places like Winnipeg and Chicago and, well, signify a little bit.

The Avs, down two games to one to Detroit, may still win their battle with the Red Wings, and they may still win their second Stanley Cup. But the shouts and murmurs you hear in the city this week have taken on a tone of doubt.

"So. What's wrong with the Avs?" one mall shuttle passenger asked another. "Complacent," the friend answered. "No fire in the belly."

He might have added that Stephane Yelle and Uwe Krupp are hurt and that Peter Forsberg, knocked cold by the Edmondton Oilers in round two of the post-season, is still reeling around the ice with a phone ringing inside his head. He might have added that Kozlov, Konstantinov, Fedorov, Fetisov and Jerkov--whatever their names are--have played together since the Khrushchev administration and probably wouldn't mind winning a Cup of their own.

The man on the mall shuttle might have added that Detroit just might be the better team this year. Thursday night will tell that tale, won't it? Meanwhile, let's find someone who can explain this confusing blue-line business.

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Bill Gallo
Contact: Bill Gallo